SYDNEY SYMPHONY, VLADIMIR ASHKENAZY
Opera House Concert Hall, February 6
THE generation of composers born in the 1860s - Mahler, Debussy, Strauss, Sibelius and others - were path-breakers. Formed by Wagner, old enough to see the twilight of Romanticism and young enough to see beyond it, they set the foundation stones for music in the 20th century.
Two of those stones framed this thoughtfully structured, vividly presented opening to the Sydney Symphony's year, which is also Vladimir Ashkenazy's last as principal conductor and artistic adviser.
Ashkenazy has restrengthened Sibelius's place at the core of the orchestra's repertoire, performing and recording all seven symphonies in 2004. Written in his 20s, the Lemminkainen Suite, which opened the concert, predates all the symphonies yet is indispensible to understanding Sibelius's orchestral language.
His capacity to build imposing large-scale shapes through impressionistic orchestration and telling small motives is brilliantly unveiled in the four tone poems. The Sydney Symphony etched these exquisitely coloured textures with clarity, subtle balance, warmth and intensity.
In The Swan of Tuonela it was not only the mournful beauty of Alexandre Oguey's Cor Anglais solo that created such an absorbing experience, but the fine balance of the whole, the delicate colour of the muted strings, the unsettling insistence of the quiet cello solo. There seemed a momentary wobble in the fourth movement, but what Ashkenazy particularly brought to the performance was his strong belief in the music, transmitted to players and listeners with indefinable force and intensity.
At the other end of the program, Debussy's La Mer, from about a decade later, could be said to bring the art of impressionistic tone painting to its apogee. The experience was intimate, gently mutating and, at the close of the first and third movements, searingly iridescent.