★★★★½ Brit and Aussie impress, but Robertson’s take on the Finn outflanks them all.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
October 9, 2105

National identities were very much to the fore as Chief Conductor David Robertson returned to Sydney for his latest series of concerts. Here it was that most Australian of composers, the late Peter Sculthorpe whose Sun Muisc II got things off with rather a lot of bangs, followed by the underplayed master of the British jazz-age, William Walton with his sun-kissed Violin Concerto in a rare opportunity to hear one of the SSO’s two concertmasters as stirring soloist. But it was the Second Symphony of Jean Sibelius, that most quintessential of Northern landscape painters that sent the eager crowd into the night with a touch of spring in their hearts.

Sculthorpe’s Sun Music series from 1968 were originally a Helpmann ballet, which some in the audience might recall seeing and could well be overdue a revival. The second movement was once entitled Energy and with ostinato rhythms pounding out on timpani, bongos and timbales it was easy to see why. Over this battery, the violins screamed long, single high notes, reflective of the torrid Australian sun in all its power to create and destroy. The orchestra made a terrific din while Robertson did his best to represent Sculthorpe as the Aussie Messiaen with his musical deployment of colour, light and Eastern rhythmic inflections.

SSO Co-Concertmaster Andrew Haveron has been a fixture on the platform since 2013 and although I know his work from eight years of leading the Brodsky Quartet, but I’ll confess this is the first time I’ve heard him as concerto soloist – and very impressive he was too. The Walton concerto is a warm-hearted beast whose easy lyricism is complicated by the kind of technical hurdles required of a Heifetz commission, for such it was back in 1939 when the doyen of virtuosi gave its US premiere with the Cleveland Orchestra. Haveron’s performance on his newly gifted 1757 Guadagnini (a loan made possible by SSO philanthropist Vicki Olsson) was strong on the inherent romanticism that inflects all Walton’s scores from this point onwards yet never shying from the touch of flash required.

The nostalgia-tinged opening theme over louche horn, clarinet and bassoon showed Haveron in immediate command, especially strong in the demanding upper register that the first movement in particular exploits. Robertson, meanwhile, revelled in the orchestral underpinning, so reminiscent of the film music of the day (and Walton’s own contributions to the genre), yet darkened by hints of the ‘age of anxiety’ to come.  

The diabolical ‘Neapolitan’ caprice that forms the brief central movement dazzled and sparkled like the sun on the sea, surely reflective of the Amalfi coast where the composer was holed up to write the work. Haveron excelled at the furious pizzicato while relaxing into the sentimental waltz that vies for attention alongside a theme that reminded me of something out of Delius’ Florida Suite. Balance, again, was exemplary.

The meaty third movement saw conductor and soloist combining an American’s instinct for jazz with a touch of English sangfroid. Haveron embraced Walton’s trademark jauntiness, yet proved most affecting perhaps in the extended lyrical passages where he managed some ravishing dynamic sidesteps to produce some magical piano playing. The perky march and concluding cinematic flourish drew applause from audience and orchestra alike and was matched by a beaming conductor and soloist.

Sibelius’s Second Symphony has long been his most popular from the first triumphant performance up to the present day and with its memorable themes, rampant nobility and sense of time and place it’s easy to see why. What made this performance amongst the finest I’ve heard though was David Robertson’s determination never to sacrifice content and detail to bombast and empty rhetoric, ensuring that Sibelius’ musical ideas were always to the fore. The first movement set off faster than most, the strings throbbing and pulsing with more urgency than is sometimes the case. Robertson then proceeded to bring out the natural colours in Sibelius’s canvas – malevolent bassoons, insistent figures passed from wind to strings, triumphant brass chorales – with all the dexterity of a plein air painter. This was visceral, dramatic stuff.

The walking bass line that opens the second movement brought us to the heart of the matter with its doleful bassoon duet capturing the bleakness of the far northern wastes. Robertson’s skill at giving us the big picture while never neglecting the moment meant that the thunderous episodes (superbly played by the full SSO brass section) and the lonely string figures never felt disconnected. And if Sibelius denied any programme here, Robertson gave every impression of having a compelling saga somewhere in the back of his mind.

The scurrying vivacissimo third movement (perhaps the most conventional with its sense of scherzo and double trio) raced along with rocket-like bursts of energy before a lovely oboe solo drew us each time into the gentle lento sections. Then, a perfectly judged slow crescendo and lump-in-the-throat rall and we were plunged into the über-romantic finale. Sweeping strings, a rollicking tuba ostinato and pealing trumpets all made for wonderfully organic playing under Robertson’s imaginative baton. The retreat into wistful woodwind over low strings was given air to allow for some walloping climaxes and an ethereal tender section just before the final hurrah when Robertson pulled it back to next to nothing before the big build and grand final outburst.

In previous concerts, with his Schumann and Brahms, Robertson has proved a born Romantic. Likewise his Debussy and early Stravinsky show his imagination for impressionistic colour. Combined, as they were here, it’s a formidable double threat, and with the SSO on such cracking form, pretty much unstoppable I’d say.