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Prom 52 - Richard Strauss Ravel and Scriabin: Hélène Grimaud (piano), Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Royal Albert Hall, London, 24.8.2010 (BBr)

Richard Strauss:
Der Rosenkavalier – suite (1909/1910) (arrangement attributed to Artur Rodzinski (1945))

Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major (1930/1931)

Scriabin: Symphony No.3 in C major, 'The Divine Poem, op.43 (1903)

On 18th August, the Sydney Symphony gave a Farewell Concert in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, prior to its European Tour. The radio announcer, Damien Beaumont, told the listening audience about it, mentioning the three Australian works the orchestra was taking with it – Peter Sculthorpe’s Memento mori (a deeply felt threnody), Ross Edwards’s Maninyas (a highly coloured, and evocative, Violin Concerto, which Dene Olding the  Sydney Symphony Orchestra's leader has in his repertoire) and a new work from Matthew Hindson. Beaumont made the comment that the local band was taking Australian music out to the world. And so it should, just as British orchestras should take home grown material with them when they go on tour. But with this in mind,  one does wonder why the Edinburgh Festival is the only tour date which will include the Australian works. This isn’t taking Australian works to the world, it’s taking Australian works to the Scottish capital. Why have we not been allowed to hear this music? Any of the named pieces would have been most welcome tonight – and if a Proms audience won’t welcome new works, which audience will? The programme planners have let down Sculthorpe, Edwards and Hindson, not to mention Australia, and that is shameful.

So this concert got underway with a Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, and not a particularly good compilation at that. Yes, it’s bright and pleasing but, even with the great waltz given a prominent place, there’s nothing much to it. The performance too  seemed fairly uninteresting. The Ravel Concerto began in a most peculiar way. The work starts with a whip crack on the second beat of the bar and, at the same time, the piano immediately commences a rippling effect. At the start of the second bar the piccolo gives the main theme. Tonight, we had the whip crack, then silence, then the music started at the second bar -  a beat of music was somehow removed! I have checked this with the BBC’s archived recording and it definitely happened. So was this an error?  I did wonder if Ashkenazy had made an incorrect gesture and the percussionist jumped the gun, but this wouldn’t explain the beat of music being missed -  or, more likely, was it that Hélène Grimaud simply missed her cue?  Or was it  a deliberate removal of the music? A small point, perhaps, but it was disturbing. After this I felt that the performers weren’t totally engaged in the work.The outer movements simply didn’t sparkle as they should, although the gorgeous oasis of calm and sanity, which is the slow movement, wove its magical spell, even if Grimaud failed to penetrate the music's passionate heart.

What has been interesting -  hearing the two Scriabin Symphonies this season  - is just how conservative, and, indeed, old fashioned, the music is, when compared to both Le Poème de l'extase and the later Prometheus. The 3rd Symphony, subtitled The Divine Poem, is supposed to portray the cosmic dance between the human spirit and the cosmos. It’s very hard to hear this when the music veers between huge gobbets of Glazunov and a very Western idea of what symphonic music is about. There were also many occasions when the music reminded me of one of Glazunov’s later pupils – Dmitri Tiomkin. This was a very well thought out performance, full of the histrionics, and the big gestures, of which are many of them in this work and all were well realised.

As an encore Ashkenazy and his players gave a superbly moulded account of Elgar’s Salut d’amour apart from one grossly miscalculated rallentando near the opening although one would have welcomed Graeme Koehne’s Powerhouse, rhumba for orchestra, or Sculthorpe’s Sun Music III just to keep the Australian flag flying a little.

You’d be right to think that I am disappointed with this concert. It’s not because of the performance, but because of the lack of Australian music. When the Sydney Symphony last visited the Proms (30th August 1995) we were given a fabulous performance of Richard Meale’s Very High Kings. We deserved something of that calibre tonight.

Bob Briggs

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