Doing Igor Stravinsky justice

03.08.12
Matthias Pintscher
The Australian

By Murray Black

  • Sydney Symphony.
    Violin: Isabelle Faust. Conductor: Matthias Pintscher
    Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House. March 7.

THIS concert celebrated Igor Stravinsky' 1961 Australian visit. According to the program notes, on his first glimpse of the vast red-roofed expanse of Sydney's suburbia from the air, he remarked: "Looks like impetigo".

Stravinsky's music could be as caustic as his tongue. In the wrong hands, his violin concerto can sound abrasive. Fortunately, violinist Isabelle Faust found the right balance of virtuosic brilliance and expressive intensity. When she last performed here in 2009, I remarked upon her clear, focused sound. She sustained this again, along with a pure, lean tone just right for the work.

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The outer movements (Toccata and Capriccio) feature some fiendishly difficult solo passages. Faust whizzed through the extended double-stopping and harmonics with impressive dexterity and clarity. By contrast, her sure sense of line created poignant accounts of the two ruminative Aria movements.

As Meet the Music presenter Andrew Ford pointed out, the orchestral accompaniments are more like a series of chamber-music ensembles. Conductor Matthias Pintscher maintained exceptionally good balances with Faust while illuminating the imaginative instrumental colours and often acerbic effects.

Instead of the violin concerto, Stravinsky conducted two numbers from The Firebird in his Sydney concert. Pintscher was more generous, offering the complete 1945 suite.

Here, Pintscher's scrupulous control over detail was cleverly balanced with enough expressive freedom to realise the score's fairytale exoticism. The woodwinds shone with their sinuously phrased solos and evocative colours. Displaying tight-knit ensemble throughout, the orchestra's alert rhythms invigorated the Scherzo and Khorovod while their emphatic unison attack generated explosive power in the Infernal Dance and Finale.

Similar virtues were on display in Ravel's Mother Goose Suite that opened the concert. The players' well-judged tempos, polished sonorities and lilting rhythms brought affectionate warmth and graceful beauty in equal measure. Textures were clear and well-defined while still capturing the shimmering, half-lit elusiveness of Ravel's orchestral palette.

The concert's other work was Pintscher's towards Osiris (2005). Motivic shards rippled across the orchestra, sometimes suddenly erupting and subsiding as tutti fortissimo geysers, sometimes barely perceptible as eerie pianissimo wisps. Although employed for different purposes, his orchestration was as ingenious as Stravinsky's and Ravel's.

The way Pintscher demolished and reconstructed his material created a taut, propulsive inner logic that compelled the audience's attention. One suspects Stravinsky would have been intrigued.