The Queensland Symphony Orchestra audience were in for a spectacular treat with Enigma, A Musical Tour De Force featuring the mighty Klais organ in all three pieces. The brilliant British-Australian organist Joseph Nolan was enthroned high above the orchestra ensconced between the gleaming pipes with an ethereal indigo luminescence.

Joseph Nolan and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra at the Enigma concert. Photograph courtesy of QSO

The QPAC was packed with a full capacity audience, masked and eager to hear the delights of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Piccolo player Kate Lawson opened the evening describing how busy the QSO had been touring regional Queensland including performing an inaugural concert at the RPAC in Redlands, Moreton Bay. This was a newly designed program that was helpful for the younger audience with an excellent educational section “for younger ears” full of trivia and particular points of note for each musical composition.

Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C Minor was a triumphant start to the concert with the 12 brass musicians standing in fanfare below the concert hall’s spectacular Klais organ. Maestro Johannes Fritzsch, Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the QSO, had rearranged the Prelude to feature the brass section, which was a creative highlight.

Fritzsch describes Bach’s music as “endless, beyond comprehension and a constant source of discovery and joy”, although he has admitted to initially avoiding Bach’s organ music after constantly pulling stops and turning pages for his father playing Bach in weekly services. The Prelude flowed symbiotically into the alla breve Fugue, despite being written years apart, until climaxing after the harmonic teasing between the angular subject and counter-subject themes.

Francis Poulenc’s Concerto in G minor was first premiered to the public in Paris in 1939. The paradoxical piece embraces a range of neo-impressionist, romantic or neo-baroque styles in seven disparate sections. The gothic music followed well after the Fugue as both the dramatic opening and ending sections are reminiscent of Bach’s Fantasia in G minor BWV542. The music uses only a small string section and highlights the timpani with the organ providing the sinister lower chords. After a haunting creeping organ entrance the strings seemed to be pursued by Tim Corkeron who bounded behind on the timpani. There was a frantic chase as the cello cascades and tumbles into a waterfall of mayhem, accompanied by frenzied double basses whilst the timpani thundered behind. The schizophrenic concerto is punctuated with dramatic meditative pauses and melodious elements of 60s movie scores. Finally the pulsating cacophony resolves after a soaring viola, discordant violins and a tempestuous timpani. The musical mayhem was controlled with mastery by Fritzsch using a small flick of his baton.

Aside from Pomp and Circumstance, Elgar is most famous for his emotive Enigma Variations. The 14 short variations are derived from a fun evening of Elgar reimagining a mysteriously unnamed famous theme as each of his friends would have presented it. The enigma is which music was the inspirational theme? Elgar quotes “The enigma I will not explain – its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connection between the variations and the theme is often of the slightest texture… so, the principal theme never appears.” The variations move between G minor and G major and have been assumed to be derived from Mozart’s PragueSymphony. However, it may have been Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, a haunting piece of choral music from the 18th century according to Ed Newton-Rex, an alumnus of the Choir of King’s College Cambridge.

Whatever the origins, the QSO’s portrayal of the variations was phenomenal, ranging from the sweeping first variation C.A.E. for Elgar’s wife Caroline, to the dramatic door-slamming of R.P.A. by the pianists’s son Matthew Arnold. There were frothy bassoons in R.B.T., a stammering Dorabella and even the comical bulldog swimming Dan in G.R.S. with a joyous bark at the end.

The QSO tackled each variation skilfully but the iconic Nimrod, Elgar’s ninth variation was sublime. As a Pom, the music was quintessentially English, evoking the crack of the cricket bat, church fetes and summer high teas on the lawn. There was a palpable gasp of appreciation from the audience as the utter beauty of the music was absorbed into each soul.

Elgar’s own celebratory finale seemed to be an arrogant snub to those who had previously questioned his musical abilities. It entwines C.A.E., his wife’s variation with the astounding Nimrod as an assertive demonstration of his compositional flare. Joseph Nolan “pulled out all of the stops” and the QSO was spectacular, ending with a dramatic sweep of the baton in conclusion to an awe-inspiring evening.

A recording of the QSO’s Enigma concert can be heard on ABC Classic on 9 May 2021 at 1 pm (AEDT)

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