Favourite bookends and a bone-shaking middle

November 20, 2014 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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The grandeur and familiarity of Beethoven and Brahms sat either side of a pyrotechnic exhibition in sound at the SSO APT Master Series in the Sydney Opera House last night, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Across the front of the stage, percussionist Colin Currie had assembled a line of instruments to wake the dead. But before they could be struck as part of the centrepiece of the concert, Siedi – Percussion Concerto by Kalevi Aho, (an Australian premier) we were treated to Beethoven’s overture Egmont.

Osmo Vanska

Osmo Vanska

Beethoven wrote several overtures that have all become popular, stand-alone concert pieces. Egmont was written in 1810 for a revival of a play by Goethe. Beethoven also wrote incidental music for the play, but the overture has grown in stature while the rest of the project has slid into obscurity. If you wanted to introduce somebody to the orchestral Beethoven, Egmont would be an apt choice.

In the hands and energetic leaping of Finnish conductor, Osmo Vanska, this was an exercise in precise timing while allowing romantic passages their freedom. It was possibly the best interpretation of Egmont I’ve heard live. The orchestra seemed to revel in it.

While enjoying and admiring the Beethoven, I couldn’t stop my eyes wandering along the line of very un-SSO instruments, waiting like magician’s props to perform their magic. Then the magician appeared, an unpretentious Scot, Colin Currie, for whom this concerto had been written. The percussion instruments included the djembe (a native drum), darabuka, membranophones, tom-toms, snare drum, marimba, wood blocks, temple blocks, vibraphone and tam tam. Currie began his performance as soloist at the beginning of the line on the right hand side of the stage and moved along, playing each instrument in succession. After a kind of cadenza on the last, the tam tam, (looking like a giant wok) he took the journey back, stopping to play each instrument again, but different scoring resulted in different sounds.

Now, while all this was happening out front, three percussionists spaced out at the back of the orchestra walloped out huge drumbeats. And yes, the rest of the orchestra was belting away too, producing strange a-tonal passages that seemed like filling in a monster sandwich.

Colin Currie

Colin Currie

The overall effect was nothing short of startling, yet still musical. Few members of the audience would have ever been subjected to this kind of sonic assault before, but like me, many would have allowed themselves to be carried along and thoroughly enjoyed it. What really stood out was the extraordinary technical skill and musicianship of Colin Currie, who played every percussion instrument as though it was his specialty.

Although there were some stupendous explosions along the way, the end of this concerto was also unexpected. While I waited for the world to blow up the volume fell away until there were just droplets of sound in a conversation between the djembe and barely-there single orchestral instruments. The actual end was a period of silence, broken eventually by a brief bow from Vanska.

After interval, Brahms could have been renamed Balms, healing the percussion gashes with the much loved, well-known first symphony. After the Egmont, I expected that Vanska would strike a perfect balance between discipline and rich romanticism – which he did. He comes to Australia with a reputation for exceptional Brahms interpretation and he did not disappoint with the SSO. He extracted a filled-out rich sound from the orchestra that I couldn’t recall from its previous Brahms performances.

Brahms laboured over this symphony for 14 years and many consider it to be the finest of the four. The beginning immediately draws you in with mounting, unrelenting strings underpinned by a tympani beat that evokes a walk to the gallows under a dark sky. Clara Schuman can be thanked for this remarkable opening. Johannes had quite a crush on Clara and sent an early version of the manuscript to her for comment. Because she didn’t like the original strident opening he wrote and attached the one we now know.

In addition to the four movements of the symphony showing off the orchestra at its best, it allowed some exquisite solo violin playing from concertmaster Andrew Haveron.

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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