To paint or not to paint images through music? This was the question posed by conductor Sir Andrew Davis and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in their latest orchestral concert of Strauss and Beethoven, concluding the orchestra’s months-long exploration of some of Strauss’ most crucial works. It was an evening rich in musical evocation and imagery, highlighting both composers’ absolute mastery of the classical sound palette. 

Daniel Müller-Schott
© Uwe Arens

Beginning a concert with Strauss’ maverick Don Quixote, a set of orchestral variations, was never going to be less than audacious. That metrical ebb and flow so distinctive to the Southern Germans and Austrians (think Viennese Waltzes) is fragile even under the hands of seasoned soloists, let alone an entire orchestra, and on this occasion the interpretation of the opening was not entirely coordinated between the sections. However, outstanding solos firstly by the oboe and then the principal “lead”, cellist Daniel Müller-Schott, did much to settle any uncertainties. Müller-Schott executed his soloistic role with palpable gusto, his lyricism throbbing yet never over-the-top. The sheer pleasure of listening to his Don Quixote was heightened during the various short duets with concertmaster Dale Barltrop and violist Christopher Moore. Still, the highlight of the work for me is the famous bleating of the sheep in Variation II, carried out brilliantly by the brass section. As in so many of this composer’s other works, the surface banalities (highly entertaining ones at that) are rooted in Strauss’ incredible ear for orchestral effects and testify to his indisputable talents.

While Strauss never shied away, in fact embraced, the heavily programmatic nature of his music often based on literary narratives and treatises, Beethoven toed the line between absolute musical forms and programmatic depiction. The programming of two works by Beethoven – the Symphony no. 6 “Pastoral”, preceded by the Adagio molto e mesto from the first Razumovsky Quartet – was an intriguing novelty. Seemingly placed to make up for the absence of an overture in the first half, while entirely lacking an overture atmosphere, the Adagio was instead brooding and melancholic, made even darker through Brett Dean’s extrapolation of the original string quartet into a version for flute, clarinet and string orchestra. Dean’s arrangement is refined and disciplined, and one could imagine this to have been a movement of a symphony by Beethoven himself. Just as the emotional burden of the movement threatened to become too much, the orchestra seamlessly transitioned into the “Pastoral” Symphony, eliciting some chuckles from the audience. It turns out, the Adagio was acting merely as a Haydnesque introduction to the optimistic symphonic journey that lay ahead. A clever and delightful twist.

Upon the “Pastoral” one felt the orchestra had finally found its feet and comfort zone. Dialogue between and within the instrumental sections was dynamic and thrilling, and the moderate pace maintained by Davis allowed for the repetitive, proto-minimalist sections to flow without excessive effort. Beethoven may be famed for his dramatic intensity, but in this symphony his truly unique quality shines: his capacity for spiritual, almost mystical, serenity, in the face of real and figurative thunderstorms. Concentrations were understandably worn out by the conclusion, such that the closing passages lacked a little of the orchestra’s earlier technical perfection, but this did not detract from an altogether satisfying and fulfilling experience.