The barn at Tannery Pond is particularly well suited to cello music — a kind of cello-within-a-cello, the musical equivalent to the old literary framing device, maybe. The instrument’s range and woody timbre are particularly appealing, even restful, resting on the ear’s most sensitive range of pitches, so it is no wonder cellists seek out such acoustics, or do things like making arrangements for 6, 8, or 10 cellos. In fact listening in the Tannery barn gives one the overwhelming urge to make music in it, even if just laying down a few purple chords on the piano — in that way perhaps Rachmaninoff is particularly well suited to the barn too. The audience did seem thrilled by Haimovitz’s and O’Riley’s playing of the young Rachmaninoff’s sonata in G minor. Rightfully enough, it was the sort of full blooded and full bodied (figuratively speaking, the musicians bodily movements were in fact very restrained) interpretation of Rachmaninoff that doesn’t spoil easily. They did take certain risks, though, over and above those of choosing such unplayable chamber music, O’Riley especially coming into his own in this sonata, which is really more of a duet between equals. His piano style seemed more at home with this kind of music than pure accompaniment, which is an art in itself, partly because he seemed more easy with the dynamic of two equals playing together, something sounding more like a trio or a contrapuntal quartet.
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.
Inviting guest musicians Osmo Vänskä and Alisa Weilerstein to the Sydney Symphony makes an artistic match the muses approved of, not to mention the heavens. They only came for three performances in Sydney, and how they found time to rehearse this dense program thoroughly is a mystery to me, though a shared musical spirit and understanding seemed to be on their side in this performance. It was a rare conjunction of various uncontrollable elements. The program too is very interesting. The Sydney Symphony has found a ‘new’ Tchaikovsky piece, apparently never having played Voyevoda before, and has not played the Prokofiev sinfonia concertante for 40 years. Beethoven is always interesting (at the very least), but here we have a unique interpreter of his symphonies in Vänskä, who seemed even to find in Beethoven hitherto unheard connections to Prokofiev.
My immediate reaction to Michael Miller’s commentary on the Karajan centenary [Oh no! He’s not back again, is he? – May 2, 2008] was rather choleric, but I’ve settled down a bit since then and can write this from a relatively balanced perspective.