I guess we were just lucky that the MSO’s latest concert opened with a tragi-comic military overture the day after the Australian Border Force fiasco. Shostakovich would normally be the go-to composer for this sort of cathartic pain relief, but who knew a bit of Rossini could serve just as well?
Opening a program taking birds as its theme – with the Brahms Symphony 3 thrown in for good measure – the overture to Rossini’s semiseria opera La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie) has become a popular stand-alone party piece. However, Davis and the orchestra seemed completely alert to its interplay of the tragic, comic and romantic narrative elements of the opera it prefaces, the tale of a thieving magpie whose cheeky penchant for silver cutlery has genuinely dramatic consequences for the servant accused of the theft.
The overture’s celebrated military rum-te-tum was delivered with, well, military discipline and the precision of the snare drummers was particularly impressive. But, as the military’s role in the opera prescribes, it also managed to sound as benevolent as a brass-band in a rotunda one minute and something altogether more threatening the next. Davis and the orchestra didn’t miss a beat in the quicksilver interweaving of its other narrative themes; the carefree swoops of the pilfering magpie and the lyrical pain of the opera’s wronged and confused lovers.
In a fascinating book about performing nineteenth century opera, music scholar Philip Gosset relates that Sir Andrew Davis gave a successful airing at Glyndebourne of Rossini’s little performed Ermione, a few years after a Pesaro Festival production crashed and burned. Its eminent conductor arrived for rehearsals unprepared, under the misapprehension he could wing it with Rossini. Twenty years’ later at Hamer Hall, Davis and the MSO showed they were in no danger of underestimating Rossini’s razzle-dazzle as the be-all-and-end-all in their alert performance.
The second bird in the program is Mozart’s pet mynah which, legend has it, began chirruping a theme from Mozart’s Piano Concerto #17 after hearing Mozart compose it. It’s an eminently chirrupable work after all, full of sunshine and grace.
Anyone who has been collecting guest pianist Jean Efflam Bavouzet’s (pictured) superb recordings of Haydn piano sonatas and concertos on Chandos might anticipate it would take flight in his hands – and indeed it does. What they might not anticipate is how he brings his lauded mastery of Debussy to the task as well. Without interrupting the flow of effortless rightness in his approach for a second, Bavouzet let rip with jazz-infused cadenzas in distinctly twentieth century hues.
With playing that was muscular one moment and of filigree delicacy the next, Bavouzet brought forth cascades and roulades, stateliness and stillness, across this genial work in a performance that evidenced the complete security of his conception. There were times his crystalline articulation was overpowered by the orchestra, which was playing on modern instruments of course, but with historically informed accommodations. It was gratifying to see the genial, slightly elfin soloist devote his full attention to the orchestra when he wasn’t playing.
Following the interval, Bavouzet joined a greatly scaled down, 17-strong orchestra comprising winds, brass and percussion for Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotique, a work grounded in the composer’s notations of birdsong from across the globe.
A devout Catholic and ecstatic visionary, Messiaen described birds as avatars of angels on earth and as the greatest musicians on the planet. Anyone with native honeyeaters staking a claim outside their bedroom window at 5am may beg to differ but, like the patterns on a python (or, indeed, bird plumage), birdsong does seem to have a message for us from the beginnings of time, if only we could understand it.
That uncracked code of birdsong produces a phenomenal technical challenge for the pianist in Messiaen – how, other than through sheer feat of repetition and acquired body memory, are they to know what note comes next? Bavouzet’s accomplishment in this regard is tremendous – he unleashed page after page of frenetic bird chatter with every note in place, making liberal use of the pedal as he went. The orchestra’s glockenspiel and xylophone players too made short work of the score’s gamalanesque skitterings and the winds, brass and gong players enthusiastically delivered the work’s ancient Greek and Hindu musical elements.
The cumulative effect is a little like being at a dinner party where everyone’s having heated discussions, but not in your language. You can feel ignored and angry, or surrender yourself to the primordial Babel and enjoy the fireworks.
With no apparent connection to birdlife, the Brahms Symphony No 3 seemed a random conclusion to the programme, although its inexorable motion offered some kind of continuity to Messiaen’s cosmological soundscapes. Davis and the afternoon’s largest cohort of players presented a measured reading of the symphony that gave weight to its architecture while keeping its river-like momentum.
I wonder how many Brahms lovers took the opportunity to hear both this and the ACO’s performances of this symphony in the same week. Recently hearing an account by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony under Philippe Herreweghe, (who comes to this repertoire after many years specialising in HIP Bach) I appreciated its brighter, more crisply textured reading but missed the deeper romantic currents and shivering strings in the MSOs reading. It was a solid performance and a gratifying end to a generous program.
The picture shows Sir Andrew Davis and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet with members of the MSO. Photo credit: Daniel Aulsebrook