Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Brahms Symphony No. 4
Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, July 29

This attractive program drew a full house and showed, as I observed a few weeks ago about the Sydney Symphony’s performance concert under Pinchas Steinberg, that a concert of well-known works can still be an exciting event if handled properly. The first-rate Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard, making his second visit to Australia, has demonstrated he is able to draw a refined sound from this orchestra.

Apart from some poor execution of woodwind chords at the beginning of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture, the SSO responded superbly well to his direction. Horns were in fine form throughout, sounding very grand, and the brass was nicely balanced with the rest of the orchestra.  The strings, too, were richly textured and exciting.

Initially my reaction to Dausgaard’s reading of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony was muted. I had the impression that it was underpowered, but on reflection I don’t believe this was the case. Dausgaard is an aesthetic conductor; taking great care in shaping the music, delighting in tapering off phrases elegantly, making a virtue of the ebbs and flows within a composition. The effect is graceful and deeply satisfying. It may seem an odd thing to say, but it is unusual to hear Brahms treated in this manner – we are more familiar with all stops out, the grand organ approach.

I’m not sure I would always want to hear Brahms this way, but it was a perfectly valid and poetic approach, encouraging me to think differently about the piece. I suspect the subdued audience response afterwards was a reaction to this interpretation. Of course, the enigmatic nature of the last movement can often have that effect.

By comparison, the Rachmaninov was a wild success. The brilliant Freddie Kempf, who makes a meal of the Romantic repertoire, delivered a dazzling interpretation while at the same time bringing delicacy of touch to a work that can easily become an exercise in bombast. An equal partner, Dausgaard was right with him in this more whimsical exercise, bringing out the many touches of humour in the score and emphasising (as a colleague pointed out in the interval) the Gershwinesqe qualities in the work. It was a splendid performance.

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