Impressions from, Ravel, Mendelssohn, Debussy – and the Sydney Town Hall: a music review from Fraser Beath McEwing

February 27, 2020 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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The first concert in the SSO Masters Series for 2020 ushered in the beginning of a two-year stint in ye auld and venerated Sydney Town Hall while the Opera House concert hall is up for a rebore.

Andrew Haveron

Suffice to say that the Sydney Town Hall acoustic delivery has brought the SSO out of the Opera House cupboard in which it has been playing for decades. Concertmaster, Andrew Haveron, summed it up when he said, before the concert, “we can now hear each other. Fingers crossed for two years’ time.”

Okay, so the view from the Town Hall stalls isn’t wonderful, and those in the side balconies could get stiff necks, but it’s all about the sound. Suddenly the cellos are rich and woody, the clarinets floating honey, the brass Samurai sharp. I get the feeling, that the orchestra is quite inspired by the rise in fidelity.

You’d put money on a concert starting with an overture, but this time we were served the piano concerto first. It might have had something to do with lugging the Steinway around the tight stage.

Ravel composed some of the most technically daunting piano solo music – such as Gaspard de la nuit. The piano concerto in G did not escape Maurice’s love of punishing phalanges – although the slow movement is sublimely simple and reminiscent of Erik Satie – another ground-breaking French composer. Ravel’s concerto is full of jumps and jolts, starting as it does with a dose of the clapper, followed by some delicious sliding trombone passages and long, excruciatingly fast volleys of single notes in the third movement.

In the field of female performers of the concerto – which include Yuja Wang and Martha Argerich – last night’s soloist, Alexandra Dariescu, was in star company. Born in Romania and musically educated in England, 35-year-old Dariescu comes to Australia with a notable track record in academia and performance. She climbed the Ravel mountain and stood on the top in a performance bristling with technical brilliance and tender romanticism. Her encore was a surprise, as she combined with cello guest principal, Andrew Joyce, to melt hearts with Clara Schumann’s Romance.

Although you wouldn’t call Mendelssohn an impressionist, his much-loved Hebrides Overture, Op 26, also known as Fingal’s Cave, certainly evokes that strange columned rock formation on Staffa island off the coast of Scotland. One might not have expected Felix to write such a beguiling piece after rowing out through a choppy sea in a small boat to see the cave and throwing up several times en route.

While the SSO performed the overture with the generous richness it deserves, my preference is for greater emphasis on the six-note chassis upon which it rides. Mendelssohn began sketching the overture immediately he came ashore and I’m convinced that he heard those six notes first in his head. Anyway, my head wanted to hear them played with more prominence.

Fraser Beath McEwing

La Mer, the major work of the concert, has become Debussy’s most popular orchestral composition, and is about as close as he came to writing a symphony. In three movements, it is symphonic in character and length – although Claude was not keen on the archaic, restrictive label ‘symphony’. Le Mer is full of surprises, which drew a wide range of reactions from critics when it premiered in Paris in 1905. Translated into English, the three movements comprise From dawn to noon on the sea, Play of the waves, Dialogue between wind and water. The third movement is probably the most remembered since it takes a closely semitoned melody and repeats it, with development, several times. While the beginning of the piece conjures up a calm sea, the end brings on a furious storm in which one could imagine a ship crashing onto shoreline rocks

The conductor, Munich born Jun Markl, coaxed an outstanding range of tonal colours from an obviously enthused SSO. This is a difficult work to conduct, with many sub-divisions in the orchestral sections and a full house of forces that included two harps, a battery of brass and six bull fiddles. Yet Markl conducted scoreless, giving himself physically to the music while still maintaining absolute control.

Jun Markl has recorded Debussy and Ravel for the Naxos label as well as holding tenured posts with leading orchestras around the world. Next year he will take up the post of principal guest conductor of the Hague Philharmonic Orchestra. His teachers have include Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa.

SSO Sydney Town Hall concert 26 February 2020

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