It is a rare occasion when four of the finest 20th-century chamber works are presented together within one concert. And here we have four works which are more known discographically rather than through live performance. As such it is a rare occasion where a personal fantasy becomes a musical reality, and a thoroughly delightful one at that where each piece calls for a different combination of instruments and stylistic approaches. The occasion provides the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra with an opportunity to showcase not only fine sections within its line-up, but highly talented individuals who are capable of the finest chamber performances.
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This perceptively curated program features a quartet of works by as fine a group of 20th-century composers as one could wish for – Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten, Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel – and four personal favourites at that. What immediately grabs the listener’s attention is just how three-dimensional the works are, when given fine performances within an acoustically sympathetic hall like Adelaide University’s Elder Hall. Here the strings were allowed to breathe; there was plenty of air around them and all works were given performances in which there was a true sense of balance and interplay, which only comes from experienced musicians who know each other and the repertoire very well.
Opening matters was the lyrical Sextet which prefaces Richard Strauss’ final opera Capriccio. This is a work written in the 1940s when the composer was in his 80s and is indicative of late Strauss – lyrical, reflective and a work which looks back on a long career. In fact it was the great recording producer Walter Legge who referred to this period as “Romanticism’s long coda” and in a sense it is, giving rise to such autumnal masterpieces as his Oboe Concerto, the Four Last Songs, and his requiem for what he saw as the death of Teutonic culture, brought about by the Nazis – Metamorphosen. The performance featured six of the orchestra’s string players in a performance which understood this gorgeously crafted sextet.
From Strauss it was back to the 1920s, a period when Igor Stravinsky had moved on from the popular ballets created from Russian culture and myth for the Ballets Russes. The composer was now the toast of musical Paris, moving onto what is rather erroneously know as his Neo-Classical period. Such masterpieces as the Concerto for Piano and Winds and the Symphony of Psalms arose during this time as did the equally fine Octet for Winds. If anything, these works, which are profoundly influenced by Bach, should be called Neo-Baroque or Neo-Bachian as were Hindemith’s contemporary compositions. However, Stravinsky’s compositional method was far less constricted than his German counterpart. This performance was masterly and balanced in terms of its counterpoint and rather regimented structure. The textures and colours provided by the instruments and their interplay remain unique. Who else would have thought to have written for such a combination of instruments? Flautist Geoffrey Collins seemed particularly taken with the music, almost moving in a delightfully choreographed way, as if the music was being created through him.
From Stravinsky, the musicians moved onto a very early yet representative work by Britten, the Phantasy Quartet, Op. 2, scored for oboe and string trio. Written in an autumnal, pastoral style, with certainly a big nod to the sonorities of Ravel, this was perhaps the rarity in this concert. Written when Britten was an 18-year-old student, this is a remarkably mature work, delivered here in a very fine performance indeed. The sense of instrumental balance between the long song-like lines of the oboe (Joshua Oates) coalesced beautifully with the strings and the writing for the viola in particular is masterful, but of course, Britten himself was an adept violist.
Rounding off this most generous selection of masterpieces was Maurice Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro scored for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet, written in 1904 as a display piece for the then innovative two-pedalled harp. And Ravel certainly puts the harpist through his or her paces with this lyrical and highly atmospheric almost perfumed wonder. The orchestra’s harp player Suzanne Handel gave a sympathetic and virtuosic account of this treasure, though never dominating the piece, and keeping to the atmospheric, febrile, and somehow tactile attractions of this work. This was an extremely beautiful performance with the interplay between the strings and other instruments extremely clean, clear and well balanced. The cello must be praised for so cleanly underpinning the integral rhythms of this masterpiece. The winds were seamless and the movement between the waltz and fantasy added to an approach that is just not available to recorded performance.
The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s next performance is Giocoso – Chamber Series 2 on 12 June