Happy birthday Ludwig : a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

November 19, 2020 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Working within coronavirus limitations, the Australian Chamber Orchestra is framing its early resuscitation around smaller audiences and multiple performances. This made for a roomy gathering at the Sydney Recital Hall last night.

Beethoven

The ACO always seems to offer something unconventional in its programs, and its current series, titled ‘Beethoven 250’, is no exception. It uses the milestone of Beethoven’s 250th birthday as its theme, but in this case didn’t restrict itself to Ludwig, who wrote only one of the four works – although the other composers have all acknowledged his influence.

In addition to his considerable talent as a musician, artistic director Richard Tognetti likes to innovate, adapt and adopt, giving his programs a uniqueness that is no doubt one reason for the orchestra’s success over the 30 years he has been at its head.

A single movement from a Schubert quartet arranged for string orchestra opened the program. Titled Quartettsatz this is one of several examples of Schubert the unfinisher. He wrote it in 1820, intending it to be the first movement of his 12thstring quartet. That completed, he got no further than sketching the second movement before being waylaid by another project. That doesn’t detract from its structure and charm or its attraction as a stand-alone work enhanced by this arrangement.

After an emotional audience welcome back to live performing, the 15 players got down to business with their usual precision and familiar ability to produce volumes of sweet sound from scant forces.

One of Vaughan Williams most loved works, The Lark Ascending, was second on the program. It began its life as a piece for violin and piano, inspired by English poet, George Meredith. It depicts not just the lark rising, but the English countryside beneath its wings. Vaughan Williams quoted these lines from Meredith’s poem at the top of his score when he set it for violin and orchestra.

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.

Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

The lark rose, Tognetti rose, we all rose, while the orchestra became a patchwork of green and pleasant land below. This was lump-in-the-throat stuff, demonstrating just how music can take us on an out-of-body journey.  If I tried to describe Tognetti’s solo playing I would tear up. He owned The Lark Ascending, technically, romantically and interpretatively, projecting the lark’s flight with an intimacy that would have been lost with a full symphony orchestra behind him.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Still in unconventional mode, the program turned to the world premiere of a work commissioned by the ACO: Stride, by Anna Clyne. Stride takes its inspiration from Beethoven’s Pathetique piano sonata. Clyne is a 40-year-old prolific English composer whose body of work ranges over orchestral, chamber, voices and electronic.

I’ve come to be apprehensive about premieres of new works. Too many are little better than jumbled sound effects, but Stride was an exception. While it was often in a hurry to make Pathetique references, it held the attention of the audience with clever, accessible invention, and plenty of excitement.

Although clearly Tognetti’s arrangements for string orchestra, I’m not sure whether it was also his idea to pair Beethoven’s Cavatina Op. 130 with his Grosse Fugue Op. 133 as the final work – although there is a good reason to do so. These were originally two movements from the Op. 130 quartet, but there was such a howl of protest over the fugue that Beethoven unplugged it to become the stand-alone Op. 133. Whatever the back story, the two works made a satisfying fit.

The Cavatina, especially in its string orchestra guise, does not sound typically Beethoven. It is lush, enchanting, sad, sometimes plaintiff, never stopping to draw breath as it morphs through suspended harmonies. The lower registers of the orchestra stood out as oft visited foundations supporting a rich superstructure. This was the only time during the concert that I felt a work would have been better suited a full orchestra, despite the turbo ability of the ACO.

The Grosse Fugue met with derision when it was premiered, but musicologists have subsequently placed at among Beethoven’s most ingenious compositions. In contrast to the usual overlaying fugue pattern, it is complex and difficult to play. New Yorker music critic Alex Ross called it “the most radical work by the most formidable composer in history”. Other analysists rated it as inaccessible, eccentric and filled with paradoxes.

The fugue engages you in a sword fight as its strident theme slashes the air. From the recordings I’d heard I had some doubt about how successful it would be in a live performance by a string orchestra. But that evaporated immediately the ACO hit the jagged opening bars and went on to nail it spectacularly.

ACO Sydney Recital Hall 18 November 2020

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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