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Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
April 6, 2016
There was a fascinating congruence of old and new in this first of two concerts, which see the distinguished German conductor Christoph von Dohnányi remarkably making his Australian debut at the age of 86. A vital link to a rapidly disappearing tradition, Dohnányi grew up in Berlin in the 1930s and later studied with his grandfather, the noted composer Ernö von Dohnányi, a man who knew Brahms personally and had seen Bruckner and Mahler at work. But Dohnányi Jr. has also always been a forward thinker; a man who cites new music champions like Hans Rosbaud, Hermann Scherchen and Karl Amadeus Hartmann as important influences. A double bill of Berg and Bruckner, then, was an ideal way to reflect this particular maestro’s peculiarly Janus-like qualities.
Berg’s Violin Concerto was the final work of the composer who took the 12-tone method of his teacher Schoenberg and turned it into something more immediately emotionally involving. It’s not a late work though, since the composer would have had no idea that he would die of an infected insect bite at the age of 50. That tragedy took place a few months before the work would have its premiere under Scherchen – who unbelievably had a mere half an hour to prepare! – and it is tempting to think that, had the composers lived, he would almost certainly have encountered the up-and-coming young Dohnányi in the Germany of the 1950s.
The concerto was inspired by the life and death of Manon Gropius (daughter of the architect Walter Gropius and Mahler’s widow Alma), who died of polio at the age of 18. A valedictory piece, the soloist seems to represent the soul of the departed in a two-movement work of enormous power and variety. Carolin Widmann was the violinist called upon to tackle the tricky solo role, a task she carried off to great effect, her silvery, laser-beam tone perfectly suited to carry over Berg's substantial orchestra. It was not just Widmann's technical powers that impressed – she had the logical measure of the concerto, so important if you are to make the musicwhen really sing – there were times she almost appeared to channel the conjoined spirits of Berg and Manon, leaning in left and right to meld with her orchestral colleagues.
The composer’s extraordinary skill here is to seemingly dip in-and-out of tonal and atonal modes, from the first violin open-string triadic ascent and descent (Berg’s tone row is packed full of fifths and triads), until the work ends full circle in a gentle lullaby. Dohnányi kept everything crystal clear through the judicious application of a series of checks and balances. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra responded with great sensitivity, ensuring the soloist was always to the fore and that Berg’s delicate orchestrations were revealed in all their subtlety. Among the felicities were the bittersweet waltz (Berg’s contemporaneous opera Lulu is full of such tonal pastiches), the sounds of violin duetting with trumpet, trombone and even tuba, and the heart-stopping way that Bach’s Es ist genug chorale creeps into the final movement.
If Berg’s concerto can be said to be (very) late Romantic fare, Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony is the real deal. Often cited as his most popular work, perhaps due to its almost heart-on-sleeve lyricism, it is frequently subjected to the kind of emotional wallowing that gives the composer a reputation for overblown orchestral thunderings. Not so with Dohnányi, whose German discipline put this Austrian romance under the microscope in a performance that genuinely invited an audience to listen with fresh ears. Not only that, he conducted the entire complex work from memory – and that is no mean feat!
As a conductor, Dohnányi is a structuralist, not a micromanager. He creates tension by balancing textures and through a careful management of dynamic contrasts. His Bruckner therefore reflects more Brahms than Mahler, and again and again his control of inner orchestral parts revealed the composer’s remarkable originality. The SSO were on fine form (though the horns had a few hairy moments), with lower brass superbly sonorous thought. There were standout solos from flute and oboe, though to be honest all the woodwind were generally excellent.
If the first movement captured the grandeur of the Austrian Tyrol (its second theme as perky as a fine spring morning), Dohnányi’s interpretation of the Scherzo mixed filigree Mendelssohnian winds with a rich, weightiness in the brass – the trio was no galumphing peasant ländler but an elfin waltz. It was the conductor’s way with the sublime Andante that was most effective, capturing a mood of great dignity with a clear sense of purpose – the sweeping violas in particular were beautifully elegiac. Graceful, never dragging, the build to the climax was grand, yet detailed. The delicacy that Dohnányi achieved here was breath-taking, giving the lie to those who think Bruckner is a great deal of wind and bombast.
The long finale was likewise full of revealed detail – every thunderous climax balanced by an equal and opposite opportunity to embrace the miniscule with pianissimo playing of considerable daring. This kind of nuanced interpretation is the sort that can only come with many years experience, and then only when a conductor is still striving to get to the bottom of things. Speaking to Dohnányi recently, I was struck by his openness to the new coupled with a determination to continue to mine the treasures of the old. “The more you hear, the more you change,” he told me. “Since life is based on changing, if you don’t do it and if you don’t try to have similar experiences in your artistic approach or your stylistic approach to music you would be lost.” In other words, with all of his respect for tradition, for this 86-year-old Maestro at least, this is the real and honest way to create ‘new music’.
Dohnányi conducts the Sydney Symphony Orchestra until April 16.