Under Chief Conductor, David Robertson, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra gave a rare outing of the full Firebird (L’Oiseau de feu – Ballet fantastique – 1910) by Stravinsky in a mini festival of the Russian composer’s early ballets. The Firebird Suites (1911, 1919 & 1945) may have satisfied the older Stravinsky’s need for taut excellence, performance opportunities and new income streams, but first words are often exhilarating in a very special way.
The deft exoticism of the score, and its basis as a ballet - to be danced - was on full display. Stravinsky may have disliked some of the music – with the hindsight of 30 years plus development – but even its longuers are piquant, while the storytelling and its bridge passages stand as testament to a composer stretching his wings beyond the vibrant colours of Rimsky Korsakov, while mining a deep vein of ambivalent fantasy and inventive scoring.
The scintillating orchestration was fully realised by the enlarged resources of the SSO: three harps no less and offstage trumpets and tuba, though no valveless trumpets. One could marvel again at the prodigious cracking force of the round dance (Khorovod) and the almost unearthly beauty of the Berceuse, while the general rejoicing of the finale (II Tableau), with its “Great good and Christian Russia” theme summons forth memories of Mussorgsky and the Great Gate of Kiev. The famous horn solo that introduces the finale was perfectly pitched by Ben Jacks, as were the numerous interventions of Diana Doherty on the oboe. Throughout the score, the wind section was born aloft on high excellence. The audience erupted with appreciation at the end of the work.
This work was proceeded by two further masterpieces, one Polish, one Australian.
The Szymanowski Violin Concerto No. 1 (Opus 35) was given an ecstatic performance by Christian Tetzlaff. Lush, sparkling, melismatic, this work, dream like its utterances, is truly exotic and is propelled by an almost erotic charge. Dionysian in intent it is not languorous, but febrile. Tetzlaff was exemplary in his attack, particularly in the cadenza, melding a wide dynamic with soaring lyricism. The work’s connections with the music of Richard Strauss were obvious, but the eastern/oriental nature of its sound world also staked out its originality. The rapport between soloist and orchestra was strong.
The concert began with a work from the 1960s, Schulthorpe's Sun Music 1, which still dazzled with its stark discourse between brass and string. The shimmering strings still challenge and evoke a unique sensibility – so evocative of the stark beauty of the dry Australian continent.
This was a concert of thrilling 20th century music.
Sydney Symphony Orchestra –Concert Hall – Sydney Opera House– August 10, 2016