Review: SSO’s strains of Spain flowed mainly from the Seine

5th August, 2018

Billed as Spanish Nights, this latest concert from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was more about France than the Iberian Peninsula.

Book ended by two movements from Claude Debussy’s Images for Orchestra, the program featured a new piano concerto by Englishman Julian Anderson, The Imaginary Museum, a title filched from French politician and novelist Andre Malraux, and Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain.

De Falla was indeed Spanish but he honed his craft in Paris, heavily influenced by his friends Debussy and Maurice Ravel and their groundbreaking “impressionist” approach to harmony and structure.

Furthermore the concert was conducted by the French-born music director of the Seattle Symphony Ludovic Morlot, and, continuing the non-Spanish theme, featured a Scottish pianist in Steven Osborne, generally acknowledged as one of the leading performers of his generation.

Anderson’s concerto was composed for and dedicated to him in 2017 and it was being given its Australian premiere in these three Sydney concerts.

It exploits the full range and dynamic of the orchestra. We hear agitated brass, swirling flutes and woodwinds with tubular bells and massive climaxes underpinned by an extensive and busy percussion department.


It starts with a single high note on piano, repeated until it morphs cleverly into a run down from the flute. At times over the six short movements we are in Debussy’s sound world, the vibrant combination of brass, harp and snare drum contrasted with warm strings, followed by restless rapid bowing.

The disjointed feeling of the 20-minute work emanates from the piano, which at times leads and at others accompanies or answers the orchestra.

One movement, A Song before Dawn, evokes imaginary bird song in the Australian desert, and one hears the distinctive carolling of magpies. It’s reminiscent of the works of Olivier Messiaen and his famous bird songs, something with which Osborne is more than familiar having given a masterful performance of the marathon Vingts regards sur l’enfant Jesus a few seasons ago.

Parts of the last movement suggest a tribute to Stravinsky from his Paris days, with some whip cracks which are perhaps a nod to Ravel’s famous opening to his piano concerto in G.

Osborne sparkled in the de Falla piece with its three movements evoking the Generalife Palace in Granada, a distant dance and the gardens of the Sierra of Cordoba.

He really is an exceptional talent and you can hear him at his best in a recital of works by Debussy and Sergei Prokofiev at the City Recital Hall Angel Place on Monday, August 6.

The SSO were in wonderful form under the energetic and engaging Morlot with each department given ample opportunity to shine in the Debussy Image Gigues and the more substantial Iberia suite in three parts.

A vibrant colourful night and, yes, there were castanets.


5 August 2018
Steve Moffatt / The Daily Telegraph