Beethoven didn’t have it all his own way: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

November 8, 2018 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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As well as playing some fine music, the SSO played a noteworthy tactical game this week and next by staging three different concerts with somewhat challenging musical cakes, but each laced with the delicious icing of Beethoven’s 7thSymphony. Moreover, Beethoven appeared in the second half of each concert to prevent the unconvinced from scuttling away after interval.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Did I feel compromised by this? No, not at all. It seemed to come with a wink from the conductor, David Robertson, and it meant that I’d be obliged to listen to music that I wouldn’t normally seek out. On such occasions previously, I’d unexpectedly fallen in love – but not always. I, therefore, sat back with an open mind for Engelsflügel (Wings of Angels), written for the SSO by Artist in Residence, Brett Dean, and James Macmillan’s Percussion Concerto No.2.

Dean describes his Engelsflügelthus: “The music oscillates between secretive whispers, cascading wind arpeggios and austere, almost funereal brass chorales.”

Its duration of only six minutes doesn’t allow for much development, but there are attractive passages that seem like the beginning of something profound before they fade out to be replaced by a mutter or a groan from brass or woodwind. This piece calls for a huge orchestra (bull fiddle count: eight) but is mostly under-employed.    Engelsflügelis, not a piece that will settle close to my heart but I will look with interest for more of Dean’s music. I see a parallel with Sculthorpe in the way Dean can produce the colours of vast landscapes when he chooses to.

Claire Edwardes

James Macmillan’s Percussion Concerto No.2 was almost as arresting to see as it was to hear. Across the front of the stage an array of percussion instruments had been assembled, mostly unfamiliar, including an aluphone, a metallophone, vibraphone, xylophone, a variety of strange drums and bells, and a foot pedal operated small bass drum. In addition, there was a back row of more conventional percussion instruments played by three very busy percussionists. Concerto or concerto grosso, I asked myself? And if that wasn’t visual enough, the soloist was a woman of very definable shape poured into a silver-green sheath evening gown. As Claire Edwardes raced from one instrument to another she gave the appearance of flying mercury. And appearance aside, she has become one of the most acclaimed percussion soloists in the world after graduating from the Sydney Conservatorium in 1997.

When David Robertson’s baton came down we were ready for fireworks – and that’s what we got. James Macmillan is one of Scotland’s foremost contemporary composers and you could feel his professional balance saving the piece from erupting like a volcano. As it was, it bordered on hysteria, with its driving rhythms and screeching turns. And through it all, the mercurial Claire Edwardes legged around the stage, grabbing hammers, reaching across to whack meal cylinders that could have come straight from Bunning’s, her right heel crunching down on a hinged pedal to thump a drum behind her.

David Robertson Photo: Ken Butti

This piece deserved a finish where everything blowable or beatable or scrapeable should be used ffff– and it was. The largely young audience went wild. I mopped my brow. Did I love this music? Not really, but I loved the performance.

And thence to the balm of Beethoven’s Symphony No.7 in A. Op.92. The circus had left town and in its place was one of the most loved pieces of music ever written. As I’ve often remarked, playing a favourite comes with the challenge of comparison with the best interpretations by the best conductors and the best orchestras. It is something music lovers just can’t help, even though they may welcome hearing the piece over and over again.

I have to hand it to David Robertson and the SSO; their Beethoven 7thcaptivated me so that I never thought of anything beyond their performance once they’d started. It was crisp and beautifully measured, with the tempi sitting just right between excitement and accuracy. I especially liked the way Robertson went from the boisterousness of the first movement into the famous Allegretto without a break and began that five beat dotted rhythm so softly you could hardly hear it until it was taken up by other instruments. Likewise, there was no break between the third and fourth movements, which had the effect of keeping up the momentum until the fist-pumping finale.

SSO Opera House Meet the Music concert, 7 November 2018

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.


2 Responses to “Beethoven didn’t have it all his own way: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing”
  1. Will Tobeiter says:

    What possible relevance to musicality would the percussionist’s dress or ‘shape’ be in regards to the tour de force that is MacMillan’s percussion concerto?
    ‘Mercurial’ I agree with but I suggest the reviewer evaluates virtuoso musicians for their skill & interpretation – irrespective of his physical take on them.

    • Fraser Beath McEwing says:

      A very sobering observation, Will, but if appearance is irrelevant, especially in this spectacularly visual work, then stay home and listen to a recording.

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