A night of rich rewards…a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing
A blend of Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss provided an uplifting SSO concert last night. I dips me lid to the programmers.
The standout was always going to be the Strauss: An Alpine Symphony, but the preceding music, which the SSO had never performed before, made a worthy first half bookend.
The concert opened with After Brahms – Three Intermezzi for Orchestra by Israeli composer, Avner Dorman. Faced with three movements being squeezed into only seven minutes, and not having heard the music before, I settled down for a brief ho-hum before the next offering. But how wrong I was to be dismissive. Using Brahms piano intermezzi as a base line, this was delicious music, full of rich harmonies, and I was sorry it had to end so soon. It has sent me on a journey looking for more of Dorman’s output. At 42, he undoubtedly has great work ahead of him.
Then on to authentic Brahms, but still in the unusual category because here were more firsts for the SSO, comprising two works for orchestra and choir: Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) Op.54 and Gesdangmj der Parzen (Song of the Fates) Op.89. They both required a moderately large orchestra and the voices of the Sydney Philharmonic Choirs directed by Brett Weymark. While we don’t initially think choral music when we think Brahms, he had a remarkable aptitude for writing it, as these two works demonstrate.
Song of Destiny resulted from Brahms being deeply moved when he read Friedrich Holderlin’s poem of the same name. The translation into music begins as mystical, tender and moving, with the choir often reduced to pianissimo. But Brahms wasn’t about to settle for a sombre hymn. It suddenly jumps to life, responding to a change of direction in the poem. After that, so the story goes, poor Johannes didn’t know how to finish it. He struggled with the problem for years until a friend suggested he take the unusual step of silencing the choir and changing key for an orchestral conclusion.
The second Brahms choral work, Song of the Fates, was also based on a text, this time by Goethe. More dramatic than the previous work it divides the choir into six parts and adds instruments to the orchestra. Sadness and contemplation finally win the day and the work is put to rest with an almost whispering choir.
Interval brought a dramatic growth in the orchestra in preparation for An Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss. The numbers on the stage swelled to 106 as the massive forces assembled. Beside a bull-fiddle count of eight (plus another 52 string players), there were eight horns, double tympani, two harps, glockenspiel, a range of seldom seen or heard percussion instruments, a lupophone (distant half-cousin of the saxophone), four trumpets, four trombones, a wind machine (spin the cylinder and up comes the tempest), a thunder machine (in case the base drum can’t be hit hard enough) and to top it off, literally, the Opera House organ. It looked like the starting grid of an orchestral grand prix and the sounds Strauss extracted from it were simply exhilarating.
Sorry, I became mesmerised by the machinery and neglected the music. The Alpine Symphony is not a symphony at all, but a tone poem (Liszt invented the form) that lasts for nearly an hour. Strauss lived in the Bavarian countryside and often went hiking. In this, his final large orchestral work, he simply takes us on an ascent and descent of a mountain. But there the simplicity ends because the 22 ‘scenes’ employ an extraordinary variety and complexity of orchestral colours.
We begin the journey in the dark, waiting for the sun to rise. When it does, the orchestra unleashes a volcano of sound that goes right to the backbone. The day trip unfolds, taking us by a book, waterfall, undergrowth, glacier and ultimately to a calm before the storm where we pause in expectation.
Several composers have tried to evoke a storm in music. Beethoven did it convincingly in his Pastoral Symphony (No.6) but nobody comes close to Richard Strauss in the thunder and tempest descent scene in the Alpine Symphony. With all the orchestral forces going ten tenths, it explodes. Calm slowly returns via the sunset and the scene is back where it began: at night.
I liked the way conductor, Israeli Asher Fisher went about his work with animation and enthusiasm. He’s obviously familiar with the Alpine Symphony, but no matter how well a conductor knows the work, its ultra-busy score is still a challenge to direct. The one point I would take issue with, and it’s only a personal preference, is the treatment of the first night scene. It had a defined starting point, whereas I wanted to strain to hear anything for the opening bars and to wonder if the orchestra was playing at all. This would have made the following sunrise even more overwhelming.
Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.