The latest Sydney Symphony Orchestra concert had everything from French impressionism to a world premiere, to a performance of a much-loved Romantic Symphony.

The evening opened with two movements from Debussy’s Images for orchestra. Written originally as a set of three movements, they stand equally well on their own. The evening’s program notes stated ‘all three together is potential overkill, risking a surfeit of consummate orchestral pictorialism’. The two Images performed were Gigues and Rondes de printemps. The former is a portrait of England and is based on the well-known English tune The Keel Row. This movement showcases the woodwind section of the orchestra, particularly the oboe, which was played with a beautiful sense of melancholy. The Rondes de Printemps, by way of contrast, is based on the idea of a festival parade, with the dance-like elements being effectively brought to life by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Following this, we were treated to the world premiere of Carl Vine’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with the piano solo being played with great aplomb by the Australian born pianist, Piers Lane, who brought a lot of colour to the evening, not only through his playing but also through his trademark multicoloured socks! The work was given a highly impressive account by both orchestra and soloist, who negotiated the often rhythmically-complex music with great skill and precision. Carl Vine’s concerto has a great deal to appeal to the listener, ranging from music for the full orchestra which is often very jagged, almost violent, to rather tender, sweet melodies. These quieter moments with their translucent colour and harmonic language were not dissimilar to those employed by Debussy. Thus it made complete sense to me to pair these composers together. Carl Vine wrote, ‘it is my distinct impression that Piers Lane is incredibly good at everything on the keyboard, so writing music for him brings a liberating sense of having unfettered reign over the instrument’. This was clearly evident from the music, as the piano part was far-reaching, encompassing a wide range of pianist techniques and colours, none of which troubled Piers Lane in the slightest. The work was enthusiastically received by the audience some of whom gave a standing ovation as Carl Vine himself took to the stage to receive his applause.

The second half of the concert comprised Brahms’ Second Symphony. This was composed in the Summer of 1877 in the Austrian Alps. It is certainly easier to hear how this beautiful setting must have inspired Brahms. The composer himself once wrote, ‘The melodies fly so thick here that you have to be careful not to step on one.’ The work is highly luxurious and sonorous with one wonderful melody following another. Interestingly all four movements are written in the major key, giving the Symphony a wonderful richness and indulgent character. The work was given a spirited performance by the Sydney Symphony, although somehow it felt a bit flat. Guest conductor Hugh Wolff often seemed to have different ideas to the orchestra. Wolff often wanted to push the music on and was often conducting a long way ahead of the players. The instrumentalists meanwhile seemed to want to wallow more and take things at a less frenetic pace. This created a couple of untidy corners in terms of the ensemble. Nevertheless, it was a very enjoyable performance. The second movement was particularly successful; it had a great expansiveness to it, with the orchestra producing a silky tone creating a great sense of longing. The end of the symphony was well-timed, with the pauses not being held for too long, but with the drive of the music being allowed to take over, creating a thrilling climax to an enjoyable evening.