Over the top, down the other side


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday September 10, 2016


                                                                                      Shunsuke Sato

A simple enough program – three works from the Romantic period, so to speak – but the realization was disappointing, to say the least.   Guest violinist/director Shunsuke Sato began his concert with the ABO as though he were directing Il Giardino Armonico in Vivaldi – rushes and retentions, louds abruptly juxtaposed with softs, bite and sweetness mixed in after each other.  But where the Venetian master profits by a passive/aggressive chameleonic approach, Mendelssohn quite simply doesn’t.   Neither does the Grieg of the Holberg Suite.   I’m not that convinced that the Grieg of the Slatter does, either, but that’s a story for another day.

Sato took the leader’s role in the Mendelssohn String Symphony No. 3: one of those transparent adolescent pieces of exemplary craftsmanship that the composer completed as homework for his teacher, Carl Zelter.   The initial Allegro has a quasi-fugal shape, including plenty of imitative work for the two violin bodies.   In this performance, the firsts ruled, led from the front with a vehemence that would have amazed the composer, if not appalled him.   From the opening bars on, fluency was out the door, replaced by a welter of swoops and surges, massive dollops of ferment followed by sudden vaults back to murmuring softness.   The central Andante suffered less from this push-me-pull-you approach but the final movement made a reversion to the initial aural juggernaut.

It could have been dazzling, but with another piece – one less formally lucid and free from the strait-laced directness, without a wasted note, that this short score displays.  You were left wondering what this sprucing-up was meant to achieve.  Frissons of shock for the musically bourgeois?   A re-appraisal of the 12-year-old’s emotional depth?  A desire to set the mood for this entertainment?  The effect was of a muddle, as though the original clear lines had been thrown into disarray;  the ABO strings carried out their roles with enthusiasm, but the small symphony’s rationale as a demonstration of lessons learned was obliterated by this look-at-me approach.

The personnel numbers for both the symphony and Grieg’s suite – 6,6,4,4,2 – were sufficient for the task, if the second violins made a subsidiary force most of the time, positioned on the right side of the stage so that their instruments faced the back wall.  Yet with the whole group in full cry, you were hard pressed to point to many moments of clarity. The Grieg Prelude was overplayed, given too much heft for its congenial buzzing stream of semiquavers; the following Sarabande showed that, in Sato’s interpretative world, the portamento is alive and well, as is the disturbingly long pregnant pause.   In the Gavotte pages, the Musette emerged as a welcome oasis: regular in metre, sprightly in its phrasing, gaining much by not encouraging extra weight in the drone bass.  For the Air, Sato led from the front, urging his forces on with what sounded like impatience, at points ahead of his firsts cohort who responded quickly enough but appeared to be taken by surprise at their director’s rubato.

Sato’s duets with Monique O’Dea‘s viola punctuating the Rigaudon came across with the necessary vitality, if the lower voice sounded somewhat muffled, but the full-orchestra passages were heavy-handed.   Still, this weight exertion had been a consistent feature of the whole interpretation, particularly at cadence points – both half-way marks and concluding bars – where the ritenuti were laboured to an irritating point time after time.

Saturday evening’s second half was dedicated to the Paganini Violin Concerto No. 4 in D minor.   Sato’s distinction in this repertoire is that he plays on gut strings, thus following the period requirement and giving you a sound that the composer himself would have produced.   The ABO’s artistic director, Paul Dyer, conducted an orchestra with a full complement of brass, woodwind and two percussionists on timpani and bass drum; Dyer rather awkwardly took over the function of triangle player for the third movement Rondo.

You could find certain aspects to admire in Sato’s reading of this work.  The high melodic lines on his E string carried ringingly throughout; the more concordant double-stops, as at Letter B of the first movement, proved to be authoritative and true; ditto the tenths that first appeared 7 bars further on; another purple patch followed after Letter D.   The more chromatic passages in thirds failed to impress for purity of articulation; ditto some of the octave and saltato work; but then the entire section in 6/8 proved remarkably fine.   This oscillation between the excellent and the fair enough continued for much of the opening Allegro, capped by a cadenza of unknown provenance and some vulgarity.

By eschewing the delights of metal strings, Sato also missed out on the strikingly brilliant passage work characteristic of the Accardo, Ricci, and even the early Grumiaux recordings where the rapid-fire technique-taxing passages make an indelible impact, not to mention the harmonics interludes which in Sato’s performance were pretty faint by the time they reached the back of the Murdoch Hall.

The central Adagio enjoyed a sympathetic airing, but then it’s a close-to-uninterrupted lyrical gift for the soloist after the introductory 16 bars and there is little wriggle-room except to play it as written.    As for the galant finale, Sato enjoyed his work right up to the last theme statement at Letter M; I must confess to being relieved to reach the finish. The technical display was satisfying to watch, especially when it succeeded fully, but you missed any sense of bouncy jauntiness, any personality; the movement was a sustained effort in display.

Now, it would be foolish to expect no emphasis on physical execution in a Paganini concerto; the greatest violinist ever had no compunction about setting himself ridiculously difficult hurdles to overcome and his reputation depended greatly on his genius at making the violin do the apparently impossible.   For all that, Paganini was a serious composer and a work like this D minor concerto is formally exact, developed in perfectly orthodox manner and, if the soloist occupies the greatest focus of the limelight, that’s integral to the piece.   Yet it has to be negotiated carefully, with consideration that its demands don’t twist its shape.   Sato’s treatment occasionally took metrical liberties as he gave himself plenty of space to leap into a problem, then also took his time over a piece of lush lyricism.

Dyer’s orchestra was overblown to an almost painful point in the tuttis, the brass and percussion combination taking over at all the loudest moments, the three trombones over-encouraged to a ludicrous degree; in fact, the strings needed to be at least double in number – and a bit more – to offer any balance to the mix.   The conductor made an active figure, gesturing voluminously at any group or individual who had the main melody, bouncing from leg to leg in the Rondo, sharing a laugh with the audience at a Harpo Marx moment in one of the cadenzas.   I think it’s fair to say that, if you’re in charge of the orchestra in a Paganini concerto, you’re really a cipher; the soloist gets, and deserves, all the attention.   The conductor’s job is to spearhead the full orchestra interludes – and they play themselves – but mainly to keep the soloist’s accompaniment supple, following his/her lead and, above all, staying in the background. Like a surgeon, your first duty is to do no harm.

Sorry, but I came away from this night dissatisfied, unhappy with the interpretations offered of all three program constituents, wishing that the orchestra had stuck to its Baroque last rather than making forays into a period currently outside its expertise.