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Stepping outside the box

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, ‘Cédric Tiberghien Plays Rachmaninov 3’ ·
Perth Concert Hall, 25 August ·
Review by Tiffany Ha ·

Sergei Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto (“Rach 3” for short) begins like a lot of other canonical piano repertoire from the late-Romantic era: with a simple, unadorned melody. Visiting French pianist Cedric Tiberghien played the opening subject in cleanly articulated octaves, with an understated piano dynamic that shone through the swirling textures of the orchestra behind him. In such a dense and challenging work, each iteration of the main melodic material becomes a beacon of light to the listener – guiding them through the landscape, unifying the events of the piece through the lens of a kind of hero’s journey. Tiberghien was a captivating, capable hero. He certainly looked the part: young, tall and fit, with a blonde, Luke Skywalker-esque mop of hair. Indeed, as he grappled with the immense technical and expressive demands of the twenty-five minute concerto, displaying remarkable physical and mental stamina, he was reminiscent of a troubled Skywalker in Return of The Jedi, dressed in black, having to recall all his previous training and experience to conquer some of the biggest challenges of his life. And when you see Tiberghien execute those fierce double octave runs at break-neck vivacissimo, it’s hard to believe that he’s not using “the force”.

At the conclusion of the third movement, Tiberghien released the final thundering chord with a dramatic upward swing of the arms, his head and torso recoiling. He sprung from his seat to give conductor Asher Fisch a warm embrace – a refreshing, endearing alternative to the traditional handshake. You could tell they had good chemistry; Fisch seemed to regard the young soloist as both a teammate and a protégé. After several rounds of applause and some scattered ovations, Tiberghien returned to the stage for his encore: a transcription of a Bach prelude, arranged by Alexander Siloti – Rachmaninov’s piano teacher and first cousin. The prelude – with its slow harmonic progression and sparse, transparent texture – served as a lovely palate cleanser after a heavy first course.

The second half of the concert featured two works by Hungarian modernist composer Béla Bartók: the orchestral Dance Suite and The Miraculous Mandarin: Suite. The 1923 Dance Suite was commissioned by Budapest municipal authorities to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the union of Buda, Óbuda and Pest. The suite’s six contrasting movements flow on from one another, weaving in threads from Hungarian, Romanian and Arabic folk tunes to create what Bartók described as “a kind of idealised peasant music”. The orchestra, led by Fisch’s animated yet measured baton, played with their usual level of musicianship – cut-offs were crisp, the sound was unified, they were true to the score. It was also exciting to see the not-so-common instruments featured, such as the celeste, harp, bass clarinet and contrabassoon. The orchestra’s enjoyment of this piece was evident in the joy and vibrance of their performance.

The Miraculous Mandarin ballet, which Bartók scored, first premiered in 1926. His orchestral suite version – essentially a collection of musical scenes from the ballet – premiered two years later. The ballet depicts the tale of a girl and three ruffians who attempt to swindle unsuspecting passers-by, through seduction and violent robbery. The rather taboo subject matter and the often jarring musical style of The Miraculous Mandarin is reminiscent of Stravinsky’s work with the Ballet Russes (most notably The Rite of Spring). While the orchestra did well to evoke a range of moods and scenes – sleazy trombone slides, heart-fluttering flute flutter-tonguing (try saying that quickly three times!), clamouring percussion – it can be hard to understand and fully appreciate the music without the visual element of the ballet. It’s akin to listening to the soundtrack for a film you’ve never seen. However enjoyable it may be, you can’t help but feel that you’re missing part of the package. As a fan of Bartók, and as someone who will read the concert program cover to cover, I still struggled to fully engage with this suite.

Nevertheless – I love that WASO are taking chances with their programming and stepping outside the box.

Pictured top: Cedric Tiberghien. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega.