The musical eyes and ears of Adelaide have been keenly following Konstantin Shamray for some time now. With exhilarating appearances in Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in 2016 and in Pictures at an Exhibition in the International Piano Series in 2019, among other performances, it is fair to say that this young man’s explosively powerful playing in big works of the repertoire place him at the very front rank of concert pianists.
Well, they don’t come bigger – or more Russian – than Rach 3. This work’s dedicatee, the American pianist Josef Hofmann, shied away from ever playing it during his lifetime, prompting Rachmaninov himself to give it the name “concerto for elephants”; this was his Russian way of saying it is only for titans of the keyboard to take on.
To this day, it’s a piece in which reputations are made or broken, and this is not just for this fearsome work’s 30,000 notes but because, in order to surmount it, the soloist has to drive the orchestra, propelling it forward with the energy of a steam train – which is perhaps why another American pianist, Cyril Smith, likened it to shovelling 10 tons of coal.
For Shamray, this concerto is obviously hallowed ground. One could immediately see this in the way he imparted a hushed nobility, a sense of poise before the storm, to the bare octaves of its opening theme. Then it all started. The broiling furnace of notes erupted and fairly took one’s breath away. Not holding back for a millisecond, he was all over this work, stretching its big melodies like molten plastic and dispatching its fast passages with razor-edged brilliance.
Credit to the orchestra members that they could keep up with him. It’s actually not a big play for them, but this concerto needs robustness of tone and the devil of timing to stay with the soloist. With Johannes Fritzsch conducting, the ASO was confidently right up to the mark.
Shamray’s sparkly power is always dazzling, but what made an equal impression was his sensitivity. Ever-present beneath the surface in Rachmaninov lies a melancholic pathos, and so it was on this occasion. Deep into the third movement there is a series of chords that sing out like a Russian hymn; buttressed by mighty bravura on either side, the solo piano was particularly moving in this passage. As he gazed to the Town Hall’s ceiling during poetic moments like these, it was as if Shamray was channelling the great Russian composer. This was an interpretation of utterly convincing strength and soul.
Not even at the peak of his abilities, this 36-year-old virtuoso is proving to be a pianist of towering ability, and one can only wonder what else he is capable of doing. Hearing him again in Rach 2, which he played with the Adelaide Youth Orchestra in 2014, would be terrific. But think also of Chopin, Grieg, Medtner, Shostakovich, et cetera. After another standing ovation in this concert, the ASO need look no further for its next artist-in-residence. That he happens to be right here in Adelaide makes perfect sense.
Partnering items in this Dreams and Passions program tended to be completely overshadowed, but perhaps this was always going to happen. Magnetite was UK composer Emily Howard’s first orchestral composition to make a mark, and in this Australian premiere it came across as a gripping piece of cleanly drawn lines, sinewy textures and massive tensile strength. Sounding at times almost like electronic music, it is a highly effective concert work. The ASO’s performance was riveting.
Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, in a suite newly edited by Nicholas Carter, was pleasant enough but just not the sort of music to follow on from this. Its unassuming, affectionate beauties needed something altogether more companionable.
Dreams and Passions is the fifth concert in the ASO’s 2021 Symphony Series. It will be performed again tonight (October 8) at the Adelaide Town Hall.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.