Lost symphonic masterpiece a thrilling, luscious delight

In this ambitiously programmed double bill, one-time child prodigy turned film composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold emerged victorious, overshadowing the grand old of man of romanticism, Johannes Brahms.
Spurred on by the passionate and far-sighted advocacy of conductor Benjamin Northey, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra gave a thrilling account of Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp major, Op. 40, bringing well-overdue kudos to this lost symphonic masterpiece of the 20th century, 70 years after it was composed and 50 years since it was first performed.
Cast in four movements, scored for a massive orchestra and lasting the best part of an hour, the symphony bears witness to an extraordinarily fertile musical mind, capable of generating kaleidoscopic orchestration, swashbuckling tunes, luscious harmonies and grand musical architecture.
Northey and the orchestra were alert to all these elements, whether in the disciplined, rhythmic playing of the energetic first movement and the quicksilver scherzo, or in the searing melodic melancholy of the third movement that gives way to a sprightly finale, into which material from the preceding movements is ingeniously incorporated.
Such brilliant, utterly committed playing will be long remembered, but it did come at the cost of a rather lacklustre curtain-raiser, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2. Here, virtues that abounded in the Korngold, such as clarity and rhythmic incisiveness, appeared elusive.
Melbourne-born soloist Daniel de Borah valiantly continued through moments when cohesion with the orchestra seemed uncertain, especially amid the rhythmic and contrapuntal complexities of the second movement. Some redemption came with the soulful elegance of David Berlin’s cello solo in the slow movement, but overall, the music-making lacked the level of finesse this virtuoso work demands.
Northey and the MSO are to be applauded for bringing the Korngold to life in such an exemplary performance, even if on this occasion Brahms came off second best.
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