Concert review: Zimmermann and Runnicles bring Sydney Symphony season to a spectacular close

Donald Runnicles
Daily Telegraph (Australia)

By Steve Moffatt 

Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles put the seal on a season that had seen a series of triumphs for his fellow countryman, from the compelling staging of Richard Strauss’s powerful opera Elektra to an unforgettable complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano concertos with Emanuel Ax.

And there was one last memorable solo performance when German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann, playing a Stradivarius once owned by Fritz Kreisler, took on the virtuosic challenges of Sibelius’s concerto in D minor.

Each of the three movements poses enormous demands with long singing themes interspersed by wildly leaping double stopping passages, scarifying arpeggio runs and complex fingering. While the left hand deals with those issues the right is equally busy alternating between rapid cross bowing and flowing phrases which have to rise above a big orchestra.

Zimmermann, who first picked up a violin when he was five and gave his first concert at the age of 10, met all of these challenges with precision, aplomb and a rare sensitivity, holding his packed audience riveted from the shimmering opening to the no holds barred close 35 minutes later.

The orchestra were on top form and laid out in an unusual way with violas at the front of stage to the conductor’s right. This worked particularly well in the dramatic first work, Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, written as a memorial to his parents in 1940 but also as an anti-war statement, in the opening movement of which the violas do much of the driving.

Runnicles kept firm control of this powerful work, with its hints of Mahler’s 9th symphony, dramatic timpani and huge forces of brass, woodwind and strings.

The orchestra last played it in 2009 under Mark Wigglesworth in a concert dedicated to the late English conductor Richard Hickox.

To end this corker of a closing night Runnicles and the SSO gave an outstanding reading of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, a work always guaranteed to lift the hairs on the necks of an audience and put a tear in the eye of every true Englishman when the noble ninth variation, Nimrod, is played. On this occasion a few audience members couldn’t help but applaud, unsettling the musicians and briefly breaking the spell.


However none of that mattered as the next four variations — like the rest of the 14 musical portraits of Elgar’s friends — were brilliantly dispatched before the full glory of the finale, representing the composer himself, brought the night to its climax.