Ehnes is eloquent in Prokofiev, plus a Swedish rarity.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
October 10, 2014

Nothing whets the appetite like a musical rarity! Apparently the Sydney Symphony Orchestra have only ever played one piece before by the Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar, so it was about time to give him another airing in this otherwise all-Russian concert conducted by Stenhammar’s fellow-Scandinavian, the Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård.

Written in 1896, his Excelsior! Overture can’t quite make up it’s mind if it is Brahms, Wagner or even Richard Strauss. A thrusting theme with soaring strings and stabbing brass gives way to a lengthy ruminative discourse. The SSO gave it as good a run as it could hope for, the conductor urging Stenhammar’s cause with evident enthusiasm. It’s pleasant enough music, well crafted, decently orchestrated but, as with much of Stenhammar’s output, it engages in the moment and then it’s gone. A bit like the composer himself, alas.

Gordon Kerry’s perceptive program note for Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto draws attention to its conscious striving for “formal clarity and emotional directness”. Written on the move from Paris via Baku and ultimately ending up in Madrid, the work has a pan-European quality with just a hint of Russian melancholy.

The Canadian James Ehnes was the soloist, and the lovely lyrical first theme on solo violin drew immediate attention to his considerable strengths – clarity of purpose, impeccable intonation, warmth of tone and understated virtuosity. Like the SSO’s other recent soloist, pianist Stephen Hough, Ehnes is one of those musicians who one senses immediately is there to serve the music, not some kind of Paganinian ego. It’s not a fiendishly virtuosic piece by any means, but to come off it needs a firm hand and a sensitive accompaniment. Ehnes offered the first, Søndergård the second. Balance and sensitivity to the solo line was paramount here, every note from Ehnes ringing out clear as a bell.

The cheeky (some have suggested consciously banal) orchestral pizzicati of the second movement provided the bedrock for some lovely lyrical playing from Ehnes. His instrument soared with never a sour note or duff interval. The elegance of the Andante was carried over by all parties into the Spanish-infused Allegro Finale, the castanet-clacking waltz less vulgar in Søndergård’s hands than is sometimes the case. Ehnes tossed off the skittering scalic moments without batting an eyelid as he raced across the finish line to glory. This was flawless playing, and equally flawless was the Allegro assai from Bach’s Third Solo Sonata, which he offered as a welcome encore.

I’ll admit to some trepidation coming up against Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, the main work on the program and the concert’s second half. It’s less than a year since I sat in the same hall and heard Mariss Jansons conduct the Concertgebouw in what I consider to have been the finest interpretation of a Tchaikovsky symphony that I have ever heard. Reflecting on that performance as well as on Jansons’ health problems and subsequent retirement from the helm of the orchestra, I think it was the organic quality of his conducting plus the sense of a frail human being reliving a familiar battle against his own impending fate one last desperate time that made it so special.

Søndergård of course couldn’t match that, but the Dane had something of Jansons’ grasp of the architecture of the substantial first movement. Matters were occasionally a little chopped where a smoother arc might have been more ‘romantically’ appropriate, but it packed a dynamic punch and the SSO were on thumping form, decisive, bold and responsive. The movement has transitions, and Søndergård handled them well – perhaps the difference is that Jansons made you forget that they ever existed.

No cavils about the start of the lovely Andante. The rich warmth of the strings supported lovely solos from horn and winds. The ebb and flow was always compelling, the return of Tchaikovsky’s ‘fate’ motto impassioned and weighty. Occasionally the composers’ almost constant throbbing going on beneath the big tune got a bit buried, but Søndergård always had his eye on the dramatic arc.

The third movement waltz was briskly dispatched before the Finale, more moving in its peaks perhaps than in its troughs. The development section went at quite a lick, but not so fast that Søndergård wasn’t able to drive home the big ‘fate’ sections with maximum power and gravitas.

And often thrilling performance, then, from an intelligent and dynamic conductor who I’d love to hear more of in Australia. If it just fell short of Jansons’ Empyrean, it was certainly well up there in the stratosphere.