The Sydney Symphony Orchestra could not have chosen a better line-up for its thrice repeated subscription concerts last week: Daniel Müller-Schott played the solo part in Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor under the direction of Charles Dutoit, who also conducted the overture Roman Carnival by Hector Berlioz and Ottorino Respighi’s three symphonic poems: Roman Festivals, Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome. Somewhat confusingly though, this delightful concert consisting of five works, four of which had the Italian capital in their title, was named Roman Trilogy in the programme book.

Charles Dutoit © Chris Lee
Charles Dutoit
© Chris Lee
There was nothing confusing about the direction the veteran Swiss conductor was leading the orchestra in. Roman Carnival began with a thoroughly focused, exuberantly masculine entry on violins and violas, heralding crisply distinguished tone colours and clearly defined dynamic shades. They were there to stay for the whole evening. Whether a sonorous duet between the English horn and the violas or a passionate canon between upper and lower strings, clarity and beauty of the sound was omnipresent. Dutoit led the proceedings in a highly charismatic way with expressive movements, yet without much visible exertion. Here and later in the concert, he consistently indicated all necessary nuances without showing much care for the dramatic, showy effects that audiences may love but musicians often find distracting.

Schumann’s enigmatic Cello Concerto (composed at a startling pace within two weeks) is not as frequently played as some of the more popular pieces of this genre despite its unsurpassable qualities. The gauzelike, almost extemporaneous character of the first movement is always a test for the performer: it should be dreamy without giving in to excessively slow tempos, sounding spontaneous without losing its classically built structure. Daniel Müller-Schott, having already recorded the work, is intimately familiar with its challenges. His technique is admirable and his bowing arm works with efficient elegance; in short, there is not much he could not do on his phenomenally warm sounding, responsive instrument. Despite that, his perfectly accurate presentation of the first movement appeared to let go of the introverted atmosphere of the work in favour of a correct, if somewhat underwhelming performance. The veil-like transcendental beauty of ephemeral motives, rapidly changing characters, seemingly random accents and fragmentary phrases felt somewhat Earth-bound and did not take my breath away as expected. Some of his melodies were also undermined by a minor technical issue which I had never noticed in his playing before: often enough to become noticeable, he does not use vibrato until the second note of a phrase. However, the second movement’s brooding lament (assisted with sympathetic, shadow-like flexibility in the famous obbligato accompaniment by the orchestra’s Principal Cello) found the appropriate tone immediately, and the last movement was virtuosic and Sehr lebhaft (very lively) indeed, following the composer’s instructions.

Respighi’s Roman tone poems are rarely performed together. Thanks to their brilliant orchestration, they offer a superb chance to the conductor to mix the most unusual, at times almost impressionistic sound colours – a lifelong passion and speciality of Charles Dutoit. The rugged barking of low brass and strings (in the first movement of Roman Festivals), the victorious splendour of the Trevi fountain where two harps, a grand piano, an organ and an unusually large percussion ensemble extend the ordinary symphonic colour scheme (Fountains of Rome), or the beautifully invoked solo trumpet behind the audience accompanied by muted strings on stage (in the Janiculum movement of Pines of Rome) – all of them present a delectable feast of acoustic delight, eminently exploited by Dutoit and his orchestra. His vast experience and well-known excellence in this type of repertoire, coupled with clear but unpretentious gestures, helped his musicians to play with rarely heard transparency – not an easy feat with such a large orchestra. Appearing perfectly relaxed throughout the evening (and perhaps a little bit overly so in the Cello Concerto which had the occasional ensemble problem between soloist and orchestra), Dutoit never lost the desire for and control over an impeccable balance between various instrument groups. The orchestra responded as any great body of well-trained professionals would: with fine details, admirable individual solos and collective enthusiasm, providing some of their best playing in recent times.