To mark the centenary of the Gallipoli landing the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra chose to present works that are as much subject to historical ambiguities and distortion as the ANZAC legend itself.
Due recognition was, of course, given to the memory of those who had fought and died in modern times. Poppies were worn by the narrator, soloists and members of the orchestra and (on the second night) chorus. The evening began with a recitation of the well-known stanza from Binyon’s poem For the Fallen, a fine account of the Last Post and Rouse by Corporal Ben Manstead, and a minute’s silence. Launching into the Egmont Overture immediately after these tributes, Beethoven’s stirring music and the MSO’s taut playing made a huge impact.
But whilst Beethoven’s Ninth symphony might be the ultimate musical plea for universal brotherhood, it has been used to inspire a brand of brotherhood that is far from inclusive. As the MSO’s Director of Artistic Planning, Ronald Vermeulen, pointed out in his thought-provoking pre-concert talk, the meaning to be derived from this great work is very much a personal matter. Aside from any association with Hitler’s propaganda machine, feminists paying close attention to Schiller’s text could well take umbrage at the exclusion implied in the words: ”Whoever has… won a fine woman… ”. The emphasis is definitely on the brother part of brotherhood in that phrase.
The same could also be said of Goethe’s remaking of Count Egmont’s history. Perhaps we should be grateful that he chose to ignore the fact that Egmont was twenty years older and married with eight children since Beethoven was inspired to write some splendid music for the mythical Clara and her doomed lover. Whatever reservations there might be regarding the play, Beethoven’s Overture is certainly a thrilling commemoration of Egmont’s heroic resistance against the Spanish oppression of the Flemish people and his execution in Brussels in 1568.
It was unfortunate that illness prevented Susan Gritton from singing the only two pieces of vocal music in the Incidental Music to Egmont. With the prospect of a taxing soprano part in the symphony, it was perhaps the better part of valour to opt out of Clara’s songs, especially when Fiona Campbell was more than capable of taking them on at the last minute. Although they were written for soprano, mezzo-sopranos such as Janet Baker have sung them with great success. Sheathed in poppy scarlet, Fiona Campbell gave a spirited account of Clara’s first song, Die Trommel geruhret. It is a catchy tune in the form of a lively march culminating in the words “What joy unequalled to be a man!”. Campbell negotiated the shorter but higher and more challenging Freudvoll und Leidvoll with little strain. A warm and expressive singer, she gave both pieces colour and animation.
Stringing together the ten pieces that comprise the Incidental Music, William McInnes narrated the story of Egmont and Clara’s hopes, dreams and deaths. Aided by a wash of red light whenever he spoke, he emphasised the dramatic elements of the story to the point where, particularly on the first night, the sound system struggled to accommodate his variations in volume. Despite this and the plot being rather complicated, the narration provided a useful key to understanding the basic intentions of the music. Different members of the wind section were featured in most sections, with Ann Blackburn’s lovely oboe melodies assuming a central role in conveying the tenderness and pathos of Clara’s fate. The reprise of the Overture acted as a triumphant conclusion to the work.
For all the merits of the Egmont music, it was Beethoven’s Ninth that was very much the heart of the program. Diego Matheuz employed some fairly brisk tempi, which kept things moving along nicely in the Scherzo. A more relaxed approach and greater security, particularly in the horn section, were apparent in the repeat performance. There was some impressive work from bassoon and oboe Principals, while commendable weight and unanimity in the recitative from the cellos and double basses heralded a well-integrated murmuring of the main theme at the beginning of the final movement.
In the context of works by a German composer and poets, the idea of having “universal brotherhood” symbolically represented by casting an Australian mezzo-soprano, a British soprano, a New Zealander bass baritone and a Turkish tenor as the soloists was an excellent idea in theory. In practice, it made for an unevenly matched quartet of singers. If this had been a contest then New Zealand would have won the day. Teddy Tahu Rhodes is mighty of stature and voice. His commanding presence was wonderfully exciting as he delivered the opening invocation, but tended to dominate in the ensembles. Bülent Bezdüz has a most appealing lyrical tenor sound and resisted the temptation to push his voice, but he was sometimes a little difficult to hear. Having the upper line meant that Susan Gritton was clearly audible but her illness required some restraint. She has a finely textured voice of considerable beauty and it is to be hoped that she has completely recovered for the Beethoven marathon.
Fittingly, the stars of both evenings were the members of an unflagging MSO Chorus. Friday night’s performance was their last with Jonathan Grieves-Smith as Chorus Master and, without scores, they sang their hearts out in honour of a musician who has contributed so much to the honing of their skills. It was little wonder that the audience reserved their most enthusiastic applause and cheers for the Chorus and for him. He leaves very big boots to fill.