★★★★☆ A knock-out Brahms shares the bill with a double dose of Shakespearian innovation.

Hamer Hall, Melbourne
June 25, 2016

Brahms’ violin concerto can definitely be counted among the most technically challenging in existence. From the soloist’s first erupting arpeggio, that rockets from the depths of the G-string to the upper stratosphere of the instrument in the blink of an eye, there are very few virtuoso pyrotechnics this piece doesn’t call for. It’s also one of the most performed of the violin concerti canon; a litmus test of sorts for a particular performer’s skill. This bodes very well for Israeli-Ukrainian violinist Vadim Gluzman, who delivered an extraordinarily assured account with the MSO, under the baton of chief conductor Sir Andrew Davis.

Gluzman is the perfect balance between confident showman and reserved perfectionist, radiating both a quiet, sincere charisma and a wonderfully unselfconscious reverence for the music. Much like Gluzman himself, the tone of his playing is an interesting cultural hybrid. There’s the presence of a quintessentially Russian hard-edged bite, not dissimilar to David Oistrakh, softened by the luxuriant lyricism and capriciousness of the great Jewish virtuosi, like the playing of his mentor, Isaac Stern. Also similar to Stern is Gluzman’s relaxed tempi in this concerto, although this is in no way a criticism. Less haste, particularly in the first movement, offered a greater degree of stately gravitas to contrast the tenderness of this Romantic masterpiece. As for the orchestra, their support was extremely sensitive, perhaps to a fault. Gluzman is capable of extracting a tremendously powerful tone, and a slightly greater degree of conflict between the orchestral swathe and the urgent, blissful expressiveness of the violin line may have yielded an even more thrilling result.

On the billing in addition to this familiar favourite, a lesser known gem and a new discovery. James Ledger’s Hollow Kings, commissioned by the MSO to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death this year, offered a quartet of musical portraits of the Bard’s tortured monarchs. It’s no shame that a work prepared to explore more experimental approaches should sometimes miss its mark, and a few of Ledger’s innovations didn’t quite achieve their aim. As a nod to the historical gulf between contemporary life and the four centuries that separate us from Shakespeare, an electric guitar took a prominent position in the orchestral texture as a modern-day Lute substitute. A nifty idea bringing with it some fascinating colours, but often the effect was more B-movie sci-fi than Renaissance 2.0. Overlaid recordings of spoken passages from the soliloquies of Macbeth, Henry VIII, Richard III and King Lear were also a little redundant, spoon-feeding the audience a Shakespearian reference they really didn’t need. Aside from those foibles however, Ledger’s command of the orchestral canvas is impressively accomplished. A mercurial ebb and flow of textures, underpinned by a consciously spatial control of the soundworld as it snaked its way around the orchestra, revealed the mark of a composer who intimately understands the nuanced, shaded possibilities of live performance.

Another Shakespearian link took us from ill-fated Kings to star-crossed lovers. Berlioz’s “dramatic legend” for orchestra and chorus, based on Romeo and Juliet, is not one of the repertoire’s most recognised settings of this narrative, and due to the typically eccentric scale of the prescribed forces, there’s not much call for it on the concert platform. Doing away with the singers altogether, here we were offered a selection of scenes for orchestra providing an abridged account of this tragic romance. Whenever I hear Berlioz’s music performed, at some point I am invariably struck by the astonishing creative defiance of it. The flowing lyricism of the melodies and the curious quirks of the orchestration give a vivid insight into this composer’s restless zeal for invention. This was especially apparent in the Queen Mab scherzo, which glistened with crystalline string harmonics and sparkling harps. This particular Romeo and Juliet may not get too many outings, but in my humble opinion, Berlioz definitely gives Prokofiev a run for his money.

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