Review: WASO Classics Series, Beethoven's Fifth

Fireworks was the theme for Paul Daniel’s return to the podium in the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s Classics Series, and fireworks we got in spades.

Opening with Handel’s ever popular Music for the Royal Fireworks, the night was off to a brilliant start.  As one would expect, the emphasis was on the brass, woodwinds and percussion, strings being mostly relegated to doubling with the woodwinds, giving them body. 

In the Ouverture the brass section proved almost overwhelming, accompanied by some beautifully timed and equally emphatic snare drums.  This was no sedate, traditional reading but a lively account. 

The Bourree and La Paix movements highlighted perfectly the tight ensemble that is the WASO woodwind section, they were a beautiful contrast to the outer movements of brass and percussive baroque bombast.

La Rejouissance, as always, proved to be an audience favourite, eliciting applause, and rightly so.  The final Menuet I & II were beautifully crafted and brought the suite to a wonderful close.

Daniels seems to have somehow reconciled a classical sized orchestra with the paired down baroque ensemble sound so popular now with complete success.  The elements of rawness one has come to enjoy from an ‘original instrument’ performance were nicely balanced with the full, lush sound that only a modern symphony orchestra can give. 

American violinist Kurt Nikkanen was soloist in the local premiere of Thomas Ades Violin Concerto ‘Concentric Paths’.  This dark, modern work was given a virtuoso performance by Nikkanen. 

The work is divided into three movements, ‘Rings’ being the first and shortest.  It’s incredibly high solo line was mesmerizing and set the scene for the rest of the work.

‘Paths’ the second movement and the longer of the three, is a dark mysterious place filled with harsh dissonances and violent chords.  The orchestration in this movement is remarkable (did I see a hammer used in the percussion?) in the way Ades employs the lower brass together with the solo violin and sets them against each other ‘which overlap and clash, sometimes violently, in their motion towards resolution’.  As Daniels and Nikkonen advised in their introduction it evoke a dark ‘club-like atmosphere’.  There is also a lyrical line to this movement as well, melancholic, which made me think of Vaughan Williams.

The final movement, ‘Rounds’ gave a sense of completion perfectly fitting the concept of circular motion.  It is a brief, tense piece and ends like the first movement began, with high tessitura for the solo violin and ending with a bang.

Kurt Nikkonen showed why he was one of the world’s leading exponents of this technically and emotionally demanding piece.  It was an incredible performance and was testament to why composer, Thomas Ades has been described as the ‘promising new voice of British music’.

In a slight program change, Colin Matthews’ orchestration of Debussy’s Preludes, Book II, no12: Feux d’artifice was performed before the interval.  This wonderfully orchestrated version of one of Debussy’s more enigmatic works was superb in its percussive, orientalist flavour.  Master orchestrator and Debussy contemporary, Maurice Ravel, would have been envious.

The second half of the program was given to Beethoven’s Symphony No5 in C minor, Opus 67.  Conductor Paul Daniel set a blistering pace from the opening bars, which continued through all four movements. 

It was a dramatic reading, though unsentimental due to the fast tempo adopted by Daniel.  This approach did not allow much contrast between the softer secondary theme of the first movement or its more famous counterpart that opens the work.

This feeling continued through to the Andante, which I thought was rushed and continued through to the scherzo third movement.  The sense of mystery evoked in the beginning of the scherzo was glossed over at this pace and there was little tension leading into the bridge to the brilliant blaze of brass that heralds the beginning of the fourth movement. 

The rapid tempo left nowhere to go in the build up to the finale, little light and shade in interpretation and was disappointing in light of Maestro Daniel’s vision of the 7th heard to exhilarating effect last year.

It is testament to the skill and unity of the orchestra that they held it all together at such a speed.  In this sense it was truly inspiring, no shabby ensemble work here, just brilliant musicianship. 

I’d like to finish with a hearty congratulations to WASO in proving they are the best orchestra in the country by winning the APRA award for Performance of the Year for it’s performance of James Ledger’s Two Memorials performed in November last year at the Perth Concert Hall. Now the nation knows what I’ve been saying all along.