Ewa Kupiec (piano)

W.A.Symphony Orchestra

Perth Concert Hall

reviewed by Neville Cohn

WASO performances usually start on time. Friday – the 13th! – was an exception, and understandably so, with many concertgoers and orchestra players south of the river having problems getting to the Concert Hall after a burst main pipe caused havoc and umpteen missed appointments with motorists banked up for kilometres on Kwinana Freeway. It was well worth the wait, though, for one of the year’s most formidably challenging programs.

Vladimir Verbitsky presided over an often thrilling account of Prokofiev’s cantata Alexander Nevsky, one of Russia’s great military figures who, in 1242, led a small army that routed invading Teutonic knights. Sergei Eisenstein, the famed Russian movie director, immortalised that event on celluloid almost 700 years later. Prokofiev wrote the movie score, later re-working it for concert use – and that is what we heard on Friday.

In a stunning account by the WASO and WASO Chorus, the latter sang with consistent musicality and attractive tonal colourings that could hardly have been bettered. Tenors were in splendid form. So, too, was the brass choir, impressive at massive climaxes; lower strings produced a uniformly dark tonal sheen. The percussionists, too, were on their toes in the section depicting the battle on an ice-covered lake. Here, Verbitsky, clearly in his element, secured a dramatic response that inflamed the imagination. And mezzo Elizabeth Campbell did well as the peasant girl lamenting the Russian dead.

More splendour was provided by Ewa Kupiec in the first Perth performance of Lutoslawski’s PIano Concerto, a work which despite its recent vintage (1988), looks back almost as much as it does forward. Very early in the work, we hear measures that irresistibly remind one of Bartok’s trademark ‘night music’ with its scurryings and sqeaks, there are fleeting obeisances to Stravinsky as well as allusions to Rachmaninov’s schmaltzy romanticisim. There are some arid moments, too, where the music chatters away without saying very much.

It’s a daunting challenge for the soloist and Ewa Kupiec made an impressively authoritative way through this fearsomely demanding obstacle course with a digital agility and staying power that mark her as a pianist of the first rank.

Whether executing little miracles of nimbleness in the high treble register or summoning up massive waves of sound, Kupiec was convincingly in control.

Verbitsky also presided over Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead in a way that brought the composer’s brooding, sombre work memorably to life, if one could use such a word for a

symphonic utterance so uncompromisingly focussed on death. From its initial rocking motif until its closing moments, the WASO was very much on its collective toes with horns and trombones, in particular, making a contribution of sterling worth, underscoring, as they did, the gut- wrenching intensity of much of the writing.

This was only the second time that The Isle of the Dead has been programmed by the WASO.

© 2005 Neville Cohn


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