Grandeur, drama and melancholy in big helpings

June 7, 2012 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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A favourite concerto and a seldom-heard symphony made for an exciting concert by the SSO as part of the Ausgrid Master Series last night writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Oleg Caetani

The orchestra was conducted by Oleg Caetani, a tall Italian man who took to his podium without a score. If that wasn’t unusual, then his choice of orchestral layout certainly was. He spread the violins from one side of the stage to the other, pulled the double bases into mid-field and swiveled the cellos through ninety degrees so that they were directly in front of him.  Woodwind, brass and percussion, being much harder to unseat, remained in their usual positions in the back rows.

Apart from this being a legitimate conductor’s preference, did it change the sound? I think it did – and for the better. I’m not advocating this as a permanent positioning (I’m too much of a traditionalist), but the orchestra seemed to have a more focused voice, especially noticeable in the explosive and the hushed passages of the Shostakovich.

The concert opened, not with a musical hors d’oeuvres as one might expect, but a four-course banquet in the form of Brahms second piano concerto with French soloist Philippe Bianconi. Being one of the major piano concertos in the repertoire, as well as one of the most demanding on both soloist and orchestra, audience members know it well enough to pick an outstanding performance from a poor one. The former applied in this case. After a hesitant horn’s first bar, Bianconi established his credentials with a powerful opening, which he then maintained throughout the four movements. Having said that, he treated the third (slow) movement with a great depth of feeling, blending unhurriedly in the ensemble passages, especially that utilising the solo cello. When the concert was over, that’s what I remembered most.

Unfortunately, the Wednesday audience did its usual sprinkle of clapping between movements, which breaks the spell and displays ignorance. By the time the Brahms finale arrived the clappers were literally clapped out. They let the soloist leave the stage with his obligatory bundle of flowers without clapping him back for an encore.

All concertos challenge soloist and orchestra to hit certain definitive notes together and the Brahms second piano concerto bristles with them. There was obviously a fine understanding between Caetani and Bianconi because they bulls eyed most of them.

Phillipe Bianconi

This was a thoroughly satisfying performance with plenty of power and poetry on tap.

At interval the audience would have been forgiven for thinking that the

Shostakovich would be anti-climactic after the Brahms. For a start, the sixth is not his most popular symphony by a long way. The SSO hadn’t performed it since 2002. It is not therefore familiar nor is it an easy listen.

However, this is one of those orchestral pieces that, when played live, far outclasses even the best recording. In the hands of Oleg Caetani and the SSO it came across as movingly melancholy, explosively exciting and so tippy-toe quiet that you wondered if there was anybody in the orchestra actually playing. All this was rolled into a performance that demanded and held the audience’s attention.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Rather like the SSO on the night, this symphony displayed an odd layout.

The first movement (there are only three) lasted for eighteen minutes against the other two movements of about six minutes each. Not only that, but these could have been two separate pieces, so much did they differ.

The first movement, largo, varied between sadness and fear, sometimes being reminiscent of Mahler. It was all tertiary colours, as the brilliant orchestration pushed boundaries in many directions. It finished quietly, like the end of a life.

The remaining two movements picked up the pace and provided a roller coaster ride through majestic sweeps, crazy descents and sudden mood changes. The opening of the third movement could have been taken for a parody on William Tell. At all times, however, I was aware of Shostakovich’s underlying control and intent. This was far from rolling the random dice in sound.

It should also be remembered that Shostakovich spent his entire life (1906 to 1975) under soviet rule, some of which was brutal and personally threatening. All of his music expresses this oppression (and resulting suppression) in one way or another and sixth symphony is no exception.

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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