The latest Sydney Symphony Orchestra concert, entitled Legends by the Sea, was an intriguing mix of contrasting works by Sibelius, Fauré and Debussy.

Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen suite was an entirely new discovery for me. If Ashkenazy himself describes it as containing “some of Sibelius’ best music”, it is definitely a discovery worth making. For me it is a heady combination of Wagnerian harmonies with Vaughan Williams’ lucid textures and soundworld. On the scale of a symphony, the work is a collection of four tone poems based on the life of Lemminkäinen, a sorcerer and hero of the Kalevela, a Finnish folk epic. It is a work which exploits the orchestra to the full, in which Sibelius shows himself to be a master of orchestration, or perhaps it is more appropriate to say that Sibelius achieves vivid orchestral colours from sometimes minimal resources. Such precise and economic orchestral writing requires a technical mastery from the individual sections of the orchestra. This was impressively achieved by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy, which demonstrated its strength and depth in all its individual sections. The horns were particularly well employed in this work and played with an impressive degree of warmth and control. A particular highlight was the cor anglais solo, played by Alexandre Oguey, in the second movement, The Swan of Tuonela, which was performed with great sensitivity. Also present was some beautiful, ethereal playing from the strings, again masterfully controlled and blended into the overall texture. The final movement, Lemminkäinen’s Return, displayed some energetic playing from the players, like all the movements, exquisitely crafted and paced by Ashkenazy.

Some lighter relief was provided after the interval in the form of Fauré’s suite from Pelléas et Mélisande. Fauré’s orchestral textures are more translucent than Sibelius’. I always think that Fauré’s great genius lies in his chamber music, particularly his songs. For me, his orchestral writing has an intimate, almost chamber-like quality to it, and like those songs this suite employs his trademark beguiling harmonic language, which binds the music together. In this evening’s performance, the suite was performed with the addition of Mélisande’s Song, orchestrated by Charles Koechlin. For this, the Sydney Symphony welcomed guest soprano Jacqueline Porter, who sang with great expression and a warm tone. The orchestra played with a great sense of light and shade, effectively bringing out the subtleties of colour and harmony expertly woven within the music.

The final piece in the program, Debussy’s La mer, requires the full might of the complete orchestra. In terms of intimacy this work is completely the opposite of the Fauré. At its climaxes, Debussy’s masterpiece is unashamed in its grandeur, portraying the full might of the sea. I find the climax at the end of the first of the symphonic sketches to be one of the most exciting moments in all orchestral music. Through Debussy’s masterful sense of form and orchestration, there are few moments which are as well crafted as this one, with its sense of naked power and of perfectly crafted space.

There are few orchestras which I believe could create the desired sense of awe as well as the current Sydney Symphony Orchestra. The brass sound in particular was thrilling, but did not sound forced or overblown, but perfectly rounded. The whole work was held together wonderfully by Ashkenazy who controlled with great effect the unusual orchestra timbres often present in the work. There was a great sense of interplay too between the solo woodwind instruments and the often shimmering strings, effectively creating the rippling effects of light and shade inherent in the music. I always think that La mer really sorts out the really great orchestras from the good ones. I was left in no doubt at the evening’s conclusion that the Sydney Symphony definitely falls into the former category.