The Sydney Symphony Orchestra continued their pairing of Beethoven and Strauss with two works based on different types of heros – the tragic hero of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and the more Romantic, all-conquering hero of Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra, based on Nietzsche’s book. Sandwiched in between these two works was Brahms’ sublime Violin Concerto, featuring guest soloist Lisa Batiashvili.

Lisa Batiashvili, © Anja Frers and Deutsche Grammophon
Lisa Batiashvili,
© Anja Frers and Deutsche Grammophon

Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture is a wonderfully dramatic piece with which to open a concert. It begins with the strings playing the same note in octaves three times, with the full orchestra interrupting them each time with an angry, dissonant chord. This strident character eventually subsides, giving way to a wonderful singing melody in the violins. Sydney Symphony under Vladimir Askenazy captured the drama right from the piece’s outset, making for an arresting opening to the evening – but they were then able to contrast this with some wonderfully expressive playing from the violins.

The main work of the first half of the concert was Brahms’ Violin Concerto, with soloist Lisa Batiashvili. One thing about Sydney Symphony is they always seem to attract very high-quality soloists – this evening’s violinist was certainly no exception. From her very first entry until the last note she played, I was in some kind of trance caused by the exquisite, rich, silky tone which emanated from her 1709 Stradivarius. Not only was her sound beautiful, but she commanded the stage, seemingly feeling completely at ease in front of the orchestra. There was some great virtuosic playing too, most notably in the cadenza, where Batiashvili elected to play her own adaption of Fritz Kreisler’s cadenza, rather than the more common one by Brahms’ colleague Joseph Joachim. There was some wonderfully sensitive accompanying by the orchestra too, including a ravishing oboe solo to open the slow movement. This eventually gave way to the final movement, which was played with a great swagger and joie de vivre, with both soloist and orchestra bouncing off each other with some sparkling interplay, before the half was brought to a rousing conclusion and the hall burst into applause for Lisa Batiashvili. She has just recorded this concerto, and it is due for release in November 2012 – I’m sure this will be an excellent addition to the discography.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Strauss’ tone-poem Thus Spake Zarathustra. This is based on a philosophical novel by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche about Zarathustra – or Zoroaster, as he was known to the ancient Greeks. Zoroaster was a Persian prophet who lived in the sixth century BC and taught that humankind is subject to the eternal struggle of two gods, representing light and darkness. Zoroaster embodies this struggle in human form in Nietzsche’s work, and in musical form in Strauss’ tone-poem. The work opens with its famous representation of sunrise, prominently featuring the brass, timpani and organ. This was made famous in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was played in a characteristically exciting manner by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. But this section only opens the work; what follows is half an hour of equally thrilling and dramatic music, which deserves to be just as well known as the opening.

The orchestra responded with playing fit for this great music. The trumpets played excellently, with clear, bell-like clarity, and there was powerful playing from the trombones and tuba, and also the strings – most notably in the awe-inspiring climax at the end of the ‘Of the Great Longing’ section.

One idea often associated with Nietzsche is the concept of the ‘Superman’, a grand Romantic idea of a human being who can overcome struggles and adversity: a survivor. Interestingly, Strauss’ work does not seem to share in Nietzsche’s triumphant embodiment of the ‘Superman’; instead, in the ‘Dance Song’ he is characterised by music reminiscent of a Viennese waltz. This is largely portrayed in a slightly jocular, virtuosic violin solo, which on Friday was expertly played by concertmaster Dene Olding.

The work concludes with the ‘Night Wanderer’s Song’ and its alternating quiet chords, which feature the extreme ends of the orchestra’s tessitura. These chords were beautifully balanced by Ashkenazy and his orchestra, bringing a wonderful evening to a calm and serene conclusion.

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