A night to please

December 4, 2014 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Take a British beginning and end, put Sibelius in the middle, and everybody goes home feeling good – but only if the musicians can deliver, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

In this case they did, superbly.

Donald Runnicles

Donald Runnicles

The APT Master Series concert opened with the infrequently performed Sinfonia da Requiem Op.20 by Benjamin Britten. Although considered a milestone in the development of English music, much of Britten is an acquired taste. Not so this three-part dramatic and damning take on war, which explains, in musical terms, Britten’s passionate pacifism.

The musical form straddles requiem and symphony, as the title suggests, yet it is neither. It has no voices or accompanying text and its three sections are played without interruption. Sometimes bleak, sometimes, overwhelming but always returning to the sadness and futility of war, this is a fulfilling symphonic experience. It opens with commanding tympani blows to usher in the theme that pervades the entire work.

The orchestral layout for this, and the other two works on the program, was unusual. I assumed that Scottish conductor, Donald Runnicles, did it for a good reason and by the end of the evening the penny dropped for me, given the music being played. While the violins were in their usual place on the conductor’s left, the cellos had been shoehorned in between midnight and ten past. In their place, on the right of the conductor were the violists lined up with their over-nourished fiddles in full view of the audience. I own up to laughing at unkind jokes about violinists, but the sound they produced on this occasion was like ripe fruit. There were passages in the Britten and later in the Elgar that gave the violas pride of place and they revelled in it.

It is worth noting how many top-drawer composers wrote only one violin concerto, which then went on to join the popular bloc. They include, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mendelsohn, Brahms, Korngold and Sibelius.


Frank Peter Zimmermann

Youthful German violinist, Frank Peter Zimmermann, was the soloist in the Sibelius violin concerto, and what a sparkling performance he gave. Toting his 1711 Strad, (sponsored by Portigon AG) he laid into one of the most technically demanding pieces in the violin repertoire with masterful passion. Right from the subtle solo entry over muted strings, Zimmermann had its measure. Had he been around to play it at its Helsinki debut in 1904, it may have immediately gone up the charts, but a series of mediocre soloists crippled its popularity until the 1930s when the legendary Jascha Heifetz took a shine to it and placed it irrevocably among the best of the genre.

Zimmermann managed to extract some remarkable sounds from his Stradivarius. While we expected, and received, absolute purity in the upper register, down lower, especially in double stopping, the sound was rich, more like that of a cello.

And so to Elgar’s Enigma Variations or, to give its official title: Variations on an original theme Op.36.

To most music lovers, this is family. I, for one, grew up with it, initially trying to guess what the ‘enigma’ was all about before I saw the big picture of musical portraits of a group of Elgar’s closest friends.


Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

Here is something of a dichotomy. Following the music via the portraits is one way to enjoy it, but it robs the listener of an emotional pure-music experience. It seems that you can choose one or the other way to listen, but not both. For me, this is enchanting music for its own sake and I’m going to try to forget about Caroline Alice Edgar and Richard Baxter Townsend and Nimrod. In future, I’ll simply drink in the music. And I’ll listen for those violas and nod my thanks to Donald Runnicles who made me hear them afresh. He is a conductor of understanding and precision. Judging by their applause at the end of the Elgar, I think the members of the SSO orchestra love playing under his baton.

One curious sidelight to the Enigma Variations is the inclusion of the organ. It was lit up, with David Drury seated among the bewildering array of stops, but Elgar buried its contribution deep in the score. During the finale I did detect some low hertz rumbling, but it never broke free. Ah well, I’ll have to wait for Saint Saens next year.

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.

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