I’ve always thought Khachaturian’s ballet music superior to his concertos. Even James Ehnes’ customary fusion of virtuosity and insight couldn’t convince me otherwise. Despite the significant contribution David Oistrakh made to its composition, it’s never quite entered the mainstream violin repertoire (like the Dvořák, a much finer work). If I had to sum up the Violin Concerto in one word, I’m afraid it would be ‘racketty’, especially the fast sections of the first movement, which always strike me as clattery note-spinning. Even the ‘exotic’ arabesques, which must have seemed original in the 1930s, were much better when used by composers like Dimitri Tiomkin and Miklós Rózsa in 1950s ‘sword and sandal’ epics. Ehnes ennobles virtually every piece of music he performs but, for all the uncomplicated ‘fun’, I think his prodigious talent was a bit wasted on this work.

Sydney Symphony OrchestraJames Ehnes, Mark Wigglesworth and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Jay Patel

The second half (or, rather two thirds) of this concert was a performance of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, a work composed in 1936 which reached only the rehearsal stage before it was withdrawn as a precaution after a withering article appeared in Pravda (suspected by some to have been penned by Stalin himself) denouncing the composer for his opera The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The Symphony had to wait until 1961 for its premiere. Even today, it’s still a ‘modernist’ masterpiece, Mahlerian in parts, and a real harbinger of Shostakovich’s later works, in terms of its grotesque juxtapositions, jarring changes of tone and mood, violence, unwieldiness and sheer unpredictability. One critic described it as ‘batshit crazy’, a description I wish I’d thought of first. I counted 110 musicians on stage.

I read that Wigglesworth had recorded this work some years ago with the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra but I deliberately avoided looking up reviews, for obvious reasons until after this performance. They were universally complimentary. From the jagged opening shrieks, he lunges in. He not so much conducted the orchestra as drove it.

Mark Wigglesworth and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Jay Patel

In the sprawling first movement fugue, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra became a sort of symphonic version of one of Field Marshal Rommel’s Panzer Tank divisions, but the playing never became course or uncontrolled and Wigglesworth, a diminutive dynamo, kept the coherence of what structure this movement could be said to possess. The orchestra covered itself in glory throughout the hour long performance. The woodwinds were particularly crisp and seemed like green shoots popping up after a scorched-earth battle, although eventually even they begin to sound sinister. The raw string interjections reminded of the more manic sections of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem.

The second movement, initially at least, had a strangely ambiguous, almost quizzical, mood but it’s at the beginning of the finale, perhaps the composer’s least structurally convincing and coherent movement in his entire symphonic canon, that the most overtly Mahlerian passage appears – clearly reminiscent of the third movement of the First Symphony, where the macabre spectacle of the forest animals accompanying the body of the hunter in a funeral march is depicted. After this episode, the work takes another radical change of direction in a weird sort of ballet divertissement with a waltz, then polka, then a gallop, straight out of one of Shostakovich’s satirical ballets. The playing of the orchestra was especially pert and ironic here.  The ‘heroic’ peroration shatters this interlude and gradually the fury subsides and is followed by what must rank as the strangest, most unsettling end to any symphony (even more than the supposedly ‘nuclear winter’ ending to Vaughan Williams’ Sixth) – not at all elegiac but more like a Little Shop of Horrors coda, when the sound attenuates over the longest C pedal note ever composed. Strange percussion and even a disembodied-sounding celeste accompany the descent into a purgatorial nothingness. Throughout, Wigglesworth built the structure like a Mughal emperor and added the details like a Fabergé jeweller. It was one of the finest SSO performances I’ve ever heard.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 at the Sydney Opera House until August 31


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