The concert to open the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's 80th Anniversary Series was very much one of contrasts. With the promise of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the season seemed to be opening in celebratory style. However, the entire first half was devoted to Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen, a piece which is a far cry from the triumphant finale of the Beethoven.

Vladimir Ashkenazy, © Keith Saunders
Vladimir Ashkenazy,
© Keith Saunders

Strauss wrote his Metamorphosen for twenty-three solo strings as something of a lament for the demise of culture in the Second World War. His beloved National Theatre in Munich was destroyed in 1943; in February 1945 Dresden was destroyed, as was the Vienna State Opera House later the same year. He considered the destruction of the National Theatre in Munich as the greatest catastrophe of his life and sketched the first few bars of Metamorphosen under the title Mourning for Munich. The Sydney Symphony's chief conductor, Vladimir Ashkenazy, has described it as 'a lament from beginning to end'. Although this is extremely beautiful music, I found it somewhat puzzling that Ashkenazy chose to open the first concert of a special anniversary year with such a sombre work. Having said that, the music provided an opportunity for the wonderful string section to shine, and they enveloped the concert hall with a beautifully intense, rich sound.

The second half began with the concertmaster welcoming everyone to the 80th Anniversary Season, especially thanking those who had supported the orchestra for many years, citing that some two hundred members of the audience had been attending their concerts for twenty years. Perhaps there is no piece of music better at uniting performers and audiences than Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, from its nihilistic opening to its triumphant conclusion. The orchestra effectively captured the drama of the first movement, from the expectant bare fifths in the strings at the beginning to the explosive tutti sections. This was a good reminder of why audiences continue to fill the Opera House – a hugely exciting full orchestra sound resonating in perfect harmony in the acoustics of a very special concert hall.

The drama continued in the second movement with the manic scherzo, which contained some nimble string and woodwind playing. Particularly effective was the timpani, which certainly was not reticent with its interjections, being played with hard sticks rather than soft ones to maximise the impact. The scherzo gives way to one of Beethoven's most sublime slow movements, a rare oasis of calm in an otherwise turbulent symphony. I sank back ready to be transported, but felt myself firmly rooted in my seat. Sadly, the orchestra's account of this most exquisite movement failed to move me in the same way that it normally does. The pace felt slightly rushed and the orchestra did not wallow enough; the almost Mozartian phrases lacked the shape they require; there was not enough rise and fall. The harmonic changes came and went almost without acknowledgement. For me, this was one of the most disappointing parts of the concert.

And so on to the famous choral finale. This time I sat on the edge of my seat ready to be swept up in its excitement, and to some extent I was. Last time I heard the Sydney Philharmonia Choir in the finale of Mahler's Second Symphony, I remember feeling underwhelmed. However, this time it was totally different. For last night's concert they were joined by VOX, their young adult choir. Whether or not these younger voices made the difference was impossible to tell, but the singing was thrilling, cutting through the orchestra effectively. Delivered without music, their singing had a wonderful directness. It was almost as if the distance between them and the audience had been cut and they were standing right in front of us. The orchestra accompanied them in a spirited manner, full of energy. There was also an excellent quartet of soloists. The only disappointment was the orchestral performance under the conducting of Vladimir Ashkenazy. Several sections come across to me as slightly scrappy, with the players seeming nervous, and some of the more tricky sections lacked the necessary excitement. It was as if they felt reluctant to take the brakes off, instead preferring to play safe.

Having said that, the spirit of Beethoven's triumphant work shone through in the end and the finale was uplifting enough to dispel the considerable gloom of the repertoire from the first half as well as the unsettled turbulence of the early part of Beethoven's symphony. The somewhat muted reaction of the first half was replaced by rapturous applause at the concert's conclusion.

***11