This week’s subscription series of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra included the world première of a new Australian cello concerto by Brett Dean, bookended by venerable late-nineteenth-century works by Edward Elgar and Johannes Brahms.
Elgar’s Serenade in E minor for strings, Op.20, with its nostalgic sonorities, opened the program. Like Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll (written some twenty years earlier), it was a birthday present from the composer to his wife; an intimate musical offering of love, which may be why some of the finest recordings of the Serenade have been made by chamber orchestras, though nothing in the score gives a hint regarding the size of the performing ensemble. While the full string section of the SSO enriched the volume in this performance, it diminished the potential for introverted tenderness in this lovely work.
Curiously, David Robertson’s energetic conducting seemed to overexcite the flow of the first movement, whose unusual tempo reference to piacevole (pleasant or agreeable) suggests a different mood. The SSO never plays less than well under Robertson, but this time the tone colours were sometimes unclear and more subtlety was needed. As indicated by the score, the ensemble was reduced occasionally, and the absence of the double bass section in the first half of the second movement indirectly contributed to some of the most attractive moments of the performance – notwithstanding the excellent qualities of those musicians.
The pairing of the words in ‘Brahms Revelation’, the title of the concert, makes an uncomfortable fit, as revelatory is not a term many would associate with the German master’s brilliant oeuvre. On the other hand, it was an experience, akin to the revelatory, to observe German guest artist Alban Gerhardt’s flawless performance of Brett Dean’s Cello Concerto. Gerhardt is renowned for promoting contemporary compositions, particularly those written for him. Uncommonly, he identifies with these new works to such an extent that he memorises them. Contemporary compositions, almost without exception, use a complex musical language, with the whole gamut of known (and sometimes unknown) technical difficulties. Performing them without a score in front of the artist requires a supreme understanding of the work, as there are no recordings to refer to.
The relationship between soloist, conductor, and orchestra was exceptional from the opening tentative motives in the highest registers of the cello. Many of these motives were shared melodically or rhythmically with sections of the accompanying ensemble. Robertson’s sympathetic conducting kept the soloist surrounded by an orchestral soundscape which was never overwhelming (this is partly due to Dean’s expert handling of balances), yet always a partner to the cello sound.
Many of these small opening gestures and sigh-like motives returned later in various formations. The recurrence of previous material is less common in contemporary music than it was in the past. When it occurs, it helps the listener better to understand the structure of the whole composition – as it did on this occasion. Most appealingly, Dean’s music – despite its rhythmic complexities and technically demanding treatment of orchestral and solo parts – is always approachable; it resonates with traditional musical forms and human emotions. His music is truly exciting, daring to present a furioso topic (meaning more than just ‘furious’), as in the concerto’s fast first section, or something resembling ghost music as the brushed cello bow, the many faint trills on quarter-tones and the unusual tone colour of a Hammond organ indicate in the slow closing section.
Gerhardt’s technique is as formidable as his musicality. His extensive range of volumes and articulations and the energy-filled rubato (never veering towards sloppiness) made this a distinctive interpretation. His elegant stage appearance was fully convincing and if he was under any opening night stress (as one would think he should be), no sign of it was apparent.
Then came Brahms’s much-loved Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98, well played and enthusiastically received. Robertson led his players with self-assured élan. The orchestra’s technical preparation was beyond criticism, understandably so: the great Romantic symphonies are staples of its repertoire. The sum, however, ended up being less than its parts. The opening violin melody of the first movement, that seemingly endless descent of thirds (such a masterstroke by the composer) with the breathless syncopated accompaniment of the winds, lacked the pleading character that can make it so memorable. The third movement felt serious and somewhat ponderous rather than playful. The finale (Allegro energico e passionate) started with energy and passion but lost some of the momentum and even the tempo later, notwithstanding Christie Reside’s (guest principal flute) sensitive solo in the first 3/2 time variation. In this movement and earlier, the climactic points were often fuelled more by volume than by passion. All in all, it was a well-executed if somewhat safe performance. But Gerhardt’s rendition of Dean’s Cello Concerto made the evening wholly worthwhile.
Brahms Revelation was performed on August 22, 24, and 25, 2018 in the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House. Performance attended: August 24.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and the ABR Patrons.