August 11, 2022 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Albert Einstein is said to have said: “Before Beethoven, music was written for the immediate. With Beethoven, you start writing music for eternity.
I’m not sure the audience at the Opera last night was so philosophical, but the crowd certainly showed unbridled enthusiasm for Beethoven’s two major works while, for Australian Brett Dean, there was polite appreciation.
The Dean Room, Will, took the position of curtain raiser of the now established Fifty Marching Bands Commission – for which I have a growing admiration. Though demanding attention, Testament was far from easy to listen to. It seemed to ramble, waver and sometimes howl, embellished with appealing harmonic and rhythmic passages. For me, the piece evoked a turbulent chook court, 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! Roll the Steinway into position on the floor of the Opera’s new orchestra 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 united with the SSO as a conductor, Javier Perianes was little known to the Australian public. A 44-year-old Spanish pianist with impressive competitive successes and recordings behind him, he has thrown his hat into the ring with many of the world’s finest pianists who have recorded and performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, op. 37. Therefore, Javier was in a hot field.
In addition to the interpretation, the concerto calls on a pianist who masters bare scales, arpeggios and trills and who does not press down on the sustain pedal during a dazzling passage. The piano part is quite revealing and should be clearly articulated. My personal reference recording for this Beethoven concerto is by Martha Argerich.
While Perianes gave the concerto sensibility and had a heaven-sent trill, it was light reading. Perianes was at his best in slow motion, with a poetic and thoughtful rendition, but the fast moves on either side demanded more punch. Peter Clark, in his lively talk before the concert in the North Foyer, suggested that piano and orchestra would compete in this concerto. However, 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 appeal to the listener a turning point in Beethoven’s style of composition and an opening of the symphonic genre. It broke the mold 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 usual symphony of the time and departs from established sonata form. To crown it all, it was audacious to transform the second movement of a symphony into a funeral march and the fourth into a theme and variations. Beethoven began working on it in 1802 and premiered it publicly in 1805 in Vienna.
The underlying drive of the symphony is to tell the life of a truly heroic man, hence the name Heroic – given to him by Beethoven. He initially believed Napoleon Bonaparte fit the description and dedicated the work to him. But when Napoleon became giddy with power to the point of crowning himself emperor in 1804, Beethoven violently erased his name from the score (probably mumbling “scheisse”), thus opening up the reference to any heroic man.
I won’t dwell on the Opera’s acoustic makeover, except to say that my impression at the first concert after the renovation didn’t change last night. I felt like I was in the middle of the orchestra, aware of the soul and nuance of each instrument.
This, of course, helped Simone Young and the SSO deliver a superb Beethoven Third.
Some conductors take the first two big staccato chords as a starting weapon for a sprint, but not Simone Young. She held a disciplined tempo that brought out the best in orchestral writing in the first movement. When the second movement’s funeral march took hold, it too passed without rush, allowing time for the audience to sink into its dark depths. The third of the scherzo passed like an orderly flock of birds, leading to the triumphant theme and variations of the fourth that all spectators will involuntarily hum for days to come.
Concert SSO Sydney Opera House August 10, 2022