As galas go, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra celebrating the opening of its fourth year under Chief Conductor and Artistic Director David Robertson was pretty impressive. Australian audiences have been fortunate that Maxim Vengerov has been a regular visitor to our shores in recent years, and his performance of Brahms’ Violin Concerto was suitably spectacular, but Robertson’s compelling reading of Tchaikovsky’s popular Fifth Symphony yielded nothing to it in terms of fire power and intellectual engagement.

Maxim Vengerov and the SSO. Photos by Ken Butti

Robertson treated the Brahms to a rich, measured opening, crisping things up with an added urgency to launch the solo line. Vengerov utilised just sufficient Viennese slurring to give the work an authentic late-19th-century feel, yet his manner was equally in the grand 20th-century Russian tradition with rock-solid technique and pinpoint intonation allied to a glorious golden tone, especially strong in the upper register. A magnetic artist, he is a true poet of the violin, and nowhere more so than in the detailed development of the opening theme. The second subject, too, was given plenty of space by both conductor and soloist (there was a great sense of musical intimacy throughout, despite it being the first time the two had worked together), Vengerov judging his use of rubato to perfection.

With violas unusually pulled to the front of the stage, the SSO string sound was gloriously beefy in the middle range, yet Vengerov rode each wave like a musical surfie. His cadenza – replacing the usual Joachim ­– was full of ingenious double stopping, a winning lyricism and the odd ‘gypsy’ slide. There was even a touch of Bach in there as well, appropriately a composer that Brahms admired.

The second movement began with Shefali Pryor’s distinguished and sensitively rendered oboe solo before the violin entered to flirt with flutes, horn and more oboe in a long, warm Adagio. A great attender to composer’s markings, Robertson ensured that the Allegro giocoso had more than the usual share of Beethovian giocoso about it, bounding along like an excited puppy on a generous leash. Taken at a feisty pace, it called for considerable virtuosity, which Vengerov delivered in spades, bow and fingers whirling across his instrument from start to chuckling finish.

Robertson often has something thoughtful and original to say – pace his brilliant Sibelius Two last season – and his Tchaikovsky Five was no exception. An unusually weary and weighty opening allowed a peculiarly Russian sense of despair to seep through right from the start in what felt like one of the composer’s most intensely personal utterancea. Far from funereal, the fatalistic march that followed was brisker than many readings. It felt inexorable, yet at times almost perky, as if daring us to follow where Tchaikovsky’s thoughts might lead. In a highly charged, fiercly impassioned reading, the conductor ducked and wove as he cajoled his forces forward, and yet there was hope there as well in those insistent themes on woodwind. Less of a debate, at times this felt more like furious argument, thrilling to hear and at least as fascinating to watch.

Without a pause, Robertson plunged into the romantic Andante cantabile care of a fine horn solo from Robert Johnson. Woodwind and lower strings were especially well represented in what felt a peculiarly Mahlerian reading. Living through each incident, Robertson cut a figure of almost pathetic desperation on the podium, allowing us to feel that the movement’s air of fantasy – for all its sense of conviction – was fantasy all the same.

Like Berlioz in the Symphonie Fantastique, Robertson’s third movement waltz had a hint of the opium dream about it – something just a bit too sickly sweet to be real – and was graced by a series of fine solos from cor anglais (Alexandre Oguey) and the rest of the wind section. The fourth movement again followed without a pause, despair seeming to halt and consider its options before the long haul towards a hopeful conclusion. With resonant brass – finely balanced against the string tone – and an insistent rhythmic tattoo on the timpani, Robertson concluded the debate, points hurled hither and thither around the orchestra as he headed for the work’s debatably triumphant conclusion. Tchaikovsky himself was uncertain about his finale, and thanks to Robertson’s attentive and probing reading in the first three movements the end was left with, perhaps, the question mark it rightly deserves.

The SSO’s 2017 season continues with Colour and Movement this week

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