Molto Russian, meno Italian…a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

August 13, 2015 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Rachmaninov and Shostakovich had their big guns blazing while Verdi pinged away with his pea-rifle in an Opera House concert last night that many in the audience rated as the best in the APT Master Series so far this year.

When you’ve got two major and well-known works on the bill, the choice of an opening minor companion throws up a question. In this case it was answered with Verdi’s Ballet music from Act 3 of Macbeth. While this was pleasant enough fare it was little more than an aperitif for what was to come.

After Rachmaninov’s fourth piano concerto bombed at its premiere in 1927, Sergei went into his composing shell and didn’t emerge with a work for piano and orchestra until the premiere of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934. Affection for it has grown so that now it is one of his most popular works.

James Gaffigan

James Gaffigan

That is both good and bad. Good because audiences want to hear it and bad because it is difficult to bring freshness to it in performance. Enter Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein and the SSO under American conductor James Gaffigan and that theory was turned on its head. Between them they produced colour, excitement, technical mastery and a collaboration of soloist and orchestra that I’ve never heard equalled live. It was simply stunning and I can’t wait to hear Gerstein in his solo recital next week.

On to Shostakovich, who wrote 15 symphonies, of which the fifth is one of his most favoured, but never more so than at its 1937 premiere in Leningrad where the audience gave it a thirty minute standing ovation. Thirty minutes after it had finished at the Sydney Opera House the only people standing were the cleaners. That is not to say it was not enthusiastically received for its stormy grandeur and heart-wringing sadness, along with an excellent delivery from the SSO and conductor James Gaffigan.

The symphony comes with a dramatic story. Dmitri Shostakovich was riding high in Russian musical circles in the mid 1930s until Joseph Stalin went to a performance of his highly acclaimed opera Lady Macbeth
of Mtsensk.
Joe was a musical thickhead and stamped out at interval because he couldn’t understand it. The next morning, Pravda published such a damning critique of the work that Dmitri had to close the production and also assign his recently completed, but unperformed, fourth symphony to a drawer for fear that its publication would see him taken away and shot. He then lived in fear for his life because of the strictures the new Soviet regime had placed on all art forms with a pre-revolution flavour.

Kirrill Gerstein

Kirrill Gerstein

In an attempt to come back into favour, Shostakovich wrote his Fifth Symphony, subtitling it “Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism”. The genius of the work was that the authorities heard what they wanted to hear while the music-loving audience heard something quite different. There is little doubt that the third movement is a requiem for those massacred in the revolution; at the premier it had the audience weeping. By contrast, the final movement would have pleased the military establishment with its timpani blows, whereas the musically perceptive audience would have heard it as a parody – something that Dmitri did well. Several commentators have used the expression ‘forced rejoicing’ to describe it.

The first movement opens with a two-semiquaver statement that promises drama but then almost immediately softens to a reflective mood with a few brief outbursts until the kettledrum leads a march that drags everything along with it. A timpani signal abruptly changes the mood again, this time introducing a lonely flute theme that might well have been written for a movie (remembering that Shostakovich wrote a number of successful film scores) and finishes with three ghostly chromatic scales on the celesta that reach for your backbone.

Incidentally, the celesta player, Susanne Powell, doubled as pianist, but the two instruments were inexplicably placed on opposite sides of the stage, meaning that poor Susanne had to dive out one door, sprint around the rear corridor and pop back in through the other as the score dictated. Initially, I thought she had gone out for a cuppa but that wasn’t the case.

The second movement opens with a wild waltz that turns out to be a variation of the first theme in the first movement. The mood lightens into frivolity and whimsy, giving the principal violin a chance to go solo for a few bars.

The third movement is the heart of the symphony, the part that brought the premiere audience to tears. One can’t resist forming images of deep sadness and tragedy as the score is given over mostly to passionate, widely divided strings.

The fourth movement might well be called timpani-time. If the timpanist was paid by the blow he would walk away rich. He was joined by blasts from the brass, big, fast-moving strings and strong melodies. There was some respite in the middle as we floated through a pastoral setting before all hell broke loose again, leading to a finish that would draw applause from a stack of bricks – let alone an appreciative audience like the one last night. And who gets the last say? The timpani of course, with a few good kicks in the pants from the bass drum.

SSO Opera House concert 12 August 2015

The concert will be repeated on Friday, August 14 and Saturday, August 15.

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. He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.




One Response to “Molto Russian, meno Italian…a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing”
  1. Marta Mikey Frid says:

    In which Opera House was this played?

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