The title of this weekend’s concert of works by Bax, Ravel and Vaughan Williams with the Sydney Symphony is “Channel Crossings”.  “Historically,” so goes the introduction in the programme notes, “the Channel has separated two countries, sometimes at war, sometimes in alliance against common enemies, but never far from rivalry.” On Friday, hours after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, the title assumed extra poignancy.

John Wilson © Sim Canetty-Clarke
John Wilson
© Sim Canetty-Clarke
By all accounts, Arnold Bax was an Irishman in English clothing, composing literary works under the pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne in addition to music. Whether his symphonic poem Tintagel is a sonic seascape, an emotional summation of a passionate affair with pianist Harriet Cohen or rejection of Irish mythological values after the Easter Rising of 1916, it contains musical gems that deserve to be savoured. The orchestra’s meticulous lingering over the work under guest conductor John Wilson brought out parts of the lustre, but wasn’t always effective.

The tempo at the start of the work, with quivering woodwinds, shimmering strings and soaring brass, was a little too slow, shaving some of the sparkle and grandeur from the first section of the work. Besides, the orchestra for brief moments appeared to be pulling in slightly different directions. Momentum accelerated in the middle section, accentuating depictions of strong winds, rugged landscape and even a sense of gathering storm. The orchestra’s long drawn out phrasing added to the urgent suggestion of foreboding, even fear, but beyond the blaring brass repetition of the lilting theme from the first section there appeared to be mild but prolonged disarray towards the close.

I have often thought of the opening of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major as a small firecracker setting off the piccolo and solo piano running for cover. The soft and delicate touch of pianist Jonathan Biss made his tapping, glissando and rapid runs more subdued than necessary, and the orchestra could have let go with more impish spontaneity. There was room for both to be more intrepid in bringing out fire in the belly. The languid reverie in the first half of the second movement, on the other hand, suited the soloist down to a tee. The interplay between the piano and cor anglais was beautifully handled. The rapid chase between soloist and orchestra in the final Presto movement was nervously energetic and boisterous, with superb but rude interjections by the bassoon.

Vaughan Williams’ “A London Symphony” in the second half of the programme was one of the most finely chiselled and tightly wrought account I had heard. As humming low strings introduced the chimes of Big Ben, the first movement came to life with what resembled a theme from Phantom of the Opera. Nervous energy took over in snippets of melody with an Eastern flavour, as the mood relaxed considerably with solos on cello and harp.

The second movement also opened on low strings, but was calmer and more collected. A wistful  theme passing from cor anglais to strings, horn and trumpet before returning to home base depicted tranquil reflection and meditation. A statement on viola changed the mood slightly, as the movement picked up pace with expansive support from the clarinet, leading to a glimpse of brightness. The cor anglais soon returned with the opening theme as the solo viola brought the movement to a close in deep reflection, just as it had opened.

With light skipping on strings, clarinet and flute, the third movement sounded like commentary on a steeplechase. There was a brief moment when percussion appeared to introduce a march, which was quickly dismissed by the rest of the orchestra as the race continued. The opening of the final movement was decisive and somewhat strident, soon descending into a plodding funeral march. The pace picked up with the brass bellowing a triumphant call. As the chimes of Big Ben on harp brought respite, slow calm crept in, and solo violin ushered in a brief coda that brought the movement to a subdued close, rounding off a well constructed moodscape as quietly as it had begun.

Wilson and the Sydney Symphony clearly excelled in knowing what they wanted. This acquitted them well in the structure of Vaughan Williams, but left them groping for balance in Ravel and Bax.