The Sydney Symphony Orchestra presented a versatile and truly international menu to its audience last week in a thrice-programmed concert titled “Heavenly Schubert”. It started with an Overture written in 18th century France by an Italian – Luigi Cherubini’s Médée –, was followed by a 20th century concerto from the Soviet Union – Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 2 – and concluded with a symphony from 19th century Austria – Franz Schubert’s Symphony no. 9. To complete the programme’s international kaleidoscope, the conductor was Oleg Caetani (an Italian, though Swiss-born and Russian-trained, the son of the great Ukrainian conductor, Igor Markevitch) under whose leadership the orchestra accompanied an American, Lynn Harrell, as the soloist on the concerto.

Lynn Harrell © Christian Steiner
Lynn Harrell
© Christian Steiner

Cherubini’s overture should have served as a suitably dramatic entrée to the feast; fast and fervent, foreshadowing the turmoils of the vengeful protagonist of the opera, Medée. At their best, Italian opera overtures can summarise the drama and emotions of the next few hours (typical examples of La traviata or Rigoletto spring to mind). This performance wasn’t overly histrionic: respectable perhaps, without suggesting revenge, tailored without proposing turmoil.

The overall mood changed with Shostakovich and Lynn Harrell’s appearance on stage. The Cello Concerto no. 2 is played far less often than the First; in fact, this was the first time the SSO had programmed it since it was written in 1966, which is understandable as it is a challenging work for both soloist and audience. There are technical difficulties aplenty: lengthy sections with double stops (two notes played on two strings simultaneously) await the soloist on an instrument that is best suited to play single line melodies, and both double stops and melodies are frequently placed in the highest register of the cello. In addition, there is the sheer physical strain – the soloist is required to play almost constantly throughout its 35 minutes duration, one of the longest in the repertoire. The work also demands engaged attention from its audience, for the sixties was not a time of writing frivolous music in the Soviet Union. The concerto stands out as a dark, often brooding composition, even within Shostakovich’s characteristically sombre offering from the Cold War years. Its quiet moments are always a cover for suppressed rage; its laughter is never joyful but rather a sardonic sneer – often much resembling the atmosphere of the First Concerto, written some seven years earlier.

Lynn Harrell conquered the extreme technical difficulties of the work and showed fewer signs of exhaustion at the end than many cellists half his age. He recorded this concerto (along with a similar masterpiece, Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto) eight years ago and, if anything, his interpretation had gained concentration and depth in the intervening years. By constantly changing the tone that he produced, the type of vibrato he applied and the character of his bow-strokes to create the sound that he had in mind, his performance offered and required involvement; for it was a serious affair, a momentous statement about times long since gone, about agonies long since suffered – this was no time for dismissive coughs or crackling sweet wrappers in the audience. His reading of Shostakovich’s tortured soliloquies in the first movement expressed loneliness, desperation; the second movement’s borrowed street song from the Crimea sounded suitably drunken with its vulgar portamenti but alas, the fun didn’t last for long. The portamenti grew into full strength glissandi, the street song into a sarcastic scherzo. The third movement, heralded by the exposed and outstandingly performed fanfare by the two French horn players, began somewhat unusually, with the soloist’s cadenza and finished – equally unusually for a concerto – in a hushed, gloomy tone, as if losing vitality altogether, in the lowest register of the cello.

If the concerto took the place of main course in this three course musical banquet, then the dessert was well worth waiting for: Schubert’s Symphony no. 9 “Great”, with its exuberant proportions and haunting melodies, never misses its target (audience). Finally, the brass section of the orchestra had a chance to make its appearance and a powerful appearance it made. Oleg Caetani knows the work intimately (he conducted without a score), and he led a carefully calibrated, well-measured performance – as he did in the Cherubini overture. Unexceptionable as it was, sadly, I still had feeling of something amiss: he never took any chances. In today’s over-saturated market of CDs, DVDs and downloads of great performances from around the world, the middle of the road seems to lose favour and gain dust; the correct, risk-free attitude will please but it won’t exhilarate. The possibility of the “here-and-now” is a powerful one as, by definition, recorded performances cannot compete. The collected worth of the repertoire, the orchestra and, indeed, its conductor should have guaranteed exhilaration. I left merely entertained.