Sydney's Indian summer was the setting for an appetising programme at the Opera House which followed the trend of beginning with a short piece by a contemporary Australian composer, which is great as Australia is home to the world's best selection of this rare breed.

© Oleg Caetani
© Oleg Caetani
Tonight, the first piece was the cello concerto Dawn and Darkness by Paul Stanhope, which was commissioned for this concert and Armenian cellist Narek Nakhnazaryan. Born in England, Stanhope moved to Sydney and took up conducting before veering towards composition. After studying with Peter Sculthorpe, he won a Scholarship to Guildhall School of Music and won the prestigious Takemitsu prize in 2004.

Here, Stanhope has taken the song In Darkness Let Me Dwell by Renaissance composer John Dowland and spun the original into joyous episodes with native Australian references. The music begins with the home theme but the dark mood is soon interrupted by percussive intrusions particularly by the triangle and later the xylophone while the cello weaves a web around this, gradually introducing an Aboriginal dance which in turn recedes into a contemplative cadenza occupying more than a third of the score. This was an exhilarating piece, where the soloist immersed himself in the action and produced a tone appropriate to the rapidly-changing moods of the concerto.

The unusual history of Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations is well known. Strictly it should be billed as by Tchaikovsky arranged by Wilhelm Fitzenhagen as the cellist took the score, rearranged it extensively, and performed it while the composer was abroad. On his return, Tchaikovsky reportedly said to a student "Oh, let it stand." “Rococo” refers to the artistic trend of the late 18th century and the composer ventured Mozart as his inspiration though personally, if asked to identify the theme, I might guess Schubert but never Mozart.

The music seemed ideally suited to the young cellist with his clear, sensitive, intonation while the conductor, Oleg Caetani, structured the variations with great timing. The orchestra excelled as always and I particularly enjoyed Robert Johnson's horn playing in a very quiet passage – always difficult for this instrument. The third variation in waltz time stood out as the best medium for the soloist's skills. The subsequent applause invited an encore and Narek didn't disappoint by playing Lamentatio by Giovanni Sollima which includes monastic chants by the soloist and at seven minutes captured attention throughout. 

It's a pity that Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony has become so politicised which probably caused its virtual absence from the repertoire between 1945 and 1979. Admittedly the title "Leningrad" was afforded by the composer but he did remove the subtitles he gave to the four movements. Later he stated that the work referred to the futility of war rather than to Hitler's invasion. So let's appreciate the work for what it is: a majestic masterpiece of Mahlerian proportions.

Indeed the first movement is full of Mahlerian characteristics before and after the famous simplistic march theme. This is repeated twelve times but in different forms that continue to excite. The composer acknowledged the similarity to Ravel's Boléro and some notes, not just the rhythm, are similar, while references to the march occur in the other movements. Later, the copious use of drums, intertwining with woodwinds, brought to mind Nielsen's Fourth Symphony which has a similar ideology. The second movement is notable for the subtle interplay between several reed instruments and Diana Doherty excelled in her oboe solo. The latent transition from the third to the fourth movement was sensitively handled by Caetani, while the superbly crafted ending was dominated by powerful and accurate trombone playing.

This was a tremendously enjoyable evening living up to its billing.