This Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concert in the Masters series would have been more strictly accurate if it were called The Romantics and the Warriors. At the very least the title would have sparked the imagination more. But as the Grainger was the last work of four, and the other three fitted the description, it’s a minor point.
Of greater interest was whether even Sir Andrew Davis could keep the orchestra from flagging with such a demanding program, which included the Schumann cello concerto, performed by Truls Mork. It comprised:
Brahms Academic Festival Overture
Schumann Cello Concerto
Strauss Don Juan
Grainger The Warriors
Like many former university choristers I have fond memories of Gaudeamus Igitur, the last and grandest of four songs that are the basis for Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. The temptation can be to wait so eagerly for this impressive piece that the first three songs are not heard for the treasures that they are. The first was hinted at from the fast but subdued opening with a hint of brass, with the trumpets soon leading the brass. The contrasting songs gave the conductor the opportunity to highlight individual players or sections of the MSO, building to a crescendo immediately before the “Gaudeamus” theme led the work through to the satisfyingly big finish.
In the weeks following the concert came news of the death of Lorin Maazel and ABC Classic FM chose a recording of Cleveland Orchestra playing this very work, evidently to show the great conductor’s prowess. But in this concert, the Brahms was more of a curtain-raiser to the instrumental giant that is Richard Strauss’ Don Juan. The first work after interval, this work was a declamatory and sonorous exhibition of what the orchestra (under Sir Andrew) could do. Co-concertmaster Dale Barltrop and oboist Jeffrey Crellin had notable solos that stood out even in the lush orchestration of the work whose mid-section, with its declamatory brass, was reminiscent of Wagner.
At interval more instruments had been put in place including a greatly expanded percussion section, two harps, three grand pianos and an organ. This was mainly for the final work, Grainger’s The Warriors. This was Grainger at his most extravagant and filmic, perhaps even cacophonous in a cheerful kind of way. A lyrical interlude with winds and harp, an oboe solo and a well-executed duet featuring Barltrop and the MSO’s usual concertmaster Wilma Smith, justified the work’s inclusion in a program of “Romantics”. Mostly however, it was effects such as a series of descending scales from resonant pianos and the efforts of 11 percussionists that had Sir Andrew bouncing up and down on the podium and the audience thoroughly enjoying the big finish for the concert.
But even so, the Grainger was not the central interest of the program. I have not forgotten the solo work, Schumann’s Cello Concerto performed by Truls Mork and the orchestra. Preparation for this work saw the percussion and brass almost disappear from the stage, with the strings the natural companions to the solo cello. Mork, playing without music, seemed to have absorbed every nuance of this concerto which he then conveyed to an almost entranced audience. With Schumann’s directions for the three movements all about tempo, and a seamless connection between them, Mork demonstrated his instrument’s many moods: mellow, rich and strong, and spirited.
Sir Andrew took care to keep the orchestra’s contribution from overpowering the cello, with the loveliest dialogue between them being in the slow movement when Mork’s cello “sang” to a sustained pizzicato. The flutes heralded a new section in which the cellist demonstrated his masterly technique but he, Sir Andrew and the orchestra captured the audience with a gentle, empathetic and yes, truly Romantic performance of this well-loved concerto.
Suzanne Yanko reviewed this performance at Hamer Hall on July 5, 2014