Sunday, July 22, 2018

“Beethoven and Elgar”, Canberra Symphony Orchestra. At Llewellyn Hall, July 18. Reviewed by TONY MAGEE.

BEETHOVEN’S “Triple Concerto” is the only piece in the classical repertoire for the combination of instruments specified. The “Triple” refers to the three solo instruments - piano, violin and cello - and the concerto format therefore includes a full symphony orchestra as support. A unique work in the history of music, but oddly neglected both in live performance and on record.

The concerto was brought to the attention of the modern listening public through the 1970 release by EMI of a recording featuring David Oistrakh on violin, Mstislav Rostropovich on cello, Sviatoslav Richter on piano with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan. What a cast!

Interestingly, controversial classical music author and commentator Norman Lebrecht, rates this recording as No. 2  in his essay “Madness: Twenty Recordings that Should Never Have Been Made”. Really? The reason he cites is that no artistic unity could have been possible from the four great musicians due to their reported constant squabbling and heated debates over the interpretation of the piece.

It went on to become one of the top selling international classical music releases for 1970 and 1971 and is still sought after in various reissued formats both on LP, CD and most recently as an MQA download from streaming services.

Julian Smiles and Dimity Hall

Now to the performance in Canberra featuring Dimity Hall on violin, Julian Smiles on cello, Piers Lane on piano, with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Milton AM. Milton began with light, whispering phrases from the double basses and cellos, barely discernible over air-conditioning and breathing. And then the dynamics lifted to a grandiose introduction before the three soloists burst forth with a flourish. Yes we have arrived! Balance between the three was excellent and the trio format worked as though they were only that, without an orchestra. It was very closely aligned to the balance required for something like the “Archduke Trio”, another Beethoven masterpiece. The interpretation of piano trio with orchestra, as opposed to three soloists with orchestra worked brilliantly and served to highlight the real point of the piece. The three soloists must work as a union.

Having said that, the opening of the slow movement is scored as a violin concerto, and Dimity Hall made the most of the exquisite violin solo opening, later joined by the piano and cello, again forming a homogeneous unity. Each of the three solo instruments however are all given opportunities to shine through as individuals at various points during this work and this is something that is open to interoperation from the players themselves. In this case, Hall, Smiles and Lane all brought out lines and phrases of beauty and imagination whilst supported by sensitive interplay from the other two soloists. The orchestral interludes in this piece are just that. Most of the solo playing is done just as a trio format.

Pianist Piers Lane

It was wonderful to hear this neglected work given new life and the result was world class playing followed by richly deserved applause from the enthused audience.

Sir Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” are one of the most popular pieces in both the recorded and live performance repertoire, not only for their ever-changing melodic and rhythmic beauty, but also because of the fascinating and mysterious story behind their creation and the ongoing speculation about the original theme upon which the variations are based as well as the people represented in each movement. It is a series of character portraits, each variation depicting one of Elgar’s family members or friends.

Elgar took the mystery of the theme to his grave, this conversation having been frustratingly diarised by his friend Troyte Griffith in 1923:
“Can I have one guess? Is it ‘God Save the King’?”
“No of course not! But it is so well known that it is extraordinary that no one has spotted it.”
“It” - yes we always spoke of the hidden matter as “it”, never as tune or theme.
On an earlier occasion, Elgar asked me, “Haven’t you guessed it yet? Try again!”
“Are you quite sure I know it?”  “Quite!”
And on a final occasion, “Well, I’m surprised. I thought you of all people would guess it.”
“Why me of all people?”
“Ahh - that’s asking too may questions!”

Nicholas Milton took the opening measures of the theme at a very slow pace, just a pulse, almost as if a rusty squeeze-box being coaxed into life. As the embers started glowing a little more brightly, we could hear the semblance of a melody, or perhaps it is a counter-melody, taking form. This is all part of both the allure and the illusion that Elgar wants to put across. Mystery, a little confusion, not sure what’s happening next. Perfect.
The orchestra was actually able to capture a slightly different sonic mood for each of the variations, which is way more than is often heard. It’s one thing to play music as directed on the page, even to follow the tempos and phrasing of the conductor. But to capture the essence of each variation, actually depicting real people, with tone production, tone colour and intonation requires great skill, sensitivity and musical understanding. The Canberra Symphony Orchestra did this marvellously well.

During “Nimrod”, which is the ninth variation in the piece, I saw people around me visibly moved by the beauty and majesty of the performance. It is the most famous part of the entire work and has of course been used in everything from Monty Python through to many film scores, TV commercials, awards ceremonies and more. Most recently, Nimrod was used to stunning but veiled effect during the final scenes of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, played at a quarter pace at first and then at half pace. It is a unique piece in that it can equally reflect sadness, defiance, joy and pride. One of Sir Edward Elgar’s crowning achievements and something that stands proudly amongst the best British contributions to the arts world.