Yan Pascal Tortelier’s charming pairing of Mozart and Franck.

Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall
Friday April 10, 2015

César Franck’s Symphonic Variations (1885) has long been one of my favourite works, ever since I studied it as part of the HSC syllabus in high school. (Do students still study such great pieces of music? I wonder.) It is a miracle of formal thinking, even though it is outwardly rhapsodic. The piano part is more difficult than it seems, since the piece is in the tricky key of F#, but it held no terrors for the French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie. His piano sparkled – the top octaves of the keyboard are used a lot in this work – and his playing of the gentle moments was appropriately introspective and sensitive. The hushed variation of rippling arpeggio figures with pianissimo strings, just before the final section, was beautifully done.

The concert opened with Mozart’s Symphony No 31, K297, subtitled Paris because it was written to impress the denizens of that city. Yan Pascal Tortelier’s approach was more genial than driven. Mozart’s sly humour shone through, especially in the finale, proving that Haydn was not the only Classical composer blessed with a sense of fun. Tortelier coaxed expressive playing and excellent articulation throughout from the strings, violins in particular. (The violin was originally his instrument.) A moment of imprecise ensemble between the strings and winds aside, this was an impressive performance.

Mozart’s Rondo in D, K382, for piano and orchestra opened the second half of the concert. Here Lortie’s unforced pianistic decoration of the simple theme almost suggested he was improvising, in a charming and polished performance.

The major work on the program was Franck’s Symphony, once a regular visitor to the concert hall but not heard often in recent years. Tortelier conducted this 40-minute symphony without a score or a baton, shaping the work’s shifting terrain with patent understanding. Franck, famed in his lifetime as an organist, was accused by his critics of treating the orchestra like an organ, grouping the choirs of brass and winds together as colours rather than spotlighting individual instruments. (The exception is the plaintive cor anglais solo in the symphony’s slow movement.) That criticism may be true, but the full sonorities of Franck’s writing suited the slightly dead acoustic of Sydney Opera House’s Concert Hall. Tortelier achieved a seamless blend­­­ – the lower brass were perfectly integrated into the texture – and again, the expressivity of the strings was a major asset. Overall, an interesting and enjoyable program.     

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