MSO: French Classics

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Published: 3rd December, 2018

In one of their final concerts of what has been a successful 2018 season, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra presented a concert of French masterworks by Debussy and Ravel led by music director of the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, Fabien Gabel.

The concert opened with an enchantingly unhurried and luxuriant reading of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, a work which not only unequivocally introduced Debussy as a composer to be reckoned with, but one which in many ways paved the way for music in the twentieth century. Directing sans baton with expressively supple hands, Gabel coaxed a gloriously fluid account of the Prélude from the members of the MSO. Unsurprisingly, Melbourne’s queen of the flute, Prudence Davis, produced liquid gold in her expressively spacious opening phrase. This set the scene for an interpretation notable for its exploration of delicately nuanced timbres where harmonies melted mellifluously one into another. The strings, led by Concertmaster Dale Barltrop managed to conjure seamless melodic arches, deftly concealing any hint of line-interrupting bow changes – no mean feat. Elsewhere shimmering strings and haunting horn motifs, complemented by a gloriously supple wind choir, perfectly conjured up the intoxicating languor of Stéphane Mallarmé’s evocative symbolist poem. In a score dominated by understated pianissimos, maestro Gabel seemed totally in his element.

In stark contrast, the Third Piano Concerto by one-time enfant-terrible Sergei Prokofiev is a whirlwind of energy and overt virtuosity. 2013 Van Cliburn laureate Beatrice Rana has already notably recorded Prokofiev’s massive Second Piano Concerto and seemed just as at ease with his even more popular Third Concerto. While I could see nothing of the soloist’s hands or torso from my seat, Rana’s seems to be a no-nonsense approach, devoid of any diva-like histrionics, eyes focused intently on the keyboard, conducive to delivering a performance marked for its clarity of articulation and internal vitality. Hers is a glittering technique, and Rana had no trouble projecting above the orchestra – Prokofiev’s deftly translucent orchestration and Gabel’s sensitive accompaniment playing their part here as well. The work’s sardonic character emerged convincingly, particularly in the opening movement’s spiky second subject. Yet Rana was also capable of great lyricism, especially in the meditative fourth variation of the second movement, which succeeded the contrastingly jaunty, antagonistic syncopations of the third variation. The briskly-paced finale, sparsely pedaled, was impressively clean and robust, eliciting an enthusiastic response from the audience. As a much-appreciated encore, Rana delivered an intriguingly-shaped Gigue from Bach’s first Partita. As with Schiff’s recent Bach performance at the same venue, here the repeats were a welcome delight, offering a new dynamic and textural perspective on the Baroque Kapellmeister’s masterfully athletic contrapuntal writing.


After interval came Brett Dean’s delicately orchestrated setting of Debussy’s Ariettes Oubliées, originally set for soprano and piano to poems by Paul Verlaine. These songs pre-date the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, itself an early work of Debussy. Dean’s masterful orchestration seems to follow very much the orchestral forces of the Prélude, and one could be forgiven for thinking it was by the French composer himself. Fiona Campbell has an undeniable stage presence and delivered the six songs with empathy, even if intermittently, especially when in her lower range, she struggled to project above the orchestra. Gabel, once again minus baton, delivered vibrantly sympathetic accompaniment.

Maurice Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé, unquestionably the finest of all French ballet scores, is arguably also Ravel’s orchestral masterpiece. Intriguingly, it was premiered by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1912, in the same season as Vaslav Nijinsky’s notoriously scandalous interpretation of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and only a year before his equally notorious premiere (though for different reasons) of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. What a time to be alive and well and living in Paris! Gabel, now armed with baton, delivered a spectacularly vivid, kaleidoscopic reading of Suite No 2 derived from the ending of the ballet score. The MSO were once again in top form, constructing sweeping climaxes that reached their apogée in the ecstatic rhythms of the 5/4 Bacchanale finale. Impeccably judged percussion contributions were a standout here as was, again, the ever-reliable Pru Davis. The members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus also made a solid disciplined contribution with their wordless offerings. Like Rite, this is a work more often heard in the concert hall than seen on stage – more is the pity. Can someone with influence please call the Australian Ballet?


Glenn Riddle attended the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s performance of “French Classics” at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on November 23, 2018.