The beauty of sadness: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

October 24, 2019 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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While concert programs are usually eclectic, so that everybody gets at least something they like, last night’s SSO offering in the Masters Series was unashamedly emotional from start to finish. And I, for one, loved it, not just for the program but the quality of the performance.

Donald Runnicles

Franz Liszt is generally credited as establishing the symphonic poem, usually a single movement that musically expresses a written poem or a short story. It is a free-ranging form especially suited to the romantic orchestral writing of Richard Strauss. His Death and Transfiguration opened the program and began a journey through rich musical images.


Death and Transfiguration was not sourced from Strauss’s own experience since he was a healthy 24-year-old when he wrote it.

Rather, it leads us imaginatively into the reminiscences of a dying man, a hero who acknowledges his achievements but regrets that he fell short of his potential. There is a temptation to interpret the score as figuratively describing what is going on in the man’s mind, but my preference is to allow the music to take me where it will.

A fully stocked orchestra (eight bull fiddles, two harps, celeste and plenty of brass) gave Donald Runnicles the means to an impressive interpretation of this colourful work. Beginning and finishing with hardly any sound, it hit several all-in climaxes during its 23-minute duration, along with some beguiling oboe from Diana Dougherty.

Although Richard Strauss’s vast output covered works for piano, orchestra, ballet and stage, his major concentration was on songs in the lieder form. And of those, his Four Last Songs for soprano and orchestra are the most loved. They comprise Spring, September, On Going to Sleep, In Sunset’s Glow and made a perfect follow-up up to the opening Strauss work.

Erin Wall

Singing the Four Last Songs presents some challenges. First, they have become almost synonymous with legendary soprano Jessye Norman, who performed and recorded them many times.  So whoever takes them on is going to be compared to the late Norman. And second, there are the acoustic limitations of the Opera House that are not kind to solo voice above the orchestra.

As soon as US soprano Erin Wall sang her first notes it was obvious she was ideally suited to the task. With a rich, powerful voice, much in the Norman style, she rose passionately above the orchestra (judiciously held back by Donald Runnicles) for a memorable performance. Only in the second song September did the orchestra overwhelm her a little, but a haunting solo horn passage at the end more than made up for it.

Gabriel Faure’s Requiem Op. 48 (1900 version) began in 1887 as a relatively modest liturgical mass for the dead, but by 1900 additions had turned it into the concert version heard last night, involving full orchestra, choir, organ and two solo voices. It stands out from the grander more effusive requiems of other composers who have contributed to the genre. Faure’s is contemplative, with reference to Gregorian chant in the choral writing. Faure said of it: “Everything I managed to entertain by way of religious illusion I put into my requiem, which moreover is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest.”

Fraser Beath McEwing

The Faure requiem was the jewel in the crown of the concert. Immediately after the brief orchestral opening statement, the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs began its hushed entry which swelled gloriously into a forte outpouring. From there, and throughout the seven movements of the mass, the musical forces worked like a team of champions. Erin Wall made her second appearance as soprano soloist and continued her ability to lead the peloton; and although adequate, baritone Samuel Dundas was less successful in his projection.  While there were deep, spine fetching notes from the organ and exemplary playing from the SSO, the night went to the Philharmonia Choirs for an outstanding performance under the preparation of Brett Weymark.

Conductor, Donald Runnicles, was clearly behind the cohesion of the concert. He is now the principal guest conductor of the SSO, but spreads his time among several renowned international orchestras, as well as being the emeritus conductor of his home country’s BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. His skill in directing combinations of orchestras, choirs and voices has been evident on previous occasions in Australia, and this was no exception.

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 



One Response to “The beauty of sadness: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing”
  1. David Levy says:

    Fraser’s review of this sublime concert is spot on, only soprano Erin Wall is Canadian, not American.

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