This concert, whose full title was “Sir Andrew conducts James Ehnes in Berlioz and Beethoven”, brought back vivid memories of the Berlioz. It is twenty-five years since the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra last performed Harold in Italy, which Berlioz called his “symphony with a principal viola part”. It is also thirty-one years since the MSO’s 1983 Myer Music Bowl performance of that work had to be abandoned as the Ash Wednesday gales swept through Melbourne carrying smoky signs of an unfolding disaster. Music was blown from toppled stands and we were disappointed that Christopher Martin would be remembered more for having to abandon the stage than playing the viola part that audiences were keen to hear.
Thanks to Sir Andrew Davis’s championing of the music of Berlioz, audiences have been able to hear this somewhat neglected work under less dramatic circumstances. With Canadian violinist James Ehnes on the viola, as elegant and eloquent as Byron’s eponymous Romantic hero Childe Harold, the question of why such an appealing and accessible work is not given more regular outings raises itself. While Paganini may not have found sufficient scope for his virtuosity in a piece that Berlioz apparently wrote in response to his wish to showcase his newly acquired Stradivarius viola, there is certainly enough to impress in the hands of a quality player such as James Ehnes.
It is true that the services of the violist are not required in a lengthy introduction and through much of the final fourth movement; the role of the viola is more a part of the fabric of musical ideas rather than a vehicle to display the genius of a player or the excellence of an instrument. Nevertheless, the work makes considerable demands on the soloist and is full of interesting colour. There must be very few other works that employ viola and harp in dialogue to such telling effect as this piece does in the opening movement.
Set against a brooding opening on the lower strings and Jeffrey Crellin’s haunting oboe, Ehnes immediately established his authority as a Harold of note. His playing was refined and beautiful at all times, encapsulating the Romantic innocence and simplicity of the hero. The repeated arpeggios sounded clearly against the dynamic contrasts and shifting instruments of the second movement, and the yearning melody of the third movement Serenade ended in a most beautifully muted velvety echo. Occasionally, the viola was hard pressed to make itself heard over the large orchestral forces, especially when the brass was playing, and its role became more visual than auditory, but, for the most part, it could be heard clearly. One of the great pleasures of Harold was the connection between the solo and tutti viola music, played so effectively by that section.
The second half of the program opened with the first performance by the MSO of Berlioz’s Reverie et caprice. When his opera Benvenuto Cellini failed to meet with approval, Berlioz recycled the Act 1 aria for soprano in the Reverie section of what he referred to as his “romance for violin and orchestra”. With consummate ease, Ehnes made the transition from viola to violin, giving a graceful performance of this charming piece.
Before the concert, Graham Abbott had given a most illuminating and entertaining talk to a large and appreciative foyer audience. Highly articulate and enthusiastic, he described the practice of applauding between movements of concertos and symphonies in Beethoven’s time, making particular reference to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, the third and final work on the program. Such was the enthusiasm of the audience after the second movement when the symphony was first performed, that the orchestra was obliged to repeat it. In the modern concert hall the cognoscenti tend to be disapproving when people applaud at “inappropriate” times. (We are certainly accustomed to hearing applause at the end of the long first movements of the Brahms and Tchaikovsky violin concertos.) Abbott remarked that it was a shame that this practice had fallen from favour. Doubtless encouraged by his words, the audience made sure that applause was awarded after every movement of Harold in Italy. It was certainly deserved. But there was to be no repeat of this after any movement of the Beethoven since Sir Andrew was determined to press on with scarcely any pause between movements.
Whether he had caught wind of Graham Abbott’s remarks or been alarmed by all that applause after the Berlioz movements, Sir Andrew was determined that the momentum of Beethoven’s sublime symphony would not be disturbed. And who could blame him? It seemed that the MSO had well and truly recaptured the energy that had elicited such great acclaim on their recent overseas trip under Davis’s baton. The lovely woodwind playing of the first movement, the nobility of the second movement with some beautifully integrated playing from the viola section, the full majestic surging of the third and the energy of the finale resulted in enthusiastic applause and cheers – finally.