Lots of luscious Ludwig: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

May 13, 2021 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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The lure of familiar Beethoven was probably enough to virtually covid-fill the Town Hall last night, but for those with more contemporary tastes, there were a couple of works for their corner too.

Johannes Fritzsch

While programmers could hardly go wrong with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and Pastoral Symphony, they took more of a risk with Carl Nielsen’s Concerto for Flute and Orchestra as an unexplained swap for Leonard Bernstein’s Halil. This is becoming the year of the approximate program. The show must go on – even if it’s a different show.  

Always a different show is the now established curtain raiser of the 50 Fanfares Commission showcasing Australia’s yet-to-be-famous composers. This time we heard Fanfaresso by Julian Yu. His program explanation of the work took almost as long to read as the four minutes it took to play. Like some other Fanfarites, he didn’t take advantage of the full orchestra at his disposal but opted to stand the brass up and let them go at it. Having said that, Fanfaresso was well realised as it quickly and convincingly changed moods and exploited the brass’s boundaries.

Thence to a better-known opener – and an overture rather than a fanfare. Although Beethoven wrote 722 works in his 45-year lifetime, and most of them are well documented, there is disagreement over how many were what we could call overtures.  Some musicologists say 10, with the stingiest estimate at three. There is no doubt that the Egmont Overture must be counted among the authentic – although it was written as the starter’s gun to a set of incidental pieces for the 1787 play of the same name by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Egmont might have doubled as a movement of a symphony. It has an arresting opening, strong themes, clear development and lasts for a handy 10 minutes. It also imposes that five-note string question and woodwind answer – to hum later. The SSO’s precise opening set the tone for a satisfying rendition of this popular overture.

Joshua Batty

The Nielsen concerto was as unfamiliar as the Bernstein would have been. In three movements, it is not in danger of becoming popular with its passages of violent arguments between chickens and many challenging tonalities and outbursts. The standout for me was the opening of the second movement where the soloist is given what amounts to a cadenza as he slowly ushers in the rest of the orchestra. And there my comment on the work may have rested were it not for the remarkable playing of flautist Joshua Batty. As well as sitting in an orchestral chair, he is in continual demand as a soloist – but still finds time to pass on his skill through teaching. From such a modest-looking instrument, and a similarly modest-looking musician, came forth hard-to-believe technique with the ability to soar above a whole symphony orchestra or hush down to a lone whisper. This performance redefined the flute for me.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major was the main attraction, offering the inventiveness and richness of the composer without the tragedy or fist-clenching of the symphonies on either side of it. The sixth was completed in 1808 and is one of Beethoven’s few works that carried a description of what the music was portraying. It illustrates Beethoven’s love of nature as it moves musically through the countryside and includes, in the final movement, one helluva convincing thunderstorm. The tranquil shepherd’s song that follows brings a sigh of contentment after taking off the galoshes. The symphony has been used in at least seven movies and has remained a concert favourite for 200 years.

Fraser Beath McEwing

For this concert, the SSO was conducted by German-born Johannes Fritzsch, currently principal conductor and artistic advisor of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. He replaced well-whiskered Scot, Donald Runnicles, for whom I have clan as well as conducting reverence. Although covid has deprived Australian audiences of overseas musical celebrities like Runnicles, it has given opportunities for local talent to shine. This was no exception. The often-smiling Fritzsch seemed especially at home with his countryman, Beethoven. He produced a well-cooked Pastoral, beginning with a lively tempo in the first movement and a rich woodiness in the second. Maybe it was because of my seating position, but I didn’t get blown away by the famous storm. I wanted the percussion players to nearly break their instruments and scare the daylights out of me.

 

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