Thursday the 23rd was a hot November evening, and the Melbourne Arts Precinct was very much alive. Hamer Hall was a comfortable refuge for an evening in which the title work in the MSO’s concert was billed to fill the second half. The stage was filled with a large orchestra for the curtain-raiser, Robert Schumann’s Manfred Overture, Op. 115, as guest conductor Stanislav Kochanovsky took the podium in his Australian debut performance. Establishing himself as the Principal Conductor of The State Safonov Philharmonic Orchestra from 2010-2015, he has now conducted major orchestras in Europe and Asia, and opera in Zurich and the Netherlands.
The MSO responded warmly, and this work produced some very committed orchestral playing. Composed in 1848, it was the overture for Byron’s dramatic ghost poem about a troubled hero, full of guilt which is never fully explained, but seems to be an incestuous relationship with his sister. Manfred summons spirits to beg either forgetfulness or death, which they do not have power to bestow. Offered God’s forgiveness or a life in Hell, as a humanist he will accept neither, and will only submit to death. The Overture portrays the hero’s anxious search for calm, the yearning for escape, a Romantic notion of estrangement with which Schumann himself identified, as he feared mental illness.
Powerful crescendi, and breath-stopping subito pianos from the whole orchestra were features of this performance, with the lower strings sounding particularly warm and rich in their long sustained phrases. The long final decrescendo was especially effective.
Now the stage was re-organised, efficiently as always, and a smaller orchestra with a few new colours added – including harp, celeste and vibraphone – assembled for the Australian première of Rolf Martinsson’s Ich denke Dein … a song cycle for soprano and orchestra using the texts of poems in German by Goethe, Rilke and Eichendorff. All five poems have love and yearning as their themes, and in all five there is a positivity in the longing.
The pre-concert talk was informative as always, this time with Warren Lenthall, who introduced a surprise guest, composer Rolf Martinsson who spoke about this work, his joy in collaborating with performers for whom he writes, and his own musical style. His own work he described as having changed from a complex contemporary style in his post-study years to one he described as more true to himself – a highly romantic approach, mostly tonal, but with the possibility of atonality affording him a large palette of tonal colours, and orchestration that highlights sections of orchestra as well as the whole orchestral force, which he described as his “favourite instrument”. In composing for the voice, he credited his close collaboration over the past five years with Lisa Larsson, a fellow Swede, as having taught him more about the details of vocal writing – setting vowels and orchestrating appropriately for different vocal registers for instance. For this cycle, he consulted with her about the choice of poems.
Soprano Lisa Larsson, making her Australian debut stood centre stage beside the conductor, carrying her score in a folder, rather than hiding behind a music stand. Although this is her first visit to Australia, Larsson has worked on the prestigious European stages in opera and concert work with many of the top conductors.
The title of the cycle is in fact the opening words of the first poem, Goethe’s Nähe des Geliebten. Immediately the ultra-romanticism of the lush and sparkling orchestration was apparent, in something reminiscent of a cross between Richard Strauss and Korngold. Full of hopeful yearning, long expansive vocal phrases were always sung with direction, and the ravishing high register was supported by suitably reduced orchestration at the key moments.
Rilke’s Liebeslied (Love Song) was conducted sympathetically for the voice, allowing space for the rhetorical questions that dominate this poem. Blaue Hortensie (Blue Hydrangea), also by Rilke, made use of some spoken lines too. Goethe’s Die Liebende Schreibt (The Lover Writes) contained some of the most beautiful orchestral moments, with a huge timpani laden introduction, an interlude with strings and harp featuring the cello section, and an extended violin solo with sparse accompaniment produced exquisite playing from Concertmaster Dale Barltrop. The final poem, Eichendorff’s Mondnacht (Moon Night) also produced an array of orchestral colours, and Larsson’s shining soprano voice combined superbly with the shimmering vibraphone, harp and celeste. At one point a solo cello doubled the voice several octaves below it, then continued its own counter melody. A magical conclusion to this very effective and enjoyable cycle assured a very warm reception for Kochanovsky, Larsson (who besides demonstrating her wonderful vocal skills and musicianship also communicated very effectively with her facial expressions, small gestures and body language), Martinsson and the MSO.
Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2 provided substantial fare for the second half of the concert. After a disastrous reception to his First Symphony in 1897, the composer turned away from composing for about three years while he turned his attention to conducting opera, and consulted for a lengthy period with a hypnotherapist. His Second Symphony, premiered in 1908 was a great success.
The work is long, and has often been performed in a cut-down version, but the MSO’s performance of the complete work did not feel too long at all. It does take time for all the action to unfold, but it is undoubtedly a journey on which we embark. Beginning in Rachmaninov’s place of mental anguish, the double basses rise from the depths at the opening, and melancholic rumination contrasts with restless energy in this movement. The most exquisite music came in the third movement, with some wonderful string playing, and a glorious extended clarinet solo. By now the fog has lifted, and there does appear to be some hope. The final movement at once feels celebratory.
The MSO was in fine form for this taxing work, with hardworking strings always in control, woodwind solos and the section delivering some beautiful colours, the brass striking the right balance, with a special mention to the trombones and tuba who underpin so much of the harmony, and the horn section which had a very good night. Conductor Kochanovsky was clear, and while always in control did not distract from the music. He also allowed the orchestral soloists space to have their own moments rather than directing every beat.
A near capacity crowd enjoyed this concert, and the Rachmaninov was greeted with many calls of ‘bravo’, and several calls back to the stage by a most appreciative audience. Our emotions thoroughly exercised through the music– love lost guiltily, love longed for, and love for life finally rediscovered – we saw that the MSO too had been on a long journey. There were embraces all round on stage once the concert was over.