A slow start with Brahms gives way to Elgar’s emotional riches.
Both works on this program were inspired by holidays in Italy, but neither contains the overt, gelato-infused references of the kind you find in either Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony or Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien.
Brahms’ Piano Concerto No 2 started with an elegantly turned horn solo by David Evans, taken up immediately by the soloist, veteran pianist Yefim Bronfman. This performance took a while to touch the heart, with the first two movements sounding a bit routine. The violins had a beautifully unanimous sheen, but there were ensemble problems with the lower strings, sometimes lagging behind in the scherzo, and also later in the Finale of the Symphony.
David Berlin’s cello solo at the start of the slow movement took the work into chamber music territory, and the affectionate interplay between Berlin and the soloist was tangible. It was here that Bronfman’s finely-tuned musicianship shone through. The orchestral accompaniment was also at its most sensitive in this movement, as well as in the light hearted Finale, which skipped along in a rare display of Brahms’s humorous side. Bronfman’s delicacy of touch provided a welcome contrast to the meaty, granite like chords of the first movement.
It is hard to reconcile the rather tight, buttoned-up portraits we have of Elgar – perfectly trimmed moustache, high stiff collars, tweedy suits – with the extraordinary outpouring of emotion in his music. If the fashion of the time reflected Victorian tight-lipped mores and repressions, in writing his music, Elgar found the perfect safety valve through which he could respectably empty out his pent-up emotions, and at this Saturday afternoon concert, out they all came!
From the tentative plodding of the opening bars, through to the devastating intensity and fury of the last movement, Sir Andrew Davis and the Melbourne Symphony took us on a roller-coaster ride at one of those pebbly English seaside resorts, swooping up into the clouds one moment, then plummeting down again into the depths of human despair that was Elgar the man.
As in the Brahms Concerto, once again, it took until the slow movement before the performance really penetrated to the deepest level, but once there, it stayed. There was an amazing subtlety of dynamic and colour, most palpably in the woodwind. The champagne moment came in the transformation of the last movement’s snappy theme into a dreamy, nostalgic half tempo, realised to perfection by Davis and the Orchestra, and the eyes moistened as if on cue.
An hour went by like a snap of the fingers, but we the audience had been taken on a journey, a mini-biography of Elgar’s life, with more than a glimpse into his innermost soul. We emerged intact, slowly coming to, amidst a sea of approbation. But it was not over yet!
The MSO’s wonderful concertmaster Wilma Smith was making her last appearance after 12 years of devoted service. There were speeches from Sir Andrew, and a particularly touching one from the MSO’s chairman, Harold Mitchell, outlining the highlights of those 12 years. Cheers, streamers, a whiff of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus Overture and a prolonged standing ovation brought the afternoon to a very satisfying conclusion. Well done Wilma!