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JS Bach and Mahler – worlds of sensibility from Inkinen and the NZSO

By , 10/11/2012

MAHLER 7 – Mysteries of the Night

JS BACH – Double Violin Concerto in D Minor

MAHLER – Symphony No.7

Vesa-Matti Leppänen and Pietari Inkinen (violins)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Pietari Inkinen (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 10th November, 2012

Guest review by Ben Booker

There is something distinctly summery about Bach’s D-minor Concerto for Two Violins, and the fairly full audience suggested that this particular programme was not at all disagreeable to Wellingtonians following one of the city’s rare but sparkling summery days.

Bach’s music seems to have fallen into comparative orchestral disuse in recent times, so it was refreshing to hear it live, by a condensed edition of the NZSO. And what spectacle it provided! Such beauty! Such elegance!

While the very opening of the Vivace may not have been quite as metrically precise as rehearsed, the orchestra quickly showed itself to be a force not of accompaniment, but of thoughtful and involved musical collaboration with the soloists. Orchestral cohesion thereafter was remarkable, and despite the use of less rubato than many historically-informed performances (something this writer’s Romantic tastes have a weakness for around internal cadences!), the soloists’ micro-changes to tempo made such unity of movement impressive, especially in the absence of a conductor.

The regular conductor, of course, was playing first violin. Pietari Inkinen demonstrated an incredibly expressive tone quality – clear and bell-like, but with a certain hint of melancholy and loneliness that is quite impossible to adequately describe here. The usual concertmaster, Vesa-Matti Leppänen, was the other soloist, and the effortlessly broad sounds in his superb playing provided a great contrast with Inkinen, really demonstrating the contrapuntal and conversational design of the concerto.

The famous Largo ma non troppo was introduced by a wonderfully timeless piece of internal musical ponderment from Leppänen, and the entire movement demonstrated such a clarity of texture, such deep concentration upon the unfurling melodic lines, that at times, it seemed as if Bach’s harmony was just an exquisitely happy coincidence amongst the matchless counterpoint and dialogue of the two players and amongst the orchestra.

Following that, the bustling Allegro provided much in the way of contrast to the preceding movement, though I could not help but wish for a touch more industriousness and volatility in the orchestral parts. The soloists’ articulation and dialogue, again, was excellent, and both made wonderful use of vibrato; it was used sparingly – less as a general seasoning, and more as a special spice, which made its expressive effect enormously more powerful.

The orchestra certainly found this elusive industrious sound in then opening of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, however. The brass, as throughout, was dark and clear, and the rather Enid Blytonesque sense of mischief and the unfamiliar was portrayed very well in the opening movement. During most of the movement, there was a sense of a solid sonic foundation, yet a more whimsical and explosive surface, which suited the music perfectly.

A common problem in performing Austro-German music of the later Romantic period is the temptation to lapse into ‘parade syndrome’ – where the music disintegrates into a passing parade of shallow effects. At times in the first movement, I was worried that this was about to occur, as there seemed to be a slight lack of hierarchy in the passagework: every passage was being treated as a very important section, and this was a little too much to digest easily.

Nevertheless, changes to momentum were handled well by conductor and orchestra, with sudden variations in colour and style bringing in other-worldly characters, leaving the listener only to wonder what might have happened had Mahler been a cinematic composer in the more recent past.

This all built up to a dreadfully thrilling climax before recapitulation. While I sometimes found Inkinen’s string-dominated textures a little too pretty for the music, there were excellent moments of brass interjections, including a very flatulent low F sharp from the tuba! A sense of despondency and internal struggle in the coda was captured well, making the slightly troubled march to conclude the movement all the more memorable.

The second movement began with a very expressive horn conversation, and Inkinen’s rock-solid tempos proved to be a real asset in this movement. The creepy eccentricities of the part writing were brought out hilariously well – isolated accents, portamento, sudden changes in dynamic, exaggerated entrances, and sarcastic ritenutos abounded, creating a personified atmosphere.  Creepy and unsettled strings really pulled the spooky Scherzo off well, its title not referring so much to a literal ‘joke’ than to the post-Beethovenian connotations of dark amusement and fright. The solos were all first rate, as they had been the entire evening – my favourite had to be Julia Joyce’s precarious and eerie additions on the viola, played with exaggerated vibrato and dynamic mastery.

The second Nachtmusik movement had its share of quiet scherzo-like mutterings, but offered a complete change of aural scenery, quite in concordance with the amoroso instruction! Tension was nicely regulated by the returns to pastoral F-major sections, and the guitar and mandolin offered a nice touch, played by Doug de Vries and Dylan Lardelli respectively. While the concluding interjections were slightly too active for the nocturnal feel, the very end was as magical a moment as any.

And then the Rondo finale brought a celebratory awakening! Majestic in most places rather than overly extroverted, I could not decide whether the wonderfully-timed crescendos back to the main tune were satiric or if they were eccentric; either way, it was amusing and interesting. The movement provided much in the way of pandemonium and industry, and was just a jolly good time. Tubular bells rang bravely and wonderfully loud, and the finale just roared. I cannot recall seeing Inkinen so completely involved and immersed in the music, and his second bouquet of flowers for the evening was richly deserved. Bravo, NZSO!

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Another view: from Peter Mechen

One would immediately think that the only possible reasons for coupling Bach’s Double Violin Concerto with Mahler’s Seventh Symphony are, firstly, that each work is an absolutely wonderful piece of music, and, secondly, that because they are so different each piece acts as a kind of foil for the other – two very different worlds of sensibility, there to enjoy in splendid isolation, but to appreciate all the more when juxtaposed in the course of a single evening.

Considering further, one could regard the bringing-together of these two works as an extension of philosophies, both of the individual composers and of their respective eras. Bach’s music belongs to that inexhaustibly rich world of the Baroque, a world of inclusion and great flexibility, of gathering-together, of elaboration and increased complexity and extension of new techniques of playing, and the development of new modes of expression such as opera.

Mahler’s music, in the form of his symphonies and song-cycles, has a similar philosophy of inclusion and great flexibility, of a gathering-together, of elaboration and increasing complexity, of enormous scale and great drama, qualities that one associates with the theatre more than the abstract world of instrumental music. Mahler once described his symphonic philosophy in the words “Symphony is like the world – it should contain everything.” In a sense it’s a very “baroque-like” attitude, and one responsible for that fantastic diversity one finds in the composer’s output.

Beginning with the Bach work, this particular performance was a treat indeed, one of the violinists being the orchestra’s Music Director, Pietari Inkinen, here in partnership with his Concertmaster and fellow-Finn, Vesa-Matti Leppänen. Any suggestion of gimmickry in having one’s Music Director step into a soloist’s role in front of his or her own orchestra was here blown away by the sheer quality of the playing. What I noticed immediately was the sweetness of Inkinen’s tone as a violinist, quite different a sound to the more austere, grainier tones of his concertmaster, a difference which made for a fascinating dialogue between the two.

In terms of bowing and articulation they were a well-matched pair, with Vesa-Matti a trifle stronger and with more control when it came to keeping the bow on the strings for held notes in the midst of frenetic passages – undoubtedly one of the factors contributing to the difference in tone-quality between the two. But in most other respects they seemed to think and move as one in pursuit of the same ends, so that their separate characters met at the point of musical exchange – what one could call a creative partnership, here producing something unique and satisfying.

For the first two movements the focus seemed to be firmly upon the soloists, especially during the divine slow movement, where the “echoed” exchanges between their voices resulted in a truly affecting intensification of beauty, and the precisely “terraced” dynamics built up sequences of the figurations into beautifully-arched structures at once pure in their serenity and suffused with surrounding ambient feeling.

The finale brought the orchestra more obviously into the picture, the playing dynamic, detailed and sharply-etched; and sounding like a true partnership with the soloists rather than mere accompanying – the figurations were given terrific emphasis and point in places, and the lines seemed to really “speak” to one another and be responded to in a wonderful three-way interchange that had me on the edge of my seat throughout.

My “benchmark” for this concerto has always been the Oistrakhs, pere and fils, in a recorded performance that has come to sound increasingly romantic over the years with the rise of “authentic” string-playing. There’s a gorgeousness about it all which still melts my heart on the occasion of every “listen”, but apart from some unashamedly saturated string-tones in the finale, the orchestra does tend to stay in the background, seemingly to leave the two stellar soloists to “get on with it”, and be content with some dutiful accompanying. This NZSO partnership made more of things than that, to our great delight.

After a short interval we were back in the hall for Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, the latest in what one hopes will prove to be a complete traversal of the composer’s works by these particular forces. With memories of last year’s stellar NZSO/Inkinen performance of the Sixth Symphony continuing to resonate in our memories, this performance from the orchestra of one of the most complex and enigmatic of Mahler’s works was awaited with great excitement.

My most recent “live” experience of the symphony was in this same Michael Fowler Centre in 2009, when guest conductor Paul Daniel led the NZSO National Youth Orchestra through an almost scarily vivid performance of the work. The young players (as is usually the case with the NYO ) rose magnificently to the occasion, coping even with the conductor’s almost manic tempi throughout much of the finale. There was certainly no chance of the work “sprawling” with such a high-octane approach, even if one felt that there was more light-and-shade in some of the music’s places than was realised.

That light-and-shade was given full dues on this occasion by Pietari Inkinen and his players, as part of taking their not-quite-capacity-audience on a fantastical and far-flung symphonic journey. As is well-known, Mahler had enormous trouble with this work’s first movement, getting inspiration for its main idea only after the two middle “Nightpiece” movements had been completed, and while being rowed across a lake on his way home, his imagination stirred by the rhythm of the oars in the water. What the composer came up with could be clearly heard in the work’s portentous opening bars, the euphonium solo most expressively played here by David Bremner (“Here nature roars” as Mahler told his wife, Alma). – incidentally, Mahler specified a “tenor horn” here, which, perhaps for reasons of unavailability, wasn’t used.

After the opening, Inkinen encouraged more momentum but avoided rushing things, allowing the music time and space in which to move – and even when feelings of urgency irrupted and the march began to flail and grimace, those distinctive Leviathan-like steps whose downward lurch recurs throughout the movement served as steadying ballast, keeping feelings of panic at bay.

Here one could register Mahler’s increasingly “unmoulded” orchestral style, instruments and instrumental blocks not so much “blended” as contrasted, as the composer increasingly sought to express a sense of life’s disillusionment and dissolution. But this was a journey of startling contrasts – and how beautifully conductor and players led us into the lyrical mid-movement interlude, harp glissandi drawing back a magic curtain of nostalgia and dream-like imaginings. And then, how disturbingly the radiant climax plunged downward into darkness! – taking everything right back to the leviathan’s lair, the tread as portentous and as baleful as at the work’s opening.

From here until the movement’s end there were further irruptions of energy, regretful backward glances at happier times and a no-nonsense concluding march, Inkinen and the players risking orchestral poise in rightly stressing the music’s somewhat manic excitement and desperation. And if not every instrumental detailing was perfectly dovetailed with its neighbour, what mattered far more was the real sense conveyed of great territories traversed and different emotions registered and explored.

The first of the two Nachtmusik movements was ushered in by beautiful horn-playing, and some initial instrumental flurries, before falling in with a dark and richly mysterious processional, its “tempo giusto” allowing sufficient momentum as well as room for things to blossom. By contrast, the Scherzo evoked a volatile set of impulses, its sinuous, half-lit world poised between mockery and unease, spectral lines alternating with moments of rumbustious glee, its spookiness creating a kind of “All Hallows’ Eve” for orchestra – great fun! As for the second Nachtmusik movement , it featured the evening’s most beautiful and heartwarming orchestral playing, the detailing from solo instruments (violin, mandolin, horn, harp) simply exquisite in places – and the ending of the movement was nothing short of celestial in its effect.

And so to the finale, a movement which continues to divide critical opinion and polarize interpretation – as befits a Symphony subtitled “Song of the NIght”, the last movement is thought of by some as a return to day, especially in the wake of those two “Nachtstücke”, and the spooky Scherzo. However, the music’s extreme volatility is interpreted by others as suggesting that the day is the real culprit regarding life, that the music’s colour, energy and celebration turns into something over-wrought and oppressive, something that, by the end of the movement, has turned into a kind of nightmare of its own, a portrayal of the sickness of the society in which Mahler lived at the time, and a precursor of the horrors of the century to come. In my view, one pays one’s money and one takes from the music what one wants to take.

When I heard the NYO’s performance with Paul Daniel I thought the finale on the edge of being a madcap scramble, the players having little or no space to do more than get their fingers around the notes. While I would still prefer to hear the greater amplitude and richer detailing that Inkinen and the NZSO gave us, I think more of Daniels’ approach now, having heard other recordings; and in fact wish that I could go back and hear and enjoy the performance again. How fascinating to have had two recent “live” experiences of this work, and each strongly and differently characterized!

Interpretatively, Inkinen’s was a riskier approach in its way than Daniels’ was, because of the music’s far-flung, episodic nature, but for me it worked – and this could be attributed to both the conductor’s overall grasp of where each detail fitted into the whole, and to the concentration and skill of his players in maintaining their playing-focus over such long spans. I thought the concert in overall terms a triumph for everybody concerned, and heartily recommend to people in both Auckland and in Christchurch that they make a priority out getting themselves to hear it when the concert comes to them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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