Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University
Friday April 23, 2019
One of the great critic’s put-downs I can remember was applied to a prize-winner at the International Chopin Piano Competition. The reviewer wrote, ‘At least most of the notes were there.’ I think this might have been applied to Ashkenazy in 1955, but it could have been anybody in that rarefied, self-regarding world where musicologists rather than performers worry a potential flattened third to death. Still, as opposed to regarding such a comment as negative, it seems to me that the writer was offering praise: it is something when a pianist can get nearly all the notes out, even in a well-worn field like Chopin’s oeuvre.
All of which is a preamble to considering Samuel Choi‘s efforts with the the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 last Friday in a well-attended program from the Queensland Conservatorium Orchestra. In fact, as far as I could tell, Choi managed to get out nearly all the notes and held his own in this work which, in its first half, resembles a series of lightly-accompanied solos and straight-out cadenzas with memorable orchestral links. While the soloist encountered some perilous moments, mainly in the Allegro con fuoco finale, he enjoyed considerable success with the highly exposed Allegro con spirito part of the opening movement. In fact, his only obvious difficulty throughout this long sequence of emotional ups and downs came at about bar 261 when the ante-penultimate and penultimate arpeggiated chords came to inaccurate conclusions.
But for small slips like that, the major part of this movement showed a fine technique at work allied to loads of preparation as in the accuracy of the massive double octave passages that preceded the above-mentioned arpeggios from bar 251 to 259, and later in the thrilling build-up after the main cadenza at bar 611 where the onward drive is irresistible but a nightmare for the soloist, particularly when the triplets arrive in bar 620. And you could find a good deal to admire in Choi’s avoidance of dynamic excess, those mighty opening chords pronounced with confidence, not braggadoccio, and he showed a willingness to take part in segments rather than dominating the output at every point as at the flute doubling at bar 218 and which lasts with other woodwind up to bar 234.
Mind you, the process might have been more successful if the first flute had been more assertive, but only clarinets and bassoons mounted a challenge in this movement, while the brass made their combined mark with as much self-confidence as this corps in most other orchestras does, even if the horns were unexpectedly accurate (which back-handed praise comes from one all too used to student ensembles in Melbourne and Sydney, and hence inclined to be fretful in advance).
Along with Choi’s fine, often well-nuanced reading, the other arresting factor in this concerto’s duration was the quality of the Conservatorium strings. Here was fine ensemble work from a body that responded to conductor Peter Luff with precision and, as far as I could tell, commitment from first desk to the rear echelons. No scraping, no imprudent isolated entries (well, maybe one), no self-regard from anybody but a professional approach from each group – and all carried off without soupy vibrato but a keen responsiveness that ensured exactitude in block chord explosions, like the hammer-blows that interrupted Choi’s double octaves between bars 251 and bar 257.
We heard the first flute en clair announcing the Andantino‘s first melody, before Choi took up the tune over a mild string susurrus, a passage that was probably too restrained from the soloist. Later, his delicacy in the central Allegro vivace showed an insight beyond his years, and he handled pretty cleanly the exposed jerky angularity of the occasional 8-bar solo as well as making a restrained helter-skelter charm in one of the concerto’s most genial passages, from bar 99 to bar 114.
To my mind, Luff’s pace for the finale seemed a touch stolid but it proved comfortable for Choi, which is the only criterion worth considering, after all. You could have asked for more definition in certain odd sections, like the accidentals/acciaccature between bars 29 and 36, but you balance against that the splendid meld from action to lyricism that heralds the movement’s D flat Major second subject. In treating this noble theme after its string statement, Choi arrived at one of his interpretative highlights with an excellent mastery of sustaining a line surrounded by arpeggiated distractions. As expected, the violin entry at 234, rising out of the twitchy, skipping preface, proved an increasingly impressive fabric, an ideal combination of pliant and solid. Choi’s double-octaves solo sounded flawless to me, a show-stopping ‘filled’ fermata before the relieving climax of Tchaikovsky’s Molto meno mosso and the compelling last four bars that I suddenly realised prefigure the same point in Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3; wonderful how these obvious comparisons become clear after about 60 years.
To follow, in this interval-less concert, Luff and his forces gave an eminently respectable airing of Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird Suite. For this work, woodwind and brass forces changed personnel, except for the bass trombone who stayed in situ, alongside an un-named tuba performer; the timpanist also changed. Here, you were more able to appreciate the disciplined input of this band’s five double basses, all low strings making an arresting demonstration of pianissimo playing in the opening six bars. Bassoons and clarinets sounded unusually prominent in the following strophes of Stravinsky’s Introduction, given the feathery light opening with the faintest of bass drum rolls, the whole disturbed only by the clacking of an unfortunately incontinent woman in front of me who decided to take a toilet break between the two programmed works and – of course – came back in late
Even the sforzandi from second violins and violas that introduce the title character came over as crisp as you could wish, while the Variation de l’oiseau de fer, packed with instrumental tachisme, found few faults in this group’s rhythmic balance and that vital ability to attack and retreat on a pinpoint, punctuated by some eloquent outbursts as at Number 17 in my old Boosey and Hawkes score. The Ronde showed us a more forthright flautist and oboist in play, although the whole woodwind group and first horn gave this dance a particularly straight-speaking character, even the small one-bar contributions handled sensibly and without elongating languor.
In the Danse infernale, there’s something of a release for the players who have been doodling impressionistically up till now. The sound was brilliant and velvet-thick in turns (for the latter, Number 15 at the D flat Major key signature change), and the musicians responded with excellent agility to Stravinsky’s sudden piano cut-back at Number 21. Despite the usual brass leisureliness when negotiating the block chord work starting at Number 22, the orchestra kept on track for the gripping accelerando and Piu mosso pages that surge and ebb dynamically until the difficult triplet-rich last bars. It’s not that the work is rhythmically taxing – much worse was to follow in 1911 and 1913 – but the pace is hectic; to the performers’ credit, I couldn’t detect any hesitations or missing threads in the fabric, least of all from the first trombone and his glissandi either side of Number 13 (which, to be honest, I would prefer to do without).
Once again, the strings surprised by their polish in the divisi passage at Number 4 of the Berceuse, the players generating a persuasively lush timbre despite the use of mutes (nearly) all round. But it’s hard to miscalculate in this soothing nocturne during which the brass are given a rest from their labours, in preparation for the excesses of the Final where the composer does a Tchaikovsky and dresses his one theme in multiple guises. This last movement enjoyed full bowing, a powerful trumpet/trombone combination in its central pages, a reliable first horn for the first 8 bars (which came off with minimal stress), but I would have preferred the slashing detached string chords that the composer later employed at the Doppio valore page.
Still, this performance and that of the concerto were of an impressive standard, particularly for an observer steeped in the frailties of student orchestras. In spite of Luff’s imperturbable direction, or more probably because of it, the Conservatorium musicians looked and sounded keenly involved throughout the evening’s work, thoroughly prepared and showing evidence of relishing their encounters with these two repertoire warhorses, written when Tchaikovsky was 34 and Stravinsky 28; harbingers in both cases of the chains of masterpieces to come.