The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Conductor Laureate Vladimir Ashkenazy returned to the podium for this concert of English music – Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, alongside Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Enigma Variations. While the repertoire reads like an album of popular classics, it served to showcase the excellent work of the SSO strings, who shone from the luminous opening of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia to the noble Nimrod of the Enigma Variations.

Andreas Brantelid and the Sydney Symphony OrchestraAndreas Brantelid performing with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 2018. Photo © Rene Jeppesen

Ashkenazy drew exquisitely distinct colours and shapes from the divided string orchestra and fine solo lines in Vaughan Williams’ well-loved Fantasia, tracing an arc from the delicate opening to a rich, almost organ-like sonority at the climax, before the afterglow of the final chord held the audience transfixed.

The strings brought plenty of depth too to Elgar’s Cello Concerto, the composer’s final major work, written in the aftermath of the First World War. The soloist, young Swedish-Danish cellist Andreas Brantelid, unveiled a beguiling, caramel tone in the opening flourish – more refinement but less muscle than the reading by Jacqueline du Pré that made it such a popular hit – going on to give a confident account of the concerto with which he made his debut at the age of just 14.

While Brantelid has played with the SSO before, joining the orchestra in Denmark on the 2018 European tour, this was his debut in the Sydney Opera House. He brought a smooth, yearning sound to the pianissimos in Elgar’s Adagio, but while the fast sections – the Allegro molto of the second movement and the finale – were technically assured, Brantelid showing off a spritely virtuosity, they lacked the forward momentum to be really exciting, coming across as neat but oddly static. So too the lyrical passages, Brantelid giving a polished account but not quite infusing the music with the heartfelt emotion that – in the hands of Du Pré and others since – can make this soulful work so poignant. It was really Ashkenazy and the orchestra who carried the emotional weight, the lower strings a force to be reckoned with in the concerto’s finale. In the final moments, Brantelid found something of what had been missing earlier, bringing extra heft to the return of the concerto’s opening theme. His encore was a tender account of Glazunov’s Chant du Ménéstral, joined by the string section leaders in an arrangement for cello and quartet.

The winds had their moment in the sun, shimmering in Elgar’s first variation, dedicated to the composer’s wife Caroline Alice, following a flowing introduction of the mysterious Enigma theme from the strings. The timpani, too, in the seventh variation – lampooning a heavy-handed pianist friend – and the brass, in the adventures of the bulldog Dan in the 11th variations and the final blaze of the 14th, representing Elgar himself. Ashkenazy led all these with characteristic wit and charisma, but he also gave finely judged accounts of the more profound tributes. Nimrod, dedicated to Elgar’s friend and publisher August Jaeger, was touching, while the 12th variation – a tribute to Elgar’s chamber music companion Basil George Nevinson, who, unlike some of the other musicians referenced in the variations, seems to have earned himself a more laudatory movement – was beautifully rendered here by Catherine Hewgill and the cello section.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra presents Andreas Brantelid performs Elgar’s Cello Concerto at the Sydney Opera House until September 21


The September 18 performance, which was streamed around the country, can be viewed here

Don't miss out 200th issue, subscribe today