★★★★½ Gluzman dazzles, while Sung’s dramatic Berlioz is truly fantastique.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
June 29, 2016

If you’ve collected any of his superb recordings on the BIS label (and I can seriously recommend his Korngold and his Barber), Latvian-born, American-based violinist Vadim Gluzman is a known quantity to set the mouth watering pre-concert. Korean maestro Shiyeon Sung on the other hand is a less familiar prospect. She’s won plenty of awards – first ever woman to win the Solti Competition, for example – but her discography is virtually non-existent and this was her Australian debut. So let’s nail some colours to the mast from the get go – this was a remarkable evening of music making. Any sense of ennui on glancing at the conventional programme of Tchaikovsky and Berlioz were soon dispelled as soloist and conductor wrangled a pair of big Romantic beasts and taught them, if not entirely new tricks, then at least reminded us of why they deserve their place at the top of the food chain.

According to legend, Shostakovich’s sparkling Festive Overture was reportedly tossed off in a few short hours to save the Bolshoi from disappointing the Soviet authorities on the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution. It may not be his most profound utterance, but it makes a perfect curtain-raiser and Sung gave it a nicely contrasted reading, bringing out the pomposity of its stately opening on basses and lower brass before launching into a hell-for-leather account of the skittish main tune. Apart from a nasty horn malfunction, the SSO lapped it up, the violins impressively contrasting the soaring romantic melodies with some sharp, pugnacious counterpoint.

Gluzman’s turn next, and the multifarious challenges of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto proved an ideal vehicle for his blend of old-school sumptuous tone and technical brilliance. His rich, warm timbre comes allied with a smooth, buttery legato to set the heart aflutter, and his willingness to make bold interpretative statements in the meaty opening Allegro moderato made for compelling music making. With textbook shifts from one memorably melodic section to the next, this was a reading full of narrative, while his evident communion with conductor and orchestra gave it all a great sense of collegiality. For her part, Sung responded with a sensitive reading, yet proved unafraid to give the polonaise-like orchestral tuttis an enormous sense of bounce and joie de vivre. Gluzman meanwhile was impressively dextrous in the fiendish double-stopping variations on the first subject and a couple of tiny mishaps in the killer cadenza certainly didn’t spoil matters.

The Canzonetta played to Gluzman’s lyrical strengths, his wide ranging tone carrying beautifully over some nicely finessed wind solos. The Vivacissimo finale went excitingly just that little bit faster than you’d think possible, perfectly judged by all concerned for maximum thrills and spills. The contrasting slow sections were temptingly indulgent before Gluzman yanked us back to reality with further displays of pinpoint articulation and an exhilerating race for the finish. It was sour-faced critic Eduard Hanslick who vituperatively condemned Tchaikovsky’s concerto, saying: “the violin is no longer played; it is torn asunder; it is beaten black and blue”. Well, yes, but in an adrenalin-pumping performance like this, frankly who cares?

The second half was given over to just one work – Hector Berlioz’s game-changing Symphonie Fantastique. Any chance to hear this warhorse is an opportunity to marvel anew at the freshness of invention and sheer originality of a work that must have sounded like something from another planet, even to those familiar with Beethoven’s later orchestral music. Sung’s was a powerful reading, strong of the composer’s sense of narrative, always attuned to the febrile and the narcotic induced qualities of the score. The fractured snippets of the opening stabbed and jerked, while pungent string harmonies added to the sense of being claustrophobically cocooned inside an addict’s whiling brain. Sure, this was a heavyweight reading, the beefy string sound occasionally overwhelming Berlioz’s carefully dictated woodwind requirements, but the firepower was often thrilling.

The second movement was where the SSO strings really came into their own, Sung expertly controlling the waltz with lovely suspensions. Again, listening to those harps, the sense of ‘where did that come from?’ was palpable – certainly nothing in Beethoven had prepared the way that got us to here. The thrilling pacing saw the dance whirling more than once into the realms of the obsessive. The pastoral third movement featured ravishing solos from Alexandre Oguey’s cor anglais answered by Shefali Pryor (I’m guessing) placed offstage. The detailed programme here was marvellously realised, its sense of peace, melancholic repose, fresh heartache and loneliness laid bare for all to hear. The timpani thunder rolls (innovatively written for four players on two sets of timps) was haunting.

Muted horns and solemn strings ushered in one of the grimmest marches to the scaffold I can recall, even the four gurgling bassoons failing to supply any light relief. Berlioz’s detailed orchestrations were faithfully rendered – just listen to how many different dynamics he can call for from a humble cymbal player in the space of a few short bars. Sung whipped it up to frenzy before piling straight into the skittering strings and galloping brass of the witch’s Sabbath. The grotesque capering of the full wind section was gripping stuff, as were the col legno strings, Sung imbuing it with the dark, psychological terrors of a Hitchcock thriller.

A truly ‘fantastique’ rendition, then, of a work that can occasionally feel routine. The edge-of-the-seat audience, I suspect, was left as exhausted as the orchestra. If you want to hear something truly original, I’d urge you to catch this dynamic maestro while you can. She may have been making her debut Down Under, but this was one of the most exciting pieces of conducting I’ve heard in quite a while.

Romantic Fantasies is at Sydney Opera House until July 4