The sinuous sound of Adam Walker’s flute wove its way across the audience from above and to the left of the organ in the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s Verbrugghen Hall, opening the final concert of the 2019 Musica Viva Festival with a sense of ritual and mystery. Debussy wrote his solo Syrinx for flautist Louis Fleury, as incidental music for Gabriel Mourey’s play Psyché, inspired by Greek mythology, and while it may first have been played offstage, it has become a centrepiece of the flute repertoire, Walker’s high perch paying tribute to its theatrical origins. With sweet tone and velvet low register, the British flautist captured the stillness and magic of the work, which in this concert became a companion piece to Edgard Varèse’s Density 21.5 – an equally important milestone in solo flute repertoire, written in 1936 (and revised in 1946), and named for the density of platinum – which Walker dispatched with a darker sound, more urgent intensity, ringing fortes and resonant key slaps from the other organ’s other side.

The atmospheric first half of the concert saw Walker’s performances bookend a bracket by Andrew Tyson, who drew splashes of refracting colour from the piano in Messiaen’s Première communion de la Vierge (The Virgin’s first communion), from the composer’s solo collection Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (Twenty contemplations on the infant Jesus) written for Yvonne Loriod in 1944. The easy – in Tyson’s hands – romance of Chopin’s second Nocturne from his Opus 15 set cleared the air for the bell-like opening of Ravel’s hauntingly melancholy Oiseaux tristes (Sad Birds) and capricious, Spanish-flavoured Alborada del gracioso (The Jester’s Aubade), capped off with a stunning final flourish.

Musica Viva Festival, Dover Quartet, Goldner String QuartetThe Dover Quartet and Goldner String Quartet. Photo © MONDE photo

The concert shifted gears at the end of its first half, departing the established world of 20th-century French solo work, and arriving in the 21st-century post-minimalist sound-world of Australian composer Nicole Murphy. Her newly commissioned Anamnesis saw the Dover Quartet join the Goldner String Quartet on stage for the String Octet which is based on a previously discarded fragment of melody, elements of which are explored across three movements in a meditation on the way memories are revisited and rewritten. A bright, dance-like fragment was passed around the ensemble in the first movement, the music’s rolling, relentless energy taking on a heroic quality before gently easing to a halt in the hands of Dover cellist Camden Shaw. Goldner violinist Dene Olding picked up where Shaw left off, the same notes becoming the start of a more tranquil accumulation of textures in the second movement before the finale was kicked off by Dover’s Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt – and a dark, bending response from the Goldners’ cellist Julian Smiles – in an accelerating world of ethereal string harmonics and scattered pizzicatos. While the sound-world was a far cry from that of the French composers, in its obsessive study of small fragments, Murphy’s animated music captured something of the meditative mood evoked in the earlier pieces.

Walker returned to the stage with pianist Aura Go to open the concert’s second half with Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů’s Sonata for Flute and Piano, written in 1945 in Cape Cod, the composer having fled to the USA to escape Nazi-occupied France. Here again Walker demonstrated a playful flair, dispatching the first movement with beautifully long-breathed phrases, Go’s piano glimmering. The slow movement recalled the sense of mystery evoked in the concert’s first half, before a spritely finale.

Bringing the Festival to a close was double bassist Edgar Meyer, the Goldner String Quartet and three quarters of the Dover Quartet, their cellist benched for Max Bruch’s posthumously published String Octet in B Flat Major, recast in 1920 – the final year of the composer’s life – from an earlier string quintet. Here Dene Olding’s refined, penetrating violin tone and Meyer’s powerful bass gilded each edge of the deeply romantic music. If Bruch believed he was dying from his final illness, he didn’t let that knowledge enter this music, the Adagio second movement building to triumphant heights and the frenzied charge of the Allegro molto full of fierce energy, which the musicians delivered with tight ensemble playing in a vibrant finale to what has been a satisfying weekend of high-quality music-making.