To those of us accustomed to evening concerts, going to hear a symphony orchestra in the early afternoon is a distinctly odd experience. One has the feeling of playing truant in the middle of the workday, if such a term has any meaning in an era where the boundaries between home and work are increasingly erased. Unlike the lunchtime concert, there is no obligation to get the workers back to their desks within an hour, and in practice these events tend to attract mostly retirees. Afternoon concerts conjure up images of thés dansantes (tea dances), Kurkonzerte (spa concerts) and other bygone traditions now preserved only in period literature. And while these defunct events mostly offered light or middle-brow music, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra gave us a full symphonic programme such as might occur of an evening, and indeed was heard on three other nights this week.

Nicholas Carter
© Simon Pauly

On the evidence of Torrent which opened the concert, the young Australian composer Harry Sdraulig is a promising talent. Commissioned as part of the SSO’s 50 Fanfares project, the work far exceeded what might be expected of a fanfare, and in essence amounted to a miniature tone poem in ternary form. The opening captured the spirit of the title, with surging lines and scurrying phrases and mysterious pizzicato prominent. The middle section featured solos, most prominently for the oboe and later for the concertmaster, the latter evoking the feel of film noir through a slightly acidulous melody above sfumato orchestral writing, before the faster opening materials returned, with added driving ostinatos taking the work to an exciting finish.

It is nowhere near his best work in the medium, but Beethoven’s Triple Concerto has verve enough to make one forget this while it is going on. The placement of the soloists is a long-standing problem: the usual triangulated piano-trio set-up, with violin and cello roughly in line with each other in front of the piano, but angled so that all three can see each other, won’t do, as the cello’s sight of the conductor is blocked by the piano lid. The arrangement here saw violin and cello placed directly behind the pianist, which meant that Piers Lane had absolutely no view of them. In a sense, this wasn’t entirely counterintuitive, as violin and cello are very often paired in opposition to the piano, but it denied us any real sense of chamber music interactions between the three. The first movement was crisp in its articulation, with Nicholas Carter providing unobtrusive but effective direction from the podium.

Umberto Clerici, the outgoing principal cellist, took the lead in the first and second movements with a panache that made his departure the more to be regretted. The link into the finale was magical, as the soloists weaved their figuration above the becalmed harmonies. In the finale, there was lots of fun in the duels between the strings (even if violinist Andrew Haveron had a rare off-day with some of his intonation), and the ‘Polish’ episode had lots of swagger.

The Intermezzo later incorporated into Schreker’s Romantic Suite was unknown to me before this programme, and the delicate expressivity of the opening won me over straightaway. Written in 1900, its musical idiom would have been somewhat conservative for the time. The middle section was rollicking, rising to impassioned peaks, before the finish in an ethereal F sharp major. The SSO gave of its best here, something that was not true of their rendition of Brahms’ Third Symphony which closed the concert. While their playing was always professional, I felt a lack of passion in the opening, and the second theme was also underplayed. Admittedly, the players were no doubt responding to the atmosphere in the hall, where the applause was restrained to the point of being lacklustre. Rising to one of Brahms’ most extrovert emotional utterances for a subdued crowd was never going to be easy, and only at moments did the orchestra really let its hair down, such as the surging minor theme which launches the development. For the rest, it was a case of players and conductor fulfilling their obligations and no more.

Things improved somewhat thereafter: the second movement was pleasant, with an intimate atmosphere created in the middle section, and in the beloved third movement the swooning phrasing was captured well (kudos to the horn player in the reprise). The finale again was underwhelming: the chorale near the beginning wasn’t adequately mysterious, and the final arrival back to F major, a moment which resolves the long-standing tension between minor and major, missed the magic of the moment. Perhaps the alchemy of night-time will have led to happier results in other iterations of this programme.