The 2015 Master Series of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra opened with a programme put together with excellent taste and scholarly insight. Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn composed all works performed in this concert, and all of them within five years in the 1840s. These two formidable geniuses of the first half of the 19th century were born within a year and a half of each other; both of them performed, conducted and composed at a furious pace; both promoted lost and forgotten masterpieces such as J. S. Bach’s oeuvre and Schubert’s symphonies; they were friends, billiard partners as well as colleagues for many years. The connecting links go even further: it was Mendelssohn who gave orchestration advice to Schumann who, until then, had composed almost exclusively solo piano pieces and songs. It was also Mendelssohn who premiered, in front of Leipzig’s venerable Gewandhaus orchestra, both Schumann works played in Sydney on Wednesday night, Symphony no. 2 in C major, and Symphony no. 1 in B flat major.

Christian Tetzlaff © Giorgia Bertazzi
Christian Tetzlaff
© Giorgia Bertazzi

Schumann’s Second Symphony which opened the concert is perhaps not as popular, nor is it as often played as the other three. This might be due to the fact that, when writing it in 1845, the composer was still suffering the after-effects of his physical and mental breakdown in the previous year. The first movement feels moody and pondering with its pianissimo beginning but gains impetus by the con fuoco coda, the pace of which was expertly guided by the conductor, David Robertson. The nervous, incessantly forward moving energy of the second movement was captured by the orchestra eminently; here however, the recently introduced seating order of the strings (with first and second violins facing each other on the two sides, violas and cellos a bit further back in the centre, basses behind the cellos on the left) demonstrated its inherent main drawback: the second violins, effectively turning their instruments away from the audience, sounded not only weaker but also seemed to have produced a completely different tone colour. The physical distance between the two violin groups was probably the reason for several ensemble problems in this fast-paced Scherzo. The intimate atmosphere of the slow movement (showcasing some of the highest violin notes to be found in any 19th century orchestral score) was then beautifully contrasted by the full majestic splendour of the Finale.

In an odd and unexplained sequence, Symphony no. 1 was the second piece for the evening, its oddly unconventional beginning explained in the programme notes: Robertson, the Chief Conductor of the orchestra, elected to play Schumann’s original opening motive which sounded rather different as the first bars were played two notes lower than we usually hear. The revision, so familiar to our ears, was done during the very first rehearsals at the suggestion of Mendelssohn and had been played like that ever since – until Gustav Mahler restored the original in the early 1900s. Thus there is a legitimate choice, making not only conductors and musicologists but also members of the audience scratch their heads in slight bewilderment.

The First Symphony is often referred to as “Spring” for a reason. The exuberant melodies and odd accents of the first movement burst through the seams, the Larghetto promises thaw and a happier future with its hauntingly ethereal theme. This melody sounded impressive at first but less effective when the cellos played it on its return; perhaps their phrasing would have profited from an additional dose of Romantic effervescence and a slightly more muscular tone; or maybe they were simply stifled by the less than discreet accompaniment? The Scherzo is different altogether; it proffers an irresistible dancing lilt if performed audaciously enough. However, it sounded comfortable rather than audacious last night, as did most of the last movement. Risk-taking agogic accents, passionately free phrasing, or extremes in dynamics and tempi would have carried more of a whiff of spring air and raised the emotional temperature of the performance.

Emotions were left delightfully unrestricted in the final item of the concert, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor. Christian Tetzlaff has played this concerto in Sydney before – over 20 years ago. His interpretation may have gone through many changes since then, yet last night no one could fault him for lack of involvement and youthful energy. It would be superficial to speak about his ‘artistic’ or ‘virtuosic’ playing, for Tetzlaff seemed to identify with the spirit and meaning of the concerto to such an extent that what we witnessed was “the” Mendelssohn concerto rather than a performance of it. In perfect physical symbiosis with his instrument (not a famed, old Italian instrument but a modern German violin, made by Stefan-Peter Greiner – what a resounding argument for the sound craftsmanship of our days!), his expressive body language, his utter concentration and his impeccable musicianship left no argument about the exclusive validity of his performance.