Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
November 16, 2018

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra rounded off its year (here, at least) with two ‘farewell’ concerts on the eve of its departure for Europe. I’ve noticed in recent years how generous the SSO’s programs have become. This one was no exception: Perhaps the Dvořák Carnival Overture, wonderfully invigorating as it always is, was a little de trop for what was already a long evening. Whatever!

I’ve always regarded Erich Wolfgang Korngold as much Mahler’s heir as Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Zemlinsky, Franz Schmidt etc. Korngold’s precocious genius was equal to Mozart’s, Mendelssohn’s and Saint-Saëns’. His father, Julius, Vienna’s most feared music critic, took him to Mahler with the prospect of the six year old Erich receiving lessons. When Mahler heard him play some of his compositions, some of which even then could hardly be described as juvenilia, he declared there was nothing he could teach him. Well, not directly. Korngold virtually invented the “symphonic” Hollywood film score and, in doing so, invested the genre with a similar level of complexity and emotional range Mahler did in his symphonies. If Mahler hadn’t composed, Korngold’s music would have sounded very different. Few other film composers, then or since, have conveyed the sensation of short-lived and febrile euphoria, rapidly replaced by emotional ambiguity, psychological unease and impending danger as skillfully (and often obliquely) as Korngold, with the frisson of a minor chord.

Admittedly, few of these traits are apparent in the gloriously open-hearted (rather than heart-on-sleeve) Violin Concerto, where the composer developed themes from film scores to Another Dawn, Juarez, Anthony Adverse and The Prince and the Pauper. Despite the gratuitous slurs levelled at this work, it’s much more than just a medley of cannibalised film music with a violin obbligato. The fact that a violinist of Renaud Capuçon’s calibre can embrace it with such unalloyed affection (along with just about every other top line violinist now) dispels that notion. He captured both the swooning voluptuous glamour of the first movement (sitting in Row M of the stalls, it was hard to savour the gorgeous blossoming of the exotic array of percussion – glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone and celesta in the first movement) as the music unfolded sensuously. The SSO sounded superb in the first really full orchestral statement, which arrives late in the movement rather than at the outset of the exposition. Capuçon made the slow movement a love song between himself and the orchestra and the final movement an exercise in quicksilver virtuosity and charm.

David Roberson’s Mahler Five suggested how much the SSO has assimilated the Mahler idiom into its DNA, in contrast to Vladimir Ashkenazy, who always seemed to convey a slight ambivalence in performance. There is a passage around the middle of the second movement (similar in mood to the first) where the violas and cellos play in unison. In the almost 50 years of I’ve known this symphony, since I was a (young) teenager, I’ve never noticed it. Here, it was arresting. This was the sort of detail Robertson brought to the work. His tempos seemed steady in the opening movement where sombre grief alternates, but he never made it a dirge. In the gigantic scherzo, Ben Jacks’ alternately burnished and refulgent horn playing against the orchestra reminded me of the chiaroscuro effects of clouds scudding across the sky in front of the sun on a windy day. Robertson’s tempo in the famous Adagietto was a splendidly central 10 minutes, in between Bruno Walter’s athletic eight and Bernstein’s (and latterly Haitink’s) amazing fourteen and maintained the flow without sounding as though the orchestra were wading through treacle in gumboots. The woodwind exchanges at the opening of the Finale had a magical bucolic quality and were exquisite in the subsequent giacoso passages. Robertson avoided manic tempos here, graduated the climaxes and saved the real power for the glorious peroration. Look out Europe. The Sydney’s Symphony Orchestra’s on its way. Be warned! Bon Voyage.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs Viennese Romantics again at the Sydney Opera House tonight


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