Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
October 26, 2018

The last time the Sydney Symphony Orchestra performed Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony was two years ago under the baton of the orchestra’s former Chief Conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy. Here we had a Beethoven Nine under another former Chief, Dutch maestro Edo de Waart, who led the SSO from 1994 to 2003.

The expansive opening of the Ninth has been likened to the creation of the universe, but in de Waart’s hands – with biting horn entry and muscular tempo – it felt more like a large, powerful animal waking to hunt. While some listeners may favour a broader reading that leans into the vast mystery suggested by Beethoven’s music, de Waart gave the movement a surging energy – and at times a kind of swinging insouciance – that made for compelling listening, even if it felt a tad unwieldy in a few moments, with a full-bodied string sound and wild vitality.

The energy continued into the tightly wound spring of the Scherzo movement, taken at a brisk pace that showed off the nimbleness of the SSO winds – Todd Gibson-Cornish on bassoon and guest flute Francisco Lopez were particularly agile – and relaxing into the more lyrical moment, before de Waart gave the Adagio a lithe, flowing momentum.

The celli and basses moved as one creature in the introduction to the final movement, their rhetorical gestures recalling and discarding the themes from the earlier movements with beautifully blended sonority before giving us the theme of the variations to follow, the genre-redefining setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, which brought human voices into the symphony for the first time in history. De Waart’s soloists were American soprano Amanda Majeski, making her Australian debut, Australian mezzo Caitlin Hulcup, British tenor Kim Begley and Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang.

Shenyang – who like Majeski is a veteran of Jaap van Zweden’s Ring Cycle in Hong Kong – was the revelation here, his formidable, dark-hued voice spilling out across the audience on the “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” The quartet work between the soloists was nicely balanced throughout, while the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs were in fine form, matching the crisp energy of the orchestra, shimmering in the ‘heavenly’ moments and resplendent in the climaxes, deftly handling the double fugue. While the ‘Turkish March’, heralded by the contrabassoon’s low frequency stomp, felt like it got off to a bit of a rocky start, Begley’s tenor lines had a wonderful brightness and colour to them. Majeski’s final high note shone at the top of the combine choral and orchestral sound before the joyful, prestissimo race to the finish.

Coupled with Beethoven’s final symphony, and opening the program, was his teacher Haydn’s final contribution to the genre, the Symphony No 104. It’s a neat pairing, both for the narrative and the key relationship (D Major to Beethoven’s D Minor) but also the echo of Haydn’s fanfare-like opening in the ‘creation’ opening of Beethoven’s Ninth. De Waart gave Haydn’s opening movement a rich lyricism, a weighty depth underpinning the whole symphony. The finale, full-blooded rather than barnstorming, thrummed with power, and saw the symphony working more as a counterbalance to Beethoven’s than as an appetiser – two masters of the symphonic form side by side.


The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs Beethoven Nine again at the Sydney Opera House today at 2pm.

Tickets

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony will be streamed live here at 2:45pm.

Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine