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MusicThe Berkshire Review in Australia

Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony Play Prokofiev with Behzod Abduraimov, Berlioz and Elliott Gyger

Hector Berlioz. Photo by Nadar. From gallica.bnf.fr
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Hector Berlioz. Photo by Nadar. From gallica.bnf.fr
Hector Berlioz. Photo by Nadar.

Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall: 22 March, 2012 matinée

Elliott Gyger – on air, dialogue for orchestra
Prokofiev – Piano Concerto no. 3 in C, opus 26
BerliozHarold in Italy – Symphony, opus 16

Behzod Abduraimov – piano

Roger Benedict – viola

Vladimir Ashkenazy – conductor
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra

This fascinating and varied program, each piece using equally colorful but very different orchestras and very different forms and structures, shows us some of the breadth of the Sydney Symphony. Their style is nimble enough to express itself in multifarious ways and Ashkenazy’s style and approach to symphonic music is well suited to the three pieces.

Elliott Gyger. Photo by David Ellis.
Elliott Gyger. Photo by David Ellis.

To mark the occasion of the orchestra’s 80thanniversary, they have done something special in commissioning themselves a new piece by way of an open competition. Elliott Gyger’s entry was chosen, and though only alloted a short amount of time to fit into this larger program of more familiar pieces, it does rather expand under the intensity of its short broken up motifs and its varied colors, sounds and textures, qualities Ashkenazy, at least as a conductor, seems to relish. The piece’s title refers to the SSO’s origin as a radio orchestra formed along with the Australian Broadcast Corporation in 1932. Gyger says he used an ensemble of 17 instruments, the same in the original 1932 radio orchestra, which for his “dialogue” are spread through the larger orchestra: three violins, viola, cello, bass, two each of  trombones, trumpets and clarinets, a horn, sousaphone, piccolo, piano and percussion. This group, an unlikely equilibrium perhaps by concert hall standards, but which is exactly what fascinated Gyger, is spread through a much larger orchestra in an asymmetric way giving some interesting possibilities for spacial effects. The smaller group plays in and out of the larger one. But the piece does seem to go much farther than this historical reference and the very physical and technical image of radio broadcasting, as music must. The percussive sounds, almost mechanistic at face value, though the music has much more humanity and expression than that implies, with hard plucked strings, a piano used as a percussion instrument, snare drum, and mallet chimes and other varied percussion instruments, as well as the very brazen, solid brass, and non-melodic, even anti-melodic composing, recall many 20th century pieces. Gyger’s music here is not repetitive but seems quite full and complex, rich yet prickly and clear in texture, each instrument playing with enormous precision, especially the strings, under Ashkenazy’s very angular, precise gestures and timing. There are short themes of four or more notes, quite atonal, which get passed among the instruments quickly but each seems to mold them subtly to its own voice. It gets to be quite a tangle at times. Other themes are much more characteristic of the instrument to which they are given to play, especially those for the horns, bassoon and some of the other woodwinds, a quality sometimes lacking in modern music where the orchestra can sometimes feel like an inherited burden, the instruments not quite ideal to the composition’s style, and needing to be squashed into the composer’s vision.

The chamber orchestra-within-the-orchestra often sounds like a string quintet with a double bass, violins, viola and cello. The first violin (Dene Olding) picks up a beautiful tune at one point, yet played with some of the bright sharpness of the un-melodic earlier sections. The music is very quick and nimble, any lingering ideas do not linger for very long, while colors of the more powerful instruments, especially the brass, seem to tower over and wash over the more delicately played massed strings, which don’t get drowned but rather seem to vibrate in and out of the former. The piece, having used in short order but in an honest way the full dynamic and color range of the orchestra, ends very quietly, just fading away to leave its mass of knotted and untied ideas.

Behzod Abduraimov, a young pianist of Uzbek origin, had a varied touch in the Prokofiev concerto, at times very sharp, loud and distinct, strong with great weight while avoiding heaviness, but also a capacity for very gentle, mellifluous pianissimo slurred notes which almost were lost in everything else going on in the Prokofiev concerto. He pointed out some of the extreme contrasts in legato-staccato in simultaneous and adjacent themes, though all in all did rather full bloodedly take hold of the music. He had an intuitive sense for the tempo and phrasing of Prokofiev’s syncopated themes, especially in the second movement, where each of the piano’s themes as introduced had their own gait, like a wonderful and exotic menagerie of incredible creatures passing, while having an ear for their relation to the orchestra’s material. Lawrence Dobell played the clarinet solos with loving care, real vocal, singing phrasing, and had a good rapport with the pianist. The so called “fireworks” were not heavy or solely sensational, Ashkenazy’s gleeful colors and the punch and precision he gave the dynamics were much more fun than that, though they awoke some between-movement applause and side chatter in the audience.

Berlioz is such a versatile composer, using all the colors of the orchestra so fluently and precisely, such varied and imaginative melodies with their long, but fairly simple phrasing, he never seems to say the same thing twice and always sounds different. Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony and Roger Benedict showed a close rapport and a free but understanding collaboration reveling in the wildness and wooliness of this music. The Harold program seems to me only to serve as a form or structure, a quite open one at that allowing the composer much freedom and seemingly only desired constraints. Benedict for the first movement took a very even tone, slightly sharp and nasal, and very slightly on the bright side, with a gentle phrasing. Then a new tone seemed to hatch out as he blossomed into a very colorful one, though still retaining the viola’s endearing sort of self-effacing restraint. Still his very immediate yet delicate, very natural articulation expressed his thinking and his feeling for the music very clearly, all this projecting from the stage clearly.

The section with soft, rising and falling, constant arpeggios in the viola over walking plucked bass flowed irresistibly, almost like a lullaby, just marginally more intense and passionate, in any case with a keen and open understanding for the piece. The viola has a sympathy for the horn, and this comes out pairwise in Berlioz’s music, and Benedict’s playing understood this without becoming totally subservient to any one voice in the orchestra or losing his very determined thread. His playing had a fascinating mixture of humility and independence — qualities to some extent always there perhaps in the clear, warm tone of his Carlo Antonio Testore 1753 Milanese viola — but his playing had transparency which made rational sense of the complexities in the music rather than shying away from them, illuminating Berlioz’s more mysterious writing. Likewise the orchestra’s clarity, even with all the marching band materiel in the wind and percussion sections, and its unison massed strings, managed to avoid sounding overly martial or bombastic, was more expressive of many different things. It brought out the music’s dramatic, operatic, or rather, being such danceable music, the balletic possibilities.

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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