Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall
September 21, 2016

How long is it since we’ve had what was once considered a standard concert with an overture, a concerto and an after-interval symphony? What a joy it was to experience.

The evening began with a taut reading of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, which augured well for the rest of the concert. It was wonderful to see Nelson Freire, a connoisseur’s artist if ever there were one, in Schumann’s delightful Piano Concerto, once a stalwart of the concert repertoire, now rarely encountered. (Why?) Freire has been shamefully neglected until relatively recently by recording companies and he brought a mixture of charm, wit and spontaneity to this charming work. His phasing was natural and elegant and the central Intermezzo (Schumann dispensed with a conventional slow movememt) was an intimate dialogue, neither precious nor coy.

Nelson Freire, photo © Daniela Testa

The longest work on the programme was Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. Here, the SSO has form: Edo de Waart, so often capable of po-faced accounts in other repertoire, was a great interpeter of this work, (they toured the US with it). For all its kaleidoscopic emotions and heart-tugging melodies, it also has a glamorous patina. Vladimir Ashkenazy, for whom it was a speciality, recorded it with the Royal Amsterdam Concertgebouw. The name of Marcelo Lehninger can be added to these illustrious interpretations. No one, apart from Tchaikovsky, can convey Slavic yearning like Rachmaninov and in this reading Lehninger achieved this in abubdance, acquitting himself as a masteful and instinctive Rachmaninov interpreter.

From the opening bars he hit upon exactly the right pulse, essential in the sprawling first movement. The strings were luxuriant and the brass tone refulgent throughout. I enjoyed hearing the music unfold with masterful rubato in a leisurely and at times highly strung rather than manic way. The spiky, Prokofiev-like Scherzo always reminds me of ill-fated Romanov Grand Duchesses with perfect cheek bones, swathed in furs, being whisked through a snowy landscape in a troika. The soft-centred trio was ravishingly handled. In the emotional core of the work, the famous Adagio, he created just the right flow without mawkish sentimentality or excessively overwhelming climaxes. The finale also radiated festive exuberance with the climaxes carefully controlled and gradated.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra presents Nelson Freire plays Schumann until September 24