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13 April 2022 Acton (Australia)
Canberra Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jessica Cottis - Llewellyn Hall, ANU School of Music
We begin with one of the most blazingly original harmonic ideas in the history of Western classical music: the ‘Tristan’ chord, the standard-bearer for a season dedicated to musical vision. Brimming with tension and dissonance, it sounds the opening of Richard Wagner’s ‘music-drama’, Tristan und Isolde, before surrendering to what feels like an eternity of silence, leaving the listener with no idea what comes next.
There’s something spiritual and transcendent in the love Tristan and Isolde share, a kind of redemption born not of lust but of a strange, mystical journey approaching otherworldly transfiguration. This is music of tantalising expectation, epitomised in the Liebestod (Love-Death), their final moment of yearning ecstasy.
So full of ambiguity and expectation, Wagner’s Tristan chord influenced all the composers who followed him. We hear the echoes a century later in Bernard Herrman’s Vertigo, the soundtrack to Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful psycho-thriller. As in Tristan, the score is central to the drama: psychological, mysterious, lingering and suspenseful.
In Margaret Sutherland, we discover musical innovation akin to Wagner’s, albeit expressed in a very different cultural context. One of the most influential Australian voices of the twentieth century, her violin concerto is an ingenious blend of lyrical Romanticism and the modernist, post-Stravinsky sound world she inhabited.
The influential German composer Felix Mendelssohn blurs the lines between the sacred and the symphonic in his Fifth, referencing the solemn, six-note motif of the ‘Dresden Amen’, an allusion Wagner later imitated in his Parsifal opera, despite his distaste for Mendelssohn.
The ‘Reformation’ Symphony also draws on Martin Luther’s ‘Ein feste Burg is unser Gott’ (A mighty fortress is our God), penned as the Augsburg Confession was in session. A commemoration of that momentous chapter in the Lutheran tradition, Mendelssohn’s symphony resonates well beyond its historical context with a message of joy and universal humanness.
Richard Wagner - Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde Margaret Sutherland AO, OBE - Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Bernard Herrmann - Suite from Vertigo Felix Mendelssohn - Symphony No. 5 in D major, op. 107 ‘Reformation’