A thoroughly good weepfest: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

March 22, 2018 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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If you wanted to feel magnificently melancholic, Sydney’s Recital Hall was the place to be last night. Russian-born violinist Alina Ibragimova joined the Australian Chamber Orchestra to present ‘Death and the Maiden” a title borrowed from Schubert’s Quartet in D minor arranged for string orchestra  – which was the final work on the program.

Fraser Beath McEwing

I must admit to loving being immersed in tragic music and this gave me a whole night of it. Ibragimova summed it up:  “The idea behind this program is often quite dark,” she said. “It’s death, it’s loss, but I think there is also hope. In Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet, you have both sadness and happiness, sometimes within the same note. It’s very tender and touching music.”

I guess Alina needed to add the happiness reference, because it covered the ventures into exuberance of the Schubert, but I didn’t think it was necessary. This was a night primarily for tears and a box of Kleenex. I immersed myself in it. Additionally, there is nothing better than a passionate Russian interpretation to deepen the blue. That’s what Ibragimova gave us. She was visually convincing too, with her youthful intensity expressed in how she bends like a sapling in a storm as she plays. I couldn’t see her sitting in the confines of an orchestra’s string section, incidentally

Although Ibragimova is in the world front row of outstanding young violinists, she joined the 16 players of the Australian Chamber Orchestra on stage as a colleague rather than a star – that was until her solo role in Hartmann’s Concerto Funebre, which was simply a breathtaking show stealer.

Alina Ibragimova

Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which opened the program, is probably his best-known work, helped by its use as background music in many movies, including Platoon. It builds from a barely-there murmur to passionate, unrestrained tragedy and back down to oblivion again. Although it is most suited to a fully stocked string orchestra rather than chamber players, the acoustics and confinement of the City Recital Hall gave the small, perfectly coordinated Australian Chamber Orchestra the means to fill the space to the corners.

Why Mozart dashed off his Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K.546 as a stand-alone piece has never been explained, but it fitted into last night’s theme of tragedy, showing that Mozart could write dark music with the best of them. Even the fugue, while retaining its mathematical structure, still kept to the tragic, disturbing genre.

Third on the program, Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Concerto Funebre, was unfamiliar music to me, but not to Alina Ibragimova who performs it often as soloist. She has also recorded it. The piece, Hartmann’s best-known work, was written in 1939 as a Nazi protest and substantially revised in 1959. It comes in four movements, with prominence and considerable technical challenge given to the soloist who is required to play some of he highest notes you can coax out of a violin. It’s final movement, Choral, (Langsamer Marsch) is heart-rending, while the other three movements provide some memorably sad passages with unexpected harmonic twists and rhythms.

Here’s a musical trivia question. Which living composer has been the most performed in the world since 2010? The answer is Estonian Arvo Part, whose Siouan’s Song followed the Hartmann. It only lasted five minutes but was possibly the most moving piece on an already moving program. With bars of silence between long harmonic statements, it felt like listening to somebody’s final breathing. This poses a challenge to unconducted players who must count the rests in perfect unison. The Australian Chamber Orchestra handled it without faltering.

Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor Death and the Maiden didn’t cause much of a ripple when it was composed but later was recognised as a masterwork. Based on a song of the same name written in 1817 the quartet related as much to Schubert’s imminent death as it did to the poem that had inspired the song. Mahler saw the potential in expanding the quartet into a piece for string orchestra, and so did Richard Tognetti – whose version was used for this program.

Although the quartet is orchestral in dimension, especially as expressed in the thoroughly satisfying Tognetti arrangement, you are always aware of its four-player roots. As he final offering on the program, it brought the mood back into some cautious optimism. There is no doubt it was a fine piece, and superbly played by some of Australia’s most accomplished musicians, but I wanted to leave the Recital Hall feeling sombre. I accept that’s a big weird, but that’s me.

Sydney City Recital Hall 21 March 2018

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