Now in its seventh year, the Australian World Orchestra returned to Sydney after a two-year gap, and once again a marquee name was on the podium. Riccardo Muti is the latest in an illustrious line of conductors which includes Simone Young, Zubin Mehta and Simon Rattle. Muti most often projects a patrician dignity as he conducts, and while he showed himself capable of considerable demonstrativeness when it was called for, his mastery was more often visible in physical restraint.

Riccardo Muti conducts the Australian World Orchestra
© David Collins

When programming a concert, consideration must be given to the shape of the overall experience. Symphony concerts usually aim for an end-weighted feel by placing the most substantial item in the second half, with the first half often divided between a short curtain-raiser and a concerto. When, as here, the concert consists solely of two symphonies of approximately the same duration, the question of architecture becomes particularly fraught. Does one keep something in reserve in the first half, so that there is more to give after the interval?

The ordering of Brahms’ Symphony no. 2 followed by Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4 tended of itself to create this teleological experience. Brahms’ D major is perhaps the most classical and refined of his four symphonies, exemplified by the restraint of the opening, which consists of a dialogue between cellos and horns, answered by a chaste woodwind phrase. By contrast, Tchaikovsky begins with all guns blazing: the F minor “fate” theme thunders out in the brass, eventually collapsing into the quiet desperation of the syncopated string theme. Even though both works encapsulate a vast range of emotions, there is no denying that the second half had the potential to be more showy and dramatic than the first.

And so it turned out. The Tchaikovsky was thrilling, but to my mind this was somewhat at the expense of the first work. Muti took the opening movement of the Brahms at a stolid tempo, and the planar sound-world of the opening lacked something in the way of nuance (the aforementioned woodwind phrases could have been subtly shaped to create a sense of rise and fall). The orchestra did exhibit a pleasing fullness to the sound in those sections where Brahms opened the throttle, and there was a gripping intensity to the dynamic peak of the slow second movement. Within the Allegretto grazioso third movement, the presto passages for the strings were not entirely locked in to start with, and the whole might have been a little more sparkling. The notorious acoustic didn’t do the strings any favours at the start of the finale, where the pianissimo passage came across as a little blurry, and even later on the sound could have been more burnished. As a whole, then, this reading of the symphony fell a little below expectations, despite many individually pleasing moments (such as the warm sound of flautist Andrew Nicholson).

After the interval, it felt like a different ensemble, and given the complete rearrangement of personnel on the stage, it more or less was. Under the inspired leadership of Daniel Dodds, the violins came alive in a way they hadn’t during the first half. The stentorian brass opening was all it promised to be, although even this was outdone by the shattering coda at the other end of the first movement. In between, there were wonderful things at the other end of the sonic spectrum; for instance, certain phrases in the third (B major) theme barely rose above a whisper and yet were totally gripping. There was a beautiful rendition of the solo oboe melody at the start of the second movement, spinning out the long line without artifice and seemingly without the soloist having to breathe. Again the strings created a warm, heart-tugging climax, and they were equally adept in the lively pizzicato passages in the humorous third movement. The finale is not the most subtle movement Tchaikovsky ever penned, but it is hugely effective, and with all the players now on their mettle, Muti gave us a thrilling performance. The return of the fate theme led to a dramatic collapse, followed by an equally effective return to life, with the percussion players among the heroes of the hour. The audience could not restrain its applause even before the last note finished, a more telling tribute than the pre-planned hurling of streamers which accompanied the ovations.

Blending wit and wisdom in a short speech, Muti professed his belief that classical concerts offered not just entertainment but also enrichment, and served to bring people together. The encore, Verdi’s Nabucco overture, broadened the range of music represented both in terms of style and nation, and provided both familiar melody (“Va, pensiero”) and noise enough to send the listeners away happy.