Music / The Berkshire Review in Australia

Dvořák and Shostakovich with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony, Jian Wang, Cello, Plus Some Extra Cellomania

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Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts. Photo from
Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts. Photo from

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House: 11 and 12 October 2012

Thursday, 11 October
Dvořák – Cello Concerto in B minor, B.191, opus 104
Jian Wang – cello
Dmitri Shostakovich – Symphony no. 10 in E minor, opus 93
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy – conductor

Friday, 12 October
Heitor Villa-Lobos – Bachianas brasileiras No. 1 for 8 cellos
J S Bach – Cello suite no. 1 in G, BWV 1007
Jian Wang – cello
Heitor Villa-Lobos – Bachianas brasileiras No. 5 for soprano and cellos
Jaqueline Porter – soprano
Qigang ChenYou and Me
J S Bach – “Air on the G String” from BWV 1068
Jian Wang, Catherine Hewgill, Leah Lynn, Kristy Conrau, Fenella Gill, Timothy Nankervis, Elizabeth Neville, Christopher Pidcock, David Wickham – cellos


Is Dvořák, 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.

Vladimir Ashkenazy, artistic director and chief conductor, is back in Sydney. Though the orchestra’s season follows the calendar year the international-but-northern-hemisphere-weighted nature of music today seems to make for a relatively quite June-July-August and a busy beginning and end of the year in the southern hemisphere. Ashkenazy will leave again with the orchestra this month to tour China, playing this very program. Though a crowd-pleaser, at least with the Dvořák, the program gives something of a relaunch to the season with antics and silliness to boot — last February’s very finely played Beethoven Ninth was a weighty start to the season. Nonetheless the program doesn’t show the full range and talent of the orchestra, especially at the subtler end of the range.

Dvořák’s cello concerto seems to want to be a symphony and symphonic clothes on a concerto can come across as pretentious, or poorly cut. The opening theme takes a firm hold, not least with its very definite rhythm which is repeated, passed about and up and down the scales, not unlike in the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The idea is developed to, or even past, maturity by the time the cello takes it up on entering. Dvořák’s melody seems sentimental compared to Beethoven’s, but in this opening Ashkenazy delved into detail enough to seem to promise something more interesting than the rest of the piece as it turned out. Ashkenazy’s allowing a light veiling of the opening idea’s rhythm in the violas, for example, just after such a sharp opening, seemed to turn it into an idea rather than a mere motif. The precision of the strings’ producing a clear sound and a surface texture not entirely smooth but slightly shimmering had potential too, but though the orchestra played very finely, they and Ashkenazy seemed to miss something of the spiritual element something of the faith that convinces one of a well-felt purpose to the music. The music did not find this element in Jian Wang either. Dvořák’s writing is surprisingly uncharacteristic of the cello — it is more a cello trying to flatter the violin through imitation. The cello spends an inordinate time in its extreme high end as if it must scream to be heard over the enormous orchestra. The short duet between the violin and the soloist in the last movement then takes new meaning — the violin part played here sensitively by concert master Dean Olding left Jian Wang, who leant over to half face the violinist, to look up, musically, to the violin.

Jian Wang has a very firm touch, heavy even in this concerto (though much less so in his second Sydney concert, see below), perhaps just to be heard over the orchestra, but becoming a monotone, with the unrelenting sharp attack and buzzing note. The woodwinds were especially loud all together as if they had to be heard distinctly in all the tutti sections, though the individual playing in the “solos” was much more refined. Ashkenazy seemed to direct himself towards them 90% of the time, perhaps wishing to leave relatively to themselves the strings, which played the most freely and dynamically in the piece, though were bogged up by Dvořák’s sentimentality in the wetter sections. With the two very fine oboists, clarinetist, english horn player and bassoonist, I think they make much better or at least much more interesting music when given relatively free reigns. Jian Wang does not move much when he plays, which is fine of course, in itself — whatever is the natural style of the musician goes — the rigid posture and very slight head movements with a blur of quick finger work didn’t give much away, which is refreshing in a way, except that these slight movements seemed to produce such a heavy bowing and harsh tone. The tone nonetheless seemed flat and the emotion of the playing was very reserved to the point of hiding, if not superficial. Granted, again, this is very familiar music which he no doubt has to play all the time.

Expression was freer and more convincing in the Shostakovich 10th Symphony. This was something of a relief with much more “ugliness,” more changeable moods, not to mention the larger corps of musicians, especially in the percussion section. Ashkenazy’s attention was more evenly distributed and much more attentive to the music which there is no doubt he is completely on top of. The result was anxious music which can become at times free in the writing, for example, in the somewhat Mahlerian contrasty counterpoint or in the violins screaming with the ringing symbols, but at other times is more rigid in the writing, but expressed musically, in the pushy bank of massed double basses in the beginning directing the music’s flow, or the oppressive snare drum. The music was thus allowed to exude anxiety and allowed the listener to empathize with it without artifice or direct playing or conducting of the emotion. Though Ashkenazy’s movements are quite tense, they are also fluid, in a modernistic way, almost like the eponymous faun of Nijinsky’s ballet.

One form of ugliness which does overstep the bounds was the painfully loud, extended fortissimo in shrill violins and woodwinds, the latter of which, again, playing together sounded unnecessarily, and unwontedly, loud. Deafening a classical music going audience is antisocial to say the least and if it’s meant to be thrilling like a rock concert, as I’ve written before, at least one knows to bring ear plugs. I wouldn’t want OH&S and Risk Management hovering about rehearsals, but extended painful noise doesn’t do art any good. It is not entirely Ashkenazy’s fault. Does Shostakovich really need three flutes, or worse, two piccoli and a flute? The three together seem to drink one another’s milkshake, as it were, and imprison any expressiveness of a single flutist in the collective piping. Ironically, he is so much more subtle in his writing for the four horns which are often muted, and in this concert played especially poignantly in their place.

Heitor Villa-Lobos.
Heitor Villa-Lobos.

The next day, Jian Wang gave another concert…with all cellos. It was an uncommon chance to hear the cello section of the orchestra exposed in something of a “chamber” setting, though again the program was somewhat (half) light. Though it’s hard to tell: Bach’s is not light music however popular and tuneful the excerpts they play, while the arrangement of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games’ song was about as light as it comes. Villa-Lobos sits on the fence and seems able to tumble either way. Of course they play cello very well, and it is not as easy as it may seem with eight of them, those usually beautiful sonorities could have easily become mud with the slightest error in technique, but still the odd combination of the program didn’t sit comfortably.

Villa-Lobos can have interesting qualities, but to be really convincing, it may need a local’s understanding. The first “Bachianas” is very freely inspired by Bach, until the four part fugue, which is a little obvious, unlike the other movements, and doesn’t stand up to comparison with the master. As texture, the fugue became a little muddy, more recalling the fuzzy, overwhelming but indistinct texture of a romantic organ with many stops than a mellifluous, ethereal baroque one, which is probably why composers avoid writing fugues with four tenor parts (three tenors are bad enough…). The Sydney Symphony cellists played with more than enough understanding to avoid any kitsch, giving serious attention to the piece especially in the first two movements. The second Villa-Lobos piece, another “Bachianas,” but much less Bach-inspired than the first, was a song, actually two songs. Partly because of the indistinct consonants in the singing of the portuguese, partly a smooth, even plasticky surface to the sound and performance made the music much less convincing compared to the first piece, even phony. Partly, though, it is Villa-Lobos’s fault for some soupy writing, especially the humming of the repetition of the melody at the end, but Jacqueline Porter tended to encourage this tendency in the music.

The song You and Me by Qigang Chen was apparently written for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and was added to this program at the last minute. It was most out of place here, even disturbingly so. I can think of no reason for its being there. The SSO does play several popular light concerts each season, like the one where they were to accompany one of the Lord of the Rings films earlier in the year, and their recently advertised concert of ABBA songs, but if they must play this at all it should be in separate concerts where you know what you are getting into. Infinitely preferable is Boston’s system where the Boston Pops take care of the popular stuff, while the BSO keeps a name for serious art music.

Jian Wang’s solo playing was very interesting to hear after his playing of the Dvořák concerto the day before. Still very firm, and occasionally heavy in his bow-touch, he was much less so here and he didn’t overuse that buzzing sound which is so easy to make on a cello and is such an easy dramatic gesture, using a somewhat wider tonal range. Still he launched into the suite with a very fast tempo, which did show his impressive left hand finger work, dancing with the movements of the suite in the most virtuosic way, but the speed and a thin expression detracted from the inherent humanity of the music; I kept hoping for more subtlety of touch from the bow. He never played with true ecstasy or melancholy. The excerpt of the Bach orchestral suite arranged here for eight cellos “Air on the G string” finished the concert, but the concept doesn’t really work — eight cellos is too many. They played with a very pretty, skillfully balanced sound, no muddiness at all, which is remarkable considering, but again it felt a little uncomfortable as an excerpt among the goopy songs, not sure whether it was popular for its melody or just for being Bach’s, so the music seemed a bit strained and the expression not as convincing or deep as it could have been.

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