Two thirds and one Dean: A music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

August 11, 2022 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Albert Einstein is credited as saying: ‘Before Beethoven, music was written for the immediate. With Beethoven, you start writing music for eternity.’

Simone Young

I’m not sure that last night’s Opera House audience was quite so philosophical, but the crowd certainly showed unbridled enthusiasm for the two major Beethoven works while, for Australian Brett Dean, there was polite appreciation.

The Dean piece, Testament, took the curtain-raiser position of the now established Fifty Fanfares Commission – for which I have growing admiration. Although demanding attention, Testament was far from easy listening. It seemed to ramble, lurch and occasionally screech, spliced with some attractive harmonic and rhythmic passages. For me, the piece conjured up a restless chook yard, but I had to remind myself that Brett knows what he’s doing, with an impressive list of compositions to his name and his other role as an accomplished solo violinist.

And then: roll up your sleeves, ladies and gentlemen, it’s Beethoven time! Wheel the Steinway into position on the floor of the new Opera House orchestral nest, fill the chairs and stepped spaces with SSO musicians and await the arrival of Simone Young to conduct and Javier Perianes to play. While Simone Young was now welded to the SSO as chief conductor, Javier Perianes was little known to Australian audiences. A 44-year-old Spanish pianist with impressive competition successes and recordings behind him, he threw his hat into the ring with many of the world’s best pianists who have recorded and performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37. Consequently, Javier was in a hot field.

Javier Perianes

Apart from interpretation, the concerto calls for a pianist who is a master of naked scales, arpeggios and trills and doesn’t ram down the sustaining pedal during a flying passage. The piano part is quite exposing and needs to be clearly articulated. My personal gold standard recording for this Beethoven concerto is by Martha Argerich.

While Perianes imparted sensitivity to the concerto and had a heaven-sent trill, it was a lightweight reading. Perianes was at his best in the slow movement, with a poetic, reflective interpretation, but the brisk movements on either side cried out for more punch. Peter Clark, in his animated pre-concert talk in the northern foyer, suggested that the piano and orchestra competed in this concerto. That being the case, the orchestra won convincingly.

More Ludwig. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E flat major op. 55 still holds its position as one of the most popular symphonies in the repertoire. Many musicologists see beyond its listener appeal as a turning point in Beethoven’s composing style and an opening-up of the symphonic genre. It broke the mould set by Mozart and Haydn in many ways, not the least of which is its length. It is more than twice as long as the customary symphony of the time and it moved away from the established sonata form. To top that off, it was audacious to turn the second movement of a symphony into a funeral march and the fourth into a theme and variations. Beethoven began work on it in 1802 and premiered it publicly in 1805 in Vienna.

Fraser Beath McEwing

The underlying driver of the symphony is to recount the life of a genuinely heroic man, hence the name Eroica – given to it by Beethoven. He initially believed that Napoleon Bonaparte fitted the description and dedicated the work to him. But when Napoleon became giddy with power to the point where he crowned himself emperor in 1804, Beethoven violently scrubbed out his name from the score (probably while muttering ‘scheisse’), thus opening the reference to any heroic man.

I won’t rabbit on about the Opera House’s acoustic makeover again except to say that my impression at the first concert after the refurbishment did not change last night. I felt as though I was in the middle of the orchestra, privy to the soul and nuance of every instrument.

This, of course, helped Simone Young and the SSO to deliver a superb Beethoven Third.

Some conductors take the first two big staccato chords as the starter’s gun for a sprint, but not Simone Young. She held a disciplined tempo that brought out the best in the orchestral writing in the first movement. When the second movement funeral march established itself, it too was unhurried, giving the audience time to sink into its sombre depths. The scherzo third flew by like an orderly flock of birds, leading to the triumphal theme and variations fourth that everybody in the audience will be involuntarily humming for days to come.

SSO Sydney Opera House concert 10 August 2022

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