MSO: Brahms’ Fourth Symphony

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Published: 1st June, 2016

Two series of performances of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in less than a year seems a curious choice of programming, yet the first waves of sweeping melody that rolled out on Saturday afternoon provided a persuasive answer to any possible complaints. Vienna’s initial tepid response to this innovative masterpiece was almost immediately at odds with the enthusiasm of subsequent audiences and continues to be so.

There was a time when the dominance of Brahms in the conservative choice of repertoire by the MSO was registered as a matter of concern but the allure of his works has obviously remained constant if recent performances by a variety of Melbourne musicians and orchestras are any indication. His Fourth Symphony alone was given an gratifying reading by the MSO under Diego Matheuz last July, while in 2014 Simone Young triumphed with the young musicians of the Australian National Academy of Music and in 2013 Richard Tognetti led the Australia Chamber Orchestra in more pared down versions than this latest one.

Tognetti stressed the fact that “Brahms premiered the symphony with a small orchestra of forty-eight musicians, which he declined to augment”. Whatever Brahms’ preference, it has been clear from the various versions offered to Melbourne audiences over the last two or three years, each had its own validity and cause for the acclaim that followed. In all of them, the sheer emotional power of his last symphony could be seen as the key to its unfailing popularity.

The intoxication of broad generous melody, the dramatic juxtaposition of contrasting instrumentations and the astonishingly inventive development of musical ideas were certainly irresistible in this grander version too. German conductor Christoph König maintained a strong rhythmic pulse with plenty of forward momentum, encouraging lush string tone as the focus shifted between sections in various combinations. In the first movement the grandeur of full string sound was complemented by very fine work from the oboe and a wind section displaying an exemplary degree of accord. The horns made their mark at the beginning of the second Andante movement and in the final chaconne movement, where weighty brass chords were made even more telling when placed against the purity of Prudence Davis’ lyrical flute.

A notable contribution also came from Concertmaster Sophie Rowell. Her assured leadership and committed involvement in the music was a reminder of how effectively a commanding physical presence can increase the appreciation and enjoyment of an audience. Everybody could empathise with the glance of shared pleasure that passed between her and Principal violist, Christopher Moore, as they reveled in the expansive Romanticism of the final bars.

A no less engaging performer was renowned violist Lawrence Power (pictured). Because Bartok died before he was able to complete his Viola Concerto his close friend Tibor Serly drew on his deep knowledge of Bartok’s style and 13 densely written unnumbered pages of manuscript to attempt a reconstruction. Given the confusing ambiguity of some of the directions, Bartok’s intentions have remained controversial. This uncertainty may provide a viola player with the freedom to take a degree of liberty. Just as the famous violist William Primrose commissioned this concerto from Bartok, so Lawrence Power has been very active in commissioning works for the viola from contemporary composers. As a prelude to the concerto proper, he played Pentatonic Etude, a 7 minute solo viola piece by Esa-Pekka Salonen based on the pentatonic passage from the first movement of Bartok’s Viola Concerto. Salonen wrote, “At the end of the Etude, after a long arpeggio passage, the beautiful Bartok phrase is revealed in its original form.” In keeping with the idea of a Study, Salonen aimed to push mostly traditional viola techniques to the extreme and “demonstrate the skill of the player”.

Lawrence Power’s prodigious technical virtuosity, intelligence and animated personality informed both Salonen’s Etude and Bartok’s Concerto in a seamless recreation of musical intention. During the interval, my daughter, better versed in non-classical music, asked whether Lawrence Power was the Jimmy Page of the viola. As it turned out, she was spot on. When questioned about early musical influences in a recent extended ABC FM interview, Power numbered Led Zeppelin among them. Although Page is widely considered to be one of the greatest and most influential guitarists of all time, this was an unexpected connection, even given the Gypsy temperament and use of “portamento” evident in Power’s playing of the Etude.

The Prelude of Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin provided a joyful opening to the program with its headlong rushing movement, pastoral winds and cascades of harp. A playful Forlane, made even more appealing by König’s relaxed rounded conducting style, and a Menuet and Rigaudon, featuring beautifully pliable oboe solos from Thomas Hutchinson as well as subtle playing from the lower woodwinds and trumpet, were capped off by wonderfully spirited playing that danced to an emphatic conclusion. A quiet “Wow!” from an audience member along the row was the immediate awe-struck response.

It would be difficult to find a more stimulating and uplifting concert than the one provided by the MSO and Lawrence Power on this occasion.