Beethoven & Bruckner in Australia

Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)
Symphony No.9 in D minor

Nikolai Demidenko (piano)

West Australian Symphony Orchestra
Jeffrey Tate

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 27 July, 2007
Venue: Perth Concert Hall, Western Australia

Jeffrey Tate has visited Australia on many occasions, and readers may remember his acclaimed ‘Ring’ Cycle for the 1998 Adelaide Festival, the first to be performed complete by an Australian opera company. This concert saw him conducting two orchestral masterworks from different ends of the 19th-century: Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto of 1809 and Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony (unfinished at the time of the composer’s death in 1896). Tate was joined in the Beethoven by another artist who is no stranger to these shores, Nikolai Demidenko.

I spoke with Tate a few days beforehand. We talked about the defiant quality in both works. The Beethoven, he said, had a more positive defiance, reflecting the mood of the times and the advent of a new, Napoleonic hero. By the time of Bruckner’s Ninth, however, things weren’t quite so rosy. The symphony has a more pessimistic defiance, written by one who, in Tate’s words, has looked into hell and seen what it might be like.

These contrast and tensions were brilliantly brought out in the performances. Tate had arranged the violins antiphonally for both works, with the double basses in a row along the back. Despite the reduced forces for the Beethoven, it made an enormous impact, with brisk tempos and accented cadences keeping the energy levels up. The clarity of texture was also remarkable. Demidenko’s playing was correspondingly vigorous and full of a crystalline power and beauty; even in the slow movement, there was manifest tension rather than repose. Demidenko gave an encore, a poetic reading of a Scarlatti sonata.

Then came the Bruckner, and what a performance. Tate’s ear for clarity and sense of architecture came to the fore, but so too did a certain elemental rawness. In the first movement, the orchestra may have taken a little while to settle, but by the time of the first great climax it was well and truly oiled. The scherzo was, as it should be, truly demonic, while the slow movement was full of twisted pain and, ultimately, a kind of reconciliation. Bruckner did, after all, dedicate the symphony to ‘Almighty God’. Both Tate and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra should be congratulated for giving their all to this very taxing work, both technically and emotionally.

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