SSO – “Russian Magic”

Or Electrickery?

Last night to the last in the SSO’s Prokofiev festival.

For the orchestra, this festival really started when they went on tour with the Prokofiev 5th Symphony in the middle of October, so, amongst other things, they were drawing to the end of a continuous period of 5-6 weeks playing Prokofiev with their Principal Conductor, Vladimir Ashkenazy.

There was also a festive atmosphere abroad generally down at Bennelong Point: outside in the forecourt, Australian Idol was rehearsing its Sunday final with a pretend audience drifting in and out of the front of house toilets and bars; across Farm Cove in the Botanic Gardens a light show swept the tree tops for some party or other; the humid night tossed and teased with drops of never-quite-rain; all five auditoriums [-a?] had something on. Inside, the concert hall was comfortably packed.

Billed as “magic,” the title might more accurately have been “Fantasie” in the Schumannesque sense. It was truly illuminating to set the 5th concerto against the Lieutenant Kije suite: this placed what is otherwise a structurally rather puzzling work (the concerto: the suite is straightforward) in context. I even thought I detected reminiscences/portents (sans saxophone but with high bassoon) of a Kije-esque theme.

Perhaps after a torrid week or so leading up to a 4-day trial, I had just been so bereft of music that any music heard on Friday night would have worked enchantment. Be that as it may, the rewards of the sustained encounter between orchestra, conductor and composer seemed palpable. There was a unanimity of playing and, even more, of style. I had been too laid low with my brought-back-from-China cold [did I mention I have just been to Shanghai for 2 weeeks?] to get a fair impression of Alexander Gavrylyuk’s playing of the first concerto a fortnight earlier, but this time he scored a triumph. To play 1, 3 and 5 within such a short period is no mean achievement. Gavrylyuk grinned with exhilaration (or so it seemed to me: he must have been quite charged up) at the end as he rushed on and off the stage to take his bows before treating us to an end-of-term encore by way of a transcription (well a bit more than a transcription: I presume Liszt-Horowitz) of Mendelssohn’s wedding march. You wouldn’t want a whole program of pieces like that, but in the circumstances it went down a treat.

From minute or so before the end of the first movement of the concerto until about half a minute into the second movement of the concerto, we were also treated to a little bit of electronic buzzing coming through the PA. This is always disappointing: can’t the people on the switches keep their hands still? Perhaps they were fiddling around getting ready for the second half, where John Bell gave us an introduction to “The Ugly Duckling” before Jacqueline Porter took over for the quasi-cantata proper. That wasn’t entirely free in my mind from a suspicion of further electronic enhancement, and it seemed to me that in ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ with which the program finished, the technical fellows allowed themselves the luxury of a little orchestral amplification to match the narration with the orchestral sound. I’m less than keen on this sort of thing, though it didn’t seem to worry anyone else. Perhaps I was imagining it: but in P&W the orchestra seemed just implausibly loud given its modest scale and there was a boomy bloom to the sound which went beyond the concert hall’s usual echo.

So: a brilliant first half and a more mixed (in more than one sense) though still well-played second half.

Sometimes, when one is asked to compare people, the more tactful and even truthful answer is to simply say that they are different from each other. To hearken back to an earlier post, I think I still prefer Shostakovich to Prokofiev – but that is me rather than them. In fact, and unsurprisingly really, they are different.

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