Yet another well-conceived program for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in its Beethoven Experience Series also gave the audience experience of Brahms and of a great Australian pianist, now mostly London-based.
It also ventured into less familiar territory with contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Part, the orchestra’s fine performance going a long way to create acceptance of his work. The program comprised:
Brahms Tragic Overture
Beethoven Piano Concerto No.3
Part Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten
Beethoven Symphony No.4
Olari Elts conductor
Piers Lane piano
First was Brahms Tragic Overture, often said to be influenced by Beethoven. Conductor Olari Elts drew many parallels from the orchestra: the opening declamatory statements and the dramatic (if not necessarily tragic) mood of the piece. The strings were in good form with flutes in particular contributing to the melodic sound. This was mature, confident performance by all players.
The melodic sound of the violins in the second subject heralded a change of pace and the winds kept the mood from being too “tragic”. Indeed, the later part of the overture was notable for its animation. It was a good choice to open the concert; without being a flashy showpiece for the orchestra it did allow the MSO to remind us of its strength in such great standards of the repertoire before the pianist took centre stage for the Beethoven.
Arriving to perform as soloist in that composer’s Piano Concerto No.3, soloist Piers Lane was warmly greeted – not surprisingly, given the extent of his fan base. In demand as a soloist he was appointed director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in 2007 and has recently received acclaim for his part in a play with British actress Patricia Routledge recreating the life of Dame Myra Hess.
On this night however, Piers Lane was at the piano in his own right, with Beethoven placing the soloist at the heart of this work; the orchestra at times appeared to be in the role of accompanist, although it carried this out sympathetically. Lane looked at home at the keyboard, from the delicate opening statement of the first movement, accompanied by strong strings with pared down brass and winds. The long introduction is, like many elements in this concerto, quite Mozartian. The pianist’s entry was marked by an impressive couple of scales and soon segued into music that it could well be an andante, interspersed with the pianist’s technical brilliance including chromatic scales.
The most noticeable aspect of Lane’s performance was his comfort at the keyboard. It would be possible to make more of the showy elements but he was content to make this a true ensemble piece, and Elts was evidently happy with this understated approach. The cadenza was more assertive with some dazzling arpeggios crossing of hands and emphatic chords before a trill introduced a delicate re-statement of the theme then a last exhibition of showy but seemingly effortless technique. Soft delicate arpeggios invited the orchestra to return do that the movement ended strongly.
The Sonata-like beginning of the adagio with its gentle chords played by the solo piano again reminded one of Mozart. Lane drew as much musicality as possible from his part before the orchestra entered and followed suit. The ensuing dialogue this time recalled Chopin with its gorgeous chords and harmony intensified by the orchestra, although the piano’s single notes were as moving as anything else in this concerto.
Again, the piano introduced the theme of the third movement, a sparkling Allegro in the form of a rondo. The trumpets got to play at last and there was a brief section featuring piano, brass and percussion although, once again, the piano was central in this movement. Lane excelled himself with the ending of this concerto. There were impressive trills and scales from the piano, followed by delicacy in long passages for piano and strings. The joyous ending was greeted with applause, including from the orchestra, clapping their hands instead of simply using their bows.
Piers Lane himself pricked the rather reverential bubble that surrounded his performance with his encore, Dudley Moore’s parody of Beethoven sonatas featuring the “Colonel Bogey March” in Beethoven style, including an extended, never-ending ending (uncomfortably close to the style of some of the great composer’s own works!). It was fortunate that this was followed by an interval, as the next work required a sober approach – from audience and performers.
This was Arvo Part’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten. The self-explanatory title meant the music would be sombre, but the conductor being so familiar with the music of his fellow-Estonian, Arvo Part, it was bound to be a fine performance. And so it proved. The work was for strings (including six double basses) and bell, with that instrument both starting the work very softly, and continuing steadily throughout it.
The work, no more than seven minutes long, made up for its brevity in intensity. Although both its canon-like structure and A-minor melody appeared simple, the Cantus was evocative of grief. The orchestra, carefully conducted by Elts, gave a controlled but intense performance, in which the sound built up gradually through a series of descending scales against the insistent repetition of the bell. The MSO had proved yet again that, not only could it deliver the Beethoven experience (as it would do again in his Symphony No.4), it could uncover less accessible aspects of the symphonic experience, leaving an audience gratified that they had heard it.
Suzanne Yanko reviewed this concert at Hamer Hall on June 5, 2014.