MSO: Stravinsky’s Firebird

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Published: 29th October, 2018
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The discovery, or rather recovery, of a long-lost score by a major composer is always something of a newsworthy event, so when the orchestral parts for Igor Stravinsky’s Funeral Song were found during renovations of the St Petersburg Conservatory in 2015, sections of the musical world were abuzz. The Mariinsky Orchestra under Valery Gergiev gave the work its long-awaited second airing in December 2016. Performances around the world quickly ensued and thus it was the MSO’s turn to present it for their first time on Thursday night. It was indeed worth the wait.

Written when Stravinsky was just 27, and before he had achieved international acclaim, it is a richly-hued score, tinged with hints of Tchaikovsky here and a bit of Rimsky-Korsakov there, yet in its plaintively haunting wide-intervalled melodic lines, initially enunciated by a muted solo French horn and later heard canonically, it is unmistakably Stravinsky. From the outset, with the eerie tremolos of the lower strings setting the scene, the MSO under the direction of Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste handled the score deftly. This is not a happy score, yet it is richly evocative and moving.

Then followed a work from the other end of a noted twentieth century composer’s life. Béla Bartók’s Piano Concerto No 3 was effectively his last completed work. Finished almost on his deathbed while living in the United States, away from the troubles of WWII Europe, it was intended as something of a legacy, both musical and financial, for his pianist wife Ditta. In many respects Bartók 3 it is almost an anti-concerto. With the clarity and transparency of its delicate chamber-like orchestration, it is nothing like Bartok’s super-virtuosic and too-rarely heard earlier concertos (written for himself to perform). Nor does it resemble the extreme passion of Rachmaninoff’s richly-scored concertos, or the wildly extrovert brilliance of Prokofiev’s five concertos. Delicacy and refinement are the key here, and Croatian pianist Dejan Lazić established his musical credentials from the outset, delivering the taut, dotted and syncopated rhythms of the opening melodies with delicately-shaped charm and finesse. No thunder and bluster here, just musicianship in spades. Saraste and the MSO did their part too – accompanying with apt dynamic restraint, that allowed the soloist, even when playing pianissimo, to be heard with exceptional clarity. Lazić’s feeling for colour and nuance continued in the finely-shaded chorale-like textures of the opening of the religioso second movement. This was spell-binding playing, undemonstrative yet irresistibly compelling in its tonal refinement and rhythmic pliability. The MSO strings, exploring gently meandering contrapuntal lines evinced gossamer-like touch throughout. The third movement followed on attacca style. Now more muscular, and even with a liberal dose of finale-suitable cascading double octaves, Lazić was able to release just a soupçon of his inner-virtuoso, wide-arced arm gestures complementing the amplitude of the writing. Yet never at the expense of the infectious triple-time dance rhythms which infused the movement with a suitably energetic spring. Sparse orchestral textures enabled the precision with which the MSO supported the soloist to be all the more evident.

After interval, came Stravinsky’s Firebird, the first of the trilogy of startlingly modern ballet scores written for Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes that were to ensure the composer world-wide and lasting fame. Rather than the more compact Suite, here Firebird was delivered complete in all its resplendent glory. From the same year as the concert-opening Funeral Song (can there ever have been a more exciting place to be than Paris in 1909?) it starts in strikingly similar vein to its long-lost sibling, yet thereafter exhibits a far more optimistic and lushly Romantic outlook. A veritable Concerto for Orchestra, its rich orchestration is replete with memorable solos, and tonight’s performance saw the MSO, led by wonderful Concertmaster Sophie Rowell, in outstanding form. Saraste guided the orchestra through a judiciously well-paced reading, one that never allowed interest to flag, and the exuberant brass-led concluding fanfares brought this memorable concert to a fitting close.

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Glenn Riddle attended Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s “Stravinsky’s Firebird” on October 25, 2018