Thursday, December 22, 2016

Simone Young conducts Wagner and Bruckner: Herald Sun Review

FOR last week’s Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concert, the welcome return of guest conductor Simone Young came with an equally thrilling and demanding evening of Bruckner with Symphony No.9 in D minor (1894) and excerpts from Act 2 of Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal (1882).

A smart last-minute program change swapped the order, placing Bruckner’s symphony ahead of Wagner’s Parsifal excerpts, both expansive works composed at the end of their creator’s lives.

Bruckner’s restless three-movement No.9, unfinished but still one-hour in length, ends in a soaring escape of shining brass above gently integrated string and woodwind. It brings tranquillity and passage to someplace distant, making a fitting introduction to the work of a composer he esteemed, to the convoluted medieval tale of grail hunters.

For that, two outstanding singers, American mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung as Kundry and Australian tenor Stuart Skelton as Parsifal, brought a combined dramatic trajectory that took the evening to a fulfilling close.

In Bruckner’s Symphony No.9, Simone Young’s incisive, vibrant and meticulous conducting whipped up a vivid landscape of the work’s ever-changing mood. Within the first minutes of the first, misterioso movement, the quietly solemn and explosively grandiose are spliced side by side with ease, setting the tone for what characterises much of the work. Occasionally marked by pauses of silence, themes are so quick to change that there’s little time to hold onto their threads and comes across rather like a composer’s resume of orchestral genius.

The sharp angularity of the second, scherzo movement is thematically tighter. Within it, perfectly unified plinking strings are answered by exciting, stomping brass and percussion. The theme returns in an increasingly coalescing picture. Here, the force of around 100 MSO musicians struck gold.

The much-grounded first two movements give way to a greater sense of expansive warmth in the final adagio where rich thematic medleys return. With lots to absorb, an ending seems nigh as a siren-like sound is emitted followed by a thunderous crash in which confident brass playing returned after a momentary hiatus. Bruckner then takes that characteristic devious pause and expels the air tenderly from the orchestra’s bellows.

After interval, imposing figures DeYoung and Skelton took the stage before Wagner’s Vorspiel, or Prelude, to Act 2 of Parsifal, setting the scene of temptation and redemption between Kundry, wild woman and seductress, and Parsifal, the “innocent fool” who, in learning compassion and resisting Kundry becomes saviour of the Grail Knights.

Rewardingly, fervour in character immersion accompanied mountainous vocal strength. Printed text in the program to follow their dialogue also gave assistance.

The sumptuous, broad-based foundation of DeYoung’s richly textured soprano became fast evident and impressive. Initially showing rock-solid composure and evoking mystery to her character as Kundry woos Parsifal with the story of his unknown mother, DeYoung transforms with untamed ferocity in a performance of iron-hot emotion as her charms are resisted. Big in range with superb phrasing and firm and powerful at the top, DeYoung easily demonstrated her abilities that see her sing arduous soprano roles on the world stage.

Twice this year I saw Skelton rise to great heights to give Wagner’s Tristan compelling form in London and New York. When Wagner comes with hours of gruelling on-stage demands, 45 minutes might seem trifling but Skelton made every one of them edifying. Skelton’s Parsifal opened with poignant geniality, vocally warm and effortlessly resonant. From there, the depth of complexity escalated and an emotively charged Skelton sung with as much defiance and authority that Parsifal expresses, each phrase exciting and considered. Pairing splendidly with DeYoung, the two forged a meteoric combination for the concert’s second part.

Throughout Parsifal’s excerpts, Simone Young led a superbly primed MSO, giving breath to the score’s descriptive and organic beauty and attentive support to the duo. I imagine no one was disappointed by the program change.


Hamer Hall, Arts Centre until December 3

Rating: four stars

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