Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
September 28, 2018

The sound of French cellist Gautier Capuçon’s instrument is immediately striking. The timbre he draws from his 1701 Goffriller is both rich and bright, with a resonance that cleaves through the orchestra and reaches right to the back of even the acoustically tricky Sydney Opera House Concert Hall. In the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Tchaikovsky Cello Favourites, the sheer presence of Capuçon’s sound was further highlighted and framed by a sensitive, cushioning accompaniment from the SSO’s former Chief Vladimir Ashkenazy in Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile, pinched by the composer himself from his First String Quartet and arranged for cello and strings. Ashkenazy kept the SSO strings hushed, bringing them right down at times to give Capuçon the flexibility to go incredibly quiet – a clear, solo voice in even the most delicate moments.

The Russian composer’s tribute to Mozart, the Opus 33 Variations on a Rococo Theme were handled with similar sensitivity, Capuçon delivering the variations with an easy, singing elegance when wrapped in winds, and hinting at untapped strength in his growling low register. He shimmied up and down the instrument with sinuous grace, his lyrical moments infused with warmth and his high register crystalline and precise, before the vibrant Allegro vivo had the flute  – guesting principal François Garraud – giving chase in a lively finale. Capuçon dispatched all this with a suave and charming panache, never overplaying music built for style rather than virtuosity.

If this seemed rather light fare for a cellist of Capuçon’s formidable power, his encore – Pablo Casals’ Song of the Birds, accompanied by the SSO cellos under Catherine Hewgill – made for a beautiful and touching finish to the concert’s first half, the cellist satisfying the audience’s lust for feeling if not for fireworks.

The fireworks in this concert, then, were left to Richard Strauss, in his epic portrait of his home life, Symphonia Domestica – which does for a humble day in the life of the Strauss family what Eine Alpensinfonie would do for a mountain 11 years later. In many ways this orchestral tone poem is a companion piece or sequel to Strauss’s A Hero’s Life, and despite the domestic setting, Strauss gives it a similar grandeur, a detailed program tying themes to the father (in F Major), mother (B Major, a concerning tritone away) and child – a combination of the two, though “more like his papa”, as Strauss puts it. Here Ashkenazy allowed the orchestra – bolstered with plenty of woodwinds, brass and horns – to take centre stage, and the players more than rose to the occasion. The horns and brass in particular were in fine form but there were excellent solo lines across the board, Shefali Pryor’s oboe lines depicting the father’s composing were a particular highlight before the dramatic crescendo of the ‘love scene’ and its alarmingly dissonant climax swept up the whole orchestra. The dream-like harp of the night scene was particularly effective, Concertmaster Andrew Haveron’s final wisps of darkness giving way to the chiming clock and morning with its boisterous fugue and the ultimately blazing finale.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra plays Tchaikovsky Cello Favourites at the Sydney Opera House again at 2pm on September 29