Claytons Brahms and genuine Chopin: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

May 16, 2019 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Two composers who borrowed from Brahms flanked the real-deal Chopin in the SSO’s Masters Series concert last night at the Sydney Opera House.

Yulianna Avdeeva Photo: SSO

While Krzysztof Meyer’s Hommage a Johannes Brahms was new to the SSO, Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25 had been given a 2015 outing at the Opera House. Considering how many programming options the orchestra has available to it, I suspect that somebody highly placed loves this work.

Although Krzysztof Meyer is not familiar to Australian audiences, he is one of Poland’s foremost contemporary composers, as well as a respected music writer. His unabashed affection for Brahms led him to compose, in 1982, a homage to commemorate the 150thanniversary of Brahms’s birth. A relatively brief work (13 minutes), the homage begins by borrowing heavily from the opening of Brahms first symphony and then goes on to build a many-faceted structure based on the letters of the composer’s name.

This was entertaining music, with plenty of surprises, some of them like rifle shots. Once the first symphony link is established the work leaves the nest and goes on spirited adventures, sometimes grandly sweeping all before it and sometimes leaving silence broken only by tiny droplets of sound. It provided an apt curtain raiser for the more ordered works that were to follow.

Andrey Boreyko

To Chopin. Yulianna Avdeeva’s appearance with the SSO follows her highly praised piano solo recitals in Australia last year. Born in Moscow, and now aged 34, Avdeeva came to fame by winning the prestigious Chopin Competition in 2010 – only the fourth woman to do so, the third being Martha Argerich in 1965. Since the SSO hadn’t performed Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor Op. 11 since 2011 with Evgeny Kissin, this looked like a promising return of a favourite, but it turned out to be far more than that. The performance was exceptional, and not only because of the breathtaking playing of the soloist. Russian conductor, Andrey Boreyko, flew in face of the often-expressed view that Chopin’s orchestration was dull and only there as a foil for the soloist. In the long introduction before the soloist enters, Boreyko drew luminous richness and breadth from the orchestra.  And when Avdeeva added her interpretive and technical mastery to the mix we witnessed magic unfold. She was born to play Chopin.

The concert’s conductor, Andrey Boreyko, was born in Saint Petersburg in 1957 of Polish and Russian parents. He has had a distinguished career working with leading orchestras throughout the world, his current post being Music Director of Artis in Naples, Southwest Florida. Boreyko and the SSO seemed like a perfect fit as they brought off demanding passages, fast and lingering. Although a precise conductor, he sometimes abandoned his baton to make directive shapes in the air with his hands.

Fraser Beath McEwing

The final work in the program is sometimes nicknamed Brahms’ fifth symphony. It could be taken for that, in three movements out of its four, anyway. The opening bars immediately demonstrate the resolve of Arnold Schoenberg to see the orchestration through the compositional prism of Brahms. Schoenberg was quoted as saying in 1938 that he had “watched carefully all the laws which Brahms obeyed and not to violate any of those which are only known to musicians educated in his environment”.  The result is a remarkably satisfying piece for orchestra that grows like a lush harvest from the seeds of the Brahms piano quartet.

That said, the Schoenberg orchestration is only strictly Brahmsian until the fourth movement when Arnold relaxes his resolve and cuts loose with xylophone, glockenspiel and cymbals in some wild gypsy dance motifs. That sets the scene for upping the tempo and rhythms – seemingly beyond Brahms’s preferences – but thankfully it doesn’t morph into Schoenberg’s 12 tone idiom and jump the rails. After a runaway ride it finishes in a shower of sparks.

Even though I wanted to go home reliving the enchanting playing of the Chopin, especially the slow movement, the Schoenberg gypsies got to me and I jigged (carefully I should add) down the Opera House steps.

SSO Opera House concert, 15 May 2019

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 


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