One could not be blamed for feeling rather elevated looking at the titles of the last programme given by Emanuel Ax and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in a mini series of Beethoven’s piano concertos. First, Angels were introduced in Brett Dean’s Engelsflügel (Wings of Angels), then the concert proceeded with the Emperor, Beethoven’s Piano concerto in E flat major, Op.73 before concluding with a Hero’s life or, in a translation closer to the original, “An Heroic Life”, Ein Heldenleben by Richard Strauss.

David Robertson © MIchael Tammaro
David Robertson
© MIchael Tammaro

Engelsflügel was commissioned by and premiered at Louisville University in the USA in 2013, at that time orchestrated for the University’s wind band. What the Sydney audience heard on Friday night was the first performance of a newly revised version, this time employing a large orchestra. Similarly to other compositions by the Australian composer, this is complex and subtle music, perceptively written for a vast variety of instrumental combinations. Even at first hearing it seemed apparent that it was ‘intelligent’ music where sonorities, accents, or tempo changes never took place randomly but for a reason. Compositions such as this one are best appreciated by an attentive audience as oftentimes several musical ‘events’, motives, or fragments materialise simultaneously in various parts of the orchestra (a favourite technique of Strauss, often used in Heldenleben). You blink, you miss it. Naturally I could not tell after one performance what these musical events precisely were, but certainly, it was a composition I would gladly listen to again.

Emanuel Ax, appearing for the sixth time in nine days performing Beethoven concertos on the stage of the Opera House’s Concert Hall, walked on stage with his by now familiar friendly demeanour. If he was feeling strained by practising, rehearsing and performing in such a concentrated fashion, it did not show. His interpretation seemed to be based on ‘olde world’ principles: sensitive touch, clarity of sound and profound understanding of phrasing which characterised his every entry. He rarely indulged in unnecessary rubato which made him an ideal partner for an orchestra to accompany. The tone of his instrument was able to change from the gentlest delicate murmur to a seemingly uncontrollable roar under his fingers, and Beethoven’s last piano concerto offers opportunities for both.

The orchestra and its Chief Conductor, David Robertson was an equal partner in this beautiful music making. The slow movement’s con sordino theme (played with muted upper strings) was especially memorable, complemented by perfectly timed and tuned pizzicati of no less than 16 low string instruments (cellos and double basses).  Their masterful ensemble notwithstanding, it is arguable whether this or any classical concerto would need such a large string section. Balance problems between the woodwinds – their playing numbers are always determined by the composer – and the strings become almost inevitable. Indeed, when the same opening choral-like theme returned, exquisitely played by the woodwinds and complemented with barely audible tenderness by the soloist, the close to fifty string players found it difficult to stay in the background.

Their best efforts were of course needed in the last item of the programme but Ein Heldenleben was conceived in a very different musical era, some 90 years later. Who the protagonist of this work might be is an often debated and ultimately moot point. Given the composer’s more than healthy dose of self-esteem – after all, it was Strauss who famously told Romain Rolland that he considered himself "no less interesting than Napoleon" –, the valiant hero as a self-portrait is a plausible option. (Volume two of this musical autobiography took a very different route only a few years later when Strauss composed Sinfonia Domestica about himself and his family.) It also speaks volumes that the composer dedicated the score to the young and brilliant Dutch conductor, Willem Mengelberg and his orchestra, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw – only to insist on conducting the première himself with a different orchestra.

The Sydney Symphony, in splendid form during the whole evening, gave a memorable performance of this mighty work. Robertson proved himself to be a clear and reliable Strauss conductor already a few months ago when he conducted Elektra with the SSO. On Friday evening, their collaboration went even further and the mix of tone colours and balance was exceptional. Amongst the numerous fine instrumental solos two are worth mentioning: I have never heard the last pianissimo utterance of the hero’s adversaries, played by flutes and piccolo so softly yet with such absolute precision, as on this occasion. Fortunately, our hero had also a female companion, her musical character written in the score by way of a formidable solo violin cadenza. Andrew Haveron, having joined the orchestra only a short while ago, presented an outstanding portrayal of this role. Seldom can one hear such a warm violin sound even in the highest registers of the instrument; rarely is this extensive solo performed with so much confidence and depth.