Renowned Ukraine-born Australian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk has said of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s music that it is, “a struggle between openness and fragility, between darkness and euphoria, humour and sadness and tragedy and resilience.”

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23, (1875) exemplifies this struggle and it provides a platform for the finest pianists.

Together with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under conductor Douglas Boyd, Gavrylyuk gave a most memorable performance of Tchaikovsky’s concerto, wringing every drop of emotion from its brooding passages. Gavrylyuk himself is engagingly expressive at the piano, as he pours his heart and soul into his work.

Majesty: Alexander Gavrylyuk and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Ben MacMahon

The concerto’s dramatic opening, in which a repeated motif in the horn calls us to attention, is followed by a succession of thundering piano chords that overlay the orchestra’s introduction of the first theme. The piano then takes up and develops that theme.

The balance between the piano and orchestra is crucial here, as the piano asserts its authority. Under Douglas Boyd, the orchestra’s sound was full and rich, and the competition was intense.

Marked Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso — Allegro con spirito, the first movement is characterised by passages of declarative power alternating with moments of thoughtful rumination and exuberant sweetness. The interplay between the piano and orchestra shifts back and forth throughout the first movement.

Gavrylyuk’s playing especially highlighted the volatile character of the cadenza — alternately tranquil, reflective, raging and never settling, the cadenza captures the emotional range and tension of the entire concerto.

In the opening of the Andantino semplice — Prestissimo second movement, a slow, quiet and rhythmic pizzicato beat, like a slowly ticking clock, introduces a calming, gentle flute passage. The piano picks up the slow beat as it develops a conversation with the flute and then the orchestra, with the strings now muted to sound like a singing maternal voice. This passage then gives way to a sprightly dance before slowing again and is ornamented with trilling piano passages.

The theme in the third Allegro con fuoco – Molto meno mosso – Allegro vivo movement is based on a Ukrainian song, again featuring call-and-response between piano and orchestra before reaching the concerto’s tumultuous climax.

For his encore, Gavrylyuk demonstrated the utmost pianistic sensitivity with a rendition of Alexander Scriabin’s gentle Etude in C sharp minor, Op. 2 no. 1, restoring calm after the tempestuous Tchaikovsky.

Majesty: The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Ben MacMahon

Glaswegian Douglas Boyd perhaps has a better understanding of how music might evoke the character of Scotland than many other conductors.

Scottish-themed music bookended this concert, which commenced with prolific Scottish-American composer Thea Musgrave’s Rainbow, a stormily atmospheric thirteen-minute work full of brilliant orchestral colour that evokes the turbid nature of Scotland’s weather and the resulting play of light. Composed in 1990 for the opening of the Royal Concert Hall on commission from the Scottish National Orchestra, this piece might also suggest a fanfare.

The scoring for Rainbow requires a synthesiser, and this instrument combined beautifully with the winds and harp to create a mystical feel. The electronic and acoustic instruments cohered nicely, which is not always the case with such combinations.

Musgrave has said that the last three chords of Rainbow represent the three primary colours, red, yellow and blue, and in the final moments of the work, a passage for harp, synthesiser and wind instruments suggests the welcome emergence of a rainbow after the storm.

Inspired by a visit to Scotland, Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56, MWV N 18, known as the Scottish, was composed between 1829 and 1842. Mendelssohn was particularly inspired by the ruins of Holyrood Chapel and the story of the life and death of Mary, Queen of Scots.

The mournful, somewhat desolate opening of the Andante con moto – Allegro un poco agitato first movement gives way to seductively melodic theme. The delightful clarinet solo in the second Vivace non troppo movement suggests the character of Scottish folk dances, while the gracious opening to the Adagio third movement seems poignantly romantic. In this movement, a theme in the horns then gives way to a powerful orchestral statement that recurs and builds to a crescendo.

In the final Allegro vivacissimo – Allegro maestoso assai movement, the symphony ends with an unusual maestoso coda, whose solemnly triumphal character contrasts with the body of the symphony.

Douglas Boyd had greatly impressed Adelaide audiences with his performance of all Beethoven’s symphonies in 2022. His conducting throughout this concert emphasised orchestral colour and power, leaving the audience with feelings of elation and exhilaration.

For more information on upcoming concerts by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, visit the company website.

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