Hamer Hall, Melbourne
July 5, 2018

From the opening rhythmic timpani motif of the Britten violin concerto to the heroic theme in the finale of the Bruckner, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was difficult to fault at its concert on Thursday night under the steady hand of Australian maestro Simone Young. The orchestra excelled in the feverish central movement of the violin concerto, leaving ample space for German violinist and frequent MSO collaborator, Kolja Blacher, to shine in the Scherzo’s impressive cadenza. They marched sturdily over rocky terrain through Britten’s tonally ambiguous finale, which ended unnervingly with the soloist wavering between an F-natural and an F-sharp — flitting, undecided, between minor and Major structures — over a more certain D-major chord in the orchestra.

Written on the eve of world war in 1939, but in fact a meditation on the Spanish Civil War, Britten’s violin concerto is equal parts moody and stormy, akin perhaps to a melancholic Korngold concerto, and recalling Prokofiev’s own first concerto for violin and finding later echoes in Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto in A minor. It is however unmistakably Brittenesque, replete with forms and textures favoured by the composer, including the distinct passacaglia of the final movement.

Blacher displayed considerable mastery of the material and offered a forthright and uncomplicated interpretation, his powerful bowing in the more lyrical passages exhibiting an assertiveness and confidence that was at odds with the presence of his sheet music on the stage. Performances of the Britten violin concerto seem to fall into one of two categories: scrupulously prepared and technically precise — the solo part places fearsome demands on any virtuoso — or emotional and temperamental. Blacher, anchored in front of his music stand for the duration, was for the most part in the former category, but the nature of the piece is such that one cannot fail to be swept up in the journey from start to finish.

It is a fascinating composition that seems to be coming into its own in recent years with a number of high-profile champions, and the chance to hear a generally underappreciated masterpiece in such competent hands was a rare treat, but its ambiguous ending would have made it a poor choice to close out the evening.

In the exciting second act we were on more certain footing, with a thunderous brass section and extended lower strings providing the powerful forces demanded of Bruckner’s monumental if often poorly understood symphonic writing. The extra personnel on stage created a lush mass of sound in the strings that never seemed in danger of losing the vigour and briskness integral to a convincing performance the deliberate and intricate rhythmic patterns of the sixth symphony.

Indeed, the only off-notes throughout the evening were visual — plastic water bottles on stage, dropped pages of sheet music, a member of the strings abruptly walking off and leaving a stage door open. Such trivialities could have easily deflated an otherwise credible, weighty, and authoritative stage presence.

The last time the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra played the sixth was in 1996 at the Robert Blackwood Hall under the leadership of the then rising star, Simone Young. At the time, Young had recently made a major opera debut conducting Puccini’s La Bohème in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, only the second woman ever to do so; she would also be the first woman to conduct at the Vienna State Opera, Vienna Philharmonic and Paris’ Bastille. “The most famous and respected young conductor in the world,” observed one writer at the time, she was described as “standing so small and so large at the same time” and possessing “a fascinating mixture of femininity and power”.

Such comments might also have been apt for Thursday night’s concert at Hamer Hall. Young was vigorous and compelling, directing her forces uncompromisingly and extracting a vehement determination from the performers, who played stridently and with an amplitude that would not be unwelcome to see more of among Australian orchestras. Bruckner’s Sixth is structurally dependent on a series of insistent and repeated motifs; slabs of distinct rhythmic material play off each other throughout the sections of the orchestra, and in typical Brucknerian fashion, rhythmic and harmonic structures tend to shift abruptly as the composer searches — prodding and poking for new avenues and openings — for his final musical statement. Such textures performed too cautiously will sound laboured and sluggish; played zealously, too much rhythmic stability is lost. In her fluid and dance-like conducting — a joy to behold on its own —Young navigated the orchestra through this monumental work with confidence, bringing to close an ultimately satisfying, if tumultuous, evening.

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra plays the concert again tonight in Geelong and at Hamer Hall on Saturday July 7 at 2pm