Take an overture from the Classical period, add a Romantic concerto and finish with a major work from the 20th century – a tried and proven concoction for a balanced orchestral concert. If these works follow a chronological order and become increasingly longer, so much the better. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s latest concert followed this recipe, which gained further strength through the contribution of a youthful but experienced conductor, Marcelo Lehninger, and an eminent pianist of Nelson Freire’s calibre.

Nelson Freire © Mat Hennek
Nelson Freire
© Mat Hennek

The performance of Beethoven's Coriolan Overture allowed neither orchestra nor its audience to warm up. Its thrice-repeated fortissimo motto on open octaves on the strings exploding into three different orchestral chords set the tone for energetic playing throughout the evening. As an immediate contrast, the menacingly quiet main theme evoked the eponymous hero through a well-controlled, clearly articulated string sound, which became one of the trademarks for this concert. The young Brazilian conductor took charge from the first note, without any sign of anxiety. His energetic beat was easy to follow: small and precise when needed, but sweeping and generous elsewhere, particularly in the second part of the programme.

The soloist, fellow-Brazilian Nelson Freire, is almost exactly twice his age, yet the two artists seemed to perfectly understand each other and agree about the artistic concept of the Piano Concerto in A minor by Robert Schumann. To me, one of the most appealing elements of Freire’s playing was that he showed no interest in astounding his audience with a revolutionary reading of the work. Instead, with his lyrical touch and immaculate phrasing, he focussed much more on the intimate than on the bombastic, on the personal side of ‘his’ Schumann Concerto, rather than on public eloquence. Under his hands, the big black beast of the Concert Hall’s Steinway piano roared seldom, if at all, for the emphasis was on a gentle, almost intimate communication between soloist and orchestra and their joint performance for the pleasure of the audience – and such communication does not need much thundering. Not that his playing lacked emotions, even extreme ones; but, like great orators do, he never put more weight than necessary on any of his utterances which made every sound that he played an essential one.

The opening bars of his solo thus reflected more the second than the first part of Schumann’s Allegro affettuoso tempo marking. Similarly, the second movement’s theme felt more like an introverted conversation between old friends – in this case, piano and orchestra. In the solo sections, nowhere as recognisably as in the first movement’s cadenza, the inner balance between the various concurrently played piano voices was exquisite: nothing of importance was lost, while the smallest figuration could be heard. Even the third movement’s theme sounded more merry than victorious, creating the scene for joyous music-making, as if Freire would have considered his part as contribution to chamber music, rather than to a soloist-based concerto. His approach was readily supported by orchestra and conductor alike, and their accompaniment was without fail delicate and just on the right level of intensity and volume.

Marcelo Lehninger
Marcelo Lehninger

This intensity grew immensely after the interval, in Rachmaninov's Symphony no. 2 in E minor. While technically the product of the 20th century, this composition is still a quintessential Romantic work, with its extreme emotions, substantial orchestral forces and its majestic arch lasting about 65 minutes. Under Lehninger’s guidance this span effortlessly held up the massive length of the opening movement, allowed the manic Scherzo to run freely, so that the slow movement could indulge in its evocatively expansive Russian melodies, leading ultimately to the powerful finale.

Lehninger’s leading of the orchestra was reassuringly confident at all times, even if, at this stage, he avoided taking any of those artistic risks which so often are part of a truly memorable performance. Among the many qualities of his conducting, paramount is his ability to know when to leave his musicians to play freely and where the crucial points requiring clear and detailed leading are. The former was evident in most of the Adagio’s instrumental solos, the latter became clear as he drove the first movement to its climactic finish or the carefully measured, but relentless acceleration of the tempo before the return of the Scherzo’s first section.

The orchestra responded to his direction sympathetically. Memorable instrumental solos by the clarinet, cor anglais or the solo violin alternated with robust tuttis. The clarity of the lower strings in the soft passages was excellent without ever losing a velvety resonance of the tone, for example, in the very first bars of the symphony. The horns presented some of their best playing in recent times; their focused and clearly articulated sound added to the flavour of Rachmaninov’s music, especially in the muscular beginning of the second movement. A fine evening, indeed.