Why I am not a critic – 6

On two recent weekends (not so recent as when I started writing this post) to concerts by the SSO conducted by David Zinman.

The first was a combination of the Poulenc Gloria and Mozart Requiem.

For a work which has only rarely been performed in Sydney, the Poulenc seemed strangely familiar. Had I sung some bits of it (surely not all) in my musical youth? Had I perhaps done some rehearsal pianising of it? There were some figure in the “Laudamus Te” which seemed to call forth some finger-memory, but I can’t work out when that could have been imprinted. It could all just be an illusion based on listening to recordings, though I don’t remember any recording in particular.

It was pretty good.  Zinman ran a tight ship.  Poulenc’s characteristic lucidity well brought-out with the air of a Gallic show-band in a real-live Mercury living presence (even if, see link above, that was not strictly the case).

I’ve been to a few ho-hum performances of the Requiem – sufficient to prime me mentally in an almost defensive way to the “it’s a great work” response.  No such defence was necessary on this occasion, and the programming with the Gloria actually worked well to set up the sombre spirit.  I only wished that the tenor, Paul McMahon, could have at least looked as if he was singing a bit more out of the box of his comfortable zone.  That’s the Mozartean tenor problem again – it’s always tricky, especially when, as here, with a really big choir, the musical environment was pretty monumental.

The program for the second was:

Berlioz – Overture to ‘Benvenuto Cellini’
Beethoven – Piano concerto No 2 – soloist Andreas Haefliger
Elgar – Falstaff Symphonic Poem
Berlioz – Roman Festival Overture (that’s the customary translation; the concert title of “Carnevale” drew on the original.)

Unfortunately I’ve left it too long to give a fair evaluation other than to say I enjoyed it all and I have a particularly soft spot for Berlioz overtures, but by the end of the Elgar it had not exactly outstayed its welcome but at least demonstrated why though welcome it was nevertheless probably deservedly a rarity.

There’s been a bit of action on the Australian ex-ABC orchestras’ front lately. Asher Fisch has been announced as the new chief conductor of the WASO, Andrew Davis of the M[elbourne ]SO and David Robertson of the SSO. At the time of these concerts, an SSO announcement was in the offing, and Murray Black in The Australian made a brick with that very little straw (1, 2)to suggest that David Zinman might be a suitable next appointment for the SSO. Given Zinman’s age and that it was ten years since Zinman was last here, that seemed pretty implausible to me, but I suppose it is nice to dream.

I’m not so sure about Robertson as an appointment, though that is obviously a view or rather a lack of a view formed (or not formed) in ignorance of the real (as opposed to: in Murray Black’s dreams) alternatives. Robertson is a man who seems able to say sweet things to everyone. I suspect such affability. It is said that the orchestra loves him, but that is not always a good thing. They loved Gianluigi Gelmetti too, but that ended rather mutedly and now history has been rewritten about GG’s “limited repertoire.” I don’t think that was exactly the problem. Sometimes a tougher love works better.

Before that announcement, on the Monday night, Andreas Haefliger backed up for a recital. The program was:

Liszt, selections from Annees de Perelinage – Year I – Switzerland
Debussy – Images, Book II
Beethoven – Sonata Op 106 “Hammerklavier”

Afterwards, I took the train home with the Dulwich Hill gang with whom I generally attend these recitals: J and my former high-school English and drama teacher, Lx. Lx said “that was rather ordinary” but in fact I had really enjoyed it. I was just in the right mood for it, even though I don’t really think that the Swiss book of the Annees is the strongest and I could have wished for a more dashing approach to the Vallee d’Obermann.

It seems that critical judgment was with Lx, as Peter McCallum subsequently wrote a swingeing review, describing the whole thing as “inspired in conception but disappointing in execution.” It’s clear that he would have preferred a more sinewy approach to the Hammerklavier, whereas that clearly just wasn’t Haefliger’s approach. He played with what I can only describe as “fluffy fingers” or (to use a phrase imprinted on my memory from a production of Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion directed by Lx for which I played the incidental music, “velvet paws.” I didn’t really measure Haefliger’s performance by expectations of what it should be, which I suppose is another reason why I am not a critic.

The subsequent Saturday night I went to UNSW to hear the Australia Ensemble. The program was:

Wolfgang MOZART (1756-1791): Sonata for flute, violin, viola and cello in C K285b (1778)
Paquito D’RIVERA (b 1948): Aires tropicales for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon (1971)
Peggy GLANVILLE-HICKS (1912-1990): Profiles from China for tenor, piano, string quartet and double bass (1945) -100th anniversary of the composer’s birth
Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893): Piano Trio in A minor Opus 50 (1882)

It is saying something for the rest of the program that the Mozart was the weakest link. That’s more a question of the piece than the performance. The Tchaikovsky was definitely the strongest. The Glanville Hicks gained savour by my overhearing the people behind me reminisce about Ms Glanville Hicks in her final years in Sydney. Professor Covell was atypically reticent in failing to unpick in his (usually more than copious) program notes any of the cultural referents for the text, which was an odd kind of Chinoiserie. One song was about the Guanxu emperor but in the absence of further information it just came across as generic Forbidden City intrigue. Paul McMahon was the tenor and he amply redeemed my former misgivings over his performance in the Mozart Requiem. The D’Rivera is unequivocally a modern classic, though one movement (I think the Habanera) featured the most alarmingly unidiomatic writing for the horn which Robert Johnson handled bravely.

I could probably say more, but I’ll leave that to any critics and reviews published elsewhere.

One Response to “Why I am not a critic – 6”

  1. Music for grownups « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] the ensemble’s long winter break (its last concert was in May) it was a bit of a shock to be reminded just how close we sit. Certainly, it imposes an […]

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