Barely a month after Christian Tetzlaff’s memorable concerto appearances, another world class violinist triumphed as guest artist of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. In the Master Series, Brahms' Violin Concerto in D major began Wednesday’s concert, with Janine Jansen as soloist. This programming did not make any allowances for the audience to ease into the concert: when Janine Jansen plays, you have to sit up and listen – such is the power of her application. It was a reassuringly solid, technically faultless performance; this aspect in itself, however, is rapidly becoming the entry level for a touring musician as music competitions and the steadily increasing expectations in conservatoriums around the world seem to raise the technical standard constantly. An expressive performance is harder to teach, and once obtained, harder still to maintain day after day given the gruelling lifestyle of a concertising artist.

Janine Jansen © Harald Hoffmann | Decca Classics
Janine Jansen
© Harald Hoffmann | Decca Classics

Jansen is a risk taker, in the best possible sense of the word. Time after time, she came perilously close to driving her instrument to such extremes that the sound produced could have cracked, screeched or become distorted in other ways, yet her control was superb and the sound never once lost its beauty. It may have been a different matter if she played a lesser instrument, but she and her Stradivarius were in perfect unity and the tone remained impeccable.

It is often said of the Brahms Violin Concerto that it is like a symphony with a soloist. This was not my impression during this performance. Chamber music plays a highly significant part in Jansen’s life (she founded and still runs her own chamber music festival in Utrecht) and quite noticeably she treated the concerto like another chamber music challenge. Her contact was constant, not just with the conductor, Daniel Blendulf (her husband), but also with her colleagues in the orchestra. This became most apparent during the slow movement where the violin solo (which is never actually given the chance to play the theme of the movement!) complemented Diana Doherty’s hauntingly beautiful oboe melodies with majestic elegance.

After the interval, as part of the 80th birthday celebrations of one of Australia’s most respected composers, Nigel Butterley’s short orchestral work, Never this sun, this watcher, was performed for the first time by the SSO. It wasn’t a première though as the composition was commissioned by a local community orchestra ten years ago. (The slightly confusing title refers to selected lines from a poem by Kathleen Raine.) The composition itself is a well-crafted work with idiomatic sounds but seemed to be struggling somewhat to find equilibrium between the boundless artistic vision of the composer and the expected technical limitations of a non-professional orchestra.

Blendulf identified with the essentially poetic character of this work eminently and in fact, he seemed to be most at ease in the lyrical moments of the final item of the concert, the Symphony no.5 in E flat major by Jean Sibelius. This is a most astounding work: the endless series of parallel thirds in its first movement rejoice in their bucolic gaiety; the slow movement is serene and tuneful; the boisterous horn calls of the third movement evoke nature, spring and agile beauty before leading the symphony to its jubilant apotheosis – all of that written during the insane brutality of World War I in 1915, around the same time when poison gas was first used to kill humans and the senseless Battle of Verdun caused the loss of hundreds of thousands lives. No less surprising is that this symphony was composed soon after the desperately austere bleakness of the Fourth Symphony – a not dissimilar sequence to the way in which the amiable world and waltzes of Der Rosenkavalier came hot on the heels of the nightmare of Salome and Elektra in the oeuvre of Richard Strauss.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra is an expert performer of the symphonies of Sibelius, having played and recorded them not long ago with their last chief conductor, Vladimir Ashkenazy. This performance still left me feeling somewhat dissatisfied. The symphony’s pastoral melodies may reach back to times long gone, but its intricate rhythmic configurations point to the future, many of which didn’t receive the clarity or sonic radiance they deserve. Blendulf’s understanding of the work was no doubt thorough, but his leading of many passages with gradual tempo changes – so characteristic of this symphony – seemed to lack conviction and consistence. The drive of these extended passages, for example the one introducing the Scherzo in the first movement, can be enormous, but this time it wasn’t the case. Other questionable musical effects controlled by the conductor also undercut the success of the performance: the repeatedly played groups of semiquaver notes in the double basses in the last movement gave the effect of a noisy col legno (hitting the strings not with the hair but with the wooden part of the bow) which it is not; it sounded simply unattractive and seemed like a misinterpretation of the score. There were also quite serious balance problems at the conclusion of both the first and the last movements where the projection of less than a dozen brass players made the rest of the orchestra barely audible.