Sculthorpe remembered

August 15, 2014 by Bill Brooks
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The Sydney Symphony Orchestra paid its respects to the distinguished Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe who recently passed away by including an unscheduled performance of his Memento Mori in its ATP series concert thus week.

Bill Brooks reviews the concert for J-Wire:

Christine Brewer

Christine Brewer

Richard Strauss turned 150 a few weeks ago. His birth year of 1864 sounds a long time ago for someone who composed his Four Last Songs in 1948, when the first baby boomers were toddling around and the Holden was launched in Australia. Christine Brewer’s performance with the SSO provided the centrepiece of the APT Master Series concert last night. She has a big, soaring  voice with a gleam like burnished copper; hard to manoeuvre at some times, yet at others she was flexible and lyrical. She did not try to outsing the orchestra, which was no doubt a wise choice, though people seeking the experience of having their ears pinned back by a Birgit Nilsson or a Rita Hunter in full flight may be just slightly disappointed. She is a noted Wagnerian and it will be interesting to see and hear her in next year’s SSO concert performance of Tristan und Isolde.

The SSO was able to luxuriate in Strauss’s rich orchestration, with fine solo passages from Robert Johnson (horn, in September), and Andrew Haveron (violin, in Beim Schlafengehen).

The Strauss songs were preceded by the first Australian performance of Frenesia, a piece by Detlev Glanert, born in 1960, who was in the audience.  Composed for this year’s Strauss sesquicentenary, this work for large orchestra was commissioned jointly by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the SSO, the Gürzenich-Orchester of Cologne and the Saint Louis Symphony (which shares David Robertson with the SSO as Chief Conductor). Frenesia was the sort of piece that orchestras probably enjoy more than audiences: there was plenty of light and shade, with opportunities for the musicians to flex their muscles, though this included a fair degree of violence and discord. Overall, it was a convincing piece from an experienced orchestral composer who is a worthy successor to Strauss.

After interval, an unscheduled but welcome tribute to the late Peter Sculthorpe came in the form of Memento Mori (1993), a gentle and lyrical piece which began and ended in the lower strings, building gradually to a climax before subsiding again to an open fifth chord and a fading single note on the double basses. Constantly flowing music for strings quoted the Dies irae several times in an understated and soothing way; as the climax approached these passages were punctuated by more urgent chords from woodwind and eventually brass. The mood was elegiac rather than dirge-like and it was a surprise to read in the printed tribute that the piece was inspired by the despoliation of Easter Island and was viewed by the composer as a memento mori for the planet.

People looking to Brahms for solace in times of melancholy turn to beautiful but lugubrious works such as the first, third and fourth symphonies, or if seeking majesty and nobility, the second piano concerto or the Academic Festival Overture. The Second Symphony often seems to me rather bland,  even though it is a distinctly Brahmsian blandness. It is as if Brahms set aside his characteristic moods, put his mind in neutral, and went for a walk. Nonetheless in the concert hall the second symphony is as absorbing as any of his other works and this performance was no exception.

One rather disconcerting development that has crept in since last season is the persistent applause between movements on the part of a sizable minority of the audience, despite discouraging body language from the conductor and even a rather wan comment, “I liked that bit too!” Although applause between movements was the rule until about a century ago, most classical music audiences have learned to appreciate silence and find that applause breaks the mood. Let’s hope that some agreement on this issue can be found before someone breaks in between the third and fourth movements of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

Concert Hall, Wednesday 13 August 2014

Detlev Glanert (born 1960)

Frenesia (Australian premiere)

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs)

Christine Brewer, soprano



Beim Schlafengehen                 

Im Abendrot


Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014)

Memento Mori


Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73

            Allegro non troppo

            Adagio non troppo

            Allegretto grazioso (Quasi andantino) – Presto ma non assai

            Allegro con spirit

There are further performances on August 15 and 16




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