Concert review Sydney Symphony Orchestra Mozart Great Mass in c minor Masaaki Suzuki


Sydney city was abuzz last night. Thousands of visitors flooded the streets to attend the Vivid Festival featuring artistic lighting displays all around the city, across the Harbour Bridge and around Circular Quay. Not to be put off by the cramped street conditions, more than 2000 keen concert goers squeezed their way down to the Sydney Opera House for what they already knew was going to be an outstanding concert.

Returning to work with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra is Japanese specialist conductor Masaaki Suzuki. Founder of the Bach Collegium Japan and with a large discography under his belt, Suzuki is considered a leading expert in the interpretation of Bach. For 20 years or more, he has been requested to lead period music concerts with orchestras around the world thanks to his extensive HIP (historically informed performance) knowledge.

Rather than Bach, this evening the composer was Mozart. Suzuki briskly walked on the stage, gave an elegant bow and launched the orchestra into Don Giovanni’s Overture, a brilliant way to start the program. Suzuki’s style was fascinating to watch, quite unique.  His graceful expressiveness gave the impression he was almost dancing or singing his way through the music we all know so well. The physical and emotional portrayal of each phrase was so crystal clear the orchestra lapped all of it up and was literally breathing with him. He mostly lead through emphasis and cues with no baton, the frequent shimmer of his pure white hair adding to the strongest chords. The orchestra responded perfectly and without fault. Every note felt so very easy for them as if it was always meant to be interpreted this way. Watching this artist at work lead one to imagine what amazing things he might be able to do with Opera Australia. (hint hint)

Suzuki’s tempi was also without fault. So many conductors fall for the illusion that speeding up the orchestra makes the music more exciting. Suzuki made the opposite choice of slowing the tempi adding strength and grandeur.

To complete the first half was Mozart’s Linz Symphony, no. 36, a four movement work where the final Presto is best known and recognised.  Throughout the work, you could see the musicians flying away with the music, smiling at each other, absolutely loving it as much as the audience.

After interval came Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor. This is a fascinating work of high contrasts in style. The movements – and even different sections within the movements – swing from floral Italian operatic style to the grand Baroque influenced by Mozart’s elders Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel. The grandness of the fugues were mostly reserved for the choir. Suzuki set an elegant tempo for each of these, allowing the choir from Sydney Philharmonia Choirs (a proportion of them still masked as they sang?) to fill out every phrase with clarity, heavenly pitch and accuracy. With the orchestra following suit, this made for a performance where everyone in the room could relax and fully appreciate the structure of the fugue, able to hear every part which increased the enjoyment immensely. Too often we hear fugues at break neck speed which muddy the result into a vague whirlwind. This tempo was … perfect.

Equally perfect was the orchestra volume throttled for the soloists. There was not one moment in the concert where the singers were overwhelmed. For their solos and ensemble work, they were always the highlight, then the orchestra would swell for its own instrumental parts or for the great crescendos accompanied by the choir. Conductor Suzuki would cue the soloists by gracefully leaning back over the safety bar of his podium with an elegant and respectful gesture.

Four guest artist soloists joined the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for the concert. First soprano was renowned artist Sara Macliver whose extensive knowledge and experience of period music made her the perfect pick for the job. Her phrasing was accurate, feminine and expressive with crystal clear pitch and articulation. She wore a slim gown of midnight blue sequinned oversized flowers over a flesh background – very much in keeping with current Paris trends. Second soprano was Australian American Rachelle Durkin in a glamorous full gown and stole of rich orange taffeta with embroidered gold. It beautifully highlighted the wooden string instruments in the orchestra and fitted the role she created in her interpretation of the music. She made full use of the demanding coloratura phrases, attacking with vigour and glee and looking like she was having a ball of a time.

Mozart autograph Great Mass in C Minor theatre reviews classical music
Mozart autograph manuscript of Kyrie movement from his Great Mass in C Minor

Both soprano parts had notes that dropped down into their deepest register. Looking at this sample of Mozart’s autograph – if I am reading it correctly – it appears the original singers might have been Contralto, Alto, Tenor and Bass (look at the four lines above the bottom organ line) which would explain the low notes.

Tenor for the performance was Australian Nicholas Jones whose work is growing in the areas of opera, musical theatre and concert recitals. Unfortunately for the male singers, Mozart did not complete this Mass before his untimely death. There may have been some equally spectacular solos in Mozart’s head yet to be set in ink. In the meantime, all we have are some smaller parts in trio and quartet plus one wee solo for the tenor. This impacted our fourth artist David Greco, a leading Baritone frequently seen in Pinchgut Opera historical performances, concert recitals and on recorded albums. No solo for him in this work but he completed his ensemble work with aplomb. It’s always good to hear his lovely warm toned voice.

One moment of divine beauty was “Et incarnatus” featuring soprano Macliver with SSO soloists Emma Scholl (flute), Diana Doherty (oboe) and Todd Gibson-Cornish (bassoon). We wished it would never end.

As the work remained unfinished, it stops rather abruptly. The program for the audience offered the words for each mass movement which forewarned that the end was nigh. At the close, the audience erupted into enthusiastic applause. It truly was a spectacular concert and the only way to summarise is to say it was perfect.

Bravo Sydney Symphony!

Two more performances of this concert are available with tickets selling fast.


Related Links

Masaaki Suzuki biography and albums available

More about the Vivid Festival on till 17 June 2023


Overture to Don Giovanni K527 – Mozart

Symphony no. 36 (Linz) K425 – Mozart

Mass in C minor K427 – Mozart