Janine Jansen and Thomas Søndergård take on two titans.

Both major works on the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Sibelius and Mahler programme began on the very edge of silence. Whisper quiet strings, teased gently out of the air by Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård, became a cushion over which violinist Janine Jansen floated with subtle grace in the opening bars of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, before her tone grew more lyrical, ringing with passionate vibrato.

The Dutch violinist, whose last appearance with the SSO was in 2015 playing the Brahms Concerto, brought exquisite colouration and technical finery to what was to be Sibelius’ only concerto. Sibelius – whose own ambitions to be a virtuoso violinist were thwarted by a cocktail of injury, performance anxiety and a late start – wrote the concerto in 1904, and while the initial reception was mixed, Jascha Heifetz’s championing of the work in the 1930s cemented its place in the repertoire alongside the other major violin concertos. Its dedicatee Willy Burmeister wrote upon receiving the score: “I can only say one thing: wonderful! Masterly! Only once before have I spoken in such terms to a composer, and that was when Tchaikovsky showed me his concerto.”

Janine JansenJanine Jansen. Photo © Marco Borggreve

Jansen was a more than convincing champion of the work on Wednesday night, wielding a dark, edgy tone and earthy energy alongside delicate tracery in the first movement. Søndergård’s sensitive leadership bringing forth explosive brass accents and a broad tutti sound without ever threatening to overpower the soloist. Jansen’s double-stops sang brightly while her blistering cadenza shot sparks of fierce virtuosity.

Jansen brought a mellower, expansive tone to the Adagio, carving out broader lines and leaving the final note to hang in the air like a delicate thread. Over the driving orchestra, she hit the finale with a gritty folk energy to deliver a high velocity, dazzling climax.

Like the Sibelius, Mahler’s First Symphony came out of nothing, a hazy drone underpinning birdsong from the winds, far off fanfares and the two-note ‘cuckoo’ motif that threads through the symphony.

While Mahler was ambivalent about providing a specific programme for the symphony he wrote in 1987-88 (he dropped the original Titan title), there are plenty of stories suggested or alluded to in the gradual unfurling of the pastoral first movement – and Søndergård’s deft pacing drew a convincing narrative thread through the work, which draws on the second song from Mahler’s Sons of a Wayfarer. The SSO violins were clean and bright and the wind, brass and percussion brought the movement to a joyous conclusion.

The double basses dug in hard in the rustic Ländler of the second movement, pulling back as the upper strings and winds took over. Søndergård’s movements were elegant – almost choreography – as the Ländler turned waltz before the folky boisterous folk dance returned.

It was the double bass again – this time a solo by Alex Henery – that led the third movement, joined by Richard Miller on timpani for the unsettling funeral march parody based on Bruder Martin (Frère Jacques). Even without Mahler’s description of an illustration depicting woodland creatures in procession escorting the coffin of a hunter, the reimagining of the children’s song triggers strange associations. Søndergård capitalised on the mood created by giving the klezmer music that followed a smeary, dream-like quality.

From its explosive thunder-clap of an opening, Søndergård and the SSO imbued the mammoth finale with an incredible sense of excitement – the strings were lush and the music writhed as Søndergård brought all of the Symphony’s threads together again, the horns standing to deliver the blazing denouement.

Between these two mighty works, Sibelius’ Violin Concerto and Mahler’s First Symphony, there was more than enough to curb the appetite of even the hungriest concert-goer. The two movements from Sibelius’ King Christian II Suite Op. 27 – the Nocturne and Serenade – that began the concert made for a pleasant appetiser but felt a little superfluous alongside the main events. This was nonetheless a cracker of a programme, Jansen, Søndergård and the SSO delivering exciting, colourful performances of two titans from the turn of the 19th century.


Janine Jansen and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra perform Sibelius & Mahler at the Sydney Opera House until October 30.

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