Friday night's concert, entitled Majestic Brahms, was a concert of two very different halves, with Brahms' Second Piano Concerto comprising the first half and Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony the second. The Brahms is a Herculean piece with one of the most challenging solo parts in the repertoire. Lasting approximately fifty minutes, it is a concerto on a symphonic scale. Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony is in many ways a concerto for orchestra, with the composer using the scope of the orchestra to the full. Although not one of his most well-known symphonies, this work is unmistakably Shostakovich, with its mix of lyricism, sarcastic marches and at times brutality.

Oleg Caetani
Oleg Caetani

The guest conductor for the evening was Oleg Caetani, a former student of the great Nadia Boulanger. The music of Shostakovich is especially important to him. He has conducted his music all over the world and has recorded a cycle of all fifteen of his symphonies with the Verdi Orchestra in Milan. Conducting the Sixth Symphony from memory, his affinity with the music of this great composer was clear to see. Caetani was a very elegant conductor. All of his movements were incredibly fluid. His beat was clear, always precise but never jerky. He conducted with great ease, seemingly at home with the orchestra and confident with their response. For their part the Sydney Symphony played with as good a sense of ensemble as I have ever heard them. I have never heard isolated pizzicato notes from cellos and double basses played as together as they were this evening. The Shostakovich in particular contains some highly intricate writing, especially for the woodwind section, but it was played with an impressive, crystal-clear clarity.

The piano soloist for the Brahms was Philippe Bianconi. He is a tall man who towered over this gargantuan solo part. He played the piano with immense power. I have heard few pianists achieve such a powerful tone in the Opera House. He attacked the concerto with abandon, almost throwing himself into it, launching himself into the virtuosic passages with an apparent fearlessness. There were also some lovely tender moments, most notably in the slow movement, which contains what this evening's program describes as 'one of Brahms' most sublime melodies.' This is Brahms in his characteristic chamber music mode. The movement contains a wonderful cello solo, which was played exquisitely by principal cellist Catherine Hewgill. Indeed, she received the biggest cheer at the work's conclusion from the audience. There was also wonderful horn playing, particularly at the beginning of the concerto, by the principal horn player, Robert Johnson. He produced a smooth, velvety, controlled tone which set the mood for the work perfectly.

After running foul of the authorities with his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich produced his Fifth Symphony in 1937. This marked his return to favour with the Russian authorities and it was on the back of this that he wrote his Sixth Symphony, premièred by the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1939 – it is often referred to as his first wartime symphony. Shostakovich himself stated that he wanted to convey the moods of 'spring, joy, youth'. However, this feels a long way off, particularly in the often desolate-sounding first movement. These emotions feel distant in a different way in the final movement of the symphony, which is a manic presto, where, as this evening's program notes state, 'all hell threatens to break loose'.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra were expertly guided through the work by Oleg Caetani and responded to his connection with the music with a highly confident performance in which every section of the orchestra shone. In the opening movement there was some intensely lyrical string playing, while in the final movement there some powerful brass marches, played with precision and with a mix of irony, brutality and wit present in so much of Shostakovich's music. The woodwind section were on fine form; the work contains many virtuosic solos featuring a wide variety of the wind section from the bass clarinet to the piccolo, all of which were played with style.

This was a fascinatin but challenging evening from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, a program which leaves you thinking days after the event, about the Brahms to make sense of its scale, and about the Shostakovich for its message and meaning. Maybe that was why the Opera House was devoid of its usual cheers at the conclusion of the Shostakovich. Perhaps this muteness was a sign of the success of the performance. The fact that the SSO managed to induce a slightly subdued response from the audience means that they managed to get to the emotional heart of this challenging music.