Music from beneath the Bolshevik boot: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

August 29, 2019 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Last night’s Masters Series concert was not for faint-hearted orchestral players, conductors or an audience that wanted orderly, familiar music.

Mark Wigglesworth conducts the SSO    Photo: Jay Patel

Rather, it released a vast variety of sounds from the stage of the Opera House, some lovable, some blasting and some disturbing, but none boring. Both works came from 20h Century composers who’d been under the critical ears of Soviet officials who didn’t hesitate to impose artistic constraints when they thought their composers were not toeing the revolutionary line.

Khachaturian, along with Shostakovich and Prokofiev, suffered official denunciation via Pravda from the Soviet government in 1948, yet all produced music that is now regarded throughout the world as works of genius.

Khachaturian’sViolin Concerto in D minor opened the program, with the SSO conducted by Mark Wigglesworth (principal guest conductor of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra) and Canadian solo violinist, James Ehnes. The SSO has attracted some outstanding violin soloists for its concertos this year and Ehnes was no exception. In addition to his playing bringing him world acclaim, his contribution to music, in general, earned him membership of the Order of Canada in 2010. And, of course, he plays a Stradivarius, this one from 1715 with the nickname ‘ex-Marsick’.

The Khachaturian rightfully takes its place among the great violin concertos, with a blend of driving rhythms and Armenian folk melodies. One of the reasons for its success as a violin concerto is probably the collaboration between composer and legendary violinist, David Oistrakh, during its writing. Also, for the same reason, it calls for exceptional technique, with its frequent double-stopping, recitative journeys and lightning runs. Legend has it that the first movement’s punishing cadenza was written by Oistrakh.

Two brisk allegro movements bookend the central slow movement which is a heart-wringer, with its Armenian/gypsy longing and sadness. Some listeners hear wisps of Scheherazade mysticism while others hear references to Mahler.

Because of the Opera House’s poor acoustics, concerto soloists and singers can easily be drowned out by the orchestra. Even though Ehnes is a superb violinist, there were times during the first movement of the Khachaturian when he became lost in the crowd but come the slow movement his Strad broke free (I’d love to hear him play Vaughn Williams’ The Lark ascending) and remained aloft in the furiously paced allegro vivace third movement. This was an uplifting performance from a violinist at the top of his game. I should also mention a memorable horn solo passage in the first movement that reminded me of fresh cream.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op.43 gives us a look at where the composer was headed musically when the Soviet art police first stomped on him in 1936. The symphony was in final rehearsal but not performed publicly before it was withdrawn. It then had to wait 25 years to be heard – during which time Shostakovich got back into governmental favour with symphonic writing that was regarded as more patriotic.

This three-movement symphony is a wild ride that goes for well over an hour. Programmers took a risk in presenting it, especially bracketing it with the challenging Khachaturian. This was born out by a percentage of the audience vanishing after the interval. They should have stayed for a rare musical experience.

Having said that, Shostakovich’s fourth is not an easy listen – unless you like being swept from one extreme soundscape to the other with no return tickets, but it is certainly exciting.  It takes full advantage of its XXL orchestra comprising strings, including eight bull fiddles, six flutes, six clarinets, four oboes, four bassoons, two harps, celeste,  seven percussionists, including two on timpani, and two tubas to rip your shirt off. All the instruments come in for plenty of work, especially the timpani, which are called upon to rain down some spectacular sets of blows. The most memorable is towards the end of the symphony when it seems the percussion has won the right to take No.4 across the finish line – but instead, everything becomes so twinklingly hushed, thanks to the celeste, that you feel like creeping out so as not to wake the baby.

Mark Wigglesworth did an outstanding job in directing one of the most complex and exhausting works in the symphonic repertoire. He hopped, shuddered, slashed and swayed with a commitment that must have inspired the SSO to one of the finest performances in my experience.

SSO Opera House concert, 28 August 2019

Fraser Beath McEwing is a pianist, commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation which assists talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of five novels and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home. A body of his work can be found on 


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