Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
July 4, 2018

From violinist Niccolò Paganini’s rumoured dealings with the devil to the almost limitless repertoire penned for devotion, music and the spiritual plane have often gone hand in hand. This was the theme of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Spirit Realms – Sacred and Profane, a concert of Ross Edwards, Rachmaninov and Mendelssohn conducted by Canadian maestro Julian Kuerti making his debut with the orchestra. Who better, then, to headline such a concert than British-Australian pianist Stephen Hough, who has himself flirted with joining the priesthood and is possessed of a technique that one might be forgiven for attributing to demonic influence.

Rachmaninov, another formidable virtuoso, wrote his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini – based on the violinist’s distinctive 24th Caprice – for his own performance in the wake of the lacklustre response to his Fourth Piano Concerto. Unlike the Fourth, it proved an immediate hit, combining showmanship and humour with musical heft and charming finesse. Hough, who has been doing the rounds of the state orchestras (he heads to Brisbane for a gig with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra after he’s finished in Sydney), brought all of this and more to the Rach Pag, in a performance that savoured the dreamily enigmatic moments in Rachmaninov’s writing as much as the balls to the wall virtuosity.

With glittering technique – he’s capable of both finely detailed clarity and adroitly wielded power – Hough brought out the poetry and mystique of the variations, dancing nimbly across the keyboard in a cerebral performance that plumbed the murkier depths of the work with precision and beauty, Kuerti and the SSO matching the well-struck accents note for note, the balance between pianist and orchestra impeccable. Running through the variations (from number seven) is the Dies Irae chant – Rachmaninov’s suggested program for Michel Fokine’s ballet based on the work had the Dies Irae as the devil – which, through to its dramatic final iteration forcefully rendered by Hough, created a neat link with the other two works on the program.

Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 5, Reformation (his fifth published but second completed symphony), composed in honour of the 300th anniversary of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession, also draws on material from religious music – both the ‘Dresden Amen’ used in the first movement and the Lutheran hymn Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott in the finale. The SSO’s string blend was, as usual, marvellous, and Kuerti kept the first movement flowing, though there were a few moments when the synchronicity between strings and winds seemed to strain. The bright second movement had a stately dignity, while the lyrical third was dispatched with clean simplicity and the finale, introduced by Lisa Osmialowski’s sweet-toned flute playing featured some very fine chorale work from the brass. The more meditative mood of the Mendelssohn, however, didn’t match the sparkle of the concert’s first half and the finale, though elegantly rendered, didn’t quite build enough power for the final chorale to make for a truly satisfying end to the evening.

The start of the concert, however, had the whole audience on its feet, with SSO CEO Emma Dunch leading the orchestra and audience in a rousing Happy Birthday for Australian composer Ross Edwards, now in his 75th birthday year. In a feature on Liza Lim’s opera Tree of Codes, Clive Paget commented on the difficulties in getting a second staging for new Australian operas – but symphonies don’t have it much easier. This concert opened with a second airing by the SSO of Edwards’ Second Symphony, Earth Spirit Songs, which the orchestra premiered with soprano Yvonne Kenny 20 years ago (and of which a commercial recording is long overdue). Soprano Celeste Lazarenko joined the SSO in this performance, bringing a nicely polished timbre to Edwards’ vocal lines. The symphony begins with a tenebrous drone, plainchant and an oboe solo, which was deftly woven into the texture by Diana Doherty (who premiered Edwards’ oboe concerto Bird Spirit Dreaming). The symphony is an example of Edwards’ dance-chant style, and the percussion soon whipped the first movement into lively dance rhythms. While the spirited outer movements feature driving, rhythmic chant-like effects from the soprano (though there are times when the voice is treated almost like an orchestral instrument, a shining timbre limning the upper end of the ensemble) the atmospheric middle movement is closer to lieder in its setting of Judith Wright’s poem The Lost Man. Lazarenko found an exquisite clarity above the orchestra’s throbbing drone, her voice shimmering on the words “that last and faceless pool” before the movement’s resplendent climax. Dance-Song to the Earth Mother, which uses text by Hildegard of Bingen, was all wild, unrestrained joy and fervid energy. All in all, plenty of the divine to match Hough’s devilish Rachmaninov.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs Stephen Hough plays Rachmaninoff again at the Sydney Opera House, July 6


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