The COVID-19 pandemic put paid to most of the celebrations planned for Beethoven’s 250th birthday last year, but the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was keen not to let the occasion go entirely unmarked, devoting the second program on its 2021 season in the Sydney Town Hall exclusively to the composer’s music, led by Chief Conductor Designate Simone Young.
Simone Young and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Nic Walker
Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No 3 was one of four overtures the composer wrote for his opera Fidelio – initially called Leonore – and it’s by far the most popular in the concert hall for its symphonic scope and drama. While there were a couple of ragged entries in the wind section – the distance between the musicians on the stage no doubt compounding the challenges of Beethoven’s exposed, precision entries – the string sound was gorgeous. The duetting lines between Joshua Batty’s flute and Diana Doherty’s oboe, and the playful chase between flute and Matthew Wilkie’s nimble bassoon, were particular highlights. As was the offstage trumpet, the Town Hall’s resonant corridors giving it more than the usual shine before it blazed into the hall from the rear gallery. Young conducted with swagger and an obvious joy in the brilliance of the high-energy passages.
Australian soprano Lauren Fagan found herself ringed by the orchestra for Beethoven’s concert aria Ah! Perfido, health requirements stipulating a good five metres between the singer and the front row of the audience, leaving the winds to perch on the stands at the stage’s top right. Fagan made her professional debut in Australia just last week with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and braved fickle border restrictions to join Young and the SSO in Sydney for this concert, soon demonstrating why she’s been in such demand in the UK.
The distance and the Town Hall’s live acoustic may have taken the edge off the clarity of the text (the experience must have been different for audience members in the galleries over the stage, some of whom were closer to the soprano than Young was) but Fagan’s is a powerful instrument and she nonetheless soared across the more immediate sound of the string section with her polished soprano. There were some lovely veiled moments in her upper register early in the aria before she allowed her voice to unfurl in the dramatic climax, easily filling the space with her glossy, commanding sound.
Young leant into the broad sweep of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in the first movement’s opening, with an eye to the big picture that characterised her approach to the work as a whole. As in the Leonore overture, she revelled in the sprightliness of the playful passages before bringing a robust strength to the triumphant climaxes. The ‘funeral march’ of the Allegretto had an unpretentious, flowing momentum – the lower strings crisp and warm in the opening – while the final crescendo was absolutely thrilling, before the Presto burst into life. Young didn’t stint on the con brio in the finale, infusing the movement with incredible athleticism and excitement – without letting it ever feel pushed or driven – the percussive accents given a satisfying crunch, the cut-offs clean and biting. You could feel the energy in the hall as the orchestra reached the Symphony’s final bars, Young breathing life into this familiar, but well-loved, repertoire.
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra presents Simone Young Performs Beethoven at the Sydney Town Hall again on 20 February