This lunchtime concert's title referred to the central work Les nuits d’été by Berlioz, which is based on poems by his close friend Théophile Gautier. Perhaps demonstrating the composer's fickleness, the poems refer to the outdoors, particularly woodland, but none actually refers to summer.

Katarina Karnéus © Mats Bäcker
Katarina Karnéus
© Mats Bäcker

In “Villanelle”, the title refers only to the 19-line structure of the poem. It was handled beautifully by the Swedish mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus, who delivered with sensitivity and authority throughout the cycle. The pathos of the second song “Le spectre de la rose”, written in slow waltz time was clearly apparent, while in the more dramatic “Sur les lagunes”, the orchestra, particularly the three horns, blended in well without overpowering.

“Absence” was written around the time of Berlioz's marriage breakdown and prophetically was first sung by his mistress and wife-to-be Marie Recio. The orchestra and soloist were able to impart it with contrasts despite its repetitive character. “Au cimetière” is the most harmonically complex of the cycle with its ghostly texture and I'm not sure that the soloist's voice really encompassed the spirit of this lied. The lively final “L'île inconnue” was superb however, posing no problems for Karnéus or her accompanists.

The concert had begun with Haydn's Symphony no. 31 in D major, “Hornsignal”. Haydn made use of a recently acquired complement of four horn players in Prince Esterhazy's orchestra by composing a complex work with the horns playing mostly in pairs. The opening notes represent a popular hunting call followed by a posthorn signal. The movement maintained its momentum with a well-played flute solo being followed by a recapitulation in the minor key. In the second movement, two horns are crooked to play in G major while the others retain the home key of D; this provides a remarkably serene effect together with the strings often pizzicato. The minuet displayed the proclivities of the oboists, together with the horns of course, while the last movement is a theme and seven variations in which the most unusual is the second for solo double-bass, beautifully played by Kees Boersma. In the fourth variation, the re-entry of the horns slightly stuttered but this was the only blemish in a programme in which they played a major part.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra excelled under the baton of David Robertson and this was further emphasised by the final work, Schubert's Symphony no. 4 in C minor “Tragic”, a title given to it by the composer. I wonder if the word has slightly different inflexions in German as it really doesn't describe the work accurately, despite its key of C minor. The slow introduction might be an exception but this is followed by faster and livelier episodes; it was the six double-basses that formed the solid structure. The second movement shows off Schubert the songwriter, including the dramatic middle section. The dance-like Minuet, with its playful Trio, were superbly executed while in the final movement the horns demonstrated that they hadn't run out of puff.

All in all, an exhilarating concert, innovative in structure and well-received by a grateful audience, mostly of the older generation.