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MusicThe Berkshire Review in Australia

Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, Strauss’ Zarathustra, Brahms’ Violin Concerto with Lisa Batiashvili, Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony

Richard Strauss in Dresden. From richardstrauss.at
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Richard Strauss in Dresden. From richardstrauss.at
Richard Strauss in Dresden. From richardstrauss.at

Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall: 25 February 2012

Beethoven – Coriolan Overture, opus 62
Brahms – Violin Concerto, opus 77
Richard StraussAlso sprach Zarathustra: Tondichtung (frei nach Friedrich Nietzsche) für grosses Orchester, opus 30

Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy – conductor

Lisa Batiashvili – violin

The concert pulled us away from a particularly beautiful sunset over Sydney with Cray-Pas pink-crimson streaks and squiggles and a new moon following closely behind the sun, sparing us the feeling of mono no aware of a finished sunset. Zarathustra gave us maybe a more conventional sunset’s “riot of color”, or rather sunrise, to complete Vladimir Ashkenazy’s three concert series of Germanic music which opened the Sydney Symphony’s 2012 season. This small selection of major Strauss symphonies if not totally satisfying and complete in itself, gives one an urge to seek out more Strauss in order to seek out more in Strauss. Then again symphonic music can be enjoyed as a riot of marvelous sounds. Ashkenazy’s pairings in the three concerts of a tightly formed Beethoven piece — The Ninth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Coriolan Overture, respectively — with a more spread-out Strauss piece (with the exception of Metamorphosen), perhaps more fun to conduct than to listen to at times, and the music with Vladimir Ashkenazy’s enthusiasm for it, speaks for itself and justifies itself. Anyway, it is hard to speak generally about Strauss since he is quite varied even within one piece.

The Coriolan Overture is a very short piece but seems more substantial than many longer symphonies. Ashkenazy conducted it with a very gradual, continuous general crescendo, almost insensible, which underscored the tight, concise form of the piece, perhaps more of a general opening of the dynamics, because of course the last few notes had a very careful softness in volume and texture. The orchestra’s playing had punch for the shorter fast staccato notes, whose sound faded in the hall with a shimmering, piano-like attenuation, the highs taking a little longer than the lows to vanish in a way that somehow felt intentional. These had a taut energy whose momentum seemed to carry through the beautiful lyrical passages and the more bucolic themes on the basses and cellos. The horns played particularly well, with a respectful ear turned towards the flutes, a rapport which continued throughout the evening’s music.

We heard the SSO play the Brahms Violin Concerto only last year, with a different conductor and violinist, but despite this the current performance still sounded fresh. It is a massive piece which stands to many playings and listenings. After Federico Guglielmo and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s performance of seven Vivaldi Concertos for Several Instruments this same week, I realized just how crazy the Romantic Concerto is, putting forward a single performer and demanding so much from them, both emotionally and physically.

Lisa Batiashvili had a very concentrated, quite intense style but for the serenity and poise, the command which she brought. Not exactly a command over the music, but command within the music, in the interactions with the orchestra. She had enormous presence, a sort of massiveness as a subject in a painting might have, yet relaxed too, as if not about to take any nonsense, through her style and delivery rather than sheer volume (she was on the soft side) or physical movements on stage (which were restrained and natural: and it does of course take enormous effort to keep totally immobile while playing or listening to music and this wouldn’t necessarily be desirable. This is where dance comes from). The strings in the orchestra were rather more smooth and tightly integrated than usual, which allowed her a range of timbres away from the more strident end, though at some moments she let the orchestra envelope the sound of her violin, as if sinking into them slightly. This intense concentration seemed to pull the listener in strongly too; the audience offered rare inter-movement applause, which was unfortunate as Ashkenazy wanted to play through to the third movement without a break. The first two movements built up a certain tension, Batiashvili would put a plateau in the articulation of the phrases, where she maintained a level, strong tone for the top notes of the phrase which tended to intensify the phrase’s resolution, which Brahms generally tends to delay anyway. Her high notes tended to sing out while the low ones sometimes turned inward, almost as if speaking under their breath, or like an aside in a play. Overall the interpretation was passionate and dramatic, but still restrained.

In the third movement there is that memorable theme which exudes a kind of satisfaction, as if the music were dancing off in a relieved way, something like a loose cakewalk — at least on one level. It gives ways to more serious, forward, tenser motives, but always returns to the first in a sort of rondo form. Batiashvili had a very good feel for what each motif was saying, with the natural sounding gestures in the connecting passages, as in the cadenza (which she adapted from Kreisler’s). Very unrushed, she was interested in the detail, fitting the various motives and running passages in-between together very tightly, with such an intent idea for the piece as a whole, while at the same time letting the audience come to her rather than pushing it forward too hard, to the point that her Brahms Concerto stood at least level with Zarathustra himself.

Richard Strauss in a Berlin Kafeehaus. Photo: richardstrauss.at
Richard Strauss in a Berlin Kafeehaus. Photo: richardstrauss.at

Strauss’ Zarathustra, like Brahms’ Concerto, and anything by Beethoven, encompasses the whole human experience. Ashkenazy’s interpretation of it seemed to underline the doubtful exploring aspects as much as the downright, irrefutable presence of the grand sounds and marvelous overwhelming colors. One could say Strauss in his large symphonic pieces seems to have a clearer idea of their beginnings and ends than what to do in the middle, somehow the middles seem less accessible or more arbitrary than the beginnings and ends, or maybe such a sense is intentional, following the pattern of life itself.

Ashkenazy had very keen judgement of the dynamics in the swelling and crescendos of the beginning, colorful and overwhelming without a painful volume when combined with the organ. The myriad instruments were balanced nicely throughout and the exotic and heavy percussion did not dominate too much. The Opera House’s organ serves very well as a symphonic instrument, not too alien to clash with the huge romantic orchestra, but ethereal and strange enough in sound, placed way up near the top of the ceiling, it stood out from the more fleshy instruments on the floor, yet managed to blend into the opening grand tutti in an interesting way. One highlight, though, was a closely intertwined contrapuntal passage, often dissonant, in the basses and cellos only which had fine clarity despite the low register. Overall, Ashkenazy while having a sense of playful adventure, splashing in the mind-bogglingly varied instrumentarium and musical colors and marvelous sounds, also took the piece seriously and thoughtfully, looking after the detail and internal structure of the music, so that it stood on its own, liberated from Kubrick-related familiarity. Poor Kubrick, doesn’t he deserve a rest? Besides Ligeti can be fun too.

About Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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