An attractive matinee programme at Sydney Opera House Concert Hall featured the return of Edo de Waart who was the principal – and very popular – conductor of the SSO for ten years from 1993 on.

Edo de Waart © Edo de Waart
Edo de Waart
© Edo de Waart
We started with Australian composer Ross EdwardsWhite Ghosts Dancing in its recently revised and expanded version with an added piano in the orchestra. The term "White Ghosts" represents the handed down account that the Aborigines, on first seeing White Men, thought that they were the spectres of their deceased ancestors. The composer uses his familiar Maninya (a word of his own invention) dance style and the piece certainly conjured up images of the Australian Bush and its original human inhabitants together with the ubiquitous bird and insect sounds. It is easy to berate Edwards for his typecast recurring idioms in almost all his compositions, yet the piece maintained its momentum with playful and quieter episodes. His orchestration is superb and I particularly enjoyed a conversation between natural and contrabassoons in a very peaceful segment. The Dutch conductor appeared to have no difficulty in interpreting the unusual varied rhythms and emphasised the contrast between the repetitive beats in the strings and the embroidery in the winds and brass.

Mozart completed his Piano Concerto no. 24 in C minor K491 not long before white settlers arrived in Botany Bay. The piece, one of only two of his 27 piano concertos in a minor key, is unconventional in many ways, particularly the first movement. After a brilliant long and stormy introduction, the piano enters with a new unrelated theme while the second subject also appears de novo. This movement remains predominately in the minor key, rather than the more conventional takeover by the major, the cadenza doesn't have a trill to signal the orchestra's return, while the soloist continues to play until the final note .

Soloist Ronald Brautigam, a compatriot of De Waart's, handled this movement with particular sensitivity to the dramatic and troubled mood and had great empathy with the conductor. His unusual habit of tapping out the rhythm lightly in the introduction and orchestral interludes was not intrusive but the very short cadenza in the major mode felt inadequate. 

The second movement is as expressive as it is succinct. Brautigam employed the usual embellishments to the bare main theme and it's difficult to argue with this since Mozart didn't completely notate the piano part and apparently improvised when he played it at its first performance. The wind section is absolutely critical in the two lyrical diversions and acquitted itself flawlessly, particularly the dialogue between oboes and clarinets, used together by Mozart in only this of his concertos.

Of the eight variations in the finale, all but two remain in the minor mode. I like Angela Hewitt's description of a sinister dance to the more common one of a march and, judging by De Waart's slower tempo, he did too. After another almost non-existent cadenza, the famous last variation was beautifully handled and it was easy to see why Beethoven announced here to his companion "We will never surpass this". Perhaps he was right. I enjoyed the performance of this superb work immensely even if it missed the added drama of expressive cadenzas, although many afficianados maintain that they shouldn't exist at all!

Elgar's First Symphony is shrouded in controversy. Is it as Richter said "the greatest symphony of modern time" or is it, as Beecham implied, full of pomp and circumstance and colonial bombast? Certainly, the march that introduces the work, and remains as a motif throughout, is unmistakeably British. The work is beautifully constructed and superbly scored and De Waart had no problem expressing its characteristics. Brass and percussion are to the fore except in the slow sublimely lyrical third movement, which was handled with great feeling. I noted that I was able to appreciate the strains of the harp in the final movement despite the fortes in the brass. All in all, a great concert with only minor flaws.

****1