Johannes Moser, Lutoslawski Cello Concerto

Johannes Moser, image courtesy of ANAM.

Johannes Moser, cello
Benjamin Northey, conductor
ANAM Musicians and Orchestra
South Melbourne Town Hall
Friday 24 May

The program is daunting: One of the most famous cello sonatas, followed by one of the most difficult cello concertos, followed by one of the most important chamber works of the past century-and-a-bit. But the cellist is astonishing, the conductor fearless and the orchestra excellent, so what are you going to do?

From the first notes of Shostakovich’s Sonata for cello and piano in D minor it was evident this was to be no ordinary recital—though that’s exactly where half the audience would have heard the famous piece many times. Johannes Moser’s performance began slightly faster than usual, though the tempo didn’t compromise the cellist’s fluid, light articulation. Do not be fooled by the “intense, introverted cellist” promotional photo, Moser plays directly to the audience, making eye contact and even occasionally lunging at them, when the music seems to call for it. The playful first movement made way for the ferocious reeling of the second. Light, brittle spiccato figures stood out like sardonic laughter. The Largo third movement was a testament to good taste. Every line was shaped, every dissonance perfectly stressed as the movement meandered towards its grim conclusion. By contrast, Finale demonstrated the fact that if the melody is simple and repetitive enough you can get away with the most outrageous articulation and dynamics. The audience will fill in the notes they do not hear. As in comedy, it is good to reward the audience for meeting you half way.

The Lutoslawski Cello Concerto is a feat in semi-aleatoric twentieth-century orchestration, with remarkable effects including prickling, teeming clouds of string pizzicati, blaring brass heterophony, unorthodox percussion and woodwind attacks like splattering paint: So much colour from a piece that begins with plodding solo cello Ds marked indifferente. While these sounds are standard New Music fare, the Lutoslawski Cello Concerto never ceases to sound fresh. Part of this currency derives from the dynamic interplay of the soloist and the forest of sounds around them, a dynamic that conductor Benjamin Northey describes as the relationship of the individual and the “oppressive” masses. A problem with this interpretation is that the orchestra only enters tutti in the finale of the piece, an effect made all the more shocking by the fact that the orchestral colours are sparse and individuated up until that point. There is some very obstinate brass throughout, for sure, but there are also some conciliatory woodwind, playful percussion and serene string textures. With its bipolar, paranoid cello, chattering brass returning like a repressed trauma, cast of orchestral characters, “chase scene” and final destruction, the piece would make a good soundtrack for a Hitchcock movie. Both the orchestra and Moser played their parts perfectly, with bow hair flying and barely a musician not short of breath at the end. The audience’s pulses were just as high.

After an interval we were treated to the piece that started it all, Verklärte Nacht by Arnold Schoenberg. Here the ANAM students’ sensitivity and endurance were called upon to sustain Schoenberg’s exposed late-romantic lines. It was for me, as for the rest of the audience in the packed South Melbourne Town Hall, a transfigured night.

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