Two big fish and one tiddler: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

October 28, 2017 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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The SSO concert in the APT Master Series presented two major works: the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor, Op 47 and Mahler’s Symphony No.1 in D major.

Thomas Sondergard

As a ten minute appetiser, it added the nocturne and serenade movements from the King Christian II: Suite. Op.27.

Sibelius was already established as Finland’s foremost composer when he agreed to write some incidental music for a play, King Christian II, by his friend Adolf Paul. Although the resulting music was more pleasant than profound, it did the composer’s reputation no harm and it certainly enhanced the play which opened in 1898, enjoying 24 performances – considered a success at the time.

The two movements chosen are only part of a much lengthier suite and I can’t help thinking that the SSO programmers have a liking for incidental music by Sibelius, because only a week ago we got something similar in another SSO concert which opened with his Scene with Cranes incidental music.

Appetiser consumed, it was now time for the two main courses, both a test for orchestra, soloist and the emotional capacity of the audience. Sibelius had returned, but this time with his violin concerto featuring Dutch soloist Janine Jansen who is as appealing to the eye as she is to the ear. Exceptionally tall, and wearing a floor length black gown with a yellow slash pint, she conveyed a striking stage presence well before she rested her chin on the 1707 Strad.

Sibelius was a violinist himself and, although he didn’t rise above the amateur ranks, he well understood the possibilities and limitations of the instrument. He was known for not liking showy virtuosity yet this concerto seems to contradict that because it requires the demonstration of considerable technical power. Learned observers say that the show of technique is only there to serve the music rather than the aggrandisement of the soloist. Be that as it may, Janine Jansen covered both admirably.

Janine Jansen

There are two violin concertos in which combined orchestra and soloist melt the heart from the first bar, and the Sibelius is one of them. (The other is the Bruch No. 2). Jansen floated in with beautiful romanticism and, as the passion ripened, revealed a remarkable ability to project her solo statement above the orchestra.  The first movement, the longest of the three, has the wickedly demanding cadenza right in the middle where Jansen worked magic, one minute a raving devil and the next a soaring angel.

I looked forward to being born away on a magic carpet for the slow movement but, for me, it didn’t happen, even though I knew Jansen had the power and the passion to do so. Her melody line merged with the orchestra, only occasionally lifting above it. Something similar happened in the hellishly difficult final movement. Jansen’s technique and interpretation were unquestionably superb, but too often muffled.  Maybe I need the wax cleaned out of my ears, especially as the audience and the members of the SSO gave her a rousing ovation.

Mahler’s First awaited after interval. One of the difficulties with Mahler is deciding how literally to take his programmatic descriptions – which he offered and then withdrew.  He seemed to want to tell his listeners what he was thinking as he was writing the music, yet he didn’t like them cherry picking for precise identification. Better to simply listen without being too taken up with technical analysis.

And there was plenty to hear under the outstanding conducting of Thomas Sondergard. There are parts of the score where bullseye timing is essential and Sondergard was at one with the orchestra in nailing all of them.

This Symphony opens like a dawn and is a fitting beginning to a string of nine more symphonies that established Mahler as a groundbreaker. It also establishes Mahler’s habit of borrowing from other composers and even himself. During the course of this symphony he uses ‘Frère Jacques’ (albeit in a minor key), some of his own songs and, as if perched up in the organ loft, a cuckoo that weaves its two-note call like a gold thread throughout the music.

At their only meeting, Mahler told Sibelius that a symphony must be like the world; everything must be in it. Although this was only Mahler’s first symphony it was anything but a warmup for better works. Granted, it went through several years of revision but it is as fully-fledged Mahler as any of his other symphonies.

And another thing you’ve got to say for Gustav is that the man knew how to finish a symphony. The First gathers the forces quite a way out from the final assault, leads the listener into believing the volcano is about to erupt, goes quiet again, and then hurtles towards an earth-shattering climax with violent cymbals and crushing timpani. The applause that follows is compulsive and, in a sense, could be seen as part of the performance.

SSO Opera House concert 27 October 2017

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.


One Response to “Two big fish and one tiddler: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing”
  1. Otto Waldmann fin Sydney says:

    You lucky @£%$&, Jensen and Mahler 1st in one night of musical abandon… How I wish I was there, but albeit as fate wanted me to be in Bucharest of all places, I am still only two hours and a bit from Berlin and next Tuesday youse will find me delighted by James Levine conducting the the Berlin Phil in Mahler’s 3rd and, in two more weeks me missus and I will be back in Berlin – still only 2 and bit hours by air – to see/hear Baremboim offering us the Emperor on the occasion of his 75th birthday…So there.
    You want more !! The cost of: plane ticket, two nights at hotel, concert ticket, all up CHEAPER than I’d pay to see/hear the same in Sydney, including bus ticket ( 389 from Bondi Junction ) @ AUD2.50 per day for us respectable seniors.
    Back to music and Mahler, his 1st symphony is more of a manifesto of things to come, some in an obsessive manner.
    As Mahler had the salutary habit of describing ad literam on the score his thoughts, it is no big chochma “figuring out” the message of his music, although he would not express his more inner motivations. That must have caused the various interpretations by critics of some of the more idiosyncratic “accents”. And, since this is still a Yidische site, it should not come as a surprise if some passages in the same 1st symphony prick the Jewish critical ears and, even less surprising that some may feel slightly uneasy about what one may perceive as a Mahler a bishele sarcastic about his troubling identity . Of course I could be totally wrong, but only if not considered neurotic on anything touching Jewish matters. Mahler was one of the greatest Jewish composers although not that keen on his Jewishness, still, to mine, a most magnificent musician.

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