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MSO: Tchaikovsky and Brahms

by Glenn Riddle

Fresh from yet another successful tour of the United States, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra presented a crowd-pleasing program of Brahms and Tchaikovsky to an appreciative, near-capacity audience at the Melbourne Town Hall on Friday night. For a program featuring two unqualified nineteenth century masterpieces, Brahms’ expansively majestic Piano Concerto No 1 and Tchaikovsky’s drama-infused Symphony No 4, Principal Conductor in Residence, Benjamin Northey was joined by one of Australia’s leading and most versatile pianists, Sydney International Piano Competition prizewinner Daniel de Borah.

The concert commenced with the Brahms, and from the initial arresting timpani drum roll, this was a commanding reading of the opening movement, Northey leading a disciplined MSO through the full gamut of the Romantic emotional spectrum. Northey maintained a flowing tempo, emphasising large-scale linear sweep, while never compromising musical detail, or the movement’s essential maestoso character. After a somewhat nervous initial entry, de Borah took control of the wide-ranging passions of the opening movement, at his most eloquent best in the spacious organ-like solos of the second subject. While synchronisation between the protagonists was slightly awry in parts of the development section, generally there was a palpably taut musical bond between conductor and soloist, and uniformity of purpose was the order of the night. At times one wished for a bigger tone from the pianist to match the well-balanced opulence of the orchestra, but that may be an acoustic curiosity of the Town Hall, or at least from the balcony, for I am assured that down in the stalls one could hear every note that de Borah played with ease. In the central Adagio, where others choose to declaim their musical ardour, de Borah opted for an understated, almost intimate sense of the poetic, perhaps wanting to highlight the movement’s assumed musical portrait of Clara Schumann. Eschewing the traditional pause between movements, de Borah launched attacca into a briskly-paced finale, where he clearly felt at home in its more overt virtuosity. Highlights included de Borah’s carefully-crafted cadenzas, as well as the clarity and precision of the string fugue that interrupts the piano’s musical discourse.  As a welcome encore, de Borah offered a ravishingly nuanced slow Moment Musical of Rachmaninoff.

After interval, Northey returned to the platform to direct one of the nineteenth century’s most monumental symphonies. Tchaikovsky’s No 4 is somewhat top-heavy, the vast canvas of its opening movement dominating the four-movement structure, not only in length, but also in dramatic substance. This well-honed reading opened with a pitch-perfect blazing brass fanfare, the so-called Fate motif that re-appears in the finale. The remainder of the movement was characterised by taut rhythmic direction, elegantly lilting dance rhythms, and lustrous string sonorities. The inoffensive musical meanderings of the second movement canzona were imbued with an unexpected yet welcome ardour, while the unanimity and precision of the string pizzicati, charmingly graded and projected with impeccable clarity, commanded attention in the third movement. The finale, once again featuring the MSO brass in all their well-disciplined splendour, was exhilaratingly con fuoco and Northey almost took flight at its conclusion. Imaginative lighting of the organ backdrop throughout the symphony, with different colours for each movement complementing the deep red that permeated the remainder of the auditorium, lent an almost Scriabin-esque atmosphere that discreetly, perhaps subliminally, enhanced the emotional impact of the symphony.

For those who missed this concert, it will be broadcast on ABC Classic FM on November 8 and December 30.

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Glenn Riddle reviewed Melbourne Symphony Orchestra: Brahms and Tchaikovsky given at the Melbourne Town Hall on November 1, 2019.

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