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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 2 A London Symphony (1913) [45:54]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 (1830) [39:38]
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1897) [11:46]
Ewa Kupiec (piano)
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Seaman
rec. live, The Arts Centre, Hamer Hall, Melbourne, 6-7 May 2005
ABC CLASSICS 476 8363 [45:54 + 51:26]

The opening of Vaughan Williams’ second symphony starts unpromisingly with an electronic hum in the right channel. Having made sure this wasn’t a problem with my own equipment, and finding it present on the second disc as well, I have to assume this to be a technical fault from the original master. Having noticed it, you can hear it filling the pauses in that serene and beautiful opening, which is so well played by the MSO – a great shame.

Never mind. Like most low-level nasties, this hum is soon drowned out by the orchestra and seems to have disappeared by the end of the first movement. I have come to anticipate a high standard of performance in this series, and this is no exception. The Melbourne orchestra is a powerful and flexible instrument, and wends its way admirably through the dynamic twists and turns of the first movement. The balance is not quite as good as some of the other recordings I’ve heard however, with the strings as good as drowned out by the brass in the loudest of tuttis.

The second Lento movement is eloquently portrayed – the slow, modal progressions anticipating the Tallis Fantasia and violin solos The Lark Ascending. Bustling street activity opens the third movement Scherzo, with robust English quirkiness coloured with subtle, Ravel-like touches of orchestration. The tidal waves of sound which open the final Andante con moto promise a spectacular ending, and indeed the high standard of playing is maintained throughout. This is a performance which can hold its own with the best, and if it only misses the last ounce of monumental solidity from Previn or sonic refinement from Hickox or Handley, then it certainly wins out over the now rather dated sounding Boult recordings.

There is no shortage of Chopin concerto recordings on the market, and having been spoilt with the likes of Pires and Argerich the soloist here, Ewa Kupiec, has much to live up to. It is also interesting to hear the MSO function as an accompanist, which they do with a light and capable touch – the occasional dodgy horn entry excepted. Kupiec plays with effortless technique and lyricism, extracting all of the desired Chopinesque poetry and expression from the score. The ‘hum’ is back just in time to provide a little distraction in the beautiful second movement. I especially like the way Kupiec sometimes allows the piano to sink almost into the texture of the orchestra, permitting herself a true pianissimo instead of the usual pianissimo (solo) which usually just amounts to a boring old mp. The Rondo finale is suitably lively and true to its Vivace marking – a very enjoyable account.

Our old friend the right-channel hum is back to infect the atmospheric opening of Dukas’ famous ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’. The MSO brass comes into its own here, snarling and vituperative from the outset. Christopher Seaman’s tempi are good – neither too stodgy for lively vibrancy or too harum-scarum for the detail in the orchestration to come through. The winds are good too, and I love that unctuously leathery contrabassoon sound. With the orchestra in full flight there is however that slight imbalance to the disadvantage of the strings which I noticed in the Vaughan Williams.

This is a worthwhile and entertaining issue. Live performances are almost always to be welcomed in my view, and the whole ‘MSO Live’ series provides us with some potent glimpses into some of the world class music-making which goes on in Australia. It’s a shame about that electronic fault, but don’t let it put you off too much – it has no more effect than the occasional cough in these vivid and memorable performances.

Dominy Clements



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