Tchaikovsky wrote Queen of Spades, in 1890, and one other opera, Iolanta, in 1891, near the end of his life after having promised never to write another opera because of the unpopularity of The Sorceress (1887). For theatre, these were very fertile years for Tchaikovsky. The Mariinksy first performed Sleeping Beauty in 1890 and Nutcracker in 1892. He wrote Queen of Spades at a Mozartean rate in Florence where it is said he composed the music faster than his brother Modest wrote and sent the libretto scene by scene. Perhaps living in Florence gave him enough distance from the darker, more repellent aspects of the story to avoid getting run down by it, but anyhow it seems a strange subject for him to choose, especially surprising to hear the incredibly lyrical music he created for it. The antihero Hermann is repellent, but for some of the beautiful music Tchaikovsky gave him, yet even so Hermann’s are not as beautiful as Don Giovanni’s arias (and duets), but I don’t believe Tchaikovsky thought or intended his music to be as beautiful as Mozart’s.
Rachmaninoff’s 4th Piano Concerto didn’t deserve to be cut. It seems to have received, in any version, the homeric epithet “Rachmaninoff’s least popular” since it wasn’t popular at the première (1927) and wasn’t much more loved after the revisions (1928 and 1941), but this is perhaps as much due to the immense and perennial popularity of the 2nd and 3rd as any intrinsic quality of the 4th, and the unpopular label seems now to be beginning to give the original version a little bit of underdog cred. The original longer version was only published in 2000, and this performance, according to the Sydney Symphony, is the first of this version in Australia. It is a fascinating case of audience expectations based on a composer’s perceived style and the composer worrying too much about pleasing them. Luckily the original was not lost. Even so it is not very long, though it does have a leisurely, operatic quality to its pacing, almost a Mahlerian pace, but with its drama turned in, more psychological and untidy than the other concerti, and so it is not as exciting as the other concerti. It does not have too solid a form holding it together, it doesn’t tell a ‘story’ with beginning middle and end as the others do more obviously. It is not linear, or at least it is taller than it is long with all those enormous, thick, rich chords which defy a simple analysis and the long runs of impossibly fast notes which are not exactly melodic — maybe more harmonic as they ring in that resonant Steinway piano — but the melodies in the piece with the exception of the opening one are more like fragments of leitmotif without staging to help explain them. The opening theme returns here and there but it seems odd in its return, almost an interruption of the of the pensive, contemplative revery of the music, almost like the sudden landing of an eagle, or an angel, or a strange golden shaft of light. But the 20th century romantic music doesn’t need a strict form since Rachmaninoff’s concept is not architectural or plastic. The wonderful thing about music is that you don’t have to worry whether it will stand up.
Is Dvořak, to paraphrase Dr. Leonard McCoy, really that beautiful? Really so much more beautiful than other music you’ve heard? Or is it just that it acts beautiful? If it comes down to the performance to go more than skin deep, the musicians must play very convincingly indeed. Beauty in music has proven to be diverse. For a sound to be music rather than mere sounds, however pleasing, the it needs the broadest possible aesthetic idea of beauty. An ugly sound, it has been pointed out, can be “beautiful” if used so fittingly by a composer that nothing but that sound could be desired at that point in the music. For human beings, this has included the rasping shawms and the regals, and the augmented fourth of the middle ages and renaissance, the harsh use of the usual orchestral brass by Mahler, and all the freely used ugly sounds and outbursts in 20th century music and its terrible dissonances. I would draw the line at physically painful sounds, either through loudness or shrillness or both, as ugly in a destructive way, and so incapable of beauty, even betraying the faith of the listener who trustingly opens their ears to the music, though some do seem to find pleasure in the ginormous 19th century organs played at full volume with all the stops out. Free expression in a musician or a composer can be beautiful in itself, of course, though when that expression becomes gratuitous or self-indulgent, or sentimental (which can betray a certain narrow emotional rigidity) or arbitrary (which can betray a self-imposed or self-persuaded intellectual rigidity) it can become ugly. Music in a straight jacket can be ugly too. A masterful fugue in transcending any thought of a dichotomy between these two extremes can be most beautiful of all.
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. To mark the occasion of the orchestra’s 80th anniversary, 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.
Before Diaghilev decided to bring Russian art to the west, starting with his exhibition of Russian art in Paris in 1906, in 1908 bringing Chaliapin to Paris to sing Boris Godinov, and then his formation of the Ballets Russes, first performing in Paris in 1909, unadulterated, purely Russian art was little known or appreciated outside asia. Vast Russia, except for its toe in Europe was perhaps considered something of a cultural backwater in Europe. Diaghilev didn’t hold back in bringing this unadulterated Russian art, also discovering and hiring young or little known artists — like Stravinsky — and this was part of his art’s huge appeal in west to this day. So when Stravinsky visited the far, far East — Australia — in 1961, it was perhaps not so far from his roots nor so incongruous. Traditional indigenous Russian or central asian art was often an influence in the set designs and style of Bakst, Benois, Golovin, Roerich and the others, costumes sometimes used original traditional textiles (like the ikat fabrics bought from nomadic traders at St Petersburg markets for the costumes for the Polostvian dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor), the choreography was sometimes classical in the best Petipan Franco-russian tradition preserved in the imperial Maryinksy school, but was often entirely new in style, especially Vaslav Nijinsky’s for the Rite of Spring, though often borrowing from traditional, indigenous Russian dance, as in Firebird and Petroushka. Western audiences seemed unconsciously to understand this bizarre new art and went crazy for it, famously starting riots and booing, also becoming most fashionable tickets to have.
Leleux had put together a program of classics, well known but in playing he brought them a freshness and bright enthusiasm as if encountering them for the first time. He played, in both senses of the word, in an unlabored way even in the more difficult sections, even while his technique proved his mastery of the instrument and all the work and practice that entailed. His honest and lively playing was infectious. The musicians seemed not like performers set up on stage and weighted by everyone’s eyes and ears and expectations set on them, but they gave the impression of artists playing music for its own sake in private, the listeners seemed not exactly an audience but more invitees to share in the experience, the exploration of the music anew.
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.
Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra continue with the second in their triptych of Beethoven-Richard Strauss concerts which opens their 2012 season. Maestro Ashkenazy, their artistic director for the past few years who usually conducts himself several concerts at the beginning and end of the season (the Eternal Summer!), and the SSO seem to have established a warm and close rapport and respect, to judge from the jocular, playful exchanges and inaudible banter he shares with the orchestra members after the music, shaking hands with all the front-row strings after every concert, as well as from the fine and detailed interpretations they create together. Stephen Kovacevich brought a remarkable like-mindedness to this partnership. He also brought a complimentary attitude so that the concerto was a conversation beyond words between individual beings. The sound of his piano and what Kovacevich expressed therein had a remarkably immediate, very close presence, where often there is a wider gap between a guest soloist-virtuoso and the audience. Similarly the orchestra had a generous and open pellucid quality — not ever quite the homogeneously mixed and integrated sound of cogs in the the romantic-orchestral apparatus, nor exactly a contrasty orchestra of soloists, but something in-between those extremes and something else entirely which preserved the instruments’ characteristic timbres, at least section-wise, in an even-handed balance, a sound which can speak coherently in many different ways all at once. Kovacevich got through his childhood concert début some 60 years ago and so has nothing to prove, and his performance with Ashkenazy, himself a pianist, and now a conductor, of great experience, had deep maturity, but also at the same time a playful child-like quality, a surface insouciance rather more interested in the details and problems in the music which matter.