MSO plays Petrushka

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Published: 29th May, 2017

Tonight’s program opened with the premier performance of MSO Composer-in-Residence Elena Kats Chernin’s Big Rhap. A lushly orchestrated and highly energetic score, it seems to draw eclectic inspiration from Grieg and Liszt here, Strauss and Gershwin there. Richly cinematic, perhaps most of all it reveals itself to be a work inspired by 1940s Hollywood, all the while remaining characteristically and defiantly Chernin-esque. Tovey and the Melbourne Symphony gave a decidedly engaging and ultimately persuasive account of a new work that will deservedly garner further performances.

While it was something of a disappointment not to hear the scheduled Cuban pianist, Jorge Luis Prates in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1, that disappointment was quickly allayed with the realization that his replacement was to be Ukrainian-born Alexander Gavrylyuk who spent his formative teenage years training in Sydney. After winning the prestigious Hamamatsu Piano Competition in Japan at the ripe old age of 16, he further cemented his reputation with a resounding victory at the Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv. A career was launched and clearly Gavrylyuk is a pianistic force to be reckoned with.

Tonight, the Tchaikovsky proved to be his bread and butter as he gave a polished, technically-assured, athletic and intense reading, one that explored the broadest possible spectrum of the tonal palette available on a Steinway D, from thundering double octaves in the outer movements, through to the most delicately nuanced pianissimo lyricism in the central Andantino. The opening movement began with an assured brass fanfare, followed by the expansive melodic arches from a musically committed, richly-toned string section.

Gavryluk brought a sense of gentle humour to the piano’s main theme, later revealing that he had fingers of steel when needed for the cascading double octaves in the development, but equally a velvety touch that unfolded in the extended cadenza. Gavrylyuk then brought a sense of ecstatic lyricism to the opening of the second movement, a movement that was later characterized by a well-disciplined woodwind section and the rich-toned eloquence of Principal Cellist David Berlin. Ensemble was taut in the central Prestissimo, as conductor Bramwell Tovey maintained a tight rein over proceedings that all too easily can fray at the edges.

The finale was indeed con fuoco, as Gavrylyuk gave an assured, dazzlingly fleet-fingered reading, one that was complemented by muscular, big-toned pianism when needed. An extraordinarily nuanced reading of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise made for a welcome encore from the soloist who will return to Melbourne later in the year in recital at the Melbourne Recital Centre.

After interval Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka beckoned, the second in a triptych of revolutionary ballets that launched the Russian composer’s international career immediately prior to the Great War. Originally conceived as a Konzertstück for piano and orchestra, it eventually, and thankfully morphed, at the instigation of impresario Serge Diaghilev, into a ballet that would unite the talents of dance prodigy Vaslav Nijinsky, choreographer Michel Fokine, set and costume designer Alexandre Benois and the celebrated Ballets Russes.

On this occasion conductor Tovey opted for the later 1947 version of Petrushka, one scored for slightly smaller orchestral forces that arose as a result of lax international copyright laws that deprived Stravinsky of potential royalties. Understandably the piano plays a significant role here and pianist Leigh Harrold gave a most assured account of the demanding piano part, while Principal Flute Prudence Davis’s beguilingly golden-toned melodic playing was another highlight of the first tableau. Throughout Tovey managed the kaleidoscopic writing with aplomb, highlighting its burlesque humour, while balancing complex textures with translucent clarity.

Petrushka is one of only a few ballet scores that successfully transfer to the concert hall. Laden as it is with Russian folk tunes, French popular song and even a Viennese waltz, it perfectly captures the festive Carnival atmosphere of the ballet’s scenario, and Tovey succeeded in balancing these more popular elements with Petrushka’s more avant-garde harmonic adventures, weaving them all into a convincing, well-paced unified structure. Thankfully Tovey elected to adopt the musically more satisfying, if slightly less crowd-pleasing, pianissimo ending, one dramatically more in keeping with Petrushka’s – both the puppet’s and the ballet’s – ultimate denouement.


Glenn Riddle reviewed MSO plays Petrushka, featuring Bramwell Tovey and Alexander Gavrylyuk (piano) at Hamer Hall on May 25, 2017.