★★★½☆ A masterful seascape bookended by two youthful works.

Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
September 30, 2017

Saturday night’s performance by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was directed by Dutchman Otto Tausk in a programme comprising Stravinsky’s rarely performed Scherzo fantasique, Op. 3 (1908), Debussy’s orchestral masterpiece La Mer (1903-05) and the first Piano Concerto by Brahms in D minor, Op. 15 (1858) with Palestinian-Israeli Saleem Ashkar as soloist.

The Stravinsky is an early work inspired by Maurice Maeterlinck’s essay La Vie des Abeilles (The Life of the Bee) written in 1901. The work is structured in three parts describing a day in the life of a hive of bees. The first and last sections give the workaday impression of an industrious beehive while the central slow section evocatively depicts the nuptial flight as the queen bee leads her mate towards his demise. Sergei Diaghilev attended the first performance and was so impressed by the young composer’s work that the now famous serious of commissions for the Ballets Russes followed soon afterwards. 

This was the MSO’s first performance of the work and it was well carried. The outer movement’s moto perpetuum buzzed away in strings with intricate interjections from brass and woodwind expertly passed across the orchestra. The slower section was introduced by a brief but lovely viola solo (Christopher Moore) leading to a tender extended alto flute solo (Sarah Beggs). Stravinsky’s later ballet Firebird was hinted at before trumpets superbly announced the recapitulation. The luxurious combination of three harps and celeste delighted throughout. A sped-up coda and following descending scales concluded the work. Tausk’s direction was alert, succinct and clear throughout, though his interpretation could have been more scherzo-like, lighter in touch and delicate.

The audience was then transported from matters apiological to oceanic in Debussy’s marvelously detailed and evocative three-sectioned La Mer. Debussy it seems had little real experience with the sea, but the work couldn’t be a finer portrait with its three sections overflowing with orchestral marine imitations from shimmering surface light, the wisp of sea spray, its infinite expanse and depths, through to mighty turbulence. Tausk and the MSO gave a superbly detailed, powerful and well-judged performance of the work. There were some inaccuracies, while the entry of the divisi cellos in Un peu plus mouvementé in De l’aube à midi sur la mer could have been more pronounced and forthright. A highlight was the violins’ harmonics in Dialogue du vent et de la mer with unison flute and oboe solos hovering like sea birds. The conclusion was ecstatic. 

Tausk’s conception for the opening symphonic Maestoso first movement of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto in D minor was dark and broad. The opening with its pedal low D spoke of the deep emotional turmoil Brahms experienced following his friend Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide. Tausk’s one-in-a-bar direction caused some difficulties within the orchestra with untidy articulation, especially in upbeats. Askar’s performance was acutely understood and well prepared with enjoyably clean articulation throughout by way of very little use of sustain pedal. There was however a tendency throughout the whole concerto to pre-empt the first beat of the bar in his playing. The rapt second movement Adagio was again a broad brushstroke affair, with the lovely woodwind duos by bassoons, clarinets and oboes noteworthy. The delicate tracery of the soloist’s material was profoundly poetic. The third movement Rondo: Allegro non troppo also suffered from a mercurial sense of pulse from the soloist, resulting in some occasional ensemble inaccuracies. Though a good performance, of the three works on the programme, the Brahms seemed less fully formed in terms of ensemble rapport and overall orchestral voicing.