Ludwig and Pyotr step up again: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

April 4, 2019 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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An SSO Masters Series concert with two sure-fire blockbuster works would usually leave room for something quirky from artistic director, David Robertson’s black book of offbeat music he likes to share, but it didn’t happen last night. We got the Beethoven violin concerto and Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony neatly divided by interval. Both these works are favoured with plenty of playtime around Australian orchestras because they are so popular.

Simone Lamsma and Alexander Photo: Daniela Testa

Beethoven warmed up for his only violin concerto with two earlier romances for violin and orchestra, but probably never anticipated that his three-movement concerto would become one of the most frequently played and loved in the genre. One possible reason is that even if you take away the violin part, you still have writing of symphonic proportions. Having said that, the concerto got off to a shaky start in its first performance in 1806, with the ink still wet on the solo part, meaning that the violinist, Franz Clement, had to rely on sight-reading. The work almost faded from view until 12-year-old prodigy, Joseph Joachim, put it back on the rails in 1844 – with Felix Mendelssohn conducting the London Philharmonic.

The last Sydney Opera House outing for the Beethoven was as recent as November 2018 when Richard Tognetti, conducting the Australian Chamber Orchestra with the bow from his Guarneri del Gesù fiddle, gave a stirring performance. Before that, we’d heard Anne-Sophie Mutter’s masterful version. These were hard acts to follow for 34-year-old Dutch violinist, Simone Lamsma, backed by the SSO under English conductor, Alexander Shelley.

If you can imagine Nicole Kidman playing a violin, you’re well on the way to picturing Simone Lamsma – wearing a striking strapless evening gown in a lime and black lattice jacquard. But, as one of my starchy readers pointed out previously, appearance has nothing to do with music. So, if Tognetti was thrilling, Lamsma was wooing, with lighter projection and a sweet tone from her Mlynarski 1718 Strad. Even though Shelley kept the smallish Beethoven orchestra in check, much of Lamsma’s detail was difficult to hear. She chose the Kreisler cadenza for the first movement and that was impressive, as was the tenderness she injected into the slow movement. But her brief cadenza in the third movement let the lion out of the cage and from there she seemed to take charge and bring the concerto to a resounding, applause-worthy conclusion.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36 represented a breaking-out time for the composer. He threw off the constraints of customary sonata form Aalong with those of a heterosexually based marriage. The musical result was a passionate and grand outpouring while acknowledging the traditional and fate-laden bonds which seemed to want to reclaim him. It is one of the great showpieces for a fully stocked orchestra (bull fiddle count: eight), with its fanfares, blazing statements and the unique pizzicato third movement that wears down the fingertips of the string players.

From the way this concert was billed as “Simone Lamsma performs Beethoven’s Violin Concerto” I might have expected the Tchaikovsky symphony to be the support act. But the opposite was true, thanks to some outstanding conducting by the 39-year-old Alexander Shelley. After previously reaching professional performance standard in cello and piano he established himself as a conductor in 2005 when he won the coveted Leeds Conductors Competition, the media describing him as “the most exciting and gifted young conductor to have taken this highly prestigious award. His conducting technique is immaculate, everything crystal clear and a tool to his inborn

Fraser Beath McEwing

musicality.”His talent and growing reputation have placed him front of leading orchestras around the world, while his Australian appearances have included concerts with the Tasmanian and Melbourne symphony orchestras. This concert was his debut with the SSO and I, for one, can’t wait for him to return.

While Tchaikovsky can be schmaltzy and strident, Shelley and the SSO turned the fourth symphony into a masterpiece of clarity, passion and excitement. One of the secrets seemed to be in Shelley not rushing the tempi, even towards the end of the final movement when the horses smell home and want to stampede. Shelley (conducting without score) coaxed the orchestra to produce a depth of texture and control I’d never heard from it before.

Fraser Beath McEwing is a pianist, commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation which assists talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of five novels and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home. A body of his work can be found on www.frasersblography.com 

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