Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony is sometimes said to be box-office poison, but there was no evidence of this in the enthusiastic applause given the Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s performance of this work. The symphony is lengthy and heavily scored with a great variety of mood. It was a great tribute to both the orchestra and conductor that they secured such an excellent account of it. Tempi throughout were just right; the conductor balanced the orchestral choirs very well and he had the measure of the symphony’s architecture. The timing of the climaxes was carefully considered, but the overall sound was never blaring or coarse as it often is today in works of this kind; the brass were kept well under control. Solo playing was very fine, particularly by the woodwinds. The cellos en masse  sounded very well. The only weak spot I could detect was some scrappy playing by the violins, but that is perhaps inevitable in a work of this complexity. On the whole, however, the performance demonstrated the greatness of the symphony.

The concert began with an exhilarating account of the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, and before the interval, the Australian horn player, Hector McDonald, played the Horn Concerto No 1 by Richard Strauss. This is an early work which lacks the pungency and melodic charm of Strauss’s later music, but it also lacks the vulgarity of some of his later music. Given a good performance, it can prove a pleasant musical experience. And this performance was first rate. McDonald is a master of his instrument and his style is most attractive. It lacks the brass-band assault of many horn players and it also lacks the dreadful, soupy vibrato of the French school. It can be best described as bel canto. McDonald has been active in Europe for many years where he is, amongst other things, first horn player in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the Concentus Musicus in Vienna. Nicholas Milton and the orchestra gave him an accomplished and sympathetic accompaniment. McDonald’s encore, a work for horn and harp by Johann Strauss, was musically inconsequential.

It is very pleasing to hear the CSO playing works like Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. Too often in the past its concerts have included works which one can easily hear at home on records that audiences are bound to have. Now that the orchestra has proved it can perform difficult works like last night’s symphony, it should explore the repertory further. It would be very satisfying to hear it perform Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony next year.

Once again I would like to express my opposition to performers making speeches to the audience. These add nothing of value or interest to the concert and simply prolong the evening unnecessarily.


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