There are only a handful of composers whose music can provide enough variety to last a whole program. Beethoven is one of those composers. Not only that, but even today, some 200 years after his lifetime, his music continues to inspire, delight and challenge modern audiences. That is part of Beethoven’s enduring genius and legacy.

Ashkenazy conducts the Sydney Symphony © Brendan Read
Ashkenazy conducts the Sydney Symphony
© Brendan Read

The opening piece of the concert, the Grosse Fugue Op. 133, started life as the finale from Beethoven’s String Quartet in B flat, Op. 130. However, the original finale met with confusion at its première, and so Beethoven was persuaded by his publisher to compose a more accessible work, which was published separately as Op. 133. In this evening’s performance, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy played an orchestration of the work for string orchestra by Felix Weingartner. This work, like a lot of late Beethoven, does not make for easy listening even for modern listeners, although it exhibits a composer at the height of his daring and artistic powers. It was given an impassioned reading by the strings of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, led by its new co-concertmaster, Andrew Haveron (previously joint concertmaster of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London), who led proceedings with great authority in his first outing with the orchestra as leader. The lush string sound was truly sumptuous, and was highly effective at opening up Beethoven’s sound world.

While the presence of Andrew Haveron demonstrates the ability of the Sydney Symphony to attract the best talent from overseas, the next piece in the program showcased the wealth of home-grown talent in the orchestra. It is always exciting to hear guest artists perform concertos, but it is often just as rewarding to hear concertos when the soloists are drawn from within the orchestra’s own ranks. Such was the case this evening in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto in C, Op. 56, when the soloists were principal second violinist Kirsty Hilton, principal cellist Catherine Hewgill, and guest pianist Clemens Leske. The work is reasonably lengthy and requires stamina and virtuosity from all soloists, particularly the strings, and this was delivered in ample proportions. The orchestra accompanied with great sensitivity, while the soloists displayed a great sense of empathy with each other, making this a truly musical performance.

However, the highlight for me was to come after the interval, with the orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. I had never heard Ashkenazy conduct Beethoven before. What he managed to obtain from the orchestra was truly special and revelatory. So many readings of this work are too forthright, fast and even slightly boisterous. Ashkenazy’s reading had a great sense of poise to it and a wonderful serenity which was truly evocative of the pastoral theme. The wonderful melodies were given space to sing and the orchestral sound had a certain sweetness to it, which is inherent in the work but rarely achieved. Perhaps the most beautiful moment was the way the opening violin melody of the final movement emerged from the texture. This was a melody which was exquisitely played and which simply emerged as if it had always been there, only hidden. There was a perfect blend between all the instruments of the orchestra, as if the ensemble was just one instrument possessing multiple colours. All of the solos from the woodwind instruments were expertly crafted and shaped, while the drama of the famous storm scene was terrifyingly portrayed.

This was a truly memorable performance which showed that Ashkenazy, Beethoven and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra are a match made in heaven.

****1