Photo, Mark Allan

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Royal Albert Hall, London

The Australian World Orchestra – formed in 2010 by Alexander Briger with him conducting the inaugural concert the following year – consists entirely of native musicians employed at home and abroad. Its guest conductors have included Riccardo Muti and Simon Rattle. Zubin Mehta has been a regular collaborator, and once this UK visit is over (which has included the Edinburgh Festival) he has further engagements with the AWO in Melbourne and Sydney, Richard Strauss programmes,

This Prom included a Mehta speciality, music by Anton Webern, the Passacaglia (previously conducted twice at these concerts by Mehta, with the Vienna and Israel Philharmonics, the latter evening interrupted by political protests) and the Six Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 6. Webern’s breakthrough Passacaglia, his first published work (other scores having been rejected by him), was given a shimmering outing, restless and forward-moving (in tempo and musical ambition), the AWO (leader Natalie Chee, concertmaster of the Gürzenich Orchestra, Cologne) at-one with Webern’s seamless development and Mehta’s urgency, who then led the Opus 6 Pieces (1909/1928) with clarity and consideration; fascinating music that is concise, precise, not a note or inflection wasted, and with much expression to impart. The longest movement (a veritable ‘symphony’ in context), IV, a dark and dangerous funeral march that builds to a clangourous climax, leaving its successor numb, and the final Piece to reside in a haze of ‘where next?’; for Webern even further paring.

As centrepiece, Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées, orchestrated by Brett Dean (with Dean as a member of AWO’s viola section; he used to play in the Berlin Philharmonic, 1985-99, and therefore no doubt many times for Mehta, and the conductor is due back there in June, and found soprano Siobhan Stagg in ravishing voice and with picturesque word-painting (Debussy sets poems by Verlaine) for equally ravishing music that Dean has transcribed wonderfully well from the piano originals using a Faune-like ensemble; songs that will no longer be forgotten.

Following the interval, Brahms’s Second Symphony (it was Dvořák Seven in Edinburgh), a spacious, golden-toned account with a contemplative/lyrical first movement (without repeat), notes given full expressive value, passions rising in the development (brass embedded rather than dominating – a cultured musician at the helm) and a sense of wholeness throughout, including the languorous coda which certainly belonged. The Adagio was especially eloquent, long-held phrases and deep harmonies savoured, climaxed intensely, with its successor gracious and playful. The Finale was suitably unrushed, a natural correlation with what had gone before, but with no lack of spirit or cumulative rejoicing.

The close rapport between maestro and musicians continued in a fiery extra, a Dvořák Slavonic Dance, Opus 46/8.

Mehta/AWO The Rite of Spring (undated performance).