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Mendelssohn’s atmospheric Overture

by Suzanne Yanko

Mendelssohn’s atmospheric Overture to The Hebrides, or Fingals’ Cave, seemed an odd curtain-raiser for a program called The Apotheosis of the Dance. You’d be hard put to dance to a piece which is oddly formal in structure, while satisfyingly expressive as it develops. But Fingal’s Cave is deservedly popular and gave the audience a hint of great things to come later in the program with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Before that, however, was the Bartok. The Piano Concerto No.1 is so dramatic, unique and revolutionary a work that it was a potential rival to the Beethoven for highlight of the night. There was added interest in the connection between pianist and conductor, as Susanna Stefani-Caetani is married to the orchestra’s Chief Conductor and Artistic Director, Oleg Caetani. There are few critics in Australia, if anywhere, who could understand the immensity of the task confronting any pianist brave enough to tackle this work. So criticism should perhaps be tempered with some awe. The task is to master the technical challenges while infusing the whole with electrifying excitement. Stefani-Caetani did a creditable job with the first – but, in my view, gave an interpretation which lacked fire and was at times, mechanical. Having her score awkwardly positioned (and without a page-turner) made this listener nervous, and suggested the pianist was not entirely confident with the work. Opportunities for light and shade were not exploited to the full, except perhaps in the opening subject of the second movement, Andante. While the soloist produced the dynamic range that Bartok intended, the performance lacked emotional depth, and it was left to the orchestra to provide light and shade. There was no such ambivalence in the concluding work. Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony gave the title to the program (being famously described by Wagner as “the apotheosis of the dance”). One of Beethoven’s best-loved symphonies for its melodies and wonderful crescendos, the Seventh does indeed draw on dance, both in form and its inspiration. After an “overture” and slow progression to a mass of sound, the symphony moves to the well-known (and scherzo-like) theme of the first movement, an almost “dumka”-inspired second, through to the popular rhythmic third movement. Caetani’s conducting both brought out the immensity of the work and kept control of the orchestra, so that the intricacy of the composition could be heard. This was particularly remarkable in the final movement, whose pace was at times like a Rossini overture (or, to keep the dance image, like whirling dervishes!), yet never appeared out of control. It’s always a delight to hear the MSO on such familiar ground, playing with assurance yet conveying a sense of discovery and pleasure in their work. The resounding applause was certainly well deserved.

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