Facing a Housefull of Critics

February 23, 2012 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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The second Sydney Symphony Orchestra concert in the Ausgrid series was on safe ground when it came to programme choice…writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Lisa Batiashvili

But the risk in playing well-known pieces is just that; it turns the vast majority of the audience into knowledgeable critics. So in that sense, it had to be damn good. And it was.

The concert opened, appropriately, with an overture: Beethoven’s Coriolan in this case. This overture was not, as one might suspect, to precede a Shakespeare play, but a play by Beethoven’s friend Heinrich von Collin. While the play has faded to obscurity, the overture is now an established concert piece bearing the seductive melodies and sometimes the hammer blows of Beethoven.

Conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy put the orchestra into precision mode right from the five opening figures with their sharp cut-offs. It was a polished performance, finishing with barely-there touches from the tympani.

The Brahms Violin Concerto stands tall among the other genre favourites of Beethoven, Bruch, Mendelssohn, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky. In many ways it is the most demanding, taking into account Brahms’ liking for a big symphonic sound and the demands for the soloist to be heard above it.

The task fell to Georgia (former USSR) born Lisa Batiashvili, who managed, for most of the time, to soar above the SSO. She was aided, no doubt, by

Vladamir Ashkenazy

Ashkenazy’s innate sense of balance. This was a performance of great technical skill, especially evident in the demanding and extended cadenza towards the end of the first movement. It was originally written by Kreisler and then tweaked by Batiashvili into a tour de force. The Wednesday night audience did its usual annoying trick of applauding after the first movement and fracturing the atmosphere. I’m told that the Saturday crowd behaves better.

Batiashvili played a 1709 Engleman Stradivarius to produce some superb sounds, especially in the higher register. Antonio Stradivari would have been proud to hear it.

Another of Batiashvili’s charms was her appearance. Her fuchsia coloured full-length gown and shoulder length dark hair moved sometimes gracefully and sometimes violently as she not only played the music but also lived it.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Richard Strauss took pride of place after intermission with ‘Thus spake Zarathustra’. It would have been worth attending the concert just to hear the opening organ pedal note that vibrated the soul of the opera house before the famous three note call from the trumpets followed the tympani player wielding his mallet like Raphael Nadal’s forehand. Ashkenazy give the organist a clear start on the orchestra, building up a great sense of anticipation and the realisation that hearing this live is still exciting even though Stanley Kubrick wore the corners off it with ‘2001 a Space Odyssey’.

After its opening, the organ didn’t get to spake much at all, save for a few gorgeous pedal notes beneath the keel of the orchestra.

The rest of the piece offered some sublime moments of rich and deliberately unhurried playing. Even those who are not partial to Richard Strauss acknowledge this is one of his most attractive contributions to classical music.

Strauss’s inspiration for Zarathustra came from a poem by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche but it didn’t produce program music, rather a tone poem with loose reference to the poem.

Apart from the organ, operated from the high diving board of the concert hall, there was some sweet violin playing from orchestra leader, Dean Olding, who often found himself as soloist in Strauss’s signature practice of dividing the strings into multiple parts.

The SSO will perform this concert on February 24 and February 25

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.