This Saturday’s performance by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis comprised Sergei Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante, Op. 125 with cello soloist Pieter Wispelwey as well as Gustav Mahler’s youthful Fourth Symphony with soprano soloist Jacqueline Porter. Prior to the performance MSO librarian Alastair McKean presented an engaging and insightful introduction to the night’s works that saw him dancing and singing along to the musical examples. Most enjoyable.
During the last years of Prokofiev’s life until his death in 1953 the composer suffered from poor health, from Stalin’s disapproval of his apparently too western music and the resulting lack of commissions and performances of his works in Russia. Therefore much of Prokofiev’s music reflects this sad period in his life and misses the innovation that made his earlier works—such as his ballet Romeo and Juliet, Peter and the Wolf and Alexander Nevsky—so unique and fresh. The musical ideas for the Sinfonia Concertante (1953), however, are derived from the composer’s first Cello Concerto, op 58 (1938) of his earlier, more joyful period.
Inspired by the brilliant Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, Prokofiev decided to rework the first Cello Concerto in 1947 and dedicate it to the cello virtuoso. Unfortunately, Prokofiev never heard the final version, which Rostropovich performed in Copenhagen in 1953 after the composer’s death. The work is set in three movements: The opening Andante is characterized by a lyrical melody combined with steady rhythm, a Prokofiev specialty. The second movement, Allegro Giusto, is the largest movement and almost scherzo like, and the last movement, Andante con moto, is composed in the form of double variations with two leading themes.
For the cello soloist this concerto is definitely one of the most difficult and demanding ones in the repertoire. However, when the night’s virtuoso Pieter Wispelwey took centre stage, none of these difficulties could be heard: He had fully internalized his part and performed with exquisite musicianship, technical brilliance – and meaningfully interacted with Maestro Davis and the musicians of the MSO. The ensemble work in the orchestra was excellent. A special mention goes to principal percussionist Robert Clarke who not only performed his percussion duty but also played the celeste, the Glockenspiel-like instrument usually handled by a pianist. (According to the MSO webpage he also trained as a pianist.)
The Fourth Symphony was composed in Mahler’s summer residence in Maiernigg on Lake Wörthersee in 1899 and 1900 during his annual leave from the Vienna Court Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic. After Mahler’s first three large scale Symphonies, his Fourth is his shortest one. It follows the conventional four movement pattern and employs more moderate orchestral forces, without choruses and gigantic horn and brass sections: Mahler adopts the usual concept of four horns, trombones and tuba are entirely omitted in the symphony.
The first movement of the symphony starts with the famous flute and sleigh-bells motif. What follows are Austrian or Austrian-sounding folk melodies that underwent Mahlerian treatment to become something extraordinarily artistic. Special features include Mahler’s “Schalltrichter auf!” [bells up] instructions in various woodwinds, which help the instruments to project their sound even more. The second movement employs an additional violin, performed by the “1.Sologeiger” [concertmaster], to evoke a fiddle sound in the triple time “Ländler” (an Austrian folk dance).
The slow third movement is the longest in the symphony, simply a beautiful piece of music. The end of the movement is characterized by a substantial timpani solo followed by a solemn ending with woodwinds, horns, harp and strings. Maestro Davis set the perfect tempo for this movement, not too slow, to reflect Mahler’s marking of poco adagio in the score (the emphasis is on poco not on adagio). This maintained momentum and created a calm but cantabile shape of the music. In the last movement Jacqueline Porter’s light soprano introduced the audience to the genesis of the symphony, Mahler’s Song Das Himmlische Leben [The Heavenly Life], a child’s view of heaven.
Sir Andrew Davis knew the work very well and his direction was clear and purposeful and the orchestra responded well to him. I thought his phrasing was first rate and the great ensemble work in the orchestra made the symphony sound like chamber music. I was especially impressed by the clarinets. They delivered a very polished and consistent performance (phrasing, rhythmic clarity and tuning) and presented a stylish interpretation of the folk tunes.
Conductor Dr Mario Dobernig reviewed the MSO’s performance of Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony on June 20, at Hamer Hall.
The picture is of composer Gustav Mahler.