A Musical Jigsaw in Three Parts

June 5, 2013 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Maybe it was my imagination that discovered some lateral thinking by the programmers for this stimulating Master Series concert…writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

SSO Opera House concert 5 June 2013

Charles Dutoit

Charles Dutoit

The celebrated conductor, Charles Dutoit, is Swiss, but is best known for his interpretation of French Music: a link to the Saint-Saens (No 3) Organ Symphony. Dutoit is then linked to another Swiss, Frank Martin (1890 – 1974) and his Concerto for 7 Winds.

Mozart wasn’t in this cosy circle but acted as an orderly curtain raiser with his welcoming Symphony No 29, K201. Completed in 1774 it is one of Mozart’s most popular early symphonies, offering music that many people will recognise even if they are not familiar with the chronology.

Incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered what the ‘K’ is all about, it stands for Köchel-Verzeichnis, an attempt at a complete, chronological

catalogue of compositions by Mozart (1756–91) originally created by Ludwig von Köchel. It is abbreviated K. or KV. Discoveries of previously unknown works of Mozart tend to unseat Herr Kochel’s valuable contribution to neatly packaging Mozart.

The Symphony No 29 is more reminiscent of chamber music than the later, broader sweeping and more dramatic symphonies. The first movement, a graceful Allegro Moderato is in familiar sonata form. Also in sonata form, the second Andante movement opens quietly with strings which hand over to the wind section for a while before taking back the running again. This is contemplative Mozart at his best. The brief third movement introduces a dotted rhythm figure broken by a less hurried trio. The final movement skips along in 6/8 time, with some reference to the first movement and rounds out a thoroughly satisfying, smiling work.

Although entertaining, Martin’s Concerto for 7 Winds is not a piece I’ll be adding to my list of favourites – yet. Many of these seemingly jagged and discordant works require patience before love blooms.

Martin has quite a range of compositions to his name, ranging over symphonic, choral, solo piano and ensemble works. He was influenced by the work of Arnold Schonberg – which is evident in this concerto – although it doesn’t stray far from tonality.

The concerto is scored for strings, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, horn, trombone and timpani. All the ‘soloists’ were drawn from the SSO, allowing them more exposure than they usually get embedded in the orchestra. This was a win-win, because it showed just what fine musicians they are. While the string sound of the orchestra is often praised, the SSO blowers and the bangers can be outstanding.

Dutoit never let us settle into complacency as he pushed the orchestra through combinations of different instruments in a continuing kaleidoscope, sometimes lulling, sometimes explosive. The finale rounded up all the instruments in a satisfying march and free-for-all.

Anything that powers up the opera house organ gets my vote but its presence in the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony is a bonus. I wait for the huge organ chord that opens the fourth movement – surely making the sea creatures in the adjacent harbour pause and look up. It is a pity that organist David Drury had to sit unemployed in the firmament for two of the four movements before Charles Dutoit batoned him in, but that’s Saint-Saens’ decision and he isn’t around to be persuaded otherwise.

The Organ Symphony is not all about the organ, of course. It is a work of exciting symphonic contrasts achieved with additional woodwinds and brass, plus some demanding piano passages.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

Saint-Saens originally wrote the symphony in two movements but left obvious breaks for it to become the conventional four. It was commissioned by the English Royal Philharmonic Society and was first performed in 1886.

The symphony opens with barely-there adagio strings, setting up expectation for the following bold themes with their agitated underlay. The organ makes its entry to open the second movement with a long, shimmering base note leading into a beautiful dialogue between organ and strings, recalling the main theme of the previous movement. In this tranquil and introspective movement the organ plays its role with deep, supportive pedal notes, claiming the final word as the movement quietens into silence.

The third movement gives the organist time for a quick cuppa while the music rushes about, sometimes inviting the piano to participate with bravura passages.

And then that chord, to stir the backbone, opens the final movement. The marking ’maestoso’ tells us that the king is present and the fireworks burst all around, lifting the music way above the notes.

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