Melbourne Symphony Orchestra plays Ravel

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Published: 24th September, 2017

On Thursday night, youthful conductor André de Ridder strode to the Hamer Hall platform sans baton to open what was to be a most interesting program with Mozart’s Symphony No 34 in C major. A three-movement work composed when the Salzburger was just 24, it is an optimistically ebullient and festive work and the MSO gave a polished reading that augured well for the rest of the program. An appropriately reduced-sized orchestra allowed for absolute clarity of texture to reign and the pitch-perfect winds were able to project effortlessly. Strings offered tastefully discreet vibrato, perfectly embodying the restrained elegance of the opening two movements. Unusually the second movement is scored for strings alone, with just a dash of bassoon thrown in for good measure. Unalloyed joyous exuberance reigned supreme in the tarantella-like finale as well-synchronized orchestral forces, playing at breakneck speed, revelled in the joie de vivre of youthful Mozart.

Then followed the Melbourne premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Mannequin, a co-commission by the MSO in conjunction with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Danish National Orchestra and the Southbank Centre in London. Seemingly based on an E.T.A. Hoffman novella it is a largely gestural work where short motifs drift in and out somewhat colouristically. Conceived for much larger orchestral forces than the Mozart, it employs no less than 14 brass players, a battery of percussion, celeste, piano and harp as well as the normal large complement of strings and winds. Now leading with baton, de Ridder delivered an incisive reading of this work, one that perhaps merits further hearing.

It was for the second half of the program however that attracted most of the sizeable audience to Hamer Hall. French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet was guest soloist in Ravel’s jazz-inspired Piano Concerto in G. Tempi were brisk, yet never with any loss of clarity, as Bavouzet clearly revelled in the joy of this concise three movement canvas. With eyes firmly fixed on the orchestra, the soloist ensured unanimity of purpose in the opening stanza, which opens (uniquely?) with a whip crack. After some delightfully silky glissandi up and down the keyboard Bavouzet then brought a quasi-improvised playfulness to the Spanish-hued second subject thereafter imbuing his reading with enormous colour and clarity, never shying away however from some of the score’s more percussive moments.

The first movement’s cadenza was notable for its shimmering trills before unleashing the syncopated rhythmic impetus of the closing paragraph. The central slow movement was perhaps more flowing than one usually hears, yet it lost none of its incandescent radiance as Bavouzet explored its nuanced harmonic palette and long-arching melodies with painstaking care. The final romp of a finale exuded wit and charm, driving rhythms prevailing throughout with the pianist’s touch ranging from utmost delicacy to the incisive precision of the syncopated staccato chords. Bavouzet clearly revelled in the joy of playing this popular concerto with an in-form MSO. His encore – Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, more typically French impressionist fare – was enchantingly iridescent. One wished for more.

Ravel’s La Valse, originally conceived not surprisingly as a ballet, first found fame as a concert work, immediately proving popular after its initial performances in 1920. A veritable showpiece for orchestra, it has been subsequently choreographed to great success by the likes of Bronislava Nijinska, George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton. Ravel had long before 1920 written of his desire to write something that might be a sort of homage to Johann Strauss. After a long gestation period, during which the work was entitled Wien, it eventually emerged into what Ravel himself described as “a sort of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz”, a vision of “fantastic and fatal whirling”. Almost an impressionistic Concerto for Orchestra, this work found the Melbourne in top form tonight, once again justifying their deserved reputation as one of our cultural icons, a much-loved, indeed essential part of Melbourne’s artistic fabric. The music itself may well have conjured up sonic images of an imperial European court circa 1855, but Hamer Hall was the place to be last Thursday night. Bravo MSO.