Adelaide Town Hall. 14 Sep 2012
Maestro Martyn Brabbins stepped onto the podium and spoke for several minutes to the modestly sized audience about the programme. This is not done all that often and is often frowned upon by those who dress in stiffer shirts than mine, just as they often disapprove of including anything on the programme that is ‘new music’ and has not already withstood the test of time and can be rightly considered a ‘classic’. For many, it seemed that the inclusion of ‘The Crazed Moon’, by contemporary British composer Julian Anderson (born 1967), should not have been in a master series concert, and the fact that it was an Australian première performance did not make it any more palatable. I think there may be a valid argument somewhere in this, but this reviewer was pleased that it was included. Brabbins described the programme as a ‘Haydn sandwich’: the Anderson was one slice of bread, Elgar’s monumental first symphony was the other (but much more substantial!) and the meat in the middle was Haydn’s Cello Concerto No 1 in C.
In his introductory remarks Brabbins asked what it was that typified music that might be described as being quintessentially British. It’s an interesting question and as I listened to his not entirely satisfactory response, I mused that it seemed to be a difficult question to answer. Anyway, I was much more interested in the novel configuration of the orchestra. The double basses were imposingly arranged in a single file on the left hand side of the stage (from the audience’s perspective) rather than on the right, and they were joined by the cellos and half of the violins, with the remaining violins on the right. All other instruments were in roughly standard position.
‘The Crazed Moon’ is a compositional and aural labyrinth and according to the programme notes, written back in 1997 by the composer himself, it is “cut up and discursive… jump[ing] between several different types of music which evolve more independently of each other.” I found it meandering and episodic and to be ‘pure’ music without a programme, and to my ear it had filmic qualities. It may sit more comfortably as the score for a significant movie rather than on the concert platform.
Jian Wang played the Haydn concerto exquisitely, and his performance, if the audience reaction was anything to go by, was the highlight of the evening. Brabbins’ physical arrangement of the smaller orchestra, which included just strings (with only two double basses), two oboes and two horns, produced a pleasing balance of sound. Wang’s virtuosity was a match for the etched rhythms and full chords of the first movement, and the rapid alternation from high to low notes in the third. Wang played with a sense of authority and great charm that breathed much life into this delightful concerto. I don’t recall enjoying the ASO’s last performance of it in 2009 (with maestro Olari Elts and young cellist Gautier Capuçon) as much.
When it was first performed in 1908, Elgar’s first symphony was vaunted as the best symphony of its time, and according to a New York critic of the day, it was doubtful if any symphonic work had aroused so great an interest since Tchaikovsky’s glorious Pathétique (that was written about fifteen years earlier and, interestingly, was performed by the ASO only a week ago!) Written in the key of A flat major, which is a rarity for symphonies, it is expansive and noble, and if Brabbins were to have his way, it would be classified as typically English. It possesses strength as well as tenderness, and its broad sweeping melodies have a sense of purpose and conviction. Having said that, the first movement doesn’t possess the same colour and clarity as the other three movements, which Brabbins was able to draw out most effectively. Perhaps he might have taken the andante first movement at a slightly faster pace? I have heard brisker versions.
The audience’s reaction to the Elgar was one of immense satisfaction and contentment, and the symphony had dimmed their memory of the ‘Crazed moon’ but had not eclipsed the Haydn.
Where: Adelaide Town Hall