Kari Kriikku and the NZSO – Second Concert

TCHAIKOVSKY – Overture “1812”
TIENSUU – Puro, for Clarinet and Orchestra
RIMSKY-KORSAKOV – Scheherazade

Kari Kriikku (clarinet)
Pietari Inkinen (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Saturday 20th June 2009, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

I must admit to having been thrilled at the NZSO’s programming of one of my all-time favourite warhorses, Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite Scheherazade in the subscription concert series, but less keen about having Tchaikovsky’s hotch-potch battle-symphony-like Overture “1812” on the same programme, mainly through having heard so many routine performances of it. Also offered was a contemporary work for clarinet and orchestra written by a Finnish composer, Jukka Tiensuu, and featuring the astounding playing (judging by what I heard in another concert) of visiting clarinettist Kari Kriikku. So, with reservations about the Tchaikovsky, all was good, including the time-slot, which must have given many people like myself the chance to get to see both the NZSO and the All Blacks on the same day, thanks to the concert being an afternoon matinee (how times have turned things around!).

As it all turned out, the orchestra played a blinder, making even the Tchaikovsky Overture sound like great music, conductor Pietari Inkinen leading the charge against Napoleon with thrilling, nail-biting results, much the same as the All Blacks managed to do against the French at the Westpac Stadium later in the evening. Inkinen drew golden tones from his ‘cellos at the Overture’s beginning, with plaintive utterances from the woodwinds and urgent shouts from the brass urgently voicing the cry of war. The allegro depicting the advancement of Napoleon’s army into Russia began a little sedately but soon gathered excitement, the “Marseilles” sounding and resounding splendidly over the battlefields as the French drove towards Moscow. The folk-like interludes were poignant and plangent, the battle reprise vivid and biting, and the build-up to the first cannonade brimful with anticipation, the electronic explosions resoundingly satisfying, and the descending string figurations for once sounding jubilant and festive, setting the scene for a peroration that rocked the building with tsunamis of cannonades, churchbells and brasses and percussion – what I would call playing the music for all it was worth!

Finnish composer Jukka Tiensuu’s piece for clarinet and orchestra Puro was described in the Finnish Music Information Centre programme note as “a hall of mirrors”, music in which the solo clarinet initiates ideas which “are reflected in sounds and gestures from the orchestra”. The music’s opening bears this out, with the soloist’s first high, shrill note echoed in the violins, and the ensuing melody rippling through the orchestral textures, rather like a continuous dialogue over the top of ambient string-and-wind chords. As with the Lindberg Concerto, I found the sheer density of invention in this work simply amazing, a combination of creative combustion with a superb instrumentalist (Kari Kriikku) setting ablaze all kinds of orchestral responses ever leading the ear onwards. If the overall impression was less dynamic than Lindberg’s work, more consistently reflective (no pun intended) and ambient in effect, there was still enough occasional raw excitement to satisfy the sensation-mongerers, especially in the wake of the instrumental cadenza, where the orchestral contribution seemed to notch up on confrontational insistence and send swirling strings and percussion crescendi shooting outwards until the restoration of calm, and the soloist finishing the piece’s journeyings with a quizzical squawk! But the overall mood of the work had long since been set by sonorities seemingly having a lot in common with Arvo Pärt’s “tumbing strain” tintinnabulations with occasional touches of Dali-esque melt-down keeping stasis at bay, and leading ever forwards to other realms. Without a doubt the performance was a stunning achievement by all concerned.

Jukka Tiensuu’s work and its epic qualities were nicely set in relief by an encore from Kriikku and the orchestra, Tanze aus Korond by Laszlo Draskodzy, a czardas-like piece, with all kinds of gypsy-inflections, played with tremendous swagger, and a good deal of showmanship (perfectly appropriate in this setting), involving the soloist collapsing at one point on the floor in a heap and playing part of the work while lying on his back, leaping to his feet again for the final “friss” section. I enjoyed watching the two clarinettists in the orchestra, Philip Green and Patrick Barry, “grooving away” during the music’s course with enjoyment and appreciation of Kriikku’s astounding playing.

What set the seal on the afternoon’s music-making was a superbly atmospheric and evocative performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, with the fabled storyteller in tip-top narrative and descriptive form fending off the bloodthirsty intentions of her vengeful husband, and, in the end, winning his heart. The violin-playing of Vesa-Matti Leppänen at the outset would have won over the most hard-hearted of tyrants, and the scenarios, characterizations and tales woven by Inkinen and the orchestra were by turns thrilling, colourful and ravishing, one of the finest performances of the work I’ve heard. Some examples to instance such praise – the maritime evocations of the first movement, alternatively tempestuous and calm, delivered with both deep-throated sonority and winsome sensitivity; the eloquent wind-playing by all principals throughout, the strikingly “conversational” bassoon/oboe narratives at the beginning of the second movement, and the exciting “a-tempo” pace throughout the same movement (like Ferenc Fricsay’s edge-of-the-seat reading in his old DGG recording), the brass-playing full of panache despite the occasional “fluff”; the slow movement’s rapturous string-playing; the finale’s fearful opening exchange between Scheherazade and her impatient husband, full of menace and urgency, the fantastic virtuosity of the orchestra throughout the “Festival” sequences, and the cataclysmic wrecking of the ship in the storm against the rock, with again some achingly beautiful violin-playing, by both Vessa-Matti Leppänen and his cohort Donald Armstrong at the very end. Pietari Inkinen and the orchestra, take a bow! – a most enjoyable and thrilling concert.

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