Beethoven was certainly not afraid of breaking traditions. He broke several long-held Classical traditions in his Piano Concerto no. 4, and no break was more revolutionary than beginning a concerto with the solo instrument. It was in this way that the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy opened their latest musical offering at Sydney Opera House. The pianist who opened the concert with the quiet G major chords of Beethoven's masterwork was one of the older statesmen of the piano, Stephen Kovacevich, who celebrated his seventieth birthday in 2010. His performance had authority to it and was unfussy; he simply relied on a beautiful sense of phrasing, allowing the music to shine through in elegant poetry. The Sydney Symphony responded to this elegance, accompanying Kovacevich with a highly musical sense of line and shape.

Stephen Kovacevich, © David Thompson, EMI Classics
Stephen Kovacevich,
© David Thompson, EMI Classics

One of the facets of concerto playing which Beethoven developed so masterfully was the relationship between soloist and orchestra. A great example of this is in the middle movement of the Fourth Piano Concerto, where the orchestra makes a grand, unsettled statement in the minor key, while the piano responds with a simple, intensely melodic phrase. Soloist and orchestra played off each other as if competing with conflicting emotions. Another innovation of this concerto is the fact that the second and third movements roll into each other without a break. The players seamlessly managed the join into the Rondo finale, which unfolded with a youthful exuberance, with soloist and orchestra once more playing off each other with an almost carefree simplicity.

Ashkenazy conducted the whole concert with authority, clearly feeling at one with both halves of the programme. In the first half, he was at one with his orchestra, coaxing some beautiful phrasing and drama out of the music. However, the chamber music atmosphere of the first half later gave way to the monumentalism, with Richard Strauss' Alpine Symphony, which requires some 120 musicians. Once again Ashkenazy was in total command of the music, effectively navigating through every twist and turn with a wonderful sense of indulgence.

An Alpine Symphony is the summit of Richard Strauss' output. As the evening's excellent programme notes stated, it marked the end of a 'near 30-year quest to extend music's capacity for illustration and representation'. This huge work essentially portrays 24 hours in the mountains in one long movement containing twenty-two different sections, representing everything in music from the sunrise, waterfalls, mists and storms, to the sun setting again. The German Alps were always an important part of Strauss' life and the idea of composing a symphony about the mountains had clearly been gestating in his mind for a long time. The idea of it occurred to him as a boy after he and a party of climbers became lost on a mountain hike and were hit by a storm on the way home.

The work is a masterclass in orchestration and showed off every section of the orchestra, from the piccolo to Sydney Opera House's mighty organ. The symphony also calls for an offstage band of nine horns, two trumpets and two trombones, which combined brilliantly with the main orchestra on stage in the early part of the work. The most thrilling part of the whole evening came with the musical depiction of the storm, which used every part of the orchestra to great effect from the tremolando strings, to the wonderfully rich sound of the full brass section and a vast array of percussion, including a wind machine. There were some wonderfully touching quieter sections too, which featured several solo instrumentalists from the orchestra, all of whom played with great sensitivity. No wonder, then, that Ashkenazy brought several of them to their feet at the symphony's conclusion. Another excellent evening from this very talented orchestra.