Steinberg is equally at home daydreaming with Tchaikovsky or battling the Bosch on the ice.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House

March 12, 2014

The welcome return to Sydney of conductor Pinchas Steinberg was highlighted by his excellent programming in last night’s concert. The combination of Tchaikovsky’s rarely performed first symphony and Prokofiev’s dramatic and visceral cantata, drawn from the film score of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 masterpiece, Alexander Nevsky, proved a winner and the audience received both works with enthusiasm.

In later conversation with the conductor, we both agreed that Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony is vastly underrated, and has been the victim of cultural hearsay rather than any serious reconsideration. The first movement is simply brilliant, and in the long, melancholic melody in the slow movement, we have one of the loveliest the composer ever wrote. If the last movement is a bit like a celebration in Red Square, we can put that down to youthful enthusiasm on Tchaikovsky’s part. Apart from a few horn fluffs, the orchestra delivered a dazzling performance.

In the film score from Alexander Nevsky, Prokofiev fashioned a tight, beautifully structured cantata essaying the victory of the Russian people; firstly over the Swedes (who were a major European power in the 1200s), and later the Teutonic Knights (read Nazi Germany) climaxing in the Battle on the Ice. This is the remarkable climax to the film in which the composer created a musical hell on earth as the Knights are overcome, eventually sinking below the ice, their heavy armour dragging them down to their destruction.

Again the orchestra was in top form, matched by the powerful singing of the Philharmonia Choir. The lovely, melancholic solo was sensitively sung by Natasha Petrinsky. This requiem for the lost Russian soldiers perfectly placed before the triumphal final section.

Over all of this presided the conductor, whose tight rein on performances is always a pleasure to watch, his attention to detail getting immediate responses from the players in the shaping of the music.

There are two more performances in the Concert Hall on March 13 and 14.

Read our new magazine online