In this final instalment of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra's Town Hall Series, conductor Benjamin Northey presented a motley of French and English works by Bizet, Saint-Saëns and Elgar. The polar difference between the two halves of the concert could not have been more stark, the former effervescent with festive, even frivolous tones, the latter so heartfelt and sincere that one nearly forgot it was a Friday night out in the city.

Benjamin Northey
© Ross Calia

Bizet's Carmen Suite is a summary of the themes and musical elements that made the French opera a 'viral' hit of the 19th century. That is not at all to say the popularity of the tunes is unjustified; as any musician (especially composers) can testify, there is arguably nothing more difficult than composing a good melody, let alone an original one, and Bizet had the envious fortune of assembling numerous within a single opera. Northey and the MSO revelled in the various Spanish-inflected affects of the suite, and the crisp acoustic of Melbourne Town Hall was particularly suited to the work’s percussive effects and suspensory pauses. The oboe and flute in particular are to be praised for their rich, languid solos. 

The featured soloist of the evening, Melburnian pianist Kristian Chong, presented a solid reading of Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor, famously and frequently described as beginning with Bach and ending with Offenbach. The opening solo, serving as a kind of cadenza at the beginning rather than the end of the movement, was well-timed and bore just the right balance of dramatic weight and virtuosic bravura. It is a shame that the finale relies so much on superficially brilliant scale and arpeggio passages, all of which Chong delivers exceptionally, but is rather flippant use of the piano on Saint-Saëns' part. From the ground level stalls, the piano was struggling to assert an equal balance with the orchestra, but its sound did cut through for the most part on the merit of Chong's technical consistency. 

The orchestra opened the second half with Elgar's Sospiri, a delicately beautiful miniature replete with gentle portamento sighs in the violins. This was followed without break by the Enigma Variations, the masterpiece of orchestral and English canon inspired by the intimacy of Elgar's many friendships, and which in turn has inspired endless volumes of musicological and historical debate. This was not a perfect performance – the early variations were a little patchy – but it recomposed itself well over time, and a particular highlight tonight was the single crescendo sustained over the entire “Nimrod” variation, which Northey carried out beautifully from a gentle hum to a full-bodied orchestra tutti. Like the Saint-Saëns concerto, I have issues with the ending of the Enigma, but only due to the brilliance of Elgar's orchestration, harmonic craftsmanship and motivic ingenuity over the many variations. The quasi-fanfare ending fails to satisfy, like a hurried ending to a life-changing conversation between friends that has run overtime. In a sense, this work has no good conclusion, and ought to continue indefinitely, an eternal mystery vibrating in the musical ether.