An excitingly unexpected concert: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

March 15, 2018 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Last night’s APT Master Series concert at the Sydney Opera House dispensed with a curtain raiser and jumped straight into the drawcard: Nelson Freire playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5 in E flat major (Emperor) with Donald Runnicles conducting the SSO.

Fraser Beath McEwing

It also served a secondary purpose in that anybody who had a set against Wagner could slope off for an early coffee. His Orchestral Highlights from The Ring filled the second half with familiar operatic music (Wagner called it music drama) minus voices – as well as shortening the sometimes painfully slow build to explosive climaxes that are the hallmark of Wagner.

First, to Beethoven. The fifth was the only piano concerto not premiered by Ludwig himself – because of his hearing loss. Thus the first movement cadenza, which Beethoven would have otherwise improvised, is immovably written down. The two outer movements make grand statements, where soloist and orchestra spa for military-like supremacy while the slow movement, adagio, is one of the quietest and most moving in piano concerto literature. I am reminded of a scene in the 1989 movie ‘The Dead Poets’ Society’ where the late Robin Williams sits in his lonely study, the Emperor’s adagio evocatively colouring the story.

Brazilian-born Nelson Freire fits in into the category of visiting veteran pianists whose glory days are probably behind them and whose techniques are no longer ferocious, but have attained interpretive sagehood, especially appreciated by older audiences. Among these living legends that have come recently to Australia are Emmanuel Ax, Murray Periaha and Garrick Olsson. One might also mention violinists like Pinchas Zukerman in the same breath. When you mix them with piano firebrands like Trifonov, Wang and Gavrylyuk you’ve got two distinct types of listening experience. Thus I did not expect Freire to leave the piano smoking behind him, but looked for a more measured, maybe contemplative approach. However, that’s not how it turned out.

Nelson Friere

You don’t have to wait long to gauge the performance style of an Emperor, (not Beethoven’s nickname for it, incidentally) because after one big opening chord from the orchestra, the soloist sets the agenda. In this case Freire rushed into it, often at the expense of clarity and evenness. Having said that, I marvelled at his trills and big repeated chords. Thus the first movement, including the cadenza, was a mixed bag.

It is hard not to be wooed by the second movement, Adagio and here Freire came into his own, bringing it to life so that it surpassed its reputation. Right at the end there is a semi tone drop where pizzicato strings accompany the soloist, who semaphores, in super slomo, the opening to the final Rondo movement. I must admit to having something of a fixation about how the following tempestuous version is played, not only for the first time, but on its subsequent appearances. Many pianists, including some of the greatest, slur the top end of the cadence in their haste to wallop the last bar. Recordings by Gould, Hough and Lang Lang all suffer from slurring. The most articulated I’ve heard is from an early

Donald Runnicles

Ashkenazy recording (when Vladimir’s hair was profuse and black) where every note can be identified. Our lovable local Dutchman, Gerard Willems, is another excellent articulator and so is Australian Tamara-Anna Cislowska. I waited to see what Nelson would do. In keeping with the rest of his performance, sometimes he hit all the notes and sometimes he didn’t. Unfortunately, the orchestra slurred it every time.

Although the rest of the third movement was again in a hurry it fanned audience enthusiasm, maybe for Freire or maybe for Beethoven. The result was rousing applause, which was rewarded by a solo encore of the Gluck-Sgambati Melodie, sublimely played.

With the Steinway stowed, the stage took on the appearance of a competition to see how many musicians and their instruments (some of them schlepping two) you can cram in without somebody falling off the edge. There were eight bull fiddles, four harps, lashings of strings, a battalion of brass, extended families of woodwinds and enough percussion to blast a hillside. Even poor Runnicles had to make his entrance through the right hand door to navigate his way to the podium. All this ferment was in preparation for five orchestral highlights taken from Wagner’s Ring cycle.

While I’d gone to the concert expecting the Emperor to dominate, the opposite happened. Wagner’s music, with those colossal forces, was overwhelming in the best way possible. There is something otherworldly about a huge orchestra playing soft passages, like the breathing of a sleeping giant. And when it roars out a forte, with every instrument pumped, it makes you want to fly. Of course it would be nothing without Wagner’s soaring imagination and outrageous chutzpah, to say nothing of Donald Runnicles, whose conducting was inspiring.

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.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.


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