Not quite a night for the mainstreamers, but . . .

March 13, 2014 by J-Wire
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The Sydney Symphony took a degree of risk in offering its APT Master Series concertgoers two works not high in the popularity stakes, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 1 in G Minor Op 13 had not been performed by SSO for 15 years, while it had been 24 years since the last outing of Prokofiev’s

Cantata Op 78, Alexander Netsky. Generally, programmers take a bet each way and toss in at least one well-worn shoe, but not on this occasion.

It is worth mentioning that the program notes, commendably rich in information, claimed that Alexander Netsky was one of Prokofiev’s best-known works, which raised my eyebrows.

Pinchas Steinberg  Photo: Henry Benjamin

Pinchas Steinberg Photo: Henry Benjamin

Anyway, enough of niggles. The program opened with the 27 year old Pyotr Ilych’s first go at a symphony. Although he claimed it was flawed, and fiddled with it a few times after its debut, it is a satisfying work, especially for Tchaikovsky lovers. It shows where he was headed as a composer and particularly as a master orchestrator.

Israel born, and subsequently distinguished conductor, Pinchas Steinberg, managed to extract an unexpected mellowness from the orchestra that made me think of polished antique timber. He conducted the symphony scoreless and appeared to be a precise batoneer, with an upright stance and economical movements. It was not until the end of the symphony, with a whopping fourth movement climax coming up, that he threatened the stitching of his tails.

Tchaikovsky’s first symphony is in four, clearly programmed movements. My favourite was the second, adagio, where gentle strings and woodwinds apply a balm to the listener. There is a brief disturbance towards the end when the horns get into the act (in this case hampered by three not-quite-there top notes) before calm takes over again. Even the scherzo, the third movement, kept up the restraint through a playful game between strings and various other instruments. It was not until the fourth movement that Tchaikovsky primed the percussion and got out the big brass guns for a charge to the finish.

And so to Alexander Netsky.

While quite a number of 20th Century composers wrote film music, it is doubtful whether any paid more attention to its performance than Sergei Prokofiev did for the music behind the 1938 movie Alexander Nevsky, his third score written for what was then a developing form of entertainment. After he had composed the 23 sections to back the film, he fussed over how it would be recorded by experimenting with microphone placement and other devices to create special sound effects.

Probably realising that a good soundtrack will often outlast the host movie, Prokofiev reworked Alexander Nevsky as a cantata for mezzo-soprano, large choir and fully optioned orchestra. Although the original soundtrack was re-recorded to go with a new version of the film in 1995, the cantata treatment went off to live a concert life of its own.

For the record, Alexander Nevsky (1220 to 1263) was the Prince of Novgorod, Grand Prince of Kiev, and was declared a Saint of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1547, largely based on his military victories over German and Swedish invaders. From this we may discern that he was well worthy of celebration

Because the music runs on programmatic rails, it has the effect of making this Prokofiev more accessible than some of his other compositions. The cantata’s seven movements offer stirring passages of battle, contrasting tenderness and haunting sadness.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

The choir corral, filled by the Sydney Philharmonic choirs, (whose members not only performed for the love of it, but had to sing in Russian), a big two-harp orchestra and Maestro Steinberg, this time equipped with a score, we were ready for take-off.  But where was Natascha Petrinsky, our mezzo? Her chair stood empty next to the podium as the first strident octaves of Russia under the Mongolian Yoke cleaved the air. It was not until the swords were making sparks fly in The battle on the Ice that tall and slender Natascha picked her way between the fiddlers, her long gown looking like an arrangement of bright red roses. She obviously didn’t like the idea of sitting gaping at the audience while the almost unbelievable explosions of sound in the preceding movements pounded the listeners to their backbones. But when she stood and began to sing her solo part in The Field of the Dead, the effect was nothing short of magical. Big and rich, her voice easily carried above the orchestra to produce the saddest music imaginable.

The final movement left the audience open mouthed that such overwhelming sound could come from humans using instruments fashioned from naturally occurring materials.

Before this performance of Alexander Netsky I’d only heard it recorded and had been, to be honest, underwhelmed. But live, it was an extraordinary and stunning experience. I hope it is not another 24 years before we hear it again.

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.


4 Responses to “Not quite a night for the mainstreamers, but . . .”
  1. Otto Waldmann says:

    David Schulsomething
    you are right, it has absolutely NOTHING to do with anyone for whom kultcha means gurnischt !!!

  2. All well and good but what does this have to do with Jews?

  3. harry rich says:

    Mr. McEwing does not only have an extensive knowledge of music, art and history, he is also an excellent music critic who is able to analyse and comment on individual performances with insight and homour.

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