Last night’s program with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was one of those to really get your teeth into, with substantial, complex works by Brahms and Rachmaninov, and only a short amount of respite provided by Dvořák. This was serious music in the form of the heavyweight Brahms Piano Concerto no. 1, which contains almost too much music to comprehend in one sitting. The Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances too are substantial in their form and structure. It is like reading a complex novel where you need to re-read sections in order to really grasp the genius behind the writing. However, even through the complexity of this music, the sheer beauty of the works never becomes lost.

Jakub Hrůša © Prague Philharmonia
Jakub Hrůša
© Prague Philharmonia

Both soloist and conductor were making their Sydney Symphony debuts, with both excelling in their respective roles. Conductor Jakub Hrůša was replacing Tugan Sokhiev at short notice, Sokhiev being indisposed for health reasons. Hrůša, named by Gramophone magazine as one of ten young conductors ‘on the verge of greatness’ in 2011, definitely did not disappoint. He conducted with authority and clarity, drawing out the best in the Sydney Symphony – I am sure we will see a lot of him around the world in the future.

The whole of the first half was devoted to the Brahms concerto, continuing a mini series of Brahms concertos for the Sydney Symphony, with the Piano Concerto no. 2 and the Violin Concerto already having been performed this year. The soloist this time was the American pianist Nicholas Angelich. Like Hrůša, he performed with complete authority and wonderful sensitivity as well as the extraordinary virtuosity required for this piece. However, most impressive was the range of colours Angelich was able to draw from the piano, from the work’s powerful, dramatic opening to the wonderfully calm, tender moments of the slow movement. The work was deeply influenced by the death of Schumann and the emotional heart of the work in the second movement, which contains the inscription ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’, was really extracted from the music in this performance, with soloist and orchestra united as one musical entity.

The second half of the concert began in celebratory style with Dvořák’s Carnival Overture. This was a welcome addition to the program, adding a lighter moment to the evening, sandwiched in the middle of two very ‘serious’ works. The orchestra reveled in the opportunity to let their hair down, performing with a great deal of excitement and with a thrilling sound, prompting the audience to burst into spontaneous applause at the piece’s conclusion.

The final piece of the evening was Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. Composed in 1940 for Hungarian conductor Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, the work was originally conceived as a ballet, although Rachmaninov soon dropped the idea and the three dances became a concert work. One of the last works he wrote, the piece contains several macabre elements as well as quotes from the Dies irae from the Catholic Mass for the Dead. It also requires a large array of instruments, including an alto saxophone, which appears as a soloist in the second movement, as well as an array of percussion instruments, piano and harp.

Having last performed and recorded the work in 2007 with Vladimir Ashkenazy as part of their Rachmaninov festival, the orchestra seemed to relish this repertoire, giving it an assured and musically exciting performance. Every section of the orchestra performed with precision with beautiful solos from several individual members, the musicians demonstrating their impressive soloistic abilities as well as well as the ability to be part of the whole team. It is at times like these that I become increasingly convinced that the Sydney Symphony really is one of the world’s great orchestras.

****1