NZSO with Inkinen and Cho-Liang Lin – Barber’s concerto and Tristan for orchestra

Melodies for orchestra (Body), Violin Concerto (Barber), Tristan and Isolde, a symphonic compilation after Wagner, arranged by Henk de Vlieger

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Pietari Inkinen with Cho-Liang Lin (violin).

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 20th March

Though reviewing concerts that are being normally covered by the press was not part of the ‘mission’ of Middle-C, and I did not decide to attend the first of the NZSO’s subscription concerts in Wellington till that afternoon, the temptation to hear Barber’s Violin Concerto, live for the first time (I think), and what Henk de Vlieger had done with Tristan und Isolde, without voices, and in just over one hour, proved too strong.

And I enjoyed the concert so much that a review, perhaps even a panegyric, imposed itself upon me.

Jack Body’s Melodies from the early 1980s opened the programme. Little of his music has been written for orchestra and I relished the chance to hear how he extended his palette to opulent symphonic musical forces.

Body writes that his intention was to ‘create coherence and continuity’ in the orchestral fabric, simply conveying something of the joy and excitement he experienced when he heard the pieces. All the outward marks of excitement – speed, rhythmic energy, and orchestration that is spare but striking, with his idiosyncratic use of percussion – were there, but in spite of a brilliant performance I found little emotional warmth or some kind of spiritual feeling which I’m sure infused the originals, even in the quieter piece from West Sumatra.

Though it was hard to perceive musical relationships, or meaningful contrasts between the three works in the evening’s programme, the two major pieces made the concert.

For most of the 70 years since its composition, the Barber concerto has been regarded in academic musical circles as rather an anachronism if not an irrelevancy. Happily, the disinterment of much of the tonal and attractive music written during the bleak years has restored Barber’s music to the permanent repertoire.

The tunefulness of the first movement is as surprising and beguiling as the lyrical, elegiac second movement. Though the last seems to take off in a direction that has not been prepared for, the whole is a vindication of the continuing relevance of a traditional form.

American violinist Cho-Liang Lin emerged as a balanced and mature musician, an ideal performer of the work through his committed and deeply sympathetic reading that brought it immediately to life. The orchestra played with a conviction and intensity that is being noticed in international reviews of its recent recordings under conductor Pietari Inkinen. Where I was, centre stalls, balance was admirable and the orchestra rarely lay too weightily on the violinist.

The second half comprised an hour-long performance of a ‘Symphonic compilation’ by Dutch musician Henk de Vlieger of music from Tristan und Isolde. Enjoyment of it depended not at all on recognition of where the various leitmotive came from or what they represented in the opera, but it did depend both on freedom from Wagner antipathy and any doctrinaire aversion to such transformations or arrangements. At the end, I was simply surprised that the hour had passed and that I  felt a great, all-consuming satisfaction.

In character, it was like one of Strauss’s longer tone poems – Don Quixote, or Death and Transfiguration perhaps, and the strength of Wagner’s musical inspiration, especially in the consummating Liebestod, compensated for what might be felt as shortcomings in the evolution of this orchestral survey.

A piece of this kind will inevitably press an automatic disapproval button in some listeners who are programmed to fault any kind of tampering with the original character of a great work. I wondered whether I might find that the treatment cheapened or corrupted the essence of the original music, but all I noticed was condensings and bridge passages – where one episode was grafted on to another. De Vlieger succeeded in avoiding anything tasteless or clumsy.

Seven episodes called up various scenes, none as dramatic as the second act love scene in the forest, interrupted by the arrival of King Marke. The music was as self-sustaining as in the opera itself, one of whose most remarkable features is the absence of harmonic resolution at any point till the very end. De Vlieger followed the same path and there were no breaks between sections and the transitions were rather well crafted.

I only had a slightly unfulfilled longing for more passionate, aching expression, perhaps a slower and more undulating pulse, in the love music.

I had wondered whether I would long for singers to emerge after the Prelude, but perhaps my first experience of the work came to my rescue: broadcasts of the orchestral version of the Prelude and Liebestod in Early Evening Concert on 2YC in the early 1950s when I was discovering music as a teenager. As a result, I even remember being disconcerted when I first heard the scene complete with singers. This purely orchestral treatment, so well conceived and played, brought me full circle.

Finally, I was glad I happened to hear about 40 minutes of the later broadcast of the concert on Radio NZ Concert (Monday 6 April). My impressions were confirmed, not only of the success of the musical compilation, but also at the opulence of the NZSO’s performance: its careful dynamic gradations, the swelling of tone in string phrases in the second act love music, the splendour of the brass and the richness of the strings.

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