Reversing the order of the customary symphonic concert structure – short introductory work, concerto, symphony – demonstrated some resourceful thinking from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor David Robertson and its programming committee. The reason behind the decision was probably how the pieces ended; the dual problem of the subdued, autumnal farewell at the end of the Symphony no. 3 in F major by Johannes Brahms and the frothy, grandiloquent finish of Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta. The former thus opened the concert, while the latter efficiently provided the exuberant exit music, with Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole sandwiched between them after the interval. Such a reversal wouldn’t work for an elegant three-course meal but in a concert, this planning didn’t bother me at all. Still, traditionalists might have quibbled about the second half being quite a bit longer than the first, or the fact that at the end of a dazzling concerto performance (such as the Lalo) an encore can be expected; that would however break the flow of the concert if there were another item to be played immediately afterwards.

The solo part of Symphonie espagnole (despite its name, really a violin concerto) was indeed luminously played by Vadim Repin whose performance was just as elegant as his finely cut suit. It seems almost farcical to talk about the artistic maturity of someone who has won competitions and made his debut in most major halls of the world well before his 18th birthday, but his numerous recordings, for instance of Shostakovich's Violin Concerto no. 1, reveal a deeply involved musician constantly refining his artistic concept. The fruits of his extremely thorough knowledge of that concerto became tangible a few months ago when, put on the spot by Valery Gergiev‘s last minute cancellation, he performed and directed, with simple gestures and quick glances, that most demanding work without an actual conductor – surely a world first?

In Sydney though, he was ably supported by not only an orchestra but also its sympathetic conductor and thus Repin was allowed to focus fully on the whimsical bravura passages of the Symphonie espagnole. Imbued with Moorish folk music elements and buoyant Spanish rhythms, this concerto offers the opportunity of a brilliant showcase – but only to a supremely prepared performer. Repin’s impeccable technique and intense musicianship faultlessly blended with an effusive stage presence and underlined his place amongst the best. Sadly, no encore followed.

Janáček’s Sinfonietta is just as fiercely nationalistic as the Symphonie espagnole but with a Central European flavour. Ostensibly a series of sonic postcards from Brno, the largest city in Moravia (today part of the Czech Republic), it recently became widely known due to its role as a recurring motive in Haruki Murakami’s magnum opus novel, 1Q84. Its extraordinary fanfares involving no less than 21 brass players strike many as exhilarating, while others might consider them bombastic; either way, they never fail to impress the audience. And impress they did, despite some occasional ensemble problems in the lower voices. It was an effective performance though and Robertson took obvious delight in Janáček’s unmistakably idiosyncratic style and conducted with visible zeal.

One couldn’t fault him for lack of zeal in the opening of the symphony either. Later though, his conducting seemed at times almost too energetic for perhaps the most introverted of the four Brahms symphonies. After all, the subdued resignation finishing every one of its movements, the generous pulse of the 6/4 and 9/4 time signature markings of the first movement, the quiet yet always sonorous, divisi interpolations of the lower strings in the Andante (so beautifully played on the night) suggest melancholy more than heroism. There are plenty of great German Romantic compositions bursting at the seams with victorious effervescence, but the cathartic power of a brooding, wistful, maybe nostalgic movement by Schumann, Brahms or Mahler can be equally poignant. Perhaps Brahms meant this symphony to be after all an appropriate final work in a concert; it is an unusual but worthy proposition to leave the concert hall quietly, giving in to reverential ponderings, so common in the late-romantic era.