Grieg Concerto

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Published: 31st August, 2012

There were some nice synchronicities about this performance of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Sir Andrew Davis, the orchestra’s new Chief Conductor, emerged from the shadows to present an interesting and, on the surface of it, popular concert – much of it emanating from his homeland. The music was mostly by Percy Grainger, whose Tribute to Foster showed his respect for Stephen Foster and his enduring ‘minstrel song’, Camptown Races. Another of the works performed, Brigg Fair, vividly demonstrated the influence of one composer on another, as Grainger’s arrangement of the folk song was followed by the ‘English rhapsody’ of the same name by his contemporary, Frederick Delius. And Grainger the pianist had reputedly worked closely on performing the Grieg Piano Concerto with the composer, his mentor and friend. The work was the highlight of this concert, with soloist Piers Lane giving a performance that would surely have delighted the composer. The Grieg Piano Concerto is a romantic work, both in its period style and execution. It is little wonder that it has featured in a number of movies, TV series and commercials over the years. Its appeal is in the sweetness of its melodies (some drawing on Norwegian folk tunes), and the richness of the harmonisation, both for piano and orchestra. Lane showed himself to belong to the great tradition of romantic pianists; he has written on Chopin and recorded for the series, The Romantic Piano Concerto. If the occasional note was blurred in the great sweeping arpeggios and chords of the faster movements, it was hardly noticeable given the empathy and musicality of the pianist. And, just to prove he was not precious about his prodigious talent, Lane’s encore was Dudley Moore’s famously ridiculous Beethoven Sonata Parody on the Colonel Bogey March that literally played on the composer’s multiple endings for his great works. It sent the audience into the foyers with tears of laughter. Sadly, the second half of the concert was mostly doom and gloom. Percy Grainger will always be a strange and controversial figure and, while much of his music for piano masks that truth, his choral works – as presented in this concert – will do nothing to change that. The most his critics might have to say is that, as a composer, he had hidden depths. Frankly I would prefer that they had stayed hidden. The concert began with Marching Song of Democracy, a work that introduced the stentorian tones of the men of the MSO chorus (the full choir, piano and extra percussion instruments further diminishing the space on the stage). Grainger was after a vigorous, patriotic march – and the strong brass component lent itself to that – but it didn’t measure up to most of the anthems heard at the Olympics, and replayed now at the Paralympic Games. At least the ‘Marching Song’ attempted to be stirring but the longer Grainger offerings in the second half were pretty dreary, involving a hanging and a ‘bride’s tragedy’. Two versions of Briggs Fair proved a gentle lead-in, first Grainger’s choral arrangement and then the evocative piece by Delius it inspired. As throughout the night, the choir, orchestra and soloists excelled, despite the uneven nature of their material, the Delius in particular allowing various wind players to shine. But all too soon we had Danny Deever, Grainger’s setting of the Rudyard Kipling ‘barrack-room ballad’. Baritone Jose Carbo was an exceptional performer, well supported by the chorus, but the macabre nature of the piece (coupled with an odd, jaunty rhythm) gave it little appeal. Similarly, Grainger’s arrangement of The Bride’s Tragedy (Swinburne’s poem in the tradition of Scottish ballads) sounded like the theme music for a Hitchcock thriller, and never quite drew one into the drama. I, like many in the audience, kept myself amused by trying to translate the broad Scottish dialogue of the piece – and dispassionately admiring the well-trained choir and the melodramatic orchestration, thankfully kept in check by Davis’s conducting. Minutes later, Davis was coaching the audience in a sing-along chorus for the final work, Tribute to Foster, Grainger’s arrangement and amplification of Stephen Foster’s Camptown Races. Given the bloodletting and howling winds of the previous works, one could not but feel a certain disjunction in the programming, which no amount of audience cheer (and very fine singing) could dismiss. In summary, the Grieg was great and the Delius was charming. I believe Grainger’s choral works were given their best chance of success by these musicians – but, in future, I’ll turn to Penelope Thwaites’ marvellous recordings of the composer’s piano works if I have an inclination to hear something by Grainger. Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5 Grieg Concerto Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Sir Andrew Davis, Conductor Piers Lane, piano soloist Program: Grainger – Marching Song of Democracy Grieg – Piano Concerto Grainger – Brigg Fair Delius – Brigg Fair Grainger – Danny Deever Grainger – The Bride’s Tragedy – AUSTRALIAN PREMIERE Grainger – Tribute to Foster Hamer Hall, Melbourne August 30 – September 1