The unbeatable trio…a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

February 11, 2016 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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It’s the magic formula: a full program of Beethoven, the guest return of the much-loved Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in full song. It is no surprise that the APT Master Series drew a full house for the first concert of its 2016 season, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Vladamir Ashkenazy

Vladamir Ashkenazy

Ashkenazy is revisiting the orchestra, of which he was principal conductor and artistic director between 2009 and 2013, to conduct the entire Beethoven symphonies, the five piano concertos and the violin concerto. They are presented in groupings to give fair portions of cake and icing. In this case the cake was the Symphony No. 4 in B flat, Op.60 and the icing the Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op 73 (Emperor). No doubt, passionate lovers of the symphony will claim the icing.

Celebrated American pianist, Garrick Ohlsson, sat down at the Steinway as soloist for the Emperor, although even when he’s seated on the bench there is plenty of him visible. A concert pianist once told me that big people get better resonance out of a grand piano than little skinny guys. Ohlsson certainly supports the theory, even if it is a myth. It manifested itself most noticeably in his single notes that rang out with bell-like clarity but always identified themselves as the offspring of a piano. Ohlsson is a master peddler.

In one respect, the Emperor is a risky proposition because it is so well-known. It presents a challenge to give it a fresh reading, and audience expectations are high in overcoming its technical difficulties. Apart from his magical single notes, I admired Ohlsson’s timing precision with the orchestra. No doubt, multiple performances of this work have taught him to wait that millisecond longer before hitting notes written to coincide with the orchestra. It was a pleasure to sit back and hear one direct hit after another. I think he and Ashkenazy probably had a chat about that during rehearsals.

The first movement immediately established the precision that typified Ohlsson’s performance, although his interpretation contained no surprises apart from some attractive tonal shading. He pushed Beethoven to the fore ahead of himself.

The second movement was superbly realised with its restrained pace. It seemed that Ashkenazy’s own mastery of the piano helped to produce a collaboration that was pure poetry.


Garrick Ohlsson

Garrick Ohlsson

At the end of the Adagio movement there is a slow-motion passage that tells us what is about to happen when we explode into the rondo. Ohlsson made the announcement all right, but when he pulled the rondo trigger he slurred over the semiquavers that define the articulation. Many pianists do this, and maybe I’m overly fussy, but it gets up my nose. The movement went at quite a clip and might have been better a little slower. Later in the movement Ohlsson got the semiquavers under control – to my overwhelming joy.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance and I look forward to Garrick Ohlsson’s solo recital at the Sydney Recital Hall next Monday.

And so to Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, which could have been called his fifth, while the now established fifth could have been his fourth and a half. That is because after completing the third (the Eroica) Ludwig was halfway through a new symphony in C minor when in came a commission from the classical conservative, Count Franz von Oppersdorff. The two movements Ludwig had in the can were hardly to the Count’s taste, so he put them aside and set about writing what is now the Fourth Symphony in B flat.

After a slitheringly quiet opening, the symphony reveals itself as a gentler, happier work than the symphonies either side of it, but it is still pure Beethoven, with strong statements and plenty of timpani exclamation marks. It also shows the influence of Beethoven’s hero, Joseph Haydn, especially during the third movement (allegro vivace) where upsweeping passages drew some mime from Ashkenazy and grins from the string players.

The final movement (allegro ma non troppo) leaped along with more allegro than non troppo, finishing in a shower of sparks and a wave of appreciation from Ashkenazy to his players before he turned to receive cacophonous applause and a whopper flower arrangement.

The concert reminded me of a family reunion where the nieces and nephews wanted to please their favourite uncle, the guy in the black suit and white skivvy, by performing as well as they possibly could.

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. and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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