For the Brahms First Symphony, Ashkenazy used the orchestra's fine clarity to illuminate the ideas in the score, loyally keeping a certain respect for the composer, though his conducting was in no way conservative or overly careful, enough so that it made me wonder again why some people call Brahms 'autumnal.' Perhaps this clarity of playing which articulates each note also allows Ashkenazy the fine control he needs for his well-defined ideas of interpretation which come across to the listener so plainly.
The series of concerts of chamber music organized by Musica Viva this year continue with an exploration of, and this time a new commission by, Australian pianist and composer Ian Munro. He has created his second piano quintet (the first composed in 2006 was called Divertissement sur le nom d'Erik Satie) from two earlier works: Dreams, his winning contribution to the 2003 Queen Elisabeth International Competition for Composers, originally meant to be a first movement to a full piano concerto and Drought and Night Rain, originally written in 2005 for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and originally meant to be a beginning to a full symphony. Though it would be nice to hear these symphonic works complete in their own right, Munro has sewn them together skillfully into a chamber music piece. Really this is no different from what Prokofiev did to compose the Romeo and Juliet ballet music, which has a life of its own, so reuse of already composed ideas should not necessarily raise negative thoughts. Munro himself joins with the Goldner String Quartet which is lead by Dene Olding, who often plays first violin in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, also conducting the SSO earlier in the year, to play his new piece, but we also get the opportunity to hear the Quartet on its own.
While a piano soloist has special control over their music, and complete polyphonic music at that, that is to say melody, harmony and range and all the parts or 'voices' where contrapuntal, and this endows the pianist also with solitude, there is a romance fundamental to piano music, the two hands creating a relationship and complementing each other, at the very least in register. Piano music for 'four hands' is then even more romantic, the chamber music-wise relationship of the two musicians, the complexity of the music and the ease with which it can slip into a thick intensity, a knife's edge from chaos, the twice infinity combinations of expression, unanalyzable on the fly and loss of a degree of control, leave even more to faith, and make this music an especially creative performing art form. This is partly why Mozart called the organ the 'king of instruments,' though a pair of pianos of course has fewer stops, it is capable of greater percussion and so a peculiar rhythmic sense which the organ can't express in the same way. On top of all this, Pascal and Ami Rogé chose some very difficult music for this concert, which showed off their technical ability, but more importantly gave them the material to produce a vivid operatic sound, singing duets in their fingers while playing the orchestra part as well.
It can sometimes seem like a scalping to play an opera overture as a concert piece, but Maestro Oundjian's apparent delight in Berlioz' music overcame any such qualms. They played the piece as if it were self-contained with a closer-than-usual study and without the anticipation or apprehension of the visual elements of theatre. It can be nice to hear an overture without the distraction of a rising curtain. It also served nicely as a relatively lighter prelude to the Brahms and Tchaikovsky. The precise stops and timing of the silences were very satisfying (and provided an interesting test of the hall's acoustical decay time — the sound taking about 3 seconds to decay but fairly evenly across the pitches). The Sydney Symphony brought across the vivid orchestration as effortlessly as singing.
A tale of two orchestras, two conductors, two soloists, several accents, two continents... Indeed. Two recent musical evenings, performed back to back by our own San Francisco Symphony under James Conlon, and by the legendary Dresden Staatskapelle, on tour with Daniel Harding, were highly revealing of the differences which can still exist in the identity, tradition and manner of orchestras. By programming emotionally mainstream works, containing few neuroses or cataclysms, both conductors necessarily brought the focus of the audience's attention to beauty of execution, national perceptions of orchestral warmth and tone painting, and to their own manner of leadership.
Carnegie Hall, November 11-13, 2009
1. Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle, Music Director and Conductor
Brahms-Schoenberg, Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25
Brahms, Symphony No. 1
2. Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle, Music Director and Conductor