Melbourne Chamber Orchestra
Melbourne Recital Centre
Sunday August 14
Nothing but Mozart in this latest subscription series concert. Well, almost; somewhere along the way, Australian writer Nicholas Buc’s new Shadow Dances put in a brief and not too painful appearance, even if the pacy score stuck out in this context like an intellectual in the current Senate. But artistic director of the MCO, William Hennessy, was obviously relishing his Mozartian commitment as he led his young musicians through the Serenata Notturna, the Symphony No. 29 in A, and supported David Fung in two early Piano Concertos: No. 11 in F Major and No. 14 in E flat.
Opening with the serenade, Hennessy took on mini-Orchestra 1 duties with Courtenay Cleary, viola Merewyn Bramble and double bass Emma Sullivan. The performance of the first two movements proved exemplary: balanced in phrasing and attack, well-organized dynamically and infused with the welcome sense of a unified ensemble at work. In the final multi-sectioned Rondo, Hennessy allowed his group a certain amount of licence in tempo torques, but not to the self-indulgent extent that other ensembles go in for. More to the point, the MCO players were well prepared for the alterations. What I (eventually) missed were the timpani that should form part of the work’s sound complex. Yes, the part is not an exciting one and any tyro could perform it at sight, but it does add an edge to the outer movements, especially in the pizzicato bars 5-6 and 11-12 of the opening march’s second part, which is where I first noticed that the drum sound was absent.
Buc’s piece followed, a bagatelle that began as an active Latin-American dance with lots of snap and bounding action. The work moved from tango to tango, as far as I could tell; the promised detours to different dance beats and major/minor contrasts passed me by, mainly because I was expecting the changes of pace to be more marked, more obvious to distinguish. Then, the piece ended before any re-orientation had set in. My fault for trying to over-analyse a happy frippery whose function was primarily to entertain.
David Fung gave an incisive reading of the F Major Concerto, a work you would be lucky to hear once in a double-decade. His Mozart is no limpid aristocrat but a vital, even prickly individual with a turn for the idiosyncratic, like the Beethoven-heavy left-hand chords for the soloist that come out of nowhere in bars 82 and 86 of the first Allegro, and the oddly unsettling shape of the first two phrases of the Larghetto‘s main theme. Fung made interesting work of each paragraph, notably in the solidly argued initial movement but what impressed most was his fusion with the MCO; he’s an ideal soloist in his awareness of where he fits in to a concerto’s framework, which made his merging into the score’s activity after tutti passages and cadenzas a model of responsibility.
Even better came with the E flat work; but then, it’s more engaging in its material. Fung raised the aggression level slightly so that his initial entries came across with energizing brio. Still, his legato passage work proved admirable – evenly paced and set out with care for its crescendo/diminuendo potential – and throughout this and the preceding work his ornamentation was worked into the fabric with a sensibility that would have done credit to a player many years his senior. Of special note was Fung’s account of the first movement cadenza – Mozart’s own? – where the brusque power of the preceding development came into a kind of heightened focus. Across the whole work, Fung displayed an authority and decisiveness that made even the main body of the four-square finale a feast of elegantly contoured articulation.
Hennessy’s account of the splendid symphony was all the more welcome for the absence of first-half repeats in the outer movements and the Andante; yes, there is much to be said for the formal and spatial balance these provide, but they seem unnecessary in a work as well-ploughed as this one. The MCO strings made a fine showing here, even if the body could have done with another viola to reinforce Bramble and her solitary colleague. But a significant distraction here – and in the concertos, for that matter – came from the two horns who were positioned very close to the Murdoch Hall’s back wall and who performed with resonant gusto, more than suited many pages of this music, especially as much of their content is reinforcement, not real and intended dynamic prominence as in bars 171-2 of the K. 201’s concluding Allegro.