A decade after the Sydney Symphony first performed Detlev Glanert’s Frensia, the same composer’s Idylium received its Australian premiere on Friday night. It was an apt choice for this programme since, as principal cellist Catherine Hewgill informed us in her introductory remarks, it was created as a response to Brahms’ Second Symphony which closed the concert. There was little obvious connection to Brahms in the pointillist use of spot orchestral colours at the start, while the languorous passage featuring woodwind over strings sounded more like Szymanowski or Debussy.

Sir Donald Runnicles conducts the Sydney Symphony
© Jay Patel

However, as more connected, symphonic textures came to predominate, Viennese influences emerged in the form of a lilting waltz, delectably shaped by Sir Donald Runnicles. The ending was almost a verbatim quotation from the coda of the last movement of Brahms’ Second, but this cut away suddenly, leaving quiet wheezing cluster chords to fade into silence.

Andrea Lam was the soloist in Robert Schumann’s beloved Piano Concerto; she is a sensitive pianist, and her rendition of the A flat major nocturne in the development section of the first movement was idyllic. However, one might have wished for more excitement in the bravura opening chords, and a little more fantasy and variety throughout. The orchestra played down to her dynamic level, only opening up in the tuttis; as a result the passionate first movement sounded a little faded, a study in exquisite greys (a Whistler Nocturne, perhaps, rather than a Delacroix canvas).

The pedalling at the start of the second movement was daringly dry, but with plenty of attractive details in the phrasing thereafter, and an always excellent sense of chamber music rapport between pianist and orchestra. The finale was again well-managed, if not thrilling. As an encore, Lam offered us a refined interpretation of Brahms’ A major intermezzo, with lovely voicing in the middle section, and an ending that touched on the transcendent.

Andrea Lam, Sir Donald Runnicles and the Sydney Symphony
© Jay Patel

Brahms’ Second Symphony tends to get overshadowed by the epic First and the heroic Third, but underneath its sunnier surface lies as much motivic complexity as is found in its more tortured brethren. What was a particular delight in this performance was the line and direction Runnicles created through delectable tempi and the shaping of details in terms of the conception of the whole. Right from the beginning, the disparate short motifs taken in turn by different groups of instruments were welded into a broad composite gesture. The second theme in the first movement, played by cellos and violas, was less impassioned than in other performances, but the section gained in intensity as it went on. A late highlight was the fine tone of guest principal horn Andrew Bain in the coda.

Too often the second movement can feel attenuated or even stodgy, but here it had a beautiful sense of momentum right from the opening cello melody. Runnicles is the opposite of a showy conductor, but at the climax his elastic physical gestures – now full stretch, now almost crouching – helped choreograph the intensity of the moment to players and audience alike.

Within the third movement, the opening oboe theme had the right limpid quality, and the tricky tempo changes later on were expertly navigated. Where more built-up symphonic tension has to be discharged in other Brahms finales, here matters conclude in an upbeat, sparkling movement. Runnicles did not milk the few darker moments (for instance, the uncanny pre-echo of Mahler’s First in the development), but kept the positive tone of the whole ever in mind. This hugely pleasurable, intelligent performance met with the applause it deserved.