★★★★½ De Waart delivers Strauss’s superman and a delightful Belgian surprise.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
November 25, 2015

Edo de Waart was Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for 11 years from 1992 and many fond memories of his tenure remain – an era of Germanic heavyweights (Mahler, Strauss, Wagner) but also Australia’s first taste of John Adams, a composer close to the heart of the orchestra’s current chief as well. Now an infrequent visitor to these shores, de Waart was back for a week or so last night with signature Strauss and Wagner, but also a delightful Belgian surprise up his sleeve.

The concert was bookended with the twin preludes to Acts I and III of Lohengrin, a salient reminder of the Dutch maestro’s gifts as an outstanding musical architect and a effortless builder of the kind of orchestral climax favoured by the romantic German greats. From its ethereal beginnings on high strings, de Waart conjured magical tone and seamless line by appearing to do virtually nothing. The build up to the brass chorales, so prophetic of the Prelude to Parsifal still decades away, was absolutely textbook, reminding us that this was Wagner’s first genuinely revolutionary music.

The top billing was Richard Strauss’s epic Nietzschean tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra and thanks to de Waart’s keen sense of pace and structure, what can sometimes seem like an episodic bitmap of bombast came over as almost symphonic in design. Viewed from behind, de Waart could pass for the elderly composer himself with his balding pate and unfussy gestures. A perfect exemplar of the philosophy that less is more, the old Dutch wizard let Strauss do the talking, and thanks to flawless playing from all departments of the SSO, the result was an almost revelatory coherence. If that famous opening might have been stretched out to yield an ounce more grandeur, the string sextet that followed made ample ammeds capturing a sense of awe and genuine spirituality in the Of the Back-world-men section before building to a rich, romantic climax.

Later on, the battle between strings, brass and organ was perfectly balanced with the great Of Science fugue developing most naturally out of the beautiful lower strings (the SSO basses were especially sensitive all night). Zoroaster’s Convalescence came as a radiant second dawn, leading into Strauss’s cheeky Viennese waltz, Andrew Haveron almost tipsy with divine potency in the Dance Song of the Superman. De Waart’s handling of the tricky joins gave it all an inevitable flow – seldom has this music seemed such fun – a testament to what happens when you get all your technical ducks in a row. The midnight bells with magisterial trombones and superb rasping tubas led into a hushed Night Wanderer’s Song bringing the work to a fine conclusion.

If that all sounds like a jolly good thing, the Belgian surprise was the icing on the cake (or should I say the mayo on the frittes?) The first half concluded with the Symphonie Concertante for organ and orchestra by the hugely underrated (and under-performed) Liége-born composer Joseph Jongen, and what a special piece it is. Jongen was a contemporary of Ravel and at times it shows. He also has a touch of Ralph Vaughan Williams in his use of modal harmonies. There’s a strong sense of lyricism, a fine line in melody and a remarkable orchestrational ear at play. Whether it was the sensitivity of the composer, or maestro de Waart, or the soloist – the excellent Olivier Latry (one of the titular organists at Paris’ Notre-Dame) – I can’t recall having heard a work that balances the King of Instruments so perfectly against the full might of the symphony orchestra. Time and again you could hear inner detail in both, simultaneously, where so often you hear mostly one or the other.

The work began with a fugal treatment of a folk-like theme (in the Dorian mode) before the first dazzling organ entry launched us into a movement full of energy and joie de vivre. Latry is a master of instrumental colour, putting the Sydney Opera House organ through its paces like a first-rate trainer handling a frisky thoroughbred. The playful Divertimento contains a pastoral, hymn-like reverie, again lovingly finessed by soloist and orchestra. The ghost of Debussy hovers over the woodwind solos that open the meditative slow movement before the rustling of strings like a summer breeze over a meadow leads into long, passionate musical phrases that build to a climax of Daphis-like intensity. Fanfares and carillons colour the Finale, a movement of tremendous power, optimism and charm that lifts the spirit while engaging the brain. Latry has recorded it on a Cypres CD (CYP7610) and I bet I’m not the only person this morning adding this cracking work to my Christmas wish list!

In short, then, what a fantastic concert! But here’s a final footnote. Nothing puts the new concertgoer off quite like the pompous prognostications on audience etiquette of the ‘seasoned’ critic, but I’m going to say it anyway. The ‘oh, so quiet and concentrated’ opening of the Lohengrin Prelude that started the entire concert was disrupted by a woman with a baby, clearly under six-months old, in a sling. The first sounds of crying saw a glaring usher step forward to see what was up and only after almost a minute did the woman feel it necessary to get up from her front row seat and take her infant out. Given the concert comprised a couple of Germanic big-hitters and the SOH organ to boot, you have to wonder a) why she thought her mite would sleep through two hours of frequently thunderous classical music and b) how she was let in in the first place. Time for the SSO to provide a live-streamed crèche facility? It’s a serious thought. Gripe over…

The SSO and Edo de Waart play this concert again on Friday and Saturday evenings. Olivier Latry is in recital at the Sydney Opera House on Friday at 11am.