Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
October 17, 2018

The big drawcard in this concert was the French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who has visited Australia a number of times. A local favourite in Sydney ever since he played Ravel’s complete solo piano works over an afternoon and evening in the Town Hall, Thibaudet has even played this concerto previously with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (in 2010). The last of the piano concertos by Camille Saint-Saëns, it was dubbed “The Egyptian” because of the somewhat oriental bent of a theme in the slow movement; otherwise it resembles the other four concertos in its brilliant, busily decorative piano part. Needless to say, Thibaudet’s immaculate, stylish and dazzling facility at the keyboard paid dividends in this work (which he has also recorded, along with the more popular Piano Concerto No 2). The pianist gave us an encore of Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte, which was beautifully weighted – although last night it felt as though we were listening to it in a tuberculosis sanatorium.

The visiting Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste opened the concert with a lush, carefully balanced performance of Debussy’s sublime Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, expressively launched by guest musician, flautist Francisco Lopez. Debussy’s colours, especially the subtle string textures, really resonated: the work seems to suit the Concert Hall acoustic. That is less true of Sibelius’s Symphony No 2, which occupied the second half. At times in the outer movements textures felt muddied and the woodwinds failed to cut through. I am sure this was due to the Concert Hall acoustic (which is better than it once was, but even so…), and not to the playing or conducting. Indeed, this is one of Saraste’s signature pieces, and he conducted it from memory with rhythmic and expressive accuracy. This restless symphony is formally fragmentary, but Saraste’s sweep integrated the many contrasting sections into an organic whole. The orchestra responded beautifully, with stirring grandeur from the brass and warmth from the strings. Overall, this was an enjoyable and thoughtfully diverse program.

Thibaudet plays the Egyptian Concerto has two more performances at the Sydney Opera House, October 19 and 20


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