Dashing young Russian conductor Stanislav Kochanovsky is widely regarded as a rising superstar. Born in Leningrad in 1981, he graduated with honours from the St Petersburg State Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatoire, and was Principal Conductor of the Academic State Safonov Philharmonic Orchestra of the Northern Caucasus from 2010 to 2015. His packed schedule includes regular collaborations with international orchestras and ensembles. This concert marked his debut with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for a lushly Romantic programme, the centrepiece of which was Sergei Rachmaninov’s sumptuous Symphony No 2.
In 1848, Robert Schumann used Lord Byron’s poem Manfred as the basis for a three-part orchestral and choral setting, but the rest of the work has never remotely approached the popularity of its Overture (Op. 115), with which this programme opened. Manfred is the quintessential tortured Romantic hero, wracked with guilt and remorse, driven to the edge of madness, yearning for escape, and Schumann’s musical depiction of this state is turbulent and bristling with tension. It was a most appropriate scene-setter for the next work which also unites music with poetry, sharing its name with a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that Schumann set to music in 1849 for one of his myriad songs.
Composed in 2014 by Swedish composer Rolf Martinsson (b. 1956), Ich denke Dein… (Op. 100) is a five-part song cycle with texts by Goethe, Rainer Maria Rilke and Joseph von Eichendorff. It’s a clear continuity of the great 19th century European lieder tradition, but is more obviously connected to its late flowering in the hands of Richard Strauss and his contemporaries. Martinsson, professor of composition at the Malmö Academy of Music and a Fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, has collaborated extensively (over 100 performances) with Swedish soprano Lisa Larsson, and Ich denke Dein… was composed for her.
Larsson’s vocal versatility has enabled her to cultivate an extensive repertoire that ranges from Baroque to contemporary works, and, while a noted Mozart specialist, her expertise also extends to the late-Romanticism of Mahler, Berg and Richard Strauss, making this cycle a perfect vehicle for her. For this Australian premiere of Ich denke Dein…, we were lucky enough to have Larsson here in person to perform it, and the composer also present in the audience.
The cycle inhabits a sonic landscape somewhere between the Four Last Songs and Camelot, with lush Broadway dissonances, undulating orchestrations and soaring melodies. The stage was rearranged post-Schumann for a slightly reduced MSO and to accommodate piano, harp and celeste, which add an otherworldly tinkling at various points throughout. The final song in the cycle, Mondnacht (Moon Night) shares its author with the final of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, Im Abendrot, and it is a transcendental show-stopper, swelling and receding with mysterious energy and glorious shimmering orchestrations, around which Larsson’s mellifluous soprano wove magically. Ich denke Dein… is a stunning example of twenty-first century lieder, and Larsson an equally spectacular interpreter.
But no one packs a heart-stopping tune into an oceanic orchestral swell quite like Sergei Rachmaninov, and this night of deep Romanticism belonged to his Symphony No 2. Along with his magnificent Piano Concerto No 2 (the other “Rach 2”), this symphony is one of his best known and most popular works, and it’s easy to see why, jammed as it is with stirring, eminently hummable lyrical surges that unfold unhurriedly and build to explosive climaxes. From the pulsating Wagnerian brass of the Largo first movement through the transcendental conclusion of the Adagio and into the toe-tapping Allegro vivace Finale, it was paced beautifully with utter assurance by Kochanovsky. Principal cellist David Berlin seemed in danger of bursting on several occasions as Kochanovsky drew every ounce of energy from his section, imploring and cranking the strings into emotional overdrive. It was a sensational performance from orchestra and conductor alike, and received with thunderous applause from a most appreciative Melbourne audience.