Granite blocks with strange lace in between

March 19, 2015 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Two heavyweights from the popular international composes list plus a rarely heard offering from Australia’s Nigel Butterley made for a hearty musical feast at the second of this year’s Sydney Symphony APT Master Series concerts last night, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.


Janine Jansen

Janine Jansen

Many of the great composers produced but one violin concerto each. They include Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Elgar, Sibelius, Barber, Delius, Nielsen, Vaughan Williams, Haydn, Walton plus a substantial list of lesser knowns. Among the one-shot giants of the genre is Johannes Brahms, whose Violin Concerto in D was written around 1878 with what amounted to mentoring from Joseph Joachim, a virtuoso violinist and friend of Brahms. Together they premiered the work, with the fiendishly difficult first movement cadenza written by Joachim.

This concerto opened the SSO program with Dutch violinist, Janine Jansen as soloist and her Swedish husband Daniel Blendulf conducting.

Those who attended the last Master Series concert in February were probably still recovering from the rocket-ship ride they were taken on by Christian Tetzlaff’s Mendelssohn. Thus it was a big ask for Janine Jansen to step up to the plate at the following concert with the Brahms.

She brought it off well, enhanced by her slender stage presence in a stunning emerald-green evening gown, turbulent chestnut hair and fluid movements. Her playing was, at times, ethereal, but you needed exceptional hearing to pick up her pianissimo passages. She could be powerful too, as demonstrated in the way she vanquished Joachim’s first movement cadenza. However, when it came to blasting an opening to the third movement, which is left to the soloist, it was a little slurred. I’m probably unfairly comparing it to the Perlman rendition, which is my benchmark.

Overall, it was a satisfying performance both musically and visually, especially when Jansen reached up with a pale, languid arm to draw down her husband’s face for a “we’ve done it” kiss. The audience liked the show of affection and so did I.


Daniel Blendulf

After interval we were into the virtually unknown, with Australian composer, Nigel Butterley’s 12-minute tone poem, Never this sun, this watcher. Composed originally for the Ku-ring-gai Philharmonic, this piece was conceived as suitable for a community orchestra in the baby bear’s bed tradition of not too hard but not too soft. It has never been recorded.

I expected a threadbare collection of instrumentalists, as is common with orchestras of this type which struggle to fill the chairs. But the SSO did the 80-year-old Mr Butterley (who sat in the choir stalls and took a bow) proud by filling the stage with a whopper orchestra, including no less than eight bull fiddles, and a base drum that could double as a skating rink.

And away it went, with atonal gasps and inventive, often unexpected combinations of instruments to produce a piece that seemed more tolerated than loved. However, at about the 11-minute mark, I suddenly fell in love with the sound. It came out of nowhere and I couldn’t even guess what instruments were employed before it was all over. Nigel, there is magic there worth developing.

The other granite block was the Sibelius Symphony No. 5 in E Flat, one of the most popular of his symphonic output. Originally it was in the conventional four-movement form but the composer went at it with the revision stick and re-cast the first and second movements into one.

This is a chunky, passionate and stirring work at odds with the preceding fourth symphony, which was all about despair and melancholy.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

Sibelius likes to lay his thematic cards on the table and then work them from many different angles. While his grand sweeps build the strings into a victorious army, it is left to the brass to make the big announcements and the woodwinds to make more wistful observations. Throughout this performance the standouts were the trombone passages, grandly realised by the three players.

In the second movement, marked Andante mosso, quasi allegretto, Sibelius built variations, not around certain notes, but a five-pulse rhythm. It leads to a treasure hunt as you listen for it to reveal itself and scurry away again.

The third movement adopts a similar approach with a melodic theme that gets into your head and won’t leave – well after the concert is over. It comes and goes throughout the movement, almost in the manner of a movie score.

And then, right at the end, comes the big test: six huge chords punctuated by tension-filled silence. It calls for every instrument to hit the bullseye together – six times in a row. Under the baton of Daniel Blendulf the SSO nailed it beautifully.

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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