Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall: 11 February 2012
live broadcast of Monday’s concert available from ABC Classic FM website
Richard Strauss – Metamorphosen
Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Opus 125
Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy – conductor
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs (Symphony Chorus, Chamber Singers and VOX)
Bret Weymark – chorusmaster
Lorina Gore – soprano
Sally-Anne Russell – mezzo-soprano
James Egglestone – tenor
Michael Nagy – baritone
To open the Sydney Symphony’s 2012 season and the year of their 80th birthday, Vladimir Ashkenazy. artistic director and chief conductor, has put together a generous program of powerful German music. Beethoven’s Ninth finds itself played to mark great occasions, the reopening of Bayreuth in 1953 comes to mind and its own creation came at the end of decades of war in Europe. The Sydney Symphony has not played it for five years — for their 75th anniversary — so it would feel now about due for their attention. The piece is so famous and familiar, though, even as an occasional performance, there is the risk of over familiarity. With so much wonderful inherited music and worthy current music and music which would potentially exist given the opportunity of performance, should the Ninth, or any piece, be played if the performance cannot discover anything new in the piece? For the listeners, they can always seek out new aspects of the piece since one’s disposition and experience in life effect one’s ears so strongly, but it helps to have musicians, like Ashkenazy, full of ideas. “Occasion” implies some shared new experience anyway. But on the other hand, the earthly specificity of an occasion can in a way put a drag on a sublime performance of the Ninth. It is such spiritual, metaphysical music, rooted in itself, in this way a universal piece, somehow worldly events seem to anchor it in time and space in an uncomfortable way, paradoxically perhaps. As a birthday party for a very fine and healthy symphony orchestra with surely many more anniversaries ahead of it, the occasion here did not “get in the way,” as it were, very much, rather the music tended to come first, as it should. A symphony orchestra is after all a selfless crew in many ways.
There was much freshness in this performance. Resisting a cellular stringing together of familiar passages, Ashkenazy rather seemed to use the piece’s familiarity to advantage to reinforce its suspenseful undercurrent without any sense of self reference. He carefully articulated the various themes, especially the contrapuntal ones, giving a sort of visionary lucidity to the structure of the piece to meet the orchestra’s very fine textural clarity. His choices of tempo changes were unique and interesting — he took his time with some of the more beautiful and sombre passages, while the more tense passages seemed to race. The march-like sections he gave a sharp punch, to be a little disturbing even, though not in a bad way, without making them too monumental, and they still carried the listener along. The symphony as a whole hung together under the subtle and restrained but definite style of Ashkenazy’s interpretation but at the same time, the first three movements, which are so markedly different, seemed like three different symphonies, as if approaching the center — the fourth movement — from three different directions, while still expressing a very human variety of doubt, even fear, which isn’t so much washed over or expelled by the fourth movement as made content in itself. This performance had an honest, human warmth to it. The oboe, having many solos, is very prominent in the music and Shefali Pryor played them with an understanding for Ashkenazy’s interpretation, at times with very fast, even tongued notes, to be even brusk, at other times she played more lyrically and beautifully to reflect the phrasing of the larger orchestra.
Ashkenazy, who is restrained in his conducting gestures, but still very expressive, in fluttering his baton, or splaying and reaching out with his fingers, or twisting slightly from the hips, started reaching up high with his arms in the final movement, as the singers came in, the trumpets took more prominence as if lifting up the hitherto rather dark horns, and the Goddess, die Himmlische, die Freude, descended to enlighten us. Baritone Michael Nagy is a native German speaker, so the recitative introduction of the human voice to the symphony, so novel at the time — and still a little surprising even now when it comes in — and an element we only accept so readily today because of the symphonists in the 200 years intervening who were inspired to do the same (many Sydney concert-goers will still have Mahler’s choral symphonies in their ears from Ashkenazy’s cycle which just ended last November), which is too often declaimed or apologetically rushed in the most unnatural sort of operatic way to get on to the aria, the Ode to Joy, here was speech-like and natural. Mr Nagy, in just the right place between speaking and singing, gave honest, deep feeling to these words, which also had clarity, so that they meant something which replied closely and fittingly to the orchestral music up to that point. He also has a pleasing voice, rather gentle in texture, having presence without being penetrating. In the quartet he seemed to carry the ensemble along in mood. Lorina Gore and Sally-Anne Russell sang with tremendous energy and feeling too, in a very compatible ensemble, but perhaps not with quite the second nature depth of understanding of the poetry or Ashkenazy’s interpretation which Nagy had. James Egglestone shared the same thoughtful, understated but no less emotional tone as the others and the quality of his voice approached that of a Heldentenor, he seemed a bit nervous and excitedly got ahead of himself in his solo, though cool-headedly collected himself and went on. Sydney Philharmonia Choirs has a good rapport with the Sydney Symphony from numerous collaborations (and they sat in their place behind the stage for the whole of the first three movements too) and amounts to a very large chorus, the massed voices creating an impressive ‘wall of sound’ effect with the orchestra in the finale while still having a bright, colorful texture and meeting Ashkenazy’s dynamic changes quite nimbly for their size. They sounded something like an organ, the men alone like a theme played in solo pedal tones, the women by contrast strongly flute-like but with a hint of reed, and together having something of a diapason and with a control to avoid deafening levels.
Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen made a nice partner for the Beethoven Nine as a rather symphonic piece for strings only. Ashkenazy took great care with the changing textures of the music which is as deserving of attention as the piece’s complex dissonant harmonies. The different sections of strings tended to stay discrete and clearly defined, almost like a four or five voice sub-structure, each instrument’s part being characteristic to its timbre in a subtle way. A quite wide vibrato in the cellos and softened attack gave them a certain blunt quality, with the violas rather muted and the violins restraining their overtones, and only Dene Olding’s solo violin having a certain brightness. This made for quite a dry, rather than rich, woody texture, with a slight trepidation, and along with the subtle dynamic changes, the music had a certain subdued flatness, like a sort of elegiac black-and-white kaleidoscope. It sounded quite distant, from where I sat in the circle at least, perhaps partly because of the nature of the music — the parts never quite coincide or make a consonance to reinforce each other, — but also it suited well the design of Ashkenazy’s interpretation, contemplative, like a motet in a cathedral space larger than itself.
<a href=”http://berkshirereview.net/membership-options-page/“><img title=”Subscribe now to the Berkshire Review to read the rest of this article.” src=”http://berkshirereview.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/subscribe-bar.jpg” alt=”Subscribe now to the Berkshire Review to read the rest of this article.” width=”612″ height=”60″ /></a>