Lesser known works from two great composers: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

April 12, 2018 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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If you want a Beethoven mass you’ve only got two choices: the more secularly accessible 1812 Mass in C major, Op.86 or the longer, holier and meatier 1824 Missa Solemnis which the SSO last presented in 2015.

Fraser Beath McEwing

The Mass in C hadn’t had an outing since 2005. The Beethoven mass vote went to the earlier work in C major, originally a commission from Prince Nikolaus Esterházy who suffered an attack of buyer’s remorse when he heard it. A red-faced Beethoven responded by rubbing out Prince Esterhazy’s name on the manuscript and replacing it with that of Prince Kinsky.

On the other hand, if you want a Haydn Symphony, you can trust a lucky dip, because there are 104 of them, or perhaps 108 if you interpret four other substantial works as symphonies – according to Haydn’s widely accepted chronologist, Anthony van Hoboken. The SSO, or maybe conductor Masaaki Suzuki, spun the wheel of fortune and it stopped at Haydn’s No. 95 in C minor last performed by the SSO in 1969 – so you could hardly say it was over exposed; rather a fresh experience.

The Haydn opened the program with the usual moderately sized orchestra of the period  (bull fiddle count six, which gave a nice keel to the sound). Immediately you were aware that this was not a run-of–the-mill Haydn symphony. Beginning with a saw-toothed statement in C minor, underpinned by a tympani strike, we might have been heading into Beethoven territory by mistake. Haydn rarely chose minor keys. Majors suited his personal disposition and the audiences of his time.

Having said that, C minor doesn’t dominate the work. Rather like a listing ship, it rights itself into major keys for most of the journey. And what an appealing journey it was under Suzuki, who took it along at a brisk trot that seemed to perfectly suit the symphony and the SSO’s precise, playing.

Masaaki Suzuki

Another curiosity of Haydn’s 95th is its preoccupation with cello solos. They appear, seemingly out of the blue, in the two middle movements. Maybe Joseph wanted to train the spotlight on a particular cellist he liked. In last night’s concert, Umberto Clerici was the chosen one, making the most of his passages with a full, round tone.

During interval additional troops filed in. There were more lung-driven instruments, the organ loft lit up, four solo singers appeared and the Sydney Philharmonic Choirs filled the seats behind the stage. Suzuki held up his hands, then crouched to usher in one of the most sublime openings of any choral work. Unlike Missa Solemnis, there was no orchestral introduction, just the hushed voices of that massive choir singing a cappella.

Even though it is a sacred musical composition, the mass was not intended to take the place of a church service mass, or be performed during one. It is a place where deity and performance meet on equal terms. Beethoven’s C major mass follows the usual five musical settings of the Eucharistic liturgy: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus/Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. Their texts give rise to inspired musical invention, especially when the available forces include orchestra, soloists and choir. In the SSO context the organ was thrown in for good measure but it plays such a minor role that its absence wouldn’t be noticed. Organ true believers may now boo and throw rotten tomatoes.

I’ve heard plenty of orchestral/choral/soloist works in the opera house and they mostly suffer from the acoustics being too dodgy to strike a balance. But this time around they nailed it. The four soloists, Sara Macliver (soprano), Anna Dowsley ((mezzo), Benjamin Bruns (tenor) and Christian Immer (bass) had four penetrating and complimentary voices that reached to the back row without being run over by a pursuing orchestra. For this we can thank maestro Suzuki. And as to the Sydney Philharmonic Choirs, I’ve never heard them in better voice. The second section of the mass, Gloria, is an open invitation to push the forte pedal to the floor. The power output was awesome. There were many other instances where the choir lifted the roof and if I had to award a gold medal it would be to that assembly of men and women who sing with such passion for the love of it.

SSO Opera House Master Series concert, 11 April 2018

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