Ethereal wisps from the strings crept like mist across the opening of Sibelius’ Scene with Cranes, music extracted by the composer from the score he wrote for his brother-in-law Arvid Järnefelt’s symbolist play Kuolema or Death.

The sound conductor Brett Dean coaxed from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s strings was delicate, almost prayer-like, before rising intensity disturbed the titular cranes – clarinettists Francesco Celata and Christopher Tingay – perched above the orchestra in the choir stalls, their plaintive, descending cries ringing out mournfully. Dean, fresh from conducting his powerful Dream Sequence concert with the SSO at Carriageworks on Sunday, pushed deep into the silences of Sibelius’ music, leading with sensitive restraint and authority, while guest concertmaster Natsuko Yoshimoto traded lean, haunting lines with cellist Umberto Clerici.

“Every day I have seen the cranes,” Sibelius wrote in his diary in 1915, four years after this work’s premiere. “Flying south in full cry with their music. Have been yet again their most assiduous pupil. Their cries echo throughout my being.”

Similarly, it was a powerful impression left by a natural phenomenon that inspired the second work on the SSO’s Rachmaninoff on Fire programme, Dean’s own Fire Music, which turned the wisps of mist to acrid smoke.

Wrought in the aftermath of the devastating Black Saturday bushfires that burnt across Victoria in 2009, Fire Music opened with ominous rumblings and a deceptive hiss of soft-edged white noise that filled the hall and ringed the audience. Small groups of players were positioned left and right at the back of the hall, creating a claustrophobic surround-sound effect that hemmed anxious listeners in. The work followed Scene with Cranes without break or applause, building and expanding the charged atmosphere created in the Sibelius.

Dean’s command of the orchestral palette is both inventive and virtuosic – Fire Music is no exception. He conjured a vivid harmonic heat haze from trilling winds and muted brass. Sparks flew from the percussion while waves and gusts of sound blew from snare drums and string flurries. Stephen Lalor’s distorted electric guitar, balanced carefully as a solo orchestral voice, cried out in the chaos while the lower brass smouldered and a spot-lit string quartet above the orchestra played a melody that rocked on the edge of madness.

While fire was merely the starting point for Dean before the music became its own fuel, the horror of bushfire and its effects was never far away, making itself heard in popping percussion, distant bird calls and the sounds of what could have been fleeing, scurrying animals (a perception primed by the juxtaposition with Sibelius’ dream-state idyll). Against the gentler, intimate Scene with Cranes, this was the apocalyptic music of fearsome natural phenomena – vast weather patterns, thunderstorms and fires – a searing musical experience to leave you feeling scoured.

A hard act to follow then for pianist Piers Lane, who joined Dean and the SSO for Rachmaninov’s formidable Third Piano Concerto. But from the surging strings and distinctive folk-like melody of the opening, which Lane delivered with simple clarity, the excitement only escalated. Rachmaninov wrote this Concerto for his American tour, giving the first performances in New York in 1909 (one of the early performances was conducted by none other than Gustav Mahler at Carnegie Hall) and, thanks in part to the advocacy of Vladimir Horowitz and its later use in the film Shine, it has now become one of the most well-loved (and perhaps feared) concertos in the repertoire.

The technical challenges were water off a duck’s back for Lane, however, who brought a deft, firm-yet-agile touch to the Concerto, but also a beautiful sense of the work’s architecture. He teased melodies out of the virtuosic storm of notes with precise clarity, masterfully weaving them into a larger tapestry, throwing the heavier late Romantic pianism into stark relief with sweetly sculpted lighter moments. He glittered against Emma Sholl’s sonorous flute in the first movement’s cadenza and injected the work’s quirkier moments with capricious humour.

Diana Doherty’s oboe solo in the second movement was a highlight before Lane’s sparkling trill spun off into lush soloing. He fired off biting accents against the brass, duetted with the full-toned strings and he and Dean found a balance between piano and orchestra that hit the sweet spot in terms of exciting tension, without ever tipping too far in one direction or the other. The Concerto’s heroic finale became a triumphant, cathartic climax that had been slowly building, it seemed in retrospect, not just from the first movement but from the opening notes of the concert itself.

With the orchestra in top form, a cleverly curated programme and a stunning soloist, this was a spectacular concert – orchestral music at its best – and the audience fed off that fierce energy. They roared as Lane sat down for an encore, Moritz Moszkowski’s rippling Étincelles Op. 36 No 6 (also a favourite of Horowitz) aptly, for this concert, titled Sparks.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs Rachmaninoff on Fire at the Sydney Opera House October 20.