The quicksilver winds of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra slithered across the orchestra after the initial hard crack that opened Richard Mills’ Aeolian Caprices. Written in 1988 for the Queensland Youth Orchestra, Mills’ athletic, punchy music – which lurches from lyrical strings and harp to restless, rhythmic passages – was a shot of adrenaline in the hands of Lawrence Renes, the Dutch-Maltese maestro making his SSO debut. The playful six-minute Aeolian Caprices – crafted around the tones of the Aeolian, or natural minor, mode –  dwarfed by Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto at the other end of the program, made the audience sit up and pay attention.

Barry Douglas, Lawrence Renes, Sydney Symphony OrchestraBarry Douglas, Lawrence Renes and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Daniela Testa

Between those two extremes was Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony, the composer’s final – and shortest – contribution to the form. There was a gentle warmth to the ascent from the opening’s lower strings that belied the vast, icy vistas that so often come to mind when hearing the Finnish composer’s music, Renes finding in the tightly packed, single-movement symphony an intimate, down-to-earth quality. The SSO’s trombones suffused the Concert Hall with glowing radiance, while the strings blew stormy winds. But the result was somehow grounded – earthly – Renes not quite capturing the time-stopping power that can be wrung from Sibelius’s tightly compressed symphonic universe. Nevertheless, the blazing C Major of the finale was arresting.

Brahms’ Piano Concerto No 2, with Irish pianist Barry Douglas as soloist, took the concert’s traditional post-interval symphony slot. And well it might, Brahms’ four-movement “long terror” (his words) spans more than 45 minutes and is certainly symphonic in scope. Douglas and Renes, and the SSO’s Principal Horn Ben Jacks in a lush solo line, took the opening of the Allegro non troppo at an expansive, but flowing tempo – this was not the agonising elongation of the 1985 Bernstein/Zimerman recording – Douglas exerting a strong musical presence from the outset.

Douglas is a specialist in Brahms – he has an excellent cycle of the complete solo works on Chandos – and he brought a distinctive, weighty sound to the Concerto’s first movement, finding a roundness and gravitas even in the piano’s high register. The depth of sound Renes coaxed from the strings suited Douglas’ approach perfectly, and the pair had an effective musical rapport. The balance was beautifully managed – there was never a sense that Renes was holding back and Douglas’ sound drove right through the thick string textures.

Technique-wise, Douglas is certainly no slouch, but he’s not showy about it – the florid passagework in the dramatic Allegro appassionato second movement was dispatched masterfully, but wholly in the service of the music’s larger arcs, as it was throughout the Concerto.

Guesting Principal Cellist Rod McGrath, borrowed from the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, brought a mezzo-soprano-like lyricism to his solos in the Andante, which saw Douglas access a more delicate tone – though still with an underlying strength – particularly in his shimmering tremolos. The finale danced sunnily, Douglas digging into the passionate Hungarian-inspired rhythms. All in all, a powerful performance from Douglas, more than equal to the musical demands of Brahms’ ‘long terror’.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Barry Douglas Performs Brahms is at the Sydney Opera House until March 30