Home to generations of composers from Mozart and Beethoven to Mahler and Schoenberg, Vienna was one of the most important musical centres in the world. A series with a title like the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Visions of Vienna, however, can make critics wary, implying as it might, a dutiful rolling out of well-worn canon fodder. Not so in the hands of Australian conductor Simone Young, who opened her three-year cycle of the Romantic repertoire she does so well with an Australian work new to the SSO and two 19th-century pieces that the orchestra hasn’t performed since before this critic was born.

Simone YoungSimone Young. Photo © Monika Rittershaus

James Ledger wrote Two Memorials (for Anton Webern and John Lennon) in 2011 for the West Australian Symphony Orchestra – whose rendition won it Performance of the Year at the 2012 Art Music Awards – and while the work has since been performed in Adelaide, London and Toronto, this is its first time in Sydney. On the surface the two disparate composers memorialised have little but the manner of their deaths in common: the Second Viennese School composer was shot in 1945 by an American soldier following the Allied victory in Europe when he stepped on to his balcony to smoke a cigar, while the Beatle was shot outside his apartment in 1980 when he returned from a recording session. Yet they were both innovators and experimenters, and Ledger creates a fascinating, dream-like work in his uniting of, as he puts it, “Webern’s volatile, even brutal music with Lennon’s psychedelic, trippy-circus music”.

Amidst atmospheric celeste, flute and harp, there is indeed a brutality to the first memorial, drawing on elements of serialism, and punctuated with jabbing trombone slides and slaps of brass, coalescing into a grotesque, mechanical march, that builds unyieldingly. The second memorial, harnessing a bright pop-music pulse and chord progressions, and woven through with electronic harpsichord and tambourine, signposted Lennon’s sound world at every turn – his musical style dissected and sown back together in strange new configurations – before chorale-like brass and shimmering strings brought the work to an ethereal close.

Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s Opus 15 Wanderer Fantasy (named for its quotation of a theme from the composer’s lied) sees another mingling of compositional worlds, Liszt transforming the solo piano work into a concerto-like piece for piano and orchestra. For this music – which the orchestra hasn’t performed since Charles Mackerras did it in 1963 with Lili Kraus – Young and the SSO were joined by Canadian pianist Louis Lortie, who brought a reflective mood to the piano’s entry after a thrillingly taut orchestral opening. Singing out across the ensemble, Emma Sholl’s flute intertwined with the piano in the first movement, Lortie displaying assured, elegant technique and harnessing deep currents of emotion – his exposed solo in the second movement was particularly meditative before the orchestra joined to bolster his rumbling trills. He brought a playful touch to the Presto, while the finale thundered, brass blazing at the finish. A brilliantly slithering account of Chopin’s moto perpetuo Étude Op. 10, No 4 for an encore had the audience in raptures.

Liszt’s programmatic A Symphony to Dante’s Divine Comedy is by no means the composer’s most popular work. The premiere in 1857, which Liszt conducted, was a disaster – apparently due to a lack of rehearsal – and it hasn’t always fared well with the critics since. “Turmoil, hurry, incessant movement, fire, roaring wind, and utter discomfort are there,” Bernard Shaw wrote in 1885. “But so they are also in a London house when the kitchen chimney is on fire.” He went on to pose an alternate program, with episodes ranging from The Alarm to Exertions of Firemen and the Falling in of the Roof: “Not one of the audience would perceive the slightest incongruity between the music and the subject.”

Whether or not Shaw’s words ring true, the music charts a vivid journey into the flames and back, and this blistering performance by Young and the SSO – which has only presented the work once, in the 1980s – made a compelling argument for its resurrection.

Young coaxed as much majesty as danger from the monumental brass figures that conjure the gates of Hell and their famous inscriptions in Dante’s Canto III, where Liszt begins the story. With an intensity that never wavered, she was the orchestra’s Virgil, leading it through the afterlife – the swirling Black Wind of the strings, glittering harp and the cry of lonely bass clarinet in the Second Circle of Hell, the mournful words of Francesca da Rimini in the cor anglais solo and the brittle, smouldering laughter of the violas – the tension simmering until it boiled over. If there were moments when the heat became too much and wind entries occasionally frayed, Diana Doherty’s oboe and Alexandre Oguey’s cor anglais solos were a balm in the Purgatorio, before the transcendent voices of Cantillation filtered down over the audience from the back of the Concert Hall in Liszt’s setting of the Magnificat. Wagner persuaded the composer not to attempt depicting Paradise, but the sopranos and mezzos, prepared by chorusmaster Elizabeth Scott, didn’t fall far short.

A superlative program, but it is a shame that audiences at the remaining concerts will miss out on the Ledger, whose funeral march and ecstatic finish mirrored so beautifully those elements in the Dante – they will have to make do instead with the thematically appropriate Schubert overture, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace.


Simone Young conducts the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Schubert and Liszt at the Sydney Opera House until August 24

Tickets