The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra has continued its thoughtful and very welcome return from lockdown with another memorable contribution to this year’s celebration of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary. The ASO had been planning to perform all nine Beethoven symphonies this year and, in March, we saw an excellent presentation and analysis of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, but then the music stopped. In this unfortunately truncated season, the ASO now seems to be focussing on pivotal Beethoven works, and has engaged outstanding Adelaide-based soloists in two of the great concerti – Natsuko Yoshimoto in the Violin Concerto in September, and here, Konstantin Shamray in the Emperor piano concerto. Featuring a concerto rather than a symphony as a concert main event is perhaps unusual, but these Beethoven concerti are significant historically and symphonic in scale, and such an arrangement allows a variety of other music to be presented. This is a welcome approach to concert programming.

Konstantin Shamray. Photograph courtesy of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra

This concert also featured conductor Nicholas Braithwaite, who was the ASO’s principal conductor from 1987 to 1991 and who was credited with taking the orchestra to a new level of performance, a level that was clearly maintained in this concert. Russian-born and Adelaide-based Shamray, winner of both the First Prize and the People’s Choice Prize in the 2008 Sydney International Piano Competition, is in great demand in Adelaide’s musical scene and he was enthusiastically welcomed as the soloist.

The Piano Concerto No 5 in E Flat Major, Op. 73 (1809-10, published 1811), known as the Emperor Piano Concerto, was Beethoven’s last completed piano concerto and is considered the pinnacle of his achievements in that musical form. The Emperor seems to me to have a flavour of defiance – the Napoleonic Wars were raging, and Vienna was briefly under siege and then under occupation by Napoleon’s army during the period in which Beethoven wrote the concerto. It was not named after recently-crowned Emperor Napoleon but, with its fanfare-like opening passages, in which dazzling piano flourishes alternate with powerful orchestral chords, it is tempting to think that this concerto is the pianist-composer’s voluble retort to the cacophony outside his door, in which he asserts the power and importance of music over mere political upheaval.

Piano design and construction evolved rapidly in the course of Beethoven’s lifetime, and its increasing dynamic range allowed more adventurous writing for it. In the dramatic Emperor concerto, Beethoven made great demands of the instrument. In this rendition, Shamray’s consummate technique gave full voice to the piano – his playing was neither overly sentimental nor ostentatious but melded with the orchestra to create a compelling tableau of sound of the kind that characterises Beethoven in his prime. In the hands of Braithwaite, the ASO’s playing was crisp, finely balanced and articulate, realising all of Beethoven’s brilliant colour and vitality. The introspective adagio un poco mosso second movement was ethereal. Following the Beethoven, Shamray delighted us with a Rachmaninov encore, again demonstrating his magnificent pianism.

The concert began with French composer Paul Dukas’s Fanfare to his score for the ballet La Peri (1912). This brief passage for brass heralds a story about a magus’s failed search for immortality, a lesson from which we might all learn. The Dukas excerpt was followed by Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from his opera Peter Grimes (premiered in 1945). The first interlude, Dawn, also acts as a kind of fanfare in that it opens a new day, a day of tragedy. This opening vividly evokes first light over the windswept Sussex coast – closing your eyes, you could smell the salty air and hear the seagulls – and the ensuing rumble of horns, double basses and bass drum signalled the approaching storm.

A small but exquisite gem, Edward Elgar’s Serenade for Strings (1892) concluded the concert’s first half, reassuring us after the drama of the Britten. The Serenade is a delightful work, evidently intended by Elgar for his wife as an anniversary gift, and, following the Britten, it offered an attractively bucolic view of the English countryside. The ASO strings were in fine form, creating a full and coherent sound. Braithwaite took the dreamily poignant larghetto movement of the Serenade very slowly, subtly holding the tension. Crescendi seemed to flow out of the mist like thoughts.

Dukas’s Fanfare, Elgar’s Serenade and Britten’s Four Sea Interludes are all works of the modern era, juxtaposing the high Romanticism of Beethoven. This was a concert of great emotional contrasts that demonstrate what music might mean for human society.

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