Ludwig van does it again

February 19, 2016 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Another entire program of Beethoven under Vladimir Ashkenazy, with the addition of a solo violinist, again packed the Sydney Opera House for the second of the 2016 APT Master Series concerts, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Last week we got the Fourth Symphony and the Emperor Piano Concerto making their contribution to the complete Beethoven symphonic and concerto picture. Last night, the jigsaw pieces were the Violin Concerto and the Fifth Symphony, two of the greatest Beethoven crowd pleasers.

James Ehnes    Photo:

James Ehnes Photo:

Opening the program, Canadian born James Ehnes strode on to the stage carrying his eight million dollar Marsick Stradivarius followed, at a trot, by the self-effacing Vladimir Ashkenazy. Tall and straight, Ehnes looked like Michelangelo’s David in tails. The audience had plenty of time to contemplate his striking appearance as he waited through the long introduction of the concerto for his arpeggio opening. When it came, I marvelled at his technique, with his incomparable trills and perfectly even runs. But at this point, the mob may lynch me, because I was disappointed with his tone and projection. The last time I’d heard the Beethoven violin concerto in the Opera House was four years ago when Anne-Sophie Mutter played it – also under Ashkenazy. On that occasion I was enchanted by a tone that reminded me of ripe fruit.

At age 40, Ehnes has built an enviable reputation and I can see why. Technically, he is flawless, and that would work magic in a recording studio or salon concert, but in an acoustically draining space like the Sydney Opera House, he needed a steroid or two. Even in the slow movement, which gives the soloist plenty of opportunity to be expansive, the honey didn’t flow. The final movement brought some oomph here and there, but the hairs on the back of my neck stayed in place.

Plenty would disagree with me, and that includes members of the orchestra who sat and applauded Ehnes. Even Ashkenazy led an interim clap after the first movement – which had the severe lady sitting next to me hissing with anger over breaking the mood.

In fairness, I must say that Ehnes’s Bach encore, when he didn’t have to compete with the orchestra, was superlative.

Vladamir Ashkenazy conducts the Beethoven Violin Concerto    Photo: Henry Benjamin/J-Wire

Vladamir Ashkenazy conducts the Beethoven Violin Concerto            Photo: Henry Benjamin/J-Wire

Even though the concerto was a considerable attraction, it was Beethoven’s fifth that the audience had come to hear.

Let me digress to relate a story I heard about Sir Thomas Beecham and Beethoven’s Fifth. If you look at the score, you’ll see that the famous da da da dum opening bar is a little deceptive. The first note comes after a quaver rest, which means the conductor has to begin the whole piece with a brief silence. This apparently caused Sir Thomas some consternation because he didn’t want to wave his arms to start the orchestra when all he needed was a sliver of quiet. He got over the problem by holding his hands aloft and shaking his body from the feet up until the spasm reached his arms, whereupon he would signal the first quaver note with a downbeat. Somehow the orchestra caught on, because he became a highly regarded Beethoven conductor.

I watched to see how Ashkenazy would handle that opening quaver rest, but he was too quick for me. He scurried across the stage to begin the second half and started conducting as he was stepping onto the podium. Subsequent repeats of the motif didn’t really decide it for me either. I suspect he gets over the problem by some rapid horizontal arm pumping only visible from the choir seats – which had been left totally empty for some reason.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

But on to more serious musical matters. The fifth was simply inspirational. Whether the orchestra was playing for Ashkenazy or for Beethoven didn’t matter. The effect was uplifting. There was a degree of fervour I hadn’t heard from the SSO in a long time – if ever. Right from the first bars there was emotion, power and beautifully controlled tempi. If you wanted to encapsulate the passion of the players you only had to watch the leader, Dean Olding, who normally goes about his business calmly, but for this performance he went flying on a magic carpet.

One of the unusual features about this symphony, arguably Beethoven’s greatest, is that a number of wind instruments sit blowless for the first three movements, but blast off in the fourth. Thus, for a volcanic finish, the sound is enhanced by piccolo, double bassoon and trombone players with fresh lungs ready to lift the roof.

What I thought might be a ho-hum night turned out to be soul food.

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. and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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