City Recital Hall, Sydney
May 9, 2018

While French harpist Xavier de Maistre was the headline artist in the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s latest tour, aptly titled The Harpist, this was a wide ranging – if oddly constructed – program full of surprises and hidden treasures.

The two symphonies on the program – Mozart’s Symphony No 20, K133 (written in 1772 when the composer was 17 and between tours to Italy) and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s First Symphony (written after the mature composer took over from his godfather Telemann as music director in Hamburg in 1968 after almost three decades working for Frederick the Great) – were almost two sides of the same coin, and the Brandenburgs, led by Paul Dyer, delivered both with muscular verve.

Xavier de MaistreHarpist Xavier de Maistre. Photo © Steven Godbee

The three declarative chords that opened the Allegro of the Mozart were reflected in CPE Bach’s deconstruction of the same symphonic effect in his First Symphony – the elder composer sounding, as the chords refracted across the sections of the orchestra, far more modern (on the surface, at any rate) to contemporary ears. Melissa Farrow’s lithe-toned flute solos in the second movements of both symphonies were exquisitely crafted, her duet with cello in the Bach particularly fine. The Mozart’s finale saw the strings skittering with foot-to-the-floor energy, though there were moments when the climaxes felt overwrought, while the Presto of the Bach was bustling, the players digging into the quirky figurations.

In the concert’s second half, the orchestra deviated from its standard baroque and classical offerings to dip into some Ravel with the Pavane pour une infante défunte. Written at the turn of the (20th) century, the bands that first played the Pavane would have had a very different sound to those that came in later decades (steel strings were only adopted with gusto from the time of the First World War, when high quality gut strings became harder to obtain), so playing Ravel on gut was by no means inappropriate. The sound created by the Brandenburgs’ in this work was wonderfully hazy and occluded, enhancing the work’s mystery and enchantment, though there were some slightly ragged entries.

But the star of the show was Xavier de Maistre, who joined the orchestra for François-Adrien Boieldieu’s Harp Concerto in the first half. The composer dubbed ‘the French Mozart’ was better known for his operas, but when he moved to Paris in 1795 at the age of 20 (and in the midst of revolution) he roomed with piano and harp maker Sebastian Erard – so he knew what he was doing. The opening movement was bright and sunny, De Maistre’s harp introduced by a fanfare of oboe and horn. De Maistre’s playing was colourful and shapely, his upper register a quiet twinkle against the sensitive orchestra, a tonal contrast from the more assertive, percussive fortes. But the highlight of this work was the beautiful and dramatic, aria-like second movement, its cadenza cascading into the finale.

Following the Ravel in the second half of the concert, the entire stage had to be reset for a final bracket of solo pieces performed by Maistre in a kind of extended encore, fine performances offsetting what was a rather awkwardly structured concert. De Falla’s Spanish Dance from La Vida Breve and Francisco Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra saw De Maistre’s harp evoke the music of guitar – mellow and resonant in the De Falla but punctuated by rougher guitar-strums, then shimmering delicately in the Tárrega, the harp’s tone rounder and more luminous than that of the guitar.

Capping off the program – before The Carnival of Venice encore – was an arrangement of Smetana’s surging Moldau. While the orchestra’s warm depth of colour and rushing power was lost in this version for solo harp, what remained was spidery, crystalline detail, the contours of the Czech river traced by De Maistre’s dextrous fingers, like a river of glittering ice.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra presents The Harpist again at City Recital Hall May 11, Melbourne Recital Centre May 12 – 13 and Brisbane’s QPAC May 15