The Sydney Symphony concluded their mini Russian series with an all-Tchaikovsky concert featuring one of his lesser-known concertos and a most beloved symphony.

Garrick Ohlsson © Wojciech Grzedzinski
Garrick Ohlsson
© Wojciech Grzedzinski

The first half was devoted to his Piano Concert no. 2 in G major, less recognisable than his first with its opening crashing chords, but every bit as endearing and lyrical. Chosen for this evening’s performance was the concerto in its original format. Tchaikovsky’s critics criticized this version for being too long, leading pianist Alexander Siloti to make cuts. It has been this version which has endured, although Tchaikovsky’s original has been performed recently with increasing frequency. The soloist was American pianist Garrick Ohlsson, who is perhaps best known for his performances of Chopin, but nevertheless he has a vast, all-encompassing repertoire. To me, he came across as something of a gentle giant – a tall man, his playing was authoritative and commanding, but self-effacing. There was nothing showy about his performance. It was technically brilliant and exciting, but it appeared so easy. The two long piano solos in the first movement were powerful and dramatic. He played with such a rich tone, both beautiful and perfectly judged, that it was like watching a grand master giving a masterclass to his students.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra under its principal conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy responded to Ohlsson’s mastery, accompanying him sensitively and with great precision. Particularly delightful was the second movement, which contains long episodes for a solo violin and cello. The violin solo was played by the SSO’s guest leader Daniel Dodds, who produced a wonderful silky sound, which was one of the highlights of the performance. Equally pleasing was the solo from principal cellist, Catherine Hewgill. The concerto was rounded off with a thrilling finale, which once more showcased Ohlsson’s stunning virtuosity and elicited an enthusiastic response from the large audience. Ohlsson finished off the first half with an encore of Tchaikovsky’s Humoresque. This was a wonderfully delicate performance, which captured the mood of this piece perfectly and sent the audience out for the interval on a light hearted note before the drama of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4 in F minor in the second half.

The arresting opening brass calls of this symphony opened the second half with a thrilling, spine-chilling effect, bringing out the despair present in so much of the work. The brass section was on fine form in this movement as well as the last, but the horn section especially had a busy evening and produced particularly well judged and incisive entries from the highly intense to the beautiful, mellow moments, which the horn can do so well. However, for me the first movement was the least successful of the performance. It seemed to lack the sense of drive and terrifying restlessness which is inherent in the music. The orchestra well and truly redeemed itself in the second movement, which was the highlight of the second half. Ashkenazy shaped it beautifully, allowing the music the space to breathe, thereby producing a heart-rending result. Ashkenazy himself was clearly pleased, giving a thumbs up to the orchestra at its conclusion. The pizzicato Scherzo which followed showcased the SSO’s talented string section, who proved their worth with great nimbleness; their playing was precise and had a great sense of ensemble. This led the way to the symphony’s celebrated rollicking finale, which the orchestra delivered with characteristic bravura, the thrilling sound of the full orchestra bringing the evening to an exciting conclusion.