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QSO Plays the Romantics - Review by Scenestr

'Queensland Symphony Orchestra Plays the Romantics': the title alone creates a sense of anticipation for sweeping lyrical melodies, furious bowing of strings, and more than the usual emphasis on wind and brass. Oh, and of course, percussion – lots of it!

On Saturday 23 September, Queensland Symphony Orchestra delivered all this and more, even to the point of the welcome inclusion of the concert hall organ at the end of the evening's performance. 

We have previously confessed our particular affection for the rich and sonorous timbre of the viola; in Berlioz’s 'Harold In Italy', and in the hands of soloist Antoine Tamestit, the pure sound of the viola rose above, through and beyond the orchestral milieu, allowing the voice of Harold to reach everyone in the hall. Although ostensibly based on Byron’s poem 'Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage', the piece is in fact more of an evocation of Berlioz’s wanderings in Italy in the 1830s. Beginning ‘lonely as a cloud’, with the first movement Harold in the Mountains, we journey with Harold/Berlioz through scenes of rural idyll and bucolic fantasy, to culminate in the “allegro frenetico” of the Brigands’ Orgy finale.

Alongside the narrative fantasy of Harold’s peregrinations, is the perhaps even more fascinating story of the genesis of the piece – unfortunately, much of what we know of this tale comes from Berlioz’s own memoirs and thus may contain equal elements of fantasy. The story contends that Berlioz was commissioned to write a piece by the virtuoso violinist Niccolo Paganini, who had recently acquired a Stradivarius viola, but when Paganini saw the finished score, he refused to play it on the grounds that the viola was insufficiently prominent. Berlioz pressed ahead with publication and performance, and when Paganini finally heard the piece, some four years later, he expressed his rapt admiration and presented Berlioz with a 20,000 franc payment, ostensibly the original commission fee. Some elements of this story don’t quite add up, but it’s a nice tale that complements the overarching romanticism of the whole.

As if the 'Brigands’ Orgy' finale to the Berlioz was not dramatic enough, after the interval we moved on to Tchaikovsky’s 'Manfred', with sin, death, Faustian pacts and a descent into the Underworld! Based on Byron’s poem or ‘closet drama’ of the same name, Tchaikovsky’s score with its despairing strings and sinister low registers emphasises the intense melodrama in Byron’s narrative. With cinematic grandeur, underpinned by the magnificently over-the-top organ in the closing bars, grievous portents are heralded by frenzied, unnerving strings, and the tolling of a bell.

From the podium, Conductor Darrell Ang coordinated the very full orchestra that these pieces demand with skill and a relatively understated style. At the start of both compositions there was a slight hesitancy in timing, which we have on occasion noticed in QSO performances before. However, once in their stride, with cohesion re-established, the playing was nothing short of magnificent, and their tremendous energy breathed life into and invigorated these powerhouses of the romantic movement.

One of very few internationally recognised violists, Antoine Tamestit deftly navigated the crowd-pleasing 'Harold In Italy' with a look of intense absorption and delight. Tamestit is currently touring Australia and New Zealand, playing at a number of venues, and if you are a fan of the viola, it is well worth seeking him out.

Hector Berlioz – 'Harold In Italy', Symphony, Op.16
        'Harold In The Mountains: Scenes of Sadness, Happiness and Joy' (Adagio – Allegro)
        'March Of Pilgrims Chanting The Evening Prayer' (Allegretto)
        'Serenade Of An Abruzzi Mountaineer To His Mistress' (Allegro assai – Allegretto)
        'Brigands’ Orgy: Memories Of Past Scenes' (Finale: Allegro frenetico)
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky – 'Manfred': Symphony in four scenes after Byron’s dramatic poem, Op.58
        Lento lugubre
        Vivace con spirito
        Pastoral. Andante con moto
        Allegro con fuoco

Written by Karen Hutt and John Hutt