Dancing With the Orchestra was the title of this programme, and it proved appropriate in the two orchestral works. Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galanta is a popular piece in a Hungarian dance form of contrasting slow and fast sections, with an important role for the clarinet (smoothly played here, presumably by guest musician Alexander Morris). The piece is also packed with themes, one of which bears a strong resemblance to the 1960s hit “More” (the theme from the film Mondo Cane), although Kodály’s theme predates it by thirty years. James Gaffigan, the visiting American conductor, found a danceable rhythmic pulse, even in the lyrical sections. It was a beautifully moulded performance, allowing the orchestra to show off the felicities of the composer’s orchestration.
This applies even more strongly to Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, composed in 1940 for the Philadelphia Orchestra. This was the last of the expatriate Russian’s three great late works (the others being the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the Symphony No 3), although they were not entirely appreciated at the time. In America, Rachmaninov was regarded exclusively as a concert pianist; as a composer he was dismissed as old fashioned. The piquancy of his orchestral palette and the almost tangible shadows that flitter through this work tell a different story. Rachmaninov’s late music was individual, sincere, and even forward-looking: a friend remarked to me, referring to the second movement: “If John Williams (the film composer) decided to write a symphonic waltz, it would sound exactly like this.” Gaffigan’s rubato in that movement was well nigh perfect, and in the long, final movement he reveled in the spooky atmosphere that permeates the melancholy composer’s Dance of Death with its obsessive quotations of the Dies Irae theme. The orchestral strings and brass, so integral to this score, played with unanimity and considerable power.
The main work in the concert’s first half was Bela Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2, composed at much the same time (1938). The soloist, Alina Ibragimova, is a 31-year-old Russian-born virtuoso. She studied at the Yehudi Menuhin School in Britain, and now has an international career. She has made well-regarded recordings of music by Bach, Szymanowski, Ravel, Ysaÿe, and the complete Violin Sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven. The challenging difficulties of Bartók’s concerto hold no terrors for her. She threw herself into it with complete commitment, producing moments of excitement and lyrical purity.
I have heard this work called the greatest violin concerto of the 20th century but, frankly, I have always found the piece impossible to love. It seems to contain obstinately unmemorable themes in a randomly episodic structure, with a rambling final movement that gives no hint of ever coming to a close. In spite of Ibragimova and Gaffigan’s advocacy, the music failed to touch me. The performance was admirable, and Ibragimova’s authority unquestionable, but the concerto itself remained a closed book. (For me I suspect it always will be – this is a personal reaction, of course, nothing more.) Give me Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra or Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta any day. And while his music should fit neatly into a programme called Dancing With the Orchestra, just about any work other than the Second Violin Concerto would have been a more apt choice.
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs Dancing with the Orchestra until July 15.