Berlioz wrote his Le Corsaire (The Pirate) Overture while on vacation in Nice in the aftermath of a failed marriage and a stressful – though successful – festival produced with Felix Mendelssohn. For Berlioz, the break was just the ticket. He soaked up the idyllic landscape and stayed “in a tower perched on a ledge of the Ponchettes rock, and feasted myself on the glorious view over the Mediterranean and tasted a peace such as I had come to value more than ever.”
The overture he wrote while in Nice – initially titled The Tower of Nice after the composer’s accommodation – is a kind of whimsical adventure fantasy, which the Sydney Symphony Orchestra dispatched with a an agile lightness and swashbuckling vigour.
British conductor Bramwell Tovey attacked the opening of the Overture with precise flicks of his baton, the SSO strings in particularly fine form – they moved as one, their melodies unspooling and the sound tinted by sustained colours from the winds. The brass section gave a bracingly energetic performance, with cleanly defined descending passages from the trombones a highlight. Tovey ran a tight ship, whipping the orchestra to a heroic climax and a daringly extended general pause in which the audience didn’t dare to breathe, let alone cough.
Pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii
Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii, who has been blind since birth, was led to the piano on Tovey’s arm, but as soon as he was seated he gave off an aura of command. The strings – their sound weightier than in the Berlioz – kicked off the Maestoso first movement of Chopin’s Second (though his first written) Piano Concerto before Tsujii joined with a confident soloistic presence and projection, delivering rippling flourishes and articulate passagework. His firm touch, which gave the cascades of notes sparkle and resonance in the louder passages, felt slightly brittle – even heavy-handed – in the softs, but every note had character and purpose.
Tsujii’s melodies were expressive and lyrical over soft strings in the love song of the second movement, his right hand tracing glittering shapes in the upper register. He gave the opening of the Allegro vivace a mysterious lilt before the tutti orchestra drove the movement forward and the piano part became bristling attacks and playfully tripping figures leading to a bravura finale – with a fiery fanfare from hornist Robert Johnson along the way. The audience roared as Tsujii sat down for an encore, a dazzlingly robust, almost percussive rendition of Liszt’s La Campanella from the Grandes Etudes de Paganini.
The sound of the SSO’s strings, so light and athletic in the Berlioz, had a lush warmth in Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony, whose first movement Tovey took at a bustling place – an Allegro with plenty of brio. The cellos gave their rhythms plenty of Slavic snap.
The winds were generally excellent, with some crisp articulations and refined solo lines all round. Though intonation in the clarinets felt a shade uneasy at times, they made up for it with some exquisitely magical soft moments. Acting Principal flute Emma Sholl’s playing was a highlight. She delivered resonant, song-like solos in the first movement and brought a fleet delicacy to the hell-for-leather flute lines in the fourth, which Tovey led with a tight energy and blistering intensity in the fast sections, backing off to let the melodies open up in the more lyrical sections. The brass shone from the opening trumpet fanfare, blazing their way to boisterous finale.
This was another great performance by the SSO, Berlioz’s Le Corsaire Overture a particularly fine example of an orchestra in top shape under a lively and intelligent guest conductor.
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra presents Nobuyuki Tsujii plays Chopin at the Sydney Opera House until May 20