Back in Sydney, and back to the Brandenburgs last night, for a concert with violinist Shunske Sato as guest director and soloist, in a program which took the band out of their home territory and into the lush sounds of the nineteenth-century.
Sort of. In fact, it was lush sounds filtered through period instruments, period sounds filtered through a romantic sensibility, and a romantic-sized orchestra making up the numbers. Take Grieg’s Holberg Suite, for example, a late-nineteenth century pastiche of an imagined eighteenth-century sound, played by twenty-first century artists on seventeenth-century instruments. Talk about time travelling!
In the end, this was a very personal — idiosyncratic, even — performance. With Sato directing, it turned into an exercise in boundary pushing which, for me, sometimes hit and sometimes missed. Tempi were extreme. Fast movements were not just allegro vivace or con brio, but prestissimo, as fast as possible, and sometimes faster. It was exciting but the notes raced past in a blur. Slow movements were expansive, delicious, indulgent, but sometimes lingering over the lyricism to that point that they only just avoided stalling in mid-air. And that cheeky little catch of breath before a phrase return, that ‘wait for it, wait for it…’ worked brilliantly the first time, but its impact faded with repetition, like an over-worked punchline.
I’m going in hard here, and I’m aware that it’s at least partly because, for my sins, I know Grieg’s string writing back-to-front and upside-down. This was a highly original, and even risky, performance and, as I might have said before, I’m all for taking risks. So bring on the rubato, rock that voluptuous portamento, take things as far as they can go, and then maybe a little bit further. It certainly got my attention, if not my unqualified admiration.
Before the Grieg, we had Mendelssohn-the-Boy-Wonder and the third of his String Symphonies. Back in the musical time machine as a nineteenth-century twelve year old remodelled an eighteenth-century format. With Sato at the helm the Brandenburg’s string sound was distinctly different: less hard edges, more elision, minimal vibrato. He launched into the first movement at a cracking speed, and the band were up for for it, matching their rhythm and articulation with thrilling sense of ensemble. Exciting stuff.
Paganini inhabits a strange place in classical music because, as we all know, he was basically a freak. A freak, a showman, a shyster, all rolled into one big bundle of superhuman talent. Not such a bad fit, then, for the Brandenburg Orchestra, with the right frontman, and last night we had two. Sato romped through the fourth Violin Concerto, making it sound terrifying and thrilling simultaneously. Not to be outdone, Paul Dyer directed a supersize orchestra, kept up with the soloist and played the triangle. It was quite a show, and brilliantly done by all on stage. (Special mention to the trombones and trumpets). The only disappointment was that Sato declined the audience’s vociferous requests for an encore. By this time, we knew he could do anything. Anything. Maybe a wafer-thin caprice? Pretty please?
But no. In true showman style, he left us wanting more. Let’s hope he’s back soon.