In 1944 the soloist in West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s first performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto was David Helfgott’s teacher, Alice Carrard. Fast forward 75 years to a wet winter’s night in Perth, and the same orchestra is accompanying Spanish pianist Javier Perianes in the same work. Nothing old, cold or wet about this performance, though, with Perianes and conductor Simone Young bringing a balance of Spanish passion and Viennese elegance to this much-loved staple of the piano concerto repertoire.
The strings’ hushed reply to Perianes’ gentle opening in the Allegro Moderato set the tone of this account right away, building expectation rather than tension. Perianes’ later glittering passagework and intervallic and chordal finesse, showcased especially in an exciting cadenza, created overlapping frameworks from which Young and WASO were able to extrapolate an extraordinarily refined orchestral sound. The Andante con moto, with its stark, attenuated contrasts between piano and strings, allowed just the right dissipation of energy before, in the Rondo, Perianes galloped across the dramatic soundscape Young cultivated with a breathless vigour and precision. Perianes’ thrilling encore, appropriately enough, was Spanish: Manuel de Falla’s piano arrangement of his own Ritual Fire Dance, from his 1915 ballet Love, the Magician.
Let’s talk about Anton Bruckner. Or rather, his music, as his fondness for teenage girls and compulsively counting objects as diverse as bricks, windows and bars of music, is generally a conversation-killer. I don’t mind saying I’ve always been a fan of Bruckner’s massive symphonic edifices, so complex yet so accessible (well, maybe not in terms of length, but you know what I mean), so rooted in tradition yet so innovative. More than any of his symphonies, the Sixth stands Janus-like, looking back to archaic techniques and forward to the future Wagner had mapped out for classical music. Young is clearly a fan too (actually, one of the first times I heard her conduct WASO was in a performance of Bruckner’s Eighth some years back). I have a live recording, from 2014, of Young conducting the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Bruckner’s 1881 Sixth Symphony, so I kind of knew what to expect here. The mysterious Maestoso with its Morse Code-like opening in the violins and the ensuing thunderstorm of sound; the heartbreakingly beautiful Adagio with its plaintive oboe solo; the pulsating, impish Scherzo with its coruscating cadences; and the blazing Finale, by turns lyrical and terrifying.
But does anyone really ever know what to expect from combining Bruckner and Young? (Hey, isn’t that a great name for a craft brewery?). And sure enough, what an extraordinary performance this was, with Young so much at pains to clarify structure and texture without sacrificing mystery; with WASO digging so deep – the brass especially, then they always get a workout in Bruckner – to produce a performance as gripping as it was glorious.