What a treat to have a concert program that was so well-thought out! There are so many programs that really just stuff a couple of vaguely related pieces together and call it a day, close enough is good enough and so on. Here, we had a concert that considered the ebb and flow of the individual pieces, all while drawing some neat thematic parallels between works, too.
The thematic centre for this concert was “music from two salons, one in Chopin’s day and one in Proust’s”. So, that means we’re looking at music from the 1830s or 40s (Bellini, Doppler and Chopin himself), and music from the first few decades of the twentieth century (Roussel, Szymanowski, Debussy and Ravel). This performance was originally slated to have the Queensland Conservatorium’s own Stephen Emmerson playing piano, which I’d have loved to have seen (Emmerson’s incredibly refined sense of phrasing is to die for), but Alex Raineri’s playing is fabulous as well, so no harm done there.
The performance began with Sofia Troncoso (soprano) singing Bellini’s Eccomi in lieta vesta…O quante volte from his opera I Capuleti e I Montecchi, with the beloved Patrick Nolan (flute) taking the obbligato horn part. This was a powerful and dramatic performance from Troncoso, although it was interrupted by a loud electric buzzing noise that became seriously distracting for the audience, and I suspect for the performers as well. More on this later.
Next was Nolan’s performance of Doppler’s Mazurka de Salon, which was judged perfectly. There’s a danger with this kind of rather ‘light’ music that it can tip over into merely frothy or frivolous, but here Nolan brought a lovely sense of airiness to the piece, sensitively accompanied by Raineri. Segueing nicely into Chopin via the Polish connection, Raineri took over for a handful of Chopin’s Preludes Op. 28. Beginning with a Prelude No 20 in C Minor that was rather too slow (it wound up plodding rather than treading forwards), his Prelude No 21 and Prelude No 24 were both terrific – the B-flat had a lovely floating melody over its chromatic accompaniment.
With Troncoso’s return to the stage, came a triple bill of Reynaldo Hahn songs. These were some of the favourites, including the exquisite (and exquisitely sad) L’heure exquise, À Chloris, and L’énamourée. Here, Troncoso shone – her French clear as a bell, her projection powerful and sensitive at the same time.
Flipping from Hahn’s melancholy miniatures, next came Albert Roussel’s Rossignol, mon mignon from his 2 Poeme de Ronsard Op. 26, written for the unusual combination of flute and voice – no piano accompaniment here. This was an absolute gem! I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve seen Roussel’s music performed in Brisbane, let alone a lesser-known Roussel piece. Full of rich and unusual harmonies and textures, this was a highlight.
Maurice Emmanuel’s Au Printemps from his 3 Odelettes anacreontiques Op. 13 saw Raineri rejoining the ensemble. This was a lovely little impressionistic splash of a piece – gorgeous Ravel-esque piano textures beautifully supported both Troncoso and Nolan.
Raineri took a couple of solos from Szymanowski’s Op. 1 Preludes. I have to admit I wasn’t aware of these works beforehand, but they’re wonderful little pieces, intense snapshots of rich early-twentieth-century harmony.
Next came Nolan’s performance of Debussy’s famous Syrinx for solo flute. This is one of those pieces that’s been played so often that it can be hard to hear with fresh ears, but Nolan’s playing was nonetheless incredibly evocative; the audience was holding their collective breath throughout, letting Nolan’s flute drift easily across the hall. Nolan’s status as a central part of the Queensland wind community was clear here, too, with a massive cheer erupting as a he took a bow.
Debussy’s three Chansons de Bilitis provided a nice link from the previous piece, with the first piece even called La flûte de Pan! These are stunning songs, and I think Troncoso’s performance suited them perfectly – again, her French diction is superb, and the sheer power in her singing sublime. The loud hum returned during the first song, and the mystery was solved – one poor dear’s hearing aid was reacting at top volume, but a subtle hand sign from Troncoso sent a Musica Viva staff member over and the issue was neatly resolved.
The last piece on the program was Ravel’s La flûte enchantée from Shéhérazade (lovely and light, with gentle accompaniment from Raineri) before the encore of Léo Delibes’ Le rossignol for the trio. With an entertainingly dramatic cadenza duet between flute and voice in the centre of the piece, this was a fine ending to a perfectly planned concert. A real treat to see a performance that’s so well-planned, and which feels as if the audience has been taken on a journey. Top-notch.