In the shivering basses and eerie six-note chromatic motif that opens Stravinsky’s Funeral Song, it’s hard not to hear a foreshadowing of The Firebird’s tenebrous opening. Premiered in 1909, the year before the composer’s breakout work for Diaghilev in Paris, the Funeral Song languished in the recesses of the St Petersburg Conservatory Library for a century – presumed lost in the Russian Revolution – before it was discovered in 2015 when the building was being cleaned out for repairs. Written as a memorial for Stravinsky’s teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, the work received its first performance in more than a hundred years at the Mariinsky last December, and this performance by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Charles Dutoit, was its first ever airing in Australia.

Although the opening suggests something of Firebird, the sombre – even bleak – funeral march is simpler and more contained than the work that would shoot Stravinsky to fame in 1910, centring on an arcing chromatic figure spun through the work. This figure, as it becomes more frenzied, seems to echo a similar motif in Siegfried’s Funeral Music from Wagner’s Götterdammerung, which Stravinsky had seen with his teacher two months before Rimsky-Korsakov’s death (though Stravinsky’s later hatred of Wagner has been well documented).

While there’s magic in the muted, far off horn solo, dark brass and shadowy cor anglais lines, the Funeral Song has not yet the tautness and invention of the composer’s music to come, despite a fine performance by the SSO that was marred only by some occasional unsteady horn notes. It will be interesting to see if this work finds a regular place in the concert hall once the novelty of its (important and interesting) rediscovery wears off.

As if continuing the more introspective mood evoked by the Stravinsky, Dutoit brought a subtle thoughtfulness to the opening tutti of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 1, the sound grand and elegant in the fortes before Chinese pianist Yuja Wang gave the piano entry a glistening clarity, savouring each phrase. Replacing Martha Argerich, who cancelled her much anticipated Australian debut, Wang is known for her bold personality both musical and otherwise (while most of Sydney sought refuge from the winter weather, the SSO’s Facebook page posted photographs of the pianist taking a surfing lesson at Bondi) and she brought bucketloads of this to the Beethoven.

The first movement came alive with flicking ornaments and bright, sparky accents, but always with a sense that Wang had the longer game in mind. Her cadenza – apparently by Glenn Gould – was a kaleidoscope of moods, from brisk scalic passages to dream-like textures and Bachian counterpoint. Wang’s rubato in the Largo left the audience hanging on every note while the third movement Rondo saw the pianist subtly bringing out lines that have always been just below the surface. Her cadenza deftly played into Beethoven’s surprise last-minute Adagio, as if Wang’s rubato in the second movement was preparing us for this the whole time.

She capped off the first half of the concert with two spectacular party pieces – a bluesy reimagining of Mozart’s Alla Turca based on the showpiece versions by Fazil Say and Arcadi Volodos, and Horowitz’s Carmen variations.

The faux-Spanish Carmen gave way to real Spanish music in the second half with Manuel de Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat­, in a back-to-back performance of the composer’s two concert suites. This music began life as music to a mimed play based on a comic novel by Pedro de Alarcón before Diaghilev heard it and had Falla expand it into a ballet. Full of Spanish dances, the music retains plenty of pantomime humour, Dutoit leaning into the quirky rubato and bassoonist Todd Gibson-Cornish putting in a fine turn as the sleazy governor, whose amorous advances are comically foiled by the miller’s wife and the miller. There were fine solos all round from the SSO winds and Dutoit drew plenty of fire from Falla’s score and the large orchestral forces, the finale a boisterous celebration.

The concert ended on a darker note, with Ravel’s whirling La Valse, which was commissioned by Diaghilev and then rejected. The ‘choreographic poem’ was written after the composer’s stint driving trucks during World War I and some have heard in its wild, distorted waltz themes the fall of an empire, or a musical retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Masque of the Red Death (in which a prince hosts a masked ball in his castle, the guests locked in against the disease that plagues the countryside). From the atmospheric rumble of double basses in the opening (there’s a nice sense of symmetry here with the Stravinsky) Dutoit gave this work a wonderfully hallucinatory atmosphere, drawing smears of colour out of the orchestra, the snatches of waltz themes emerging as if from a mist. String lines softened and melted unsettlingly, coalescing into blazing climaxes.

The sheer variety of works on this programme gave it a slightly fragmentary – almost a festival – feel, from the sombre funeral march, through the Beethoven and showstopper encores to the boisterous Falla, but the Ravel, channelling both darkness and celebratory excess, was a fine way to bring it all together.


The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Dutoit Conducts Colours of Spain is at the Sydney Opera House until July 1.

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