Mahler, Bruch, Ashkenazy and Zukerman serve up a rich cocktail

November 14, 2013 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Two major works, two superb musicians and an orchestra playing at the top of its game made for an exciting and satisfying SSO concert, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

The evening was was also tinged with some sadness as the Wednesday nighters saw Vladimir Ashkenazy appear before them as principal conductor and artistic director for the last time. David Robertson will replace him next year.

Pinchas Zukerman

Pinchas Zukerman

Distinguished violinist, Pinchas Zukerman opened the program with Max Bruch’s first violin concerto. From his first solo notes it was obvious that Zukerman’s violin sound was extraordinary. He rose above the orchestra to fill the opera house, seemingly without effort. His reading of the Bruch was pleasingly romantic and passionate, fulfilling the ambitions of audience members who wanted to add Pinchas Zukerman to their list of top rated world musicians they have heard play in Australia. And while they gave him a hero’s reception, I was not convinced that his technique, or maybe his dedication, was up to the level of his magical sound. Although his presto passages were impressively fast, they did not have the articulation of a Menuhin or a Perlman. Moreover, the concerto also has a lot of double-stop passages, which Zukerman ripped into with unexpected aggression. He shone best in the slow movement, where the elongated melody line brought his wonderful sound to the fore.

This is not to say I disliked the performance, but I was looking forward to more finesse. Undoubtedly, Zukerman has played this concerto many, many times and it may have lost some of its magic for him. Bear in mind, too, that his musical pursuits go far beyond violin playing. He devotes time to the viola, chamber music, conducting, teaching and music administration. At 65, his focus may not necessarily be on the superlative violin performances of yore.

The second half of the program was taken up with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Maher made a slow start with public acceptance and popularity of his orchestral and vocal compositions but now his work has accelerated to the point where a great number of music lovers have a crush on Mahler, not the least being former Prime Minister, Paul Keating.

Although the Bruch concerto was certainly worth hearing, the Mahler was in a loftier part of the musical stratosphere. Ashkenazy conducted the SSO in this symphony in 2010 as part of his ‘Mahler Odyssey’. The three elements seemed made for each other.

While Mahler’s Fifth does not include vocal soloists or a choir, as some of his other symphonies do, it calls for a full-house orchestra with plenty of blowing power and a back row of four percussionists ready to shatter concrete if called upon. It is also a formidable piece to conduct, running over five movements and taking about an hour and a quarter to play. It is full of tricky rhythms, huge variations in volume, and continually changing combinations of instruments.

While I’ve always been a fan of the SSO blowers, I’ve never heard the brass play better than in this Mahler, where there are many opportunities to give the players their heads. Richness of tone and pinpoint timing produced some electrifying passages.

Each movement is self-contained, even when borrowing previously stated thematic material. The first movement immediately signals heroic brass through a trumpet call and its sets off on a robust, sometimes military journey.

In the second movement, Mahler asks for the interpretation to be ‘stormy, with utmost vehemence’. Although this is not program music, it is easy to conjure up a picture of a battering hurricane as the music plunges and rears up.

In the third movement, a central scherzo, Mahler wants it to be ‘strong and not too fast’. It mixes optimism and pessimism in equal quantities and provides a transition from the negative to the positive side of the emotional spectrum.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

The fourth movement is, for many people, what they came to hear. This Adagietto was played as a separate piece well before it took its place in the symphony. It gained even more popularity when it was used as background music for the movie Death in Venice. Brass, woodwind and percussion down tools while the strings, accompanied by a harp, curl slowly through the expression of love, and the melancholy that seems to accompany it, that Mahler felt for his new wife, Alma. If you’re going to shed a tear over Mahler, this is where it will happen.

There is always discussion over how slowly this movement can be played without losing coherence. Ashkenazy did it to perfection.

The final rondo movement returns to drama and comes to a colossal climax that makes everybody feel like cheering.

This audience did just that, for the departing Ashkenazy, for the uplifting Mahler and for an orchestra that has just slayed dragons.



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