Starting its 2016 activities, the city’s leading chamber orchestra eased its patrons into a kind of contentment, a slippers-and-whisky mode with a diet of firm favourites and comfortable listening. The main works came from Mozart, two of the incomparable masterpieces of Western music: his Symphony No. 40 in G minor, and the Clarinet Concerto from the last months of the composer’s life. The MCO’s artistic director, William Hennessy, controlled the readings from his usual concertmaster position, while the soloist for the concerto was David Griffiths, familiar to concert-goers from his work in the always-fresh Ensemble Liaison.
As leavening for these repertoire pillars, harpist Melina van Leeuwen took centre stage for two French works that typify her instrument’s repertoire as most of us know it: Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro requiring also flute, clarinet and string quartet, and Debussy’s Danse sacree et danse profane which have the soloist supported by a string orchestra. Perhaps these were not the most original works to program but they made amiable enough contrasts with the afternoon’s Mozart content. Neither presented van Leeuwen with obvious problems, her generously spaced, ornately complex arpeggios at the opening to the Ravel work a promise of the fluency that she brought to the score’s major segment.
Not that the performance was blemish-free; the opening brief wind duet in thirds (Griffiths and an unknown flautist – I had no program) came over as uneasy, a sort of feeling-your-way that is made a more exact experience by a central conductor. Further, the piece gains a good deal more weight if, as on this occasion, a string orchestra is employed – if that added heft is what you want. Not that the composer had any problems with other musicians’ re-shapings of this piece but restricting the forces to a string quartet gives the more active stretches of the Allegro an agreeably febrile quality that a group three times that size smooths away.
Later, the Debussy test-piece enjoyed a fine airing, its open textures cleanly carried off in the mode-infested first half string writing while van Leeuwen gave full voice to the sacred dance’s rich two-hand chords. After the stately, hieratic suggestions of this opening set of pages, it always seems a comic relief when the D Major waltz marks out Debussy’s entry into the secular world that the second dance intends to represent. This section is far more colourful for the soloist with a wide range of technical requirements and a rapid alternation between various techniques of sound production. But van Leeuwen kept the interpretative tenor on an even keel, the details of harmonics and appoggiaturas coming across without unsettling stress, and the various ritenuto/a tempo changes handled with aplomb.
For the G minor symphony, Hennessy kept to an orthodox path; no abrupt tempo shocks, the dynamic shifts in keeping with the run of the score rather than an imposition of interpretative temperament, the all-important string complex working with dedication through these well-travelled pages. The director was also lucky with his wind back-line, the horn duo a touch over-prominent but accurate. If we didn’t learn much new about this score, we experienced a reassurance of sorts in the experience of its outer movements’ unforgettable restless determination. Some might have preferred to hear one of the earlier symphonies – a Haffner or a Linz, a Paris, even No. 33 in B flat that I don’t think many of us would have heard live – but there is also a school of belief that you can never get enough of this work; certainly, those patrons near me were more than pleased with the experience.
Griffiths is a veteran with this concerto; Sunday must have been the third or fourth time I was hearing his interpretation and it has always given an invigorating pleasure. The emphasis is not on the mellow and smooth but more concerned with both expressiveness and a restrained jauntiness. Rather than barnstorming through the first movement, this musician holds back on the wallowing chalumeau texture and aims for subtlety of dynamic, including some improbably soft cadential passages, moments where the player takes risks in production as his output approaches inaudibility. And while the central Adagio came over with admirably simple phrase-shaping and a welcome emotional reserve, the final Rondo impressed for its good-humoured bounce, bringing out the composer’s open-hearted humanity with great persuasiveness; even the scale-rich passage-work illustrated with the closest thing music gets to aristocratic wit. Here was a performance to treasure.
This program will be repeated at 7:30 pm on Friday March 11 in the Deakin Edge, Federation Square; a space that seats less than half of the Recital Centre’s Murdoch Hall. Given this quality of playing and the program’s appeal, the place should be packed.