Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
October 25, 2018

I first encountered Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste as a strikingly tall, blond young man when he came to Hobart in the mid-eighties to conduct Sibelius, and it is a shock to realise that he is exactly the same age as I am!

Grieg and Sibelius was all Scandinavian conductors were allowed to conduct in those days.

Times have clearly changed, because here is a program of Stravinsky and Bartók with Croatian pianist Dejan Lazić making his debut with the MSO. Lazić is best-known for his many recordings for Channel Classics.

Stravinsky’s Funeral Song was written in 1908 just prior to tonight’s main work The Firebird. The funeral in question was Rimsky-Korsakov’s. The piece was lost until a couple of years ago when the parts were found in St Petersburg Conservatory and given its premiere by Valery Gergiev.

To my ears, it was no more funereal than most other Russian music, but certainly within the same sound world as The Firebird. That said, the overall character was rather on the sombre side, with some lovely horn solos, a folk-music flavour, and lots of chromatic rumblings in the strings. I think I detected a few last gasps of breath before the end. So, interesting rather than groundbreaking fare.

Bartok’s Piano Concerto No 3 may once have been considered rather astringent, but now it all seems to flow quite melodically.  Neither well nor well-off, he wrote it for his wife Ditta to play in concert, hoping to raise some much needed funds. He died of leukaemia in 1945 before finishing it, but only really leaving the last few bars to be orchestrated.

Fresh-faced Lazić exuded a lovely confidence from the very first bar, projecting a feeling that we were in for a good night. In total control, his was a considered and gentle touch. Although at times maybe too careful, he gave a quite intimate and chamber-like performance.

Gentle divided strings opened the second movement marked Adagio religioso, and Lazić took a child-like, innocent approach that worked very well, but somehow managed to sound profound at the same time. He was totally absorbed in the music, and Saraste and the Orchestra accompanied very sensitively.

They segued straight into the Finale, a short Presto ‘one-in-the-bar’ fast waltz. Here, there were times when the orchestra lagged behind and sounded a bit flaccid. Caution needed to be thrown to the wind and life led a bit more dangerously, but the final bars that doff a hat to Tchaikovsky’s Concerto were certainly exciting.

I have been spoilt. The last time I heard the complete Firebird was only a year ago at London’s Barbican. It was part of a two week ‘Rattle Fest’ to welcome new London Symphony Orchestra Chief Conductor Simon Rattle, and the concert in question comprised The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. What a night! It was all conducted from memory and pretty well note perfect.

It is good to remember that Stravinsky wrote about a dozen ballets (including one for elephants!) and not just the three famous ones. His father was an opera singer, and young Igor had plenty of access to rehearsals, so the world of theatre was in his blood from a young age. As a young boy, he had also met Tchaikovsky, and was enchanted by his music. He paid tribute to him by arranging the ‘Bluebird Pas de Deux’ from The Sleeping Beauty.

The impresario Diaghilev first offered the job of composing a new ballet to Liadov, but three months later Liadov had only just purchased the manuscript paper, so having heard and liked Stravinsky’s earlier piece Fireworks, Diaghilev took a punt on the 27-year-old composer and the rest is history.

The Firebird tells the story of young Prince Ivan, who captures a beautiful bird while wandering in the gardens of the feared ogre Kastchei the Immortal. She pleads with him to let her go in return for a magic feather. The Prince then encounters thirteen beautiful princesses playing with golden apples from a magic tree. They are held captive by the evil magician in his castle grounds. He falls in love with ‘Miss Thirteen’, but the princesses are under a spell, and when dawn breaks, have to return to the palace. A horde of demons appears followed by Kastchei himself. The Prince summons the Firebird with the magic feather and she forces the ogre’s retinue into a frenzied dance. The Firebird then shows the Prince where Kastchei’s soul is kept. It is an egg in a casket. The Prince smashes the egg, the spell is broken, the princesses are released and all live happily ever after.

The Firebird straddles both the Romantic and 20th Century eras. Hearing the complete ballet is quite a different experience to the 1919 Suite. The Game with Apples movement is pure Tchaikovsky, and the trumpets announce Daybreak with a rooster cry that would do Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel proud. The last three movements almost play out as in the Suite – a welcome familiarity.

Apart from financial exigencies, there is a reason why Stravinsky compiled two Suites from the complete ballet. As brilliantly orchestrated as it is, some of the linking music between the set numbers is meaningless without the visuals.

Perhaps the most vexing question for the conductor is just how romantic to make it. Should the performance look backwards to Tchaikovsky, or look forward to The Rite of Spring? Should it be a lush experience, or should it be cool and ascetic in the style of Pierre Boulez?

This performance was generally well-played, if not setting the world on fire. Saraste chose an emotionally cool approach somewhat at arm’s length, so the effect was efficient rather than edge-of-the-seat or magical. There was some outstanding solo playing from (once again) the principal horn, and a lovely lonely ‘homesick’ bassoon solo in the Berceuse that was to die for. The temperature seemed rather cool until the climax of the Round Dance, and things perked up considerably when the Fairy carillon made its presence felt. Kastchei’s Infernal Dance needed more precision, though the climax was electrifying, and once again a lovely horn solo led into a rousing Finale.

Harking back to the business of playing style, be it cool or ripely romantic, there is a famous local story about this very issue. Hiroyuki Iwaki was rehearsing the MSO in the Round Dance of the Princesses movement – and principal cellist Philip Green offered up a very knowing, romantic version with wide vibrato and quite a swoon. Iwaki stopped the orchestra and very politely explained: “No, Mr Green – Princess still virgin!”

Stravinsky’s Firebird has one more performance on October 27 at Arts Centre Melbourne