Charles Rosen once made a good point about Mozart’s concertos, that they create a kind of theatre of the mind in which characters seem to play out an imaginary drama in purely musical terms. It shows, he suggested, in the way Mozart often transforms the soloist into a “singer” and introduces opera-like themes into many of his piano concertos.
The G major concerto K 453 is a case in point, as other writers have noted. In the graceful second movement, snatches of melody rise up first in the violins, and followed by a solo oboe, flute and bassoon. Finally and most gloriously, it appears in the piano. The effect sounds so spontaneously theatrical.
One gained the impression that Brisbane pianist Daniel de Borah and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra were aiming for something very different. The sound world they were creating was small, contained and ‘eighteenth century’, but the human dimension that is so implicit in this music was strangely absent.
Melodies felt disconnected and tempos stretched out, especially in that second movement. Under young Australian conductor Nathan Aspinall, it seemed they were aiming for a more ascetic kind of beauty.
To this extent, one could admire what they did. De Borah, in particular, maintained an assured path through the whole concerto without superimposing any kind of affected interpretative gloss on the music. It sounded like Mozart, even if it also came across as studied and rather unemotional. At times one just yearned for a bit more spirit. The tuneful concluding Allegretto called out for it.
This concert, second in the ASO’s Symphony Series for 2021, was the more remarkable for a true rarity it offered as the opening work. Lili Boulanger was the young sister of one of the twentieth century’s most revered music teachers, Nadia Boulanger (whose pupils included Milhaud, Copland, Bernstein, Piazzolla and Philip Glass, just to name a few). Yet she was by all accounts the most gifted of the two siblings, and her early death at the age of 24 robbed French music of the modern era of one of its greatest talents.
Hearing Lili Boulanger’s music is like encountering a voice you somehow have always known. On the same plane with Fauré and Debussy, it shares some of their sonic fragrancy but moves in an imaginative direction distinctly of its own. D’un matin de Printemps (Of a spring morning) is a short, compact symphonic poem of effervescent beauty in which figurative ideas expressed in each instrument dart across a constantly mobile landscape. Under Aspinall’s sure hands the orchestra played it with precision and flourish, leaving one breathless but wanting more.
Thank you ASO for giving us this taster.
Taking up the larger part of the program, Dvořák’s Symphony No.7 is a wonderful and quite perfectly written work that never really fails to satisfy. How emotionally engrossing it is naturally comes down to what the performer invests in it, and one could admire Aspinall’s efforts and the scale he brought to its climaxes. When the big passages swirled and erupted, the ASO sounded magnificent. Passions rose with emblazoning power in the mountain crests of the opening Allegro maestoso and the surging finale.
The question was what to make of the quieter parts, when Dvořák is brooding and reflective. These seemed to pass by without making as much impression. Their special sweetness seemed to have gone missing.
Nonetheless, this symphony’s prevailing optimism was present in full measure. And bravo to that.
The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra played its Brilliance & Tenderness concert at the Festival Theatre on April 9.