MSO: Saint-Saëns Great Organ Symphony

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Published: 14th August, 2018
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It was a jam-packed audience that gathered at the Melbourne Town Hall for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s concert last Friday and it surely must have had the MSO’s marketing gurus scrambling to fathom as to why. Was it the allure of hearing the Town Hall’s grand dame of organs in full throttle, was it the mighty Saint-Saëns symphony which at its Parisian premiere prompted comparisons to Beethoven’s symphonic oeuvre, or was it the presence of Piers Lane who surely sits atop the Pantheon of Australian pianists? Perhaps it was a combination of all three for, as Maestro Benjamin Northey informed us, this concert had sold out three months in advance. Not even violin goddess Anne-Sophie Mutter’s recent Melbourne appearance performing Beethoven’s popular Violin Concerto had managed to sell out completely.

The decidedly Hungarian-flavoured first half of the program opened with an infectiously energetic reading of pioneering ethnomusicologist Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galánta. In the warmly generous and favourable acoustic of the Town Hall and under the disciplined baton of conductor Northey, the MSO gave an assured account of the Dances, highlighting both the czárdás-influenced syncopations, and the lush gypsy-inspired string writing. Clarinet solos, assuredly virtuosic here and persuasively seductive there, were also a highlight.

Next came London-based pianist Piers Lane, looking forever the archetypal Romantic pianist with his flowing locks and warm demeanour, (complemented by Lane’s trade-mark brightly-coloured socks) to offer Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 in E flat – a tautly structured, compact concerto dedicated to one-hit wonder Henri Litolff. From the outset with its arresting death-defying octave leaps that introduce a mighty initial cadenza, Lane established his authority over the work, generating a richness of tone that resonated throughout the auditorium. Lane’s gift for passionate lyricism then came to the fore as he duetted first with the clarinet, then violins and finally with the celli. A more tenderly expressive melos demerged in the quasi Adagio second section. In the ensuing scherzo, which lends unusually especial prominence to the triangle, Lane displayed thrilling pianistic agility and lightness of touch. The final march-like section which inexorably gathers apace brought the work to a triumphantly exhilarating conclusion.  Apart from a missed orchestral entry early on which resulted in a momentary melodic lacune, the MSO provided solid support with blazing brass fanfares and ardent lower string melodies as highlights.  As an encore Lane offered Moszkowski’s popular Etincelles, a moto perpetuo which was indeed light and sparkling.

After interval came the main course, French composer Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No 3. Composed in 1886 by one of history’s most prodigiously gifted musicians, the so-called ‘Organ Symphony’ was dedicated to the memory of Liszt who had died shortly before. With Calvin Bowman at the helm of the historically significant and mighty Town Hall organ, and Benjamin Northey in command of the MSO troops, this was a performance that will linger in the memory of the appreciative capacity audience.

Deliciously lyrical, vibrato-laden strings led the way in the second movement while the animated precision of the woodwind was a feature of the third movement. But the weight of the symphony lies assuredly in the grand finale fourth movement where the splendour of the Town Hall organ – an imposing instrument built in 1929 but restored to its former glory in 2000 – rang forth.  The brass choir was no less impressive, thrilling with their euphonious precision while the strings delighted with their deft negotiation of Saint-Saëns’ masterful contrapuntal to-ing and fro-ing.

The Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticanagave Bowman and the Town Hall organ yet another chance to shine. Hearts throughout the auditorium surely swelled in unison as Northey and the MSO milked the impassioned lyricism of this unexpected, yet welcome, encore for all its considerable worth.

The concert in short was a triumph for all concerned and it must be said, the capacity audience played a large role too. Quality music delivered by outstanding musicians in a wonderful venue, all to the delight of an appreciative and substantial audience. Classical music in Melbourne was definitely the winner here. May there be more of the same.

Reviewer Glenn Riddle was among the “appreciative audience ” when the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and distinguished soloists and conductor gave a concert at the Melbourne Town Hall on  August 3, 2018.