Big blasts from Beethoven and Brahms: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

June 17, 2021 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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In last night’s Sydney Town Hall concert, Brahms was ranked above Beethoven – when the SSO performed Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano in C majorOp. 56, before intermission, with Brahms Symphony No. 3 in F Major in prime-time after.

Nicholas Carter

We were also treated to another Australian composer in the Fifty Fanfares Commission and an intermezzo for strings written by a little-known Jewish Austrian.

Also little-known, but more orchestrally minded, was 29-year-old Harry Sdraulig, whose contribution to the fifty Fanfares Commission was a piece called Torrent. Bravo Harry! He used the full resources of the orchestra to produce impressive work. His orchestration was skilful and the climax soared. He fitted a lot of ideas into eight minutes and I look forward to hearing more of his work. I think Harry has gone to number one in my unofficial ranking of Fifty Fanfares.

The triple concerto is an awkward beast even in the best composing hands. Is it a piano trio with orchestra accompaniment or is it a competition between three soloists? Beethoven did his best to dodge both – and largely succeeded. Although the least successful of Beethoven’s concertos, the triple is still an arresting piece of music with a particularly hummable third movement.

What made it even better last night was the all-Aussie team that played it. Sitting at the wide end of the Steinway was Piers Lane, hero of the rebirth of the Sydney Piano Competition of Australia, and a past prize-winner himself. Umberto Clerici, SSO principal cello, and Andrew Haveron, SSO principal violin, after eyeballing each other around conductors’ thighs for years, left their usual chairs to fill the other two solo roles.

Which brings us to the conductor, Melbourne born Nicholas Carter, who did a four-year stint with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra before his recent appointment as chief conductor of the Konzert Theatre Bern. He’s also been guest conductor of many well-known overseas orchestras, along with the major ones in Australia. And he is now in high demand as an opera conductor. Having achieved all that, Nicholas Carter is still only in his mid-thirties. In this concert, I got the impression he inspired the SSO with his sure-footed enthusiasm – without micromanaging the players.

Back to Beethoven. The triple concerto maintains a strong symphonic presence even though it highlights the soloists. The slow movement is probably the exception when it brings the three soloists into a largo interplay that is quite sublime.

While Haveron and Lane were virtually faultless soloists, it was Clerici who stood out. His stage presence and richly projected cello were a delight, especially his opening solo in the slow movement.

After a virtuoso performance by the furniture removers, we were ready for Intermezzo Op 8 by Franz Schreker (1878 – 1934). It was new to me – largely because he wrote most of his music for now-seldom-heard operas. And that’s a pity. His brief intermezzo was compellingly wistful and could be considered a companion piece to the Richter we heard recently, except that Schreker uses a full complement of strings. It also gave the impression that Vaughn Williams was hovering over the composer’s pen. This music was easy to love on first hearing and would be welcome mortar in any concert program. The orchestra made the most of the expansive string writing.

Somebody once said, ‘My favourite Brahms symphony is the one I heard last.’ The last one our audience heard was Symphony No.3 in F major, Op.90 – a permanent favourite for many people, including Anton Dvorak. It was written in 1883, six years after the completion of the second and during Brahms’ most productive period. It is the shortest of his four symphonies.

The first movement opens with the notes F-A♭-F which probably depicts Brahms’ personal motto: free but happy. He might have been even happier to have lost his freedom by winning the heart and hand of Clara Schumann whom he adored. This first movement also makes a reference to Wagner’s Tannhauser which he much admired.

Having been written in just four months in the summer at Wiesbaden, the symphony has a cohesion about it that Clara Schumann expressed in a letter to Brahms after she had played it through on her piano: ‘All the movements seem to be of one piece, one beat of the heart.’

I agree with Clara; and on this occasion the orchestra contained it within a framework of rich, yet spirited playing, especially from the brass department. While there may be other, more extravagant interpretations, the SSO hit the sweet spot for me.

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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