sun 26/05/2024

Wall, Mørk, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Davis, Usher Hall, Edinburgh | reviews, news & interviews

Wall, Mørk, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Davis, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Wall, Mørk, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Davis, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Heartfelt Schumann outplays heavyweight Strauss and lunatic Grainger

Sir Andrew Davis with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the PromsChris Christodoulou

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Edinburgh Festival debut was the most telling example yet of the 2014 festival’s disregard for conventional concert programming. A programme that began with Strauss’ Don Juan and Four Last Songs could easily have settled into a comfortable evening of large scale late romantics, but instead turned on its heel to dip into Schumann’s Cello Concerto before concluding with Percy Grainger’s riotous The Warriors.

More enterprising than their Proms outing, this was a high octane collision of styles and soloists across continents and centuries that could well have been as baffling and unsatisfactory as the festival’s curious opening concert, but in the event it was a tremendous success which delighted the near-capacity audience in the Usher Hall.

That it happened at all, I was told by my neighbour Michael Shmith (sic), critic from the Melbourne Age, is down to a determined act of philanthropy by “some very rich people sitting over there”, namely Harold Mitchell Esq and the Duke of Bucchleuch. During their stay in Scotland the Australian musicians have been staying as guests of the duke, which must have increased his breakfast bill considerably as there are a heck of a lot of them.

Quite what moved these people to pay for this concert I do not know, but if it means that Scottish audiences hereafter demand more frequent performances of The Warriors that is no bad thing. But more of that later. The evening began with Don Juan by Richard Strauss, the first of his great tone poems, here propelled into a vivacious performance by the irrepressible Sir Andrew Davis, the orchestra’s Chief Conductor since 2013. The Melbourne strings don’t have the luscious richness you might expect from the great European orchestras but the horns sounded magnificent and the leader Dale Barltrop played his violin solo exquisitely.

erin wallFor many in the audience the performance of Four Last Songs by the Canadian soprano Erin Wall (pictured left by Alexander Vasiljev) was the anticipated highlight of the evening. Wall was a wonderful Thais in the 2011 Edinburgh Festival but despite some lovely moments she never really sounded comfortable in these demanding Strauss songs. Her breathing, from the outset, seemed unsettled, as though she were always trying to keep up. Once each breath was in, and she got going on Strauss’ immense phrases, her sense of line was impressive, and crescendi came easily. But the otherworldly quality that these songs possess was absent. 

During the interval I overheard members of the audience worrying about the second half. A conservative lot, they were perplexed by the prospect of another soloist taking the floor for a concerto, but most of all they were wondering what on earth lay in store thereafter, for the stage was set with an immense battery of percussion and three pianos. My neighbour on the other side didn’t hang around to find out.

The orchestra was whittled down to chamber size (with a different leader) for Schumann’s Cello Concerto, with the Norwegian Truls Mørk (pictured below) as soloist. This lovely piece, not often enough heard, received at his hands an extraordinary, heartfelt performance. 

truls morkSchumann’s writing for the cello sounds like a mildly quizzical conversation wrapped up in the most exquisite melody. Mørk was tender, expressive, and never querulous; the orchestra hovered behind him in an accompaniment that was beautifully judged. 

That this was the undoubted high point, musically, of the evening, is not to deny that in terms of pure theatre Percy Grainger’s The Warriors stole the show. “It’s a crazy piece,” said my informant from the Melbourne Age. The full orchestra was restored, with three pianos, enough percussion to sink a battleship, harps, and celeste.  All this for a bit of very noisy fluff that lasts around 20 minutes. No wonder performances are rare.

Can it be described? It opens with a huge flourish, pianos and percussion going hell for leather, before drifting into a somewhat louche episode with hints of Broadway. The piece is meant to depict warrior dances and amorous episodes but in overall intent it comes closer to the overtly comic Grand Grand Overture by Malcolm Arnold (that's the one with a part for vacuum cleaners). There’s a passage that sounds like Gershwin on speed, a hat-doff to Mahler and a lovely but rather corny moment when a string melody drifts above massed tremulous percussion, with the pianists tickling their strings with drum sticks. At one point half the brass walk off to sound an off-stage fanfare that bears no relation to anything. And then its all over in a great whumph of sound that brought the house down. The encore of Handel in the Strand, orchestrated by Sir Henry Wood, was every bit as fun. There must now be two and a half thousand new Grainger fans. The Melbourne critic, incidentally, thought the orchestra sounded much better here than at home. "It will have done them a power of good to get out a bit", he said.


Christopher Lambton presumably didn't read the programme notes for Grainger's The Warriors'. If he had, he would know that the off stage brass section was to depict the battle still going on in the distance whilst the slow languorous music was being played on the stage. However I must take issue with his comment about this work being close the Malcolm Arnold's Grand Grand Overture - again, reading the notes on the background of this piece would explain all and Grainger's intent was serious whilst Arnold's was not!

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