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Vivaldi, Haydn and Mozart

by Heather Leviston

From her elevated sitting position, Australian-born and internationally acclaimed Baroque specialist, violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch directed a chamber-sized Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Baroque and Classical masters. Classic Melbourne’s Heather Leviston was at the Melbourne Recital Centre for what promised to be a popular program.

Elizabeth Wallfisch came dressed for action. Looking as though she had come straight from the gym in her sleek black pants, black with red stripes runner/slippers and with a shoulder rest echoing a gym towel, she bounded onto the stage brimming with an electric energy that generated excitement from the first note to the last.

The audience was warmed up with a vivacious account of Mozart’s Symphony No. 23. The youthful freshness of the 17 year-old composer was captured in a highly charged performance of his 10 minute symphony in three continuous movements. A spirited opening followed by a lovely song-like melody for oboe, a most graceful Andantino grazioso and a precise Presto assai finale concluding with a solo passage for violin, provided the ideal starter for what was to follow.

It is difficult to believe that Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major was discovered, erroneously catalogued in the Prague National Museum, as recently as 1961. As a cornerstone of the cello repertoire it now seems as familiar as any of Haydn’s works that have been performed regularly since their conception. If there is any doubt regarding its authenticity as being a work by Haydn, there can be no doubt that it is the work of a musical genius, especially when played by a cellist of the calibre of Raphael Wallfisch. Singing orchestral violin tone led to hair-raisingly thrilling cello passages at the beginning of the first movement. Warm, rich middle and lower notes and high tensile upper notes were remarkable for their wonderfully fine-grained timbre. Wallfisch’s playing and his Gagliano cello were ideally suited to the acoustic properties of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.

The other perfect marriage was the musical compatibility and rapport between husband and wife. Elizabeth Wallfisch was constantly alive to the musical intentions of her husband and was supported by equally responsive members of the MSO. Raphael Wallfisch’s seemingly effortless virtuosity enabled ideas to unfold organically and playfully in the cadenza of the first movement. This and the musical imagination that informed the gorgeous melody of the second movement, plus the joyful conversation between orchestra and soloist were sheer pleasure to hear.

Further demonstrations of Wallfisch’s virtuosity were revealed in Franz Danzi’s Variations on La ci darem la mano for cello and orchestra. A cellist himself and only a few years Mozart’s junior, Danzi’s variations on this wildly popular tune from Don Giovanni were designed to showcase the capacity of the cello and the expertise of the player. It is a fun piece that explores extremities of pitch, tone, colour and dexterity. Needless to say, Wallfisch was more than up for the challenge, negotiating the most florid passages with consummate ease.

With his wife as cheerleader, an enthusiastic audience brought Wallfisch back to the stage for an encore. After the excesses of the Danzi, his meditative playing of a slow movement from a Bach cello suite made for a gratifying conclusion to the first part of the program.

Vivaldi’s Concerto in F major per molti instrumenti (solo violin, two oboes, bassoon, two horns and strings) gave an opportunity for members of the MSO to impress along with the solo violin. The work is full of fascinating combinations of instruments with an emphasis on the horns, especially in juxtaposition with the violin. Lovely playing from the oboes and a trio of first desk violins and viola were a highlight, along with the pleasure of some secure horn playing. In what is essentially a violin concerto, Elisabeth Wallfish’s brilliant shining tone and focused energy accentuated the dazzling virtuosic qualities of Vivaldi’s music. Although Australian audiences are accustomed to very fine playing by local Baroque specialists, Elizabeth Wallfisch’s supreme excellence in this field is surely undeniable.

An emphasis on horn playing continued in Haydn’s Symphony No. 22. Dubbed The Philosopher, the first movement is a dialogue between a pair of horns and a pair of cors anglais, evoking the notion of a conversation between a stately teacher and a youthful pupil. The following three movements are together equal in length to the first with some tricky passages in the Menuetto and a presto Finale that demanded great skill and dexterity on the part of the horns. A rotation of players for the horn and wind parts resulted in a range of players being able to give of their considerable best.

As Graham Abbott signaled in his pre-concert talk, in some respects this was a concert of oddities. It would perhaps be fairer to say that it was a concert of diversity within a Baroque/Classical framework. Whatever way you look at it, the level of musical interest was high at the very least and the quality of playing astonishing. The response of the capacity audience confirmed this.

Heather Leviston attended this performance at the Melbourne Recital Centre on June 19.

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