We do love to celebrate and acknowledge “firsts”. A concert program that offers a premier performance of a colossal Australian composition is historically significant. Then, before Ian Munro came to the Steinway grand piano in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre CEO Euan Murdoch came to the stage to announce this event as the first in a new partnership with Melbourne Digital Concert Hall and 5stream. Any sadness from the lack of a live audience was banished by the beauty and colourful stage lighting of this magnificent venue, the incidental hues formed on the textured backstage panels, the precisely planned camera work and the fine acoustic of this recital hall.
Ian Munro, one of Australia’s most distinguished and internationally respected pianists, is a remarkably relaxed performer, modestly physically calm and stately. His fingers alone tell an epic story, producing a huge spectrum of colour and expression. Detailed program notes revealed the important comparative elements in emotion and form, and links between these three composers and Munro’s reflections, personal understanding and respect for them.
Mendelssohn’s six Songs Without Words, Book1 Opus 19, were delivered as ideal, classy textbook performances. Numbers 1 & 2, Fond Memories and Regrets, warmed our wintry weather with pleasing melodic expression, flowing motion and idyllic poetic lines. In No 3, Hunting Song, Munro produced a significantly more buoyant, crisper, cleaner and brighter tone, while the frequently played Venetian Gondola Song was nicely moving forward, clean and sparkling, without sentimentality. All six pieces were exemplary in detail, beautifully described in shapes and tones like six different paintings.
By opening the program with these miniatures, Munro was heralding his deep admiration of influential Russian composer Rachmaninoff, who modelled his Preludes on them. Each of Rachmaninoff’s Six Moments Musicaux reproduce a form and characteristics of a previous musical era, yet with individual themes and moods. Each piece was certainly an admirable concert piece of its own. No 1 Andantino revealed long, reflective melodies, which developed into a rapid climax with orchestral colourations and virtuosic runs, hinting at shades of Chopin’s Nocturnes. No 2 Allegretto showed Munro’s exciting virtuosity in the waves of cascading florid patterns woven around deceptively simple but powerful melodic themes. The contrasting No 3 Andante Cantabile was a deeply contrasting reflection of a funeral march, with a stirring melody built above a long earthy chordal sequence. A striking middle section of bass staccato pulses was reminiscent of the foreboding and percussive imitative bass drum elements of a past era. No 4 Presto was truly exciting, lavish, exuberant and rich in its expression and melodic intensity, and we felt Rachmaninoff’s homage to the spirit of Chopin. Most admirable was the remarkably calm ease and control Munro showed playing immense torrents of notes preceding the most brilliant acceleration to a double fortissimo conclusion. He broadened and enriched the tonal colours of No 5 Adagio Sostenuto as we felt the barcarolle form, enjoying a heartfelt aria-like melody and textures that conjured up a panoramic vista. No 6 Maestoso was a triumphant closing piece where robust, dense textures resounded fully down in the oceanic depths of the Steinway grand. Surging pulses and a powerful ebb and flow of expression were sensitively controlled yet powerfully striking. A final descending chromatic motive was repeated with a tragic, almost desperate acknowledgement of this great composer’s soul.
Lasting just under thirty minutes, Munro’s three-movement Piano Sonata No 2is a highly captivating and epic work. In his words, his sonata “deliberately follows in the footsteps of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, as an homage to them and to the Russian musical tradition which shaped his musical development”. Subtitled Moscow – 1986, this work embodies Munro’s respect for the greatness of Russian musical history, and his lasting memories of visiting Moscow as a young pianist.
The intriguing first movement Allegro Nervosa was indeed a brilliantly constructed testament, and listeners would enjoy and smile at the flavours of Rachmaninoff’s architecture and perhaps Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata, with brisk arpeggiated patterns and dramatic harmony being set into a modern framework. Melodic fragments developed into a dynamic 7-time chordal section, followed by clever derivatives of primary themes building into a heroic march. Many dazzling episodes explored extreme upper and lower regions of sound, before descending to a surprising and abrupt ending, lost in profound bass notes. We were left begging for more. Following a gentle, chordal fanfare in the introductory bars, the triplet rhythm of Largo took us briefly to a modern, barcarolle style. A surprising explosion of insistent dotted rhythms built up a new energy and tempo, until elegant Romantic melodies were broadened with expressive tender and reflective qualities. Schubertian shades of military motifs added colourful marching elements to precise and individual voices in an exciting Fugue a 4 for the third and final movement. Textures and momentum developed into an intense and furious explosion as orchestral timbres and percussive chords reached their finality in a single defiant and echoing cluster of sound. Rest, hope and spiritual resolution came with a coda of gentle high-pitched fragments and soft melodic simplicity.
Being able to re-watch the performance multiple times through streaming, added much enjoyment of this epic work and confirmed highest acclaim for Ian Munro.
Julie McErlain reviewed Ian Munros’s piano recital, presented as part of the Great Performers 2021 series and streamed in collaboration with Melbourne Digital Concert Hall from the Melbourne Recital Centre on June 16, 2021.