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Symphonic Dances | Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Written by Nicholas Routley   
Friday, 03 August 2012 11:51

It is becoming more and more fashionable to wallow less and less in Brahms. Even in this context, however, Angelich's performance of Brahms' first piano concerto was a model of classical restraint. This concerto, Brahms' first large-scale orchestral work, is usually treated as an outburst of youthful passion – he was only 23 when he wrote it – before the works he wrote after 1860 in which his early exuberance became more controlled. Angelich announced, from the first gentle entry after the stormy opening tutti, that nothing would be extreme, that he would allow the lyricism and tenderness of so much of this concerto to soften its more tempestuous moments.

Like so many of his early works, Brahms didn't know what form the D minor concerto would finally take. It began life as a projected symphony, and Angelich's reading remained faithful to this origin, refusing to pit the piano against the orchestra in the manner of many Romantic concertos, but instead worked to blend and integrate, very much at one with Jakub Hrusa's symphonic conception of the work.

The SSO obviously liked working with Hrusa, and after some slightly ungainly moments in the opening tutti (it was a cold evening, and Brahms' scoring of this passage is unforgiving – but I've never heard such an impressive rendering as Richard Miller's of the timpani part) soon settled into playing like the wonderful orchestra they are. The slow movement was a display of gorgeous soft sonorities from both pianist and orchestra, never rising above mezzo-forte. The tempi of all three movements were neither fast nor slow, reflecting Brahms' general desire to avoid extreme tempi. And there was not an ounce of showing off in Angelich's playing, not even in the cadenzas with their formidable bunches of trills.

In the second half the orchestra rolled up its sleeves in a brilliant display of uninhibited playing. Hrusa can conduct Dvorak's "Carnival" overture in his sleep; he was utterly at home in this exuberant score. The concert finished with Rachmaninov's strange Symphonic Dances, a piece which, like the Brahms concerto, went through several incarnations before arriving at its present form. For those of us who know and love the second and third piano concertos, or the Preludes, there seems a remarkable shortage of those magical, endless tunes he was capable of writing, and this isn't helped by Rachmaninov's deriving much of the musical material from the Dies Irae plainsong, such an overused resource of composers of the previous century from Berlioz on. My favourite passage was the long section in the first movement for woodwind and horns (what superb players they are!) which features an alto saxophone solo. Hrusa worked with the players to create a continuously evolving, subtly changing textural landscape where (partly because of the presence of the saxophone) they seemed to be creating new instruments like Schubert does at the beginning of the Unfinished by pairing oboe and clarinet.

Altogether, the orchestra and Hrusa combined to produce a second half highly charged with excitement and precision. The concert is repeated on the 3rd and 4th of August.

Sydney Symphony Orchestra presents
Symphonic Dances
Brahms, Dvořák, Rachmaninoff

Conductor Jakub Hrusa

Venue: Sydney Opera House
Dates: 1, 3 & 4 August 2012

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