Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall: 3 December 2011
Brahms – Tragic Overture opus 81
Brett Dean – The Lost Art of Letter Writing – Violin Concerto
Schubert – Symphony no. 9 in C, D944
Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Jonathan Nott – conductor
Frank Peter Zimmermann – violin
Jonathan Nott has a light touch. The subtlety and clarity he encourages from each instrument, treating each with equal importance, allows in a way the music to speak for itself. He does not try to do too much to put his impression on the piece. His conducting is particularly sublime in the very soft sections of the music where he is not afraid to bring the sound level down to a barely audible level, but still with great clarity and texture. In this way the Violin Concerto, “Lost Art” by Brett Dean is well suited to his style. The Australian composer was commissioned to write the piece in 2007 by the Cologne Philharmonie and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic for Frank Zimmermann to whom the piece is dedicated. It is now heard for the first time in Sydney.
The concerto had an extraordinary dynamic range from a single vibrating cello string to very intricate and layered “counterpoint.” The soloist gets barely a moment’s rest unless one counts the second, slow movement but the gentleness of the music here still leaves very much for the soloist to consider and these phrases though played at a slower tempo are no easier to interpret than those of the first movement, for example, which is filled with a continuous stream of notes, hardly a gap left, with very complicated, quite irregular accenting. Frank Zimmermann plays with a consistent, deep, unbroken concentration and clearly feels deeply for Dean’s music. He did not let a single phrase by without a feeling of great understanding for it, and he was generous and eager in sharing this understanding with the audience. In this way even that gentle slow, movement had a certain intensity under it. The texture of this piece was for me its most wonderful aspect — the first movement’s melodies with disparate senses and keys combining into a very prickly, even at times harsh sound, but never muddied. It looked as if each violinist had a separate part, each playing with independence of feeling, but with some unknown common purpose to it which essentially is the soul of the piece.
The concerto, according to Dean, came about from his thoughts on the end of the letter as a mode of communication and as an art, and with its exit, handwriting too. This is a particularly raw feeling for a musician and composer (not to mention a music writer) since a composer’s letters are often their only writings in words and seem to contain essential clues to interpreting their music; musicians of the present day are, and have been for some time now, historians as well as artists. I think composers’ letters are most important as an entire sequence giving a sense of the person, enough almost to know them without meeting them, rather than providing single important events from the periods in their life when they were writing the piece under study as clues. Email in my experience is incapable of, or at least very awkward at, conveying feelings. Letters are literature in a way emails could never be.
In Dean’s piece, each of the four movements “Hamburg, 1854; The Hague, 1882; Vienna, 1886; Jerilderie, 1879” is annotated with an excerpt from a letter by Brahms, Van Gogh, Hugh Wolf and Ned Kelly, respectively, but the piece I found does go beyond the words and people to have a complete existence on its own. However loosely, the form of the piece seems to integrate into a whole and belongs completely to Dean rather than any of the letters’ authors. There is a quote from Brahms in the first movement, but it is transient and at either end blurs under Dean’s music.
Dean uses a large percussion section in a subtle way, always blending in with the combined tone color of the piece rather than serving to accent or push a particular phrase. If anything it is the piano — two pianos in fact, an upright and a grand, though with one pianist— which provide some accenting within the texture of the music by furnishing solid strikes of keys which raise its rhythmic pattern out of the larger orchestral sound.
For the Brahms Tragic Overture Nott conducted an easy but steady tempo. The music’s feeling was for the mystery and doubt of the drama which will never follow it. The very lucid and integrated unison strings, even when the horns joined as well never came close to drowning the woodwinds which sang in a quite human way.
The Schubert C major symphony has a family of melodies all very different in character yet related, even across movements, as if an eloquent turn or shift in one melody recalls something in an earlier one. All the musicians took great care, even the massed violinists in unison, so that all seemed deeply human, movingly so at times. The argument of the piece came across very clearly with Nott’s direction and the humanist writing for each instrument seemed very fitting even while remaining individual within that argument. Schubert as one of the best piano composers, uses pizzicato in the symphony very subtly and fittingly, it runs seamlessly into and out of the bowed legato melodies, especially in the dextrous and graceful way the Sydney Symphony violinists took these transitions. There are deep insights into Schubert’s préludes and sonatas in the symphony. The pulsating and repeated staccato notes in the woodwinds, which show Schubert’s admiration for the vivid character in Mendelssohn’s music, likewise give a very light, miraculous impetus to the massive symphony around them. The three trombones also played with excellent judgement of volume and color culminating in a triad chord in the third movement which was affecting beyond its simple construction. The texture of the violas and cellos, and the basses too, was clear in the tutti sections which spoke well of the musicians’ like-minded devotion to bringing forth this symphony for us to listen to. Jonathan Nott seems to achieve gentleness without loosing any of the greatness or vision of the symphony, and even better his style seems to allow the all-encompassing view of the symphonies to come out with no more assistance than it needs.