★★★★½ English masterpieces by Elgar and Vaughan Williams in superbly played programme.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
April 20, 2017

In this concert of 20th Century English music the SSO shone, not only as soloists but in terms of the sections. Strings (with the additional extra violins necessary for these expansive works), winds and brass achieved a well-nigh perfect blend, not just within the section itself but also across the whole tapestry of sound. This is a compliment to their musicianship, and also to guest conductor Robert Spano, who has been Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra since 2001. In that capacity, Spano has made several recordings of music by Vaughan Williams (including Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4), indicating that he is something of a specialist in that composer’s music. It shows.

The concert began with Oliver Knussen’s The Way to the Castle Yonder, three brief orchestral excerpts form his opera (based on books by Maurice Sendak), Higglety Pigglety Pop! Knussen, whose father Stuart was for decades the Principal double bass in the London Symphony Orchestra, writes in a sparing, pointillist manner that beguiles the ear. Sendak’s world of mythical fearsome creatures is beautifully conveyed. The music has something of a Harry Potter quality, although this work precedes the Harry Potter films. Orchestral balance was exquisite, setting a standard that continued to be met throughout the remainder of the concert.

This was particularly true of the second half, which was entirely occupied by Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony. Among his symphonies the Fifth is the most evocative with genuine moments of grandeur, possibly because some of the music was borrowed from the composer’s opera The Pilgrim’s Progress (based on John Bunyan’s Christian allegory). This music is more difficult to play than may appear because virtually every part is doubled.

Again, a strong orchestral blend is of paramount importance. The gossamer textures of the Scherzo showed this off beautifully, as did the opening of the slow movement where the floating string chords supporting Alexandre Oguey’s sublime cor anglais were literally breathtaking. Spano’s affinity with Vaughan Williams was evident in his ability to shape the ebb and flow of the music over long spans. This conductor always kept the big picture in mind.

The solo part in Elgar’s Cello Concerto was played by the young Dutch cellist Harriet Krijgh. Though her tone is not as full as some of the great cellists who have essayed this work (notably Jacqueline Du Pre, whom she somewhat resembles in looks), her pitch was sure and she projected the solo line strongly into the house. This late work contains a built-in strain of melancholy that was never over-emphasised in Krijgh’s rendition: she produced a line of seamless lyrical beauty in the first movement, great delicacy and immaculate control in the scherzo (matched by the orchestra), then more openly heartfelt phrasing in the slow movement and the concerto’s touching coda.

It was an impressive performance that will only grow more personal and deeply felt with time. Spano and the orchestra’s contribution proved a great asset; to take just one instance, they made a sharp point of Elgar’s offbeat accented chords in the finale. Overall, this was not just a fascinating program but a genuine showcase for the orchestra, and a wonderful introduction to an expressive young cellist.

The concert is repeated on April 21 and 22