Berg, Bruckner, Dohnanyi

Last night to see the SSO conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi, making at the age of 86 what was rather cutely described as his “Australian debut.”

I suppose the title of this post is a bit unfair to Carolin Widmann, the violin soloist in the Berg concerto and herself a member of a prominent musical family (you could think of her and her brother as like Australia’s Dean brothers in reverse), but we haven’t had to wait so long to see her.

Once again, the concerto crept up on me unaware (that’s me unaware rather than the concerto), owing in part to a sudden and sad trip to Canberra this week.

The concerto is a kind of musical riddle which works itself out at the end when Bach’s chorale Es ist genug emerges and joins with the Ländler-ish  Carinthian song which is its other not-s0-twelve-tonish ingredient.

After the final chords, gleaming like the notes of a glass harmonica, I was moved to tears. I just wanted to hear it all again.

After interval, the Bruckner 4.  Dohnanyi conducted this without a score.

The concert was marked by what Peter McCallum neatly described in his review as “the trial of circular tiered platforms which created clarity, acoustic focus, immediacy and tangible acoustic improvement.”

We will have to wait until a less extraordinary conductor is in front of the orchestra before we can see how much of this was down to the platforms and how much of it was down to Dohnanyi and the orchestra rising to meet him.   It’s a mystery how this configuration would cope if, for example, there were a piano soloist or a larger orchestra with orchestral piano and celeste, but it is a very promising development which I wouldn’t wish abandoned on that count. Undeniably there was an improved acoustic focus and it was probably even more marked in the middle third of the stalls (where McCallum sits) than in the back quarter where I sit.

Pizzicato bass sounds had a wonderful warmth and the detail of wind playing came through more clearly than usual. I especially enjoyed the playing of guest principal clarinet, Dean Newcomb, from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, and the flutes came through much more clearly than usually. The violas in the second movement played/sounded as well if not better than I have ever heard them. Their back desks are usually a bit of an orchestral backwater and it was fun to see them lifted into the limelight.

It goes without saying that the brass had a good night.  (OK: almost without saying, because it was Bruckner.) I particularly liked how Dohnanyi kept them in check with a solid rather than a brash sound – when the trumpets were unleashed (even then bright rather than simply loud) in the Scherzo they really knocked me back in my seat.

Of course a performance is more than the sum of such parts and when we come to balance and interpretation the fanciest set of tiers in the world are not what really does the job.

At the risk of simplifying, I sensed more of the Schubert side of Bruckner than the Wagner side (and, incidentally, quite a lot of Mahler in the first three sections of the Berg).

The entire concert broadcast remains available as streamed content for the next 28 days.   You can fast forward through Throbbers‘ contributions if she’s not a taste you have acquired.

I listened again today.  The Berg improved on greater familiarity (and a bit of help for me from Wikipedia).  I’m the sort of person who likes to leaf ahead to see the ending of a novel in advance and so the riddle was more pleasurable when I already knew the answer.  The Bruckner survived very well the inevitable scrutiny that a recorded performance permits.  An example of the violas in fine form is at 1:19:38.

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