PRAGUE CHAMBER ORCHESTRA
Perth Concert Hall/Octagon Theatre
reviewed by Neville Cohn
As we’re often told in newspaper, radio and TV advertisements, the homegrown product is often superior in quality to the imported variety.
This was very much the case when considering the relative merits of the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Prague Chamber Orchestra, both of which featured in the 2004 Perth International Arts Festival.
Consider the ACO. Listened to in the air-conditioned comfort of Perth Concert Hall, which made this splendidly refurbished venue and its near-perfect acoustics all the more welcoming after a savagely hot and humid day, the Australian Chamber Orchestra staked yet another claim – quite irrefutable in my view – to be recognised and acknowledged as the nation’s foremost chamber orchestra and a major player on the world stage.
From the cluster of microphones suspended above the ACO, it could be presumed that its performance was being recorded. I very much hope that this was the case because, in decades of listening to live performances, I cannot recall a more satisfying account of Haydn’s Symphony No 49, know as the Passione.
Not the least of the pleasures of listening to the ACO is the precision of its intonation. Tuning backstage before making its entrance, the ACO is invariably spot-on, pitch-wise. This, in turn, enhances one of the ACO’s other strong points which is the care it lavishes on phrase-shaping. And the uniformity of tonal sheen in string playing was yet another fine feature of the performance.
Literally from bar one, this meticulous attention to moulding the various instrumental lines, and the resulting quality of harmonic tissue, yielded listening dividends of the most satisfying sort, not least in relation to beautifully realised tonal light and shade that added significantly to the tension generated in the opening Adagio. And how splendidly the second movement took off with its bracing attack and follow-through that did not so much attract the attention as seize it.
Horns and oboes were unfailingly stylish in the third movement. And in the finale, the joie de vivre with which these youthful players embraced the music, offered at an
unfaltering pace, thoroughly warranted the gales of applause that greeted its conclusion.
As always, Richard Tognetti kept the performance on track with the utmost economy of gesture. Certainly, with this intense focus on the minutiae of presentation together with an ability to present the ‘big picture’, as it were, yielded phenomenal listening dividends. And for this critic, in the presence of such musical distinction, there was little to do other than to sit back while acknowledging artistry of the highest order.
Emma-Jane Murphy, who has had a long association as principal cellist with the ACO, made a rare appearance as soloist in Tchaikowsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme.
In the accommodating acoustics of the Concert Hall, the Prague Chamber Orchestra, playing in ensemble with the Australian Intervarsity Choral Societies Association and four vocal soloists, seldom sounded less than adequate in Dvorak’s Stabat Mater. But in the far more unforgiving, dry acoustic of the Octagon Theatre, the PCO fared significantly less well.
Because of an acoustic that robbed string tone of much of its bloom (an effect made the more obvious when listened to from as close to the stage as the fourth row), small lapses in intonation and ensemble became glaringly obvious. And with little lift to the phrase as well as a tendency to clip phrase ends made this all-Mozart program a less than satisfying listening experience.
Prague, of course, was the city which, more than two hundred years ago, hosted the world premiere of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. So there had been an added frisson of anticipation as the PCO launched into this curtain-raiser. Sadly, the players’ presentation of the overture faltered on a number of grounds, not least due to an unwanted raspiness as bows bit strings.
At a performance, only days earlier of Messiaen’s dauntingly complex Harawi, there was a phenomenal display of musicianship and musicality on the part of French pianist Cedric Tiberghien. He faced another great challenge in Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A, K414, a challenge fully risen to only from the beginning of the cadenza of the slow movement.
Although, up to that point, he had brought notational accuracy and clarity to the piano part, Tiberghien’s playing on this occasion lacked that elusive X factor, difficult to define but instantly recognisable when it manifests itself, that had made his Messiaen offering such magical listening.
Trills were not quite evenly spun, the opening Allegro’s mood of blithness was not compellingly evoked, there was more than a little bass-register humming along on the part of the soloist – and that dreaded acoustic again ensured that some of the gloss was removed from the tone Tiberghien generated at the keyboard of a Steinway which would surely have sounded more satisfying in a more acoustically sympathetic environment.
But, after his retrieval of the initiative towards the close of the Andante, Tiberghien gave us playing that, notwithstanding extraneous features over which he could have had no control, was stylistically convincing and commendably expressive.
Listening to Mozart’s Symphony No 40 in G minor from the rear of the hall was a happier experience compared to what had earlier been heard from close up. The Octagon’s acoustical dryness sounded less ferocious from that vantage point. But one longed for rather more elegance to the shaping and tapering of phrases and a more uniform tonal sheen, especially on the part of the higher strings in the slow movement. Certainly, more might have been made of the serene and melancholy theme that makes this one of Mozart’s most beguiling essays in tranquillity. There was robust treatment of the minuet and the woodwinds (which had sounded unattractively blurred from close up in the Don Giovanni overture) came up trumps in the trio section of the minuet. And in the finale, the grittiness of string sound worked to the advantage of the performance, enhanced by strong, even fierce, rhythmic emphases.