Ashkenazy relives his former Mahlerian glories while Sydney is treated to a class act on the fiddle.

Sydney Opera House, November 13, 2013

Vladimir Ashkenazy’s stint at the helm of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra has brought many stellar guests to the harbour city including violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and pianists Evgeny Kissin and the exciting Uzbek youngster Behzod Abduraimov, but his parting gift of four concerts with his old friend Pinchas Zukerman was the cream on the cake of his memorable five-year tenure.

The 65-year-old American-based Israeli virtuoso has been here before – notably for the Olympic Arts Festival in 2000 – but his return has been eagerly anticipated and the packed out audience for the first of these appearances was not disappointed.

From the opening flourishes over the drum roll of Max Bruch’s concerto No 1, Zuckerman and his Guarneri del Gesu “Dushkin” fiddle illustrated eloquently the composer’s reply to why he had chosen to write for it rather than his own instrument, the piano: “The violin can sing a melody better than a piano can, and melody is the soul of music.”

This was a performance packed with artistry, character and effortless technique. When the orchestra lagged slightly for a few bars in the Hungarian-flavoured finale Zuckerman turned to them and played along for a few bars in a tutti passage.

As with performances by most great artists, the crowd-pleasing Romantic pièce de resistance sounded completely right in the seasoned virtuoso’s hands. His six curtain calls were taken with a nice show of panache – red roses from the customary bouquet distributed each time to female musicians or audience members. But alas, no encore and we were left feeling that 25 minutes was a little scanty.

Not so with the second half when Ashkenazy reprised a favourite from his two-year odyssey, the complete Mahler symphonies. The Fifth is supposedly a love trophy for Gustav’s newly betrothed partner Alma, though it starts off with a funeral march and the first half of the second movement wouldn’t be out of place accompanying a Hammer horror movie.

In his introductory talk SSO violist Roger Benedict contrasted the conducting styles of Richard Strauss and Mahler. Strauss was famously non-demonstrative, keeping a poker face and one hand in his pocket while Mahler was electric and animated.

Ashkenazy certainly fits the Mahler mould, ducking and weaving like a compact dynamo as he marshals his forces. His readings of these massive works have been revelatory in many ways and like his earlier Sibelius cycle have helped confirm the orchestra as an international force to be reckoned with. Principal trumpet David Elton got a huge ovation, closely followed by Robert Johnson on horn. But the biggest cheers were reserved for Ashkenazy who has earned a special place in the hearts of Sydney audiences.  

Ashkenazy and Zukerman perform the Bruch and Mahler program again on November 16 and Sibelius Symphony No 5 with Brahms’s Double Concerto featuring Zukerman’s cellist wife Amanda Forsyth on November 14 and 15.

All performances are sold out, but audiences around the world can still experience the Saturday night performance via a live webcast at 8pm (Australian Eastern Standard Time)
 
To watch the live webcast, visit: http://bigpondmusic.com/sydneysymphony
 
Or download the SSO’s free app and watch it on your mobile device.

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