Beethoven and Berg make for an epic journey out of darkness into light.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
February 27, 2015

If someone had told me a couple of years ago I’d be sitting though a double bill of Wozzeck and Beethoven Nine in Sydney, I would probably have said they were a few notes short of a tone row. Last nights season opening gala, however, proved that in the David Robertson era, anything can (and frequently does) happen.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s charismatic Chief Conductor is a dynamo on the podium, a generous colleague and a terrific communicator, but his superpower is programming. By placing the denouement of Alban Berg’s operatic tale about man’s inhumanity to man next to music’s ultimate affirmation of mankind’s ability to transcend its baser instincts, Robertson took us on a musical long night’s journey into day – in the key of D Minor.

The concert opened with Bruckner’s motet Christus Factus Est, along with his Locus Iste one of the most beautiful and impassioned of all 19th-century acappella choral works, and here given a clean, clear reading by the excellent Sydney Philharmonia Choirs augmented by the voices of the Sydney Grammar School Choir. No wallowing here, they responded perfectly to Robertson’s unsentimental reading.

The magical segue from the D Minor ending of the Bruckner into the D Minor (ish) opening of Wozzeck’s opening scene and Marie reading from the Bible to her child was a real ‘hairs on the back of the neck’ moment. As his Schumann suggested last week, David Robertson proved the perfect guide to tease out the debt to Romanticism in Berg’s thorny score. And by offering an opportunity to hear the work played by a large orchestra in full view of an audience, the delicacy of Berg’s orchestrations were revealed in their full majesty.

Miriam Gordon-Stewart, a fine Sieglinde in the Melbourne Ring, was here an excellent Marie, warm and sympathetic and vocally ringing out over the orchestra. Her Wozzeck was Peter Coleman-Wright, singing with firm, suitably world-weary tone and managing to make a credible dramatic fist out of a role shorn of its crucial first two acts. He was occasionally a little swamped by the full orchestra – indeed, the whole thing might have benefitted from the soloists being pulled further forward. Michelle DeYoung made a suitably blowzy Margret (no audibility problems there!) and young Liam Green’s “hop, hop”s sounded clear as a bell. Whether the staging added anything is debatable – a stand and sing approach would have worked fine, and the choir’s boogying on the spot was a tricky moment to navigate. However, dancing choruses aside it all went swimmingly.

But it was the SSO’s night and they certainly revelled in Berg’s heady orchestrations, which leave plenty of room for solos to shine – tuba, viola, flute, clarinet, harp, all had their moments. Ravishing celeste and harp over strings set the ‘Mondnacht’ scene to perfection and the final build of deep brass to a massive climax with two timps and bass drum was overwhelming.

Having enjoyed David Robertson’s Seventh last year, his Beethoven is now a known quantity. Punchy, well-shaped phrasing. Divided strings. Hard sticks on timpani. HIP (historically informed performance), but not slavishly so. The opening of the Ninth, though, still has the power to shock – its modernity must have been notable in its day. The SSO set out its stall in the (note: D Minor again) first bars with long, smooth horn notes, low vibrato in the violins and clean delicate woodwind. On the other side of the scale were those big tutti explosions of energy. Robertson’s excellent ear for balance (unlike poor old Beethoven at this point in his life) proved adept at bringing out the composer’s more daring harmonic experiments in this remarkable score.

In a reading full of Rabelaisian bounce and energy, the Scherzo galloped and fizzed along driven by rampant timps and motoric strings, its themes rocketing around the orchestra like some early experiment in surround sound. The oboe solo in the trio was a delicately executed jewel. The SSO string were particularly effective in the ensuing Adagio, Robertson spinning out the line and conjuring an almost Mahlerian quality out of Beethoven’s ahead-of-its-time writing.

Even the lights lifted for the Finale, as if to draw the audience too into Beethoven’s brotherhood of man and music. The big tune, when it came, was lean and pacey yet radiant – quietly played without vibrato by the six excellent SSO basses. For the vocal quartet, the Rolls Royce line-up of Coleman-Wright, Gordon-Stewart and DeYoung were joined by New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill singing with golden tone. His perky march was taken at quite a lick, but his bright top cut through orchestra and chorus to climax on a ringing top note. (And kudos to Mr O’Neill who pretty much sang along with the choral tenor line throughout – and from memory I’d say).

The choir too rose to the occasion, belting out Beethoven and Schiller’s message with full, weighty tone. Around 180 singers, they were capable of making quite an impression, and thanks to what was clearly some excellent prep work courtesy of Brett Weymark they did just that. Disciplined singing, full committment to the text, and crowned by an excellent line up of sopranos who coped admirably with those killer bits at the top, they ensured that the evening’s roller-coaster ride hurtled to a thrilling finish.

As Robertson pointed out at the start of the evening, the true events on which Berg based his opera took place at the same time as Beethooven was composing his magnum opus. That sense of Beethoven the titan writing for his (sometimes) bemused contemporaries, but also for the contemporaries to come is at the heart of much of David Robertson’s musical philosophy. I for one am happy to sit at the back of the class and look forward to what he has to say next.

The SSO’s Beethoven and Berg are repeated on February 28 and March 1.

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