This concert offered a marriage made in heaven. It was an interesting pairing of Hungarians that saw composer Zoltán Kodaly on the same bill as Franz Liszt, men of different centuries, though not of distinctly different sensibilities. And it was a brilliant choice to end with Richard Strauss’ monumental tone poem Ein Heldenleben. Musically showy and as compositions way ahead of their time, all the pieces offered opportunities for conductor and soloists to strut their stuff with flair and panache. The combination of Maestro Johannes Fritzsch and Australian ex-patriate pianist, Leslie Howard, gave us rare musicians of the finest calibre. It was joyous to hear and watch such thoughtful and provocative music-making from masters of their craft.
Commencing with Kodaly’s exciting Dances of Galánta, Fritzsch showed his interpretative versatility in bringing this work, based on Hungarian gypsy tunes, evocatively to life. From the first melodic note, strongly post-Romantic yet steeped in traditional Hungarian folk-lore, the orchestra played with relish and passion. The slow, exquisitely soft opening passages of the Lento movement, with sweeping lush strings, gave way to the inherent czárdás rhythms and gypsy dances of the Allegretto Moderato with fine legato. The woodwind section was splendid. Principal Clarinettist, Irit Silver, who featured strongly as a solo instrument throughout, gave a hauntingly considered performance. She was joined by solid solos from Hayley Radke on flute and Kate Lawson on Piccolo in the Allegretto and Huw Jones, oboe, in the Allegro con Moto. Masterful playing by the bassoons and horns in the Allegro led to a stunning orchestral finale from Fritzsch, a frenetic rollercoaster ride that was as fast as it was exhilarating. A great start to the evening.
Liszt composed only two named concertos for piano and Leslie Howard played the lesser known Piano Concerto No 2 as well as Totentanz, two vastly contrasting pieces, though both requiring extraordinary pianistic brilliance and sheer stamina in the playing.
Known as the greatest living exponent of Liszt’s piano work, Leslie Howard showed his virtuosity immediately and continued to astound and delight. Rarely does one witness such exceptional control and musicianship. This was superlative playing from one who is clearly comfortable with Liszt’s eccentricities and unique pianistic requirements. Liszt’s own invention, this concerto is a quirky thematic work, with extreme contrasts between brute force in the lower and exquisite delicacy in the higher registers. Howard delivered the shimmering colours of the stratospheric notes with intense beauty, taking artistic risks that are only possible when technical ability is assured. His fingers flew across the keyboard with alacrity and an astonishing accuracy, a cascade of falling notes reaching the lowest depths of the keyboard. One almost felt he had invented more keys on the keyboard, so sharply delivered were those high and low notes. Fritzsch both followed Howard’s tuneful lead and, by turns, led the theme as the composer intended, including some delightful string work and overall excellent orchestral playing. The first-rate solo cello of David Lale, supporting the pianist’s ravishingly ethereal melody, was a welcome addition to the Allegro Moderato.
The Totentanz or Dance of Death, based on the Dies Irae, is a dark and morbid work and Howard grasped this piece with his customary masterful and showy pianism. The cadenza was soulful and suitably delicate, while the fugato impressed with a colour-rich depth of sound. He followed this with a series of complex runs up and down the scales that were skillfully managed, while taking musical risks that added to the excitement and agility of his phrasing. Strident horns, trumpets, timpani and bass created an energetic and fiery conclusion.
A sense of authority and anticipation emanated from Fritzsch and the orchestra at the beginning of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleden – A Hero’s Life. Interpreted with great sensitivity, the narrative was made crystal-clear and superbly delivered on every level, demonstrating the leitmotivs of the orchestral characters within a rich palette of musical colours and sonority.
The eight horns representing The Hero were both melodic and authoritative, playing crisply and with great beauty, as required. The Hero’s enemies (Strauss’ critics) were introduced with some light-hearted and instantly-recognisable gossiping from the flute, oboe, tuba and euphonium.
Concertmaster Warwick Adeney’s violin created a rich characterisation for his solo role as The Hero’s companion. It was a riveting performance, full of coyness and questioning with the response of the horns in the love song gentle and touching. Adeney’s plaintive solo in the final Hero’s retirement from the world was poignantly answered by Malcolm Stewart’s solo horn – the sweetness of the violin balanced by the horn’s rich velvet tones.
Fritzsch came into his own in the wonderfully rousing Hero’s deeds of war with impressive battle sounds from the whole orchestra including timpani, harps and brass creating a cacophony of sound that reverberated through the concert hall. This was counterbalanced by the aching longing of The Hero’s retirement from the world leading to the full brass intoning a final moving fanfare.
What a pleasure to see Johannes Fritzsch back on the podium in Brisbane in such a marvelously rich programme with the orchestra responding so magnificently to his intelligent direction. After eight years as Chief Conductor to 2014, the effects of his artistic leadership can still be seen in the excellent playing of the state orchestra and many of its individual players. Now as Conductor Laureate of the QSO, hopefully Fritzsch will be back more often which will be keenly anticipated by his many followers here.