Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
November 7, 2018

Three penetrating, bell-like tones from the aluphone raised the curtain on Sir James MacMillan’s Second Percussion Concerto, given its Australian premiere here by Claire Edwardes and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson. The striking sound, immediately drawing attention to the work’s ecclesiastical patina, was a unifying feature across the Scottish composer’s sprawling, single-movement concerto. The work follows his first percussion concerto, 1992’s Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, and was written for Scottish percussionist Colin Currie who gave the premiere in 2014.

Edwardes gave a performance both captivating and precise. From the opening gesture, she launched into urgent marimba lines – accompanied by smears of muted brass –augmented in the playing of two other marimbists at the back of the orchestra, creating a vividly three-dimensional effect. Edwardes deftly weaved between marimba, vibraphone, drums, untuned metal instruments, cencerros (tuned cowbells) and steel drum across the work’s sections, the concerto reaching its climax in a powerful brass chorale, Edwardes glittering on aluphone and vibes, Robertson dispatching accents with precise stabs.

The concert began with Australian composer Brett Dean’s Engelsflügel (Wings of Angels), originally written for wind symphony but adapted for orchestra by the composer in memory of Berlin Philharmonic production manager Kai-Bernhard Schmidt. This version was premiered by Robertson and the SSO in 2014. Short brushes of winds accumulated over hazy string tremolos, opened a work of colourful wind outbursts and undulating textures limned with muted brass and flecked with percussion. Dean is two years younger than MacMillan, and it was fascinating to hear the composers’ works side by side, both featuring broader melodies emerging from complex, multi-hued sound worlds – in Dean’s case elegiac trumpet ringing across the orchestra and ominous melodies over densely flitting wind textures.

Channelling a completely different world in the second half of the concert, Robertson gave a taut, detailed account of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The accents in the first movement were crisp and biting, Robertson keeping the drama simmering – the basses chugging, the violin’s cutting through like razors – with a touch just light enough to draw out the quirks in Beethoven’s score that are sometimes lost in weightier interpretations. While the music of the concert’s two halves was vastly different, the precise, rhythmic approach drew a thread between the two.

Robertson barrelled attacca into the second movement’s opening chord, which kept the momentum surging forward (and pre-empted any chance for the enthusiastic Meet the Music audience to applaud) but resulted in a kind of lurching musical whiplash, before he flowed into the Allegretto proper. He drew whisper quiet moments from the celli and basses before they took over the melody, Robertson shaping the unfolding drama and grandeur that has made this music so popular in film and television montages. There were some fine wind moments – flute and oboe tracing the melody, and crystalline chords from the whole section toward the end of the movement – while Robertson seemed to caress each line of the fugato section, giving them shape and clarity. The Presto was snappy without feeling frivolous, Robertson launching without pause into a brisk finale in a high-intensity performance with plenty of punch, the orchestra tight as a drum throughout. Robertson was particularly athletic on the podium in this performance, dropping suddenly to a crouch and springing up, crafting every phrase with coiled energy. Beethoven gets plenty of stage time with the SSO, but this performance – particularly the fourth movement – was a cracker.


Claire Edwardes and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra perform James MacMillan’s Percussion Concerto No 2 again November 12

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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine