It came as a shock when the death of Sir Charles Mackerras was announced recently. Even though the venerable maestro was well into his eighties, the concerts he had planned for the forthcoming season with the SCO and others were keenly anticipated. As a longstanding friend of Edinburgh and the Festival, it was appropriate that tribute be paid, but there couldn’t be a more fitting way of doing so than in the company of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, where he began his professional career as second oboe at the age of 18, back in 1943.
Jonathan Mills spoke eloquently on behalf of the Edinburgh International Festival, Lord Harewood, and Brian McMaster; so too did Steve King, for the SCO, and Colin Piper for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. They recalled his energy, his erudition, his occasional bluntness and regular generosity, and above all his musicianship. Then Vladimir Ashkenazy and the ensemble performed Mozart's 'Deh vieni non tardar' (with Rebecca Evans, soprano), followed by the third movement of Janacek's Sinfonietta—both composers being significant figures in Mackerras's life and career.
This was full-throated, passionate Janacek, revealing Ashkenazy to be a considerable interpreter of the Czech in his own right, creating just the right sense of continuity to take the audience into the scheduled programme, and Elgar's concert overture cum symphonic poem, In the South. It was a telling repertoire choice in the context of the programme as a whole, dating from the period when Elgar's reputation at home was established and he was beginning to gain recognition in the progressive centres of European music from the likes of Richard Strauss—whose influence on the present work is marked. This was a vibrant, focused performance led with great enthusiasm by Ashkenazy.
Indeed, fervent enthusiasm is one of his hallmarks. Strangely enough, like Christian Zacharias, far more effusive in gesture as a conductor than he is as a pianist, he visibly relishes every moment, responding to each contribution as though grateful to have witnessed it—and yet he doesn't get lost in rapture, nor does his physicality intrude on the discipline of his readings.
Which is just as well for Ross Edwards' Maninyas, because it is a work of meditative stillness. Beneath a surface pleasantness that could easily pass for banal, there is a delicate, rhythmic life that needs time to gestate. The term 'maninya', in an interestingly oral process, was initially, for Edwards, a random set of phonemes that earned certain connotations of harmonic stasis, chant, subtly varied motivic repetition and rhythmic vitality, during the compositional working out of his materials. This works particularly effectively in the lively finale, which is reached after a serene, translucent chorale that splendidly foregrounds Dene Olding's solo performance.
If Maninyas might be a little too sweet for some tastes, Peter Sculthorpe's Memento Mori is altogether more intense. Sculthorpe seeks to link the personal notion of mortality to an extended environmental sense of fragility, drawing on historical examples of human-driven ecological catastrophe such as that experienced on Rapanui (Easter Island). In choosing to use the plainsong Dies Irae he takes a risk by invoking a Romantic tradition associated with headstrong individualism, but it pays off superbly in a graduated design that works through to a powerfully solemn climax. If this was a poignantly prescient repertoire choice alongside the Mackerras tribute, it was warming to see the composer—now in his eighties but still working—take the stage to receive the applause of both audience and orchestra.
While it would be wide of the mark to call Sculthorpe 'the' Australian Elgar, he occupies a place in the evolution of a distinctively Australian voice in classical music that parallels Elgar's role in modernizing English music. Accordingly, the choice of Elgar's Enigma Variations to conclude the programme was as smart as it was popular. Ashkenazy and his musicians brought the portraits vividly to life in a memorably committed performance, by turns ebullient, warm, comical and sincere.
Photo: Sir Charles Mackerras
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