Three peas in a pod…a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

August 11, 2016 by Fraser McEwing
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Last night’s APT Master Series programme threw the orchestral gauntlet down to the SSO – and it delivered in spades, producing everything from passionate storms to gentle rain to exotic and erotic scenery. This orchestra was made for this music.Audiences who came to revel in Stravinsky’s The Firebird would have been pleased to find it bracketed with Sculthorpe’s Sun Music1 and Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto. They are of similar genre. There are other links too.

All three composers came to orchestral composition prominence on the back of these works. They all broke new musical ground, anticipating atonality but not venturing far into it. Rather they pushed the existing boundaries of colour and evocation. Two of the three (Firebird and Sun Music) were born out of commissions and were destined for the ballet, while Szymanowski and Stravinsky were both Russian and born in the same year – 1882.

Sculthorpe’s Sun Music 1, which opened the program, was first performed during the inaugural SSO international tour of 1965. Encouraged by conductor Sir Bernard Heinz, Sculthorpe set out to present the London critics with something startling, believing that they would be expecting a piece of ho-hum. Sculthorpe is quoted as saying “ . . it will be all quivering and intense, blazoning, and with a climax of white heat, or black.”

The question remains, however, is how you can produce music without tunes or rhythm, because that what Sun Music 1 offers. At the banal level it comprises a series of orchestral sound effects while in the esoteric plane is distils the essence of the lonely, baking, Australian outback. And if neither definition suits, it provides a ten-minute curtain raiser for more conventional orchestrations.

Christian Tetzlaff

Christian Tetzlaff

German violinist, Christian Tetzlaff, joined the SSO to play Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No 1. Although not high in the popularity takes this richly colourful, one movement work demands both passion and precision from soloist and orchestra. Only occasionally do they both seem to be following the same path. At times the violin is privately whistling away in the upper register, only to be swept away by a glorious rolling surge from what is an oversize orchestra for a violin concerto. Only during the brief, brilliant cadenza does the soloist dominate the sound spectrum.

Tetzlaff was certainly up to the task. His tone was rich and robust, with a blistering technique to match. One way to gauge the performance of a solo violinist is to watch the reaction of the orchestra members, especially the strings, during the applause. In this case, they expressed their appreciation of Tetzlaff by waving their bows.

The Tetzlaff experience is not just about the music, either. With an enviable head of hair pulled back into a pony tail, a v neck black tee shirt beneath his black suit and a habit of swaying and knee-bending with music produced an endearing visual addition to the performance.

A quick cuppa and it was back for The Firebird – ravishing, according to the printed program. I agree. It was that and more. Commissioned by Diaghilev for his1910 production which marked the rebirth of Russian ballet, Stravinsky produced a score that quickly outstripped its original purpose and has become a highly popular orchestral concert suite. Of symphonic length, it is played without a break, although its program can be followed via the ballet plot. I prefer to simply take it as exhilarating music and forget about 13 enchanted princesses or stone knights.

The Firebird calls for a huge orchestra. The tally runs to three harps, piano, celeste, four each of flutes, clarinets, bassoons and oboes, with a bull-fiddle count of eight. There are also lashings of brass, some of which are played off-stage, while the percussion is a potential demolition team.

With all this at his disposal, Stravinsky could have taken out eardrums, yet he holds it back most of the time, preferring the subtlety of combining selected instrumental groupings. This really suited the SSO, and it produced some magical interplay between woodwinds, brass and strings, emphasising just how accomplished the players are.

David Robertson’s conducting was, as we’ve come to expect, pinpoint accurate as well as self-effacing. His delight in the music is infectious.

I won’t be able to rid my head of The Firebird finale for some time. It was simply a musical orgasm.

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. and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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