NZSO: Melnikov with Brahms, Wigglesworth with Britten

Sinfonia da Requiem (Britten), Symphony No 90 in C (Haydn), Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor, Op 15 (Brahms)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mark Wigglesworth with Alexander Melnikov (piano)

Michael Fowler Centre, Friday 17 July 2009

Mark Wigglesworth’s is a name that has been conspicuous on the European scene for a couple of decades: a visit to New Zealand has been long awaited. Alexander Melnikov is younger (though he played with the NZSO in 2001) but his live performances and recordings have already gained him a prominent place among the pianists of our time.

Brahms’s First Piano Concerto has the scale and substance of a symphony which is why it took the place usually accorded to ‘the big symphony’ in the second half; written before he was 25, it has imposing structural strength and speaks with a weight that seems mature far beyond his years; it seems an even more profound work than his second concerto written 20 years later.

Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem opened the concert, and the reaction of several friends after the performance was: ‘How come I’ve taken so long to discover this major symphonic work’. Why indeed, when there are really so few generally accepted great symphonies written in the last 70 years, isn’t it in the regular repertoire? It doesn’t have all the formal trappings of a symphony in the 19th century sense, but it is an extended work though not long in clock time, with three movements of varying mood and shape; interesting things happen, singular sounds arise at every turn, developments that stack up with the most cultivated processes in the symphonic tradition.

A commission from the Japanese Government on the eve of the Second World War when Britten was in America, the symphony was, in any terms, a strange and naïve response on his part.  Who could have thought a Christian Requiem suitable for celebrating the 2600th anniversary of the imperial Japanese dynasty? Was it some kind of adolescent try-on? One wonders whether, if he had written this music, inspired by the same ideas, but had simply called it an Imperial Symphony, or something, with no religious reference, it would have been happily accepted.

Incidentally, it was commissioned and written in 1940, but rejected as an insult to the Emperor, a year before Pearl Harbour. The programme note’s statement is misleading, referring to its performance – implying the first – at Boston in 1942 (after Pearl Harbour); it was first performed in New York on 30 May 1941 (before Pearl Harbour).

On this occasion at least, its overt character – in memory of his recently deceased parents – was an appropriate reason for the performance to be dedicated to the memory of Seddon Bennington who had died in the Tararuas a few days before. For that, the start of the first movement – Lacrymosa – with terrifying timpani hammerings was powerfully expressive, with alternating cries from bass instruments, then a passage of lamenting underpinned by a funereal tread. First I have to remark how different, and more histrionic, was this performance than those of Britten himself conducting in either of my two LPs: first, the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra (1953) and, much more vividly, the New Philharmonia (1964).

And speaking of recordings, it’s a pity the orchestra hadn’t waited for Wigglesworth before committing a performance to a rather ordinary recording for Naxos a few years ago.

Who knows whether Britten would have approved some aspects of the highly coloured, muscular performance by the NZSO? For Wigglesworth the music was driven by intense emotion that created an overwhelming impact.  The large and virtuoso forces were well used: six horns, two harps, an E flat saxophone, an important piano part. It was in fact the first time, after Our Hunting Fathers of 1936 for voice and quite large orchestra, that Britten had employed the full resources of a big symphony orchestra, and his command is remarkable. I recall Christopher Palmer commenting that virtuoso orchestral writing of this kind – he referred to both Our Hunting Fathers and the Sinfonia – was unknown in England at this time. Whatever else he may have felt about the Japanese, Britten must have assumed that a first rate orchestra was available.

The second movement, Dies Irae, starts echoing the galloping ride to Hell at the end of La damnation de Faust – perhaps he was aware of the omnipresence of the Dies Irae plainchant in Berlioz’s work: it was all highly energised. And at the other extreme; there’s a sleazy saxophone passage, and increasing chaos, hinting at the finale of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony with its hard hitting xylophone rifle-fire. But Stravinsky is also there.

The last movement, Requiem Aeternam, is dominated by a calm lamenting that suggests a sea-scape such as Britten later created in Peter Grimes, a long, quite exquisitely played passage with harp, flute, bassoon and other solo instruments creating a magical atmosphere that was slowly dispersed as the conductor crept towards a restrained crescendo of calm grandeur.

I hope it left the audience, as it did me, with the conviction that here is a 20th century masterpiece whose beauty and power needs no apology whatsoever.

The programming of a little-known Haydn symphony – No 90 – was an odd move and the 200th anniversary of his death was not really sufficient justification for a work that hardly persuaded us of its unjust neglect, in spite of a scintillating performance. Peter Walls’s interesting programme note made as good a case for it as possible, but even with my strong predisposition in favour of Haydn, I did not find its interest level very great, in terms of melody or of melodic development, falling short in a feeling of musical substance, and of old-fashioned emotional response. The string playing was always piquant and the theme and variations in the slow movement offered attractive opportunities for wind players, though there was the odd fluff in the brass.

But more than anything, it seems to depend on Haydn’s penchant for throwing down false trails. That was its character well before the practical jokes in the last movement where twice a closing cadence fooled the audience into premature clapping. The shapes of phrases in the first movement were teasingly off-centre, and the Minuetto had ended in typical mid-sentence. So we should have been prepared for another, different, game in the last movement, but most of us were not.

When there is so little Haydn being played in his anniversary year (what a contrast with the Mozart over-kill in 1991!), something more indisputably great or really worth discovering was called for; perhaps one of the best London symphonies or a genuinely interesting one from his Sturm und Drang period would have better fitted the bill.

The Brahms concerto was a thoroughly authentic, grandly dramatic reading, not just on the part of the piano but also from the orchestra, which the conductor electrified right from the overpowering first attack from timpani and bass instruments, and through the long introduction that asserted the orchestra’s place as the more than equal partner of the piano.

When Melnikov made his discreet, self-effacing entry after three and a half minutes, it was almost with trepidation, doing nothing to deflect attention from the orchestra’s command of the music’s grandeur. But he was soon contributing his own stentorian double octave scales to the fabric that the orchestra had already described.

That was not to say that the orchestra dominated the scene, for the conductor’s obvious solicitude for the pianist’s careful rubatos and tempo changes allowed Melnikov a full share in the symphonic drama that this mighty canvas pungently unfolds across its fifty minute span. In the several quasi cadenzas Melnikov took his time, particularly in the spacious and lovely Adagio. There, often with beautiful partnering from oboe or horns; his right hand created delicate, luminous traceries, against murmuring strings.

One remembered that this movement was really a romantic message to pianist Clara Schumann, who, after Robert’s death in 1856, presumably invited a willing Brahms to continue to be a close friend, helping to look after domestic affairs and the children.

The last movement offered more conventional scope to pianist as virtuoso, running into big romantic cadenzas, adorning pretty wind passages with delicate piano figures, articulated with great clarity; and then relishing the decorative, keyboard-long runs. The orchestra (nearly) always kept in step with the deceptively tricky rhythms, though there were a couple of points when, in the midst of a fortissimo climax involving virtually everything on the stage, I wondered whether pianist and conductor were flying blind, in an aural sense. .

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