Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
August 3, 2018

The centrepiece of this concert was the Australian premiere of Julian Anderson’s piano concerto The Imaginary Museum. Comprising six short movements, the quasi programmatic work clocks in at around 20 compelling minutes. A co-commission between BBC Radio 3, the Bergen Philharmonic and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, it takes its name from a text by the novelist and cultural politician André Malraux. In it, the Frenchman posits that it’s only in one’s own mind that it’s possible to picture a coherent collection of art, given its dispersal all over the world.

Written for the Scottish pianist Steven Osborne, The Imaginary Museum seemed a disparate work at times. This doesn’t necessarily hamper the concerto in any serious way, but I did feel the brevity of each movement meant drama wasn’t allowed to build as effectively as possible. However, it remains a seriously irresistible work that will reward repeat listenings, if only to listen more closely to the eclectic ways Anderson uses the harp.

The Imaginary Museum begins with the pianist seeming to test the acoustics of the hall with a few muted phrases, which soon gives way to a raucous traversal of the world. Most striking yesterday evening was the movement entitled Forest Murmurs. Best leave aside any Wagnerian associations, as this offers cavernous sonorities, syncopated beats and dense textural writing which roars to the finish line.

In a nod to the Australian connection, the following movement (A Song Before Dawn) depicts a bird singing in the desert, with the orchestra evoking the blazing sunset. Beautifully done, French conductor Ludovic Morlot seemed in happy partnership with Osborne all evening, with the orchestra on top form. Osborne brought his usual quicksilver playing here, obviously enjoying himself in a work that has the piano take turns leading and commenting on the action.

Earlier, Morlot led the SSO in a finely judged account of Gigues, from Debussy’s Images for Orchestra. Beginning with a daringly ethereal whisper, this was a slow burn account that expertly balanced the lively and the morose. Transparency and clarity of inner voices was the abiding impression, with orchestral playing of great finesse. Yet I also felt that this very measured, controlled reading missed out on that last bit of atmosphere.

The concluding Ibéria was more effective, distinguished by an engaging rhythmic vitality as well as a lusher treatment that found more of the local colour Debussy was aiming at. The scene conjured was that of a sunny Spanish street, helped along by silky strings in the middle section and very fine playing from the woodwinds. Also satisfying was the interplay between the different sections, as well as the well-judged gradations of dynamics. Morlot even managed to pick out the humour in the last movement in what was an idiomatic reading.

Having recorded Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain for Hyperion in 2017, Osborne and Morlot’s confident, very fine account was no surprise. Another atmospheric turn by soloist and orchestra, both clearly relished the composer’s gift for the pictorial, summoning up a steamy summer evening. Osborne’s playing was particularly characterful, doing justice to the work’s Spanish dance flavour whilst still living amongst the orchestra, who dispatched the work with panache.