Some musicians have criticised Mozart’s music for being facile, almost too perfect, some even claiming that it lacks emotional depth. However it is difficult to accept this when listening to Mozart performed by pianist Stephen Hough. It is music which sparkles and glistens much like the water in the harbour surrounding Sydney Opera House, or that is usually the case. As if responding to Mozart’s critics, the weather in Sydney was uncharacteristically damp and dreary – maybe total perfection is a bad thing and not possible.

Stephen Hough’s playing inside the hall in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, by contrast to the weather outside, was certainly radiant. This piece was written at the same time as Mozart was composing The Marriage of Figaro. Just like this opera, the performance by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Mark Wigglesworth with Stephen Hough was full of humour, character and witty dialogue. This humour came to the fore in the cadenzas in the first and last movements, which had been written by Stephen Hough himself. In these, he drew on the themes of the concerto, breaking them up with expectant pauses, before combining them again as if in dialogue. The orchestra seemed to be inspired by the pianist and reacted to his beautiful sense of line and phrasing. The music breathed and had space to it and a beautiful tone was produced by soloist and orchestra alike, particularly in the famous second movement, used as the soundtrack to the film Elvira Madigan. The concerto ended with a playful rondo, again full of almost cheeky interplay between Hough and the ensemble. When the rapturous applause had died down, I found myself rushing to the foyer to have my CD signed by the soloist.

Despite for me the Mozart being the highlight of the evening, it was really a diversion from the main theme of the concert – new horizons. The concerto was preceded by Lutoslawski’s Symphony No. 4 and after the interval, there was a performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9. Both composers in their symphonies were attempting to find an American voice for their work, Dvořák in 1892, and Lutoslawski exactly one hundred years later. His fourth symphony breaks all classical moulds and contains only two movements, played together without a pause, with, in the composers own words, the first movement being a preparation for the last. On first hearing, the symphony is perhaps not easy listening, but the Sydney Symphony Orchestra played their part in recreating the many varying colours of the score and certainly demonstrated their virtuosity with the fluttering woodwind sections, the bold brass calls and long, hushed melodies played by the strings.

This virtuosity was again demonstrated in the second half of the concert in one of the most loved pieces of the symphonic repertoire, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 From the New World. The loudest cheer of the night was reserved for the cor anglais player for his performance of the famous solo in the slow movement. Like the Mozart earlier in the evening, this movement was beautifully shaped and phrased. The cor anglais sang out with the home-sick sense of yearning required, while underneath, the strings provided a warm bed of sound for the soloist to float on top. This movement was in contrast to the other movements which were played at brisk tempi, although never feeling rushed, but instead giving the music a sense of perpetual excitement and energy. Conducting from memory, Mark Wigglesworth seemed at one with the orchestra. His clear enthusiasm and his every nuance were picked up by the players almost as if by process of osmosis. At the end of the work, the leader of the orchestra refused to lead the other musicians to their feet, instead preferring to allow the conductor to receive some well-deserved applause.