Part of the pleasure of watching a football or cricket match comes from an intimate knowledge of the rules: without even being a player yourself. The same could be said about classical music.
To be sure, years of listening can develop an intuitive understanding of the way music works its magic. But a more disciplined study of music history and theory – whether formal, private or self-motivated – adds greatly to one’s appreciation and understanding of the art of its greatest practitioners, whether they be composers or interpreters.
On this occasion we had the benefit of both: the music of three of the greatest exponents of the Classical symphony, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – and two masterly interpreters, the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and principal conductor Asher Fisch – in a highly entertaining and informative lecture-demonstration-concert.
Such mastery of the classical symphony’s conventions and idioms was underscored by an astonishingly good performance of Haydn’s Symphony No 31 played a prima vista. Fisch’s point was that many of Haydn’s symphonies were first performed like this, without any rehearsal at all.
Certainly, the famous Mannheim court orchestra could have pulled off such a feat with the pre-1750 symphonies, or sinfonias, of Richter and Stamitz. But by the time of the performances of Haydn’s symphonies at the (JC) Bach-Abel and, later, Salomon concerts in London, you could assume the luxury of at least one rehearsal.
In this first of WASO’s Discovery Concerts, Fisch’s illustrated lecture, supplemented by Gordon Kerry’s program note, took us from the roots of the Classical symphony in Baroque opera and oratorio overtures through the expansion of the basic string quartet layout and the evolution of sonata form to the Classical symphony’s apotheosis in Beethoven’s Symphony No 4.
There were excerpts from one of Haydn’s string quartets. From his First Symphony, in D Major, written in 1759. From his Symphony No 69. From Mozart’s Symphony No 25 in G Minor. From Beethoven’s First Piano Sonata. And more besides.
Throughout, Fisch was as humorous and affable as his knowledge was seemingly inexhaustible. Moving deftly from piano to podium as required, he demonstrated the niceties of Baroque basso continuo, or figured bass. The diminishing role of the harpsichord in the Classical period. The rise of the use of authentic instruments with gut strings, and performance practice. Of sonata form, and visualising themes and instruments as characters in a drama or opera. Of bass, melody and harmony, and of orchestral colour.
I can probably speak for everyone in the audience when I say that, as a result, we heard the superb full performances Beethoven’s Symphony No 4 with more educated ears and a fuller appreciation of the Classical symphony’s finer points. And therefore, with infinitely more pleasure. Howzat!