Great Romantics – NZSO on tour

DEBUSSY – Prélude á l’aprés-midi d’un faune

RACHMANINOV – Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor

SHOSTAKOVICH – Symphony No.10

Alexander Melnikov (piano)

Mark Wigglesworth (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre,Wellington, Saturday, 1st August, 2009

The orchestra undertook an “all-main centres” tour with this programme, finishing in Wellington on a Saturday afternoon in August. Both visiting artists, pianist Alexander Melnikov and conductor Mark Wigglesworth had elicited glowing opinions for previous overseas performances of some of the featured works, and had already been praised by local critics for their work with the orchestra in its other “Great Romantics” programme. So it was with the highest expectations that we took our seats in the Michael Fowler Centre to enjoy the prospect of an afternoon’s richly-wrought music-making.

The programme couldn’t have begun more beguilingly than with Bridget Douglas’s first flute strains at the opening of Debussy’s “Prélude á l’aprés-midi d’un faune”. It was music breathed into being more than “played”, supported by finely-honed chording from the winds and sensuous colouring from harps and horns. Wigglesworth and the orchestra achieved wonders of spontaneous flow, every line seemingly “free” and uniquely woven, with different timbres and colourings happening by instinct as it were. And when the flute took up the melodic line again, the music blossomed afresh, the two flutes in unison at the climax of the melody in perfect accord, clarinet and oboe unable to contain themselves, and augmenting the flow to where the strings were gratefully waiting, embracing the melodic contourings with sensuous warmth. Debussy rang the ambient changes as the work proceeded, a lovely rhythmic trajectory, at once firm-footed and languorous, underpinned gently floated wind octaves, subtle touches of silvery percussion (was that Lenny Sakofsky sitting among the brass players conjuring those magical scintillations from what seemed like the ether?) adding to the magic. At the end, we in the audience were the ones who were enchanted.

Romantic feeling of a darker and more urgent kind was introduced by the Rachmaninov concerto, even if pianist Alexander Melnikov’s opening chords began the work a shade perfunctorily, as if he were unconcerned to match sonorities with the orchestra’s richly velvet tones at its first entry. Throughout the opening and when introducing the second subject Melnikov continued to keep things cool, refusing to fully “command” the music, but instead treat his part almost as a kind of obbligato, part of the overall musical texture. While this ought to have worked in theory, for me it all imparted a detachment somewhat at odds with the music’s emotional core, as if the pianist was playing Saint-Saens rather than Rachmaninov, delicacy and elegance to the fore rather than a sense of every note meaning something worthwhile.

Wigglesworth and the orchestra generated a good deal of maestoso weight during the movement’s march-like central section, something that Melnikov slightly undermined by pressing slightly ahead of the beat, taking away some of the music’s sheer grandeur and leaving an impression of impatience. Some beautiful sounds from the orchestra, though – as in the other works throughout the concert, Ed Allen’s horn-playing was something to die for, and the ‘cellos played their lyrical ascending figure a little later with aching loveliness. Melnikov didn’t really respond to these oases of lyrical refurbishment amid the movement’s darkness, instead continuing to play things coolly and keeping the pulse to the fore, the coda moving towards its terse climax almost before one was ready for it. Again, in the slow movement, Wigglesworth and the players prepared a beautifully-phrased opening which Melnikov treated extremely casually in reply, creating little magic with his arpeggios, content to let the wind players sing out and squeeze the emotional juices. The big climax of the movement came and went with little frisson from the soloist, seeming to continue his “once-removed” attitude towards the music. Quite suddenly, with the brief cadenza, a change was magically wrought – harp-strummed, almost bardic chords from Melnikov invigorated the piano textures, and led to a hushed reprise of the “big tune”, winds and strings absolutely gorgeous and the piano in quiet raptures right up to the end. Why did the man wait so long before finally deciding to dig into the music?

The finale was again a curious affair, filled with imaginative touches and occasional disjointed moments from the soloist. Melnikov’s sweeping brilliance at the beginning, a bit splashy but extremely exciting, worked well with the on-the-spot orchestral contributions, the pizzicati during the brief scherzando episode really “telling” for a change, as the pianist danced up and down the keyboard. Melnikov and Wigglesworth went for a more massive effect than usual in the big build-up towards the fugato, whose speeding-up seemed to me a bit contrived, the music obviously wanting earlier to burst out of its constraints and race towards its contrapuntal trystings; but the second appearance of the big “Brief Encounter” tune was wonderful, with orchestra and pianist again “finding” each other, romantic feeling answered with poetry and tenderness. The final section had its “stop-start” moments, with Melnikov wanting to go faster than the orchestra with each of his soloistic episodes; but the grand final piano-and-orchestra peroration was undeniably spectacular, with all the requisite keyboard fireworks from the soloist and richly-singing orchestral tones.

In response to audience acclaim, Melnikov sat down to play an encore – and with the first few notes of Rachmaninov’s B Minor Prelude (the one that pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch christened “The Return”) the pianist seemed utterly transformed – the “every-note-counts” commitment that I’d felt was lacking in the concerto was suddenly manifest in earnest, Melnikov catching that aching “tug” between urgency and stasis in those opening utterances so characteristic of the composer’s music. As the work moved into its more agitated central episode, we were made to feel all of the pent-up emotion and world-weariness of the long-absent traveller in sight of his homeland – the sounds caught every impulse and instinct, both compulsive and ambivalent, whose interaction gives the music its underlying power. Interestingly, Melnikov chose to “brush in” the flashing pianistic figurations of the climax instead of giving them the usual rhetorical glint and edge, which worked beautifully in the context of the searing concentration he applied to the overall musical argument. The final utterances of the piece are cries which mingle joy, longing and foreboding; and Melnikov brought out their complexities with a sure instinct, weighting his touch with enough dying fall to leave us in a limbo of uncertainty and darkness. Coming after the disappointment of the concerto, this encore performance left me – well, dumbfounded!

Mark Wigglesworth himself contributed the programme note for Shostakovich’s mighty Tenth Symphony, stressing the links in the music between Stalinist repression and brutality in Russia and the composer’s belief and determination that the human spirit would survive come what may. Shostakovich himself talked about the connections between the music and Stalin; and the torturous nature of the emotional terrain through which both this and the equally epic Eighth Symphony travels demonstrates a powerful, consistently disturbing and at times frightening relationship between style and content which the composer himself may have matched but never surpassed in later works.

The performance amply demonstrated Wigglesworth’s credentials as an interpreter of the composer’s music, from the dark menace of the symphony’s very opening (reminiscent of Fafner’s cave in “Siegfried”), through the gratuitous brutality and the fire-alarm terror of the Scherzo’s frenetic storm, and the grotesqueries of the Allegretto Third Movement’s spectral dance, to the gritty optimism of the finale. Throughout the NZSO played with the utter conviction and surety of musicians who had swallowed a work whole and tapped all of the music’s inherent power and depth of expression. Perhaps there wasn’t quite the knife-edged intensity one experiences when listening to recordings by some of the great Russian interpreters such as Mravinsky, Kondrashin and Svetlanov; but in general Western musicians don’t have access to the same culture of direct experience of war and oppression which obviously gave many of those pre-Perestroika Soviet performances such a brutally stricken ethos.

To analyse Wigglesworth’s and the orchestra’s performance closely would stretch this already elongated review to unacceptable bounds – however each of the movements featured remarkable realisations of aspects of the composer’s vision. In the first movement the transition via solo clarinet and strings from the Winterreise-like loneliness of the opening to the pulse-quickening episode with flute and strings was magically achieved, as telling as the heartbreak of the strings climbing towards the piccolo’s distant visionary angel-spectre at the movement’s end. The orchestral onslaught in the second movement had an elemental wildness (Laurence Reese’s timpani strokes positively apocalyptic at one point!), the strings surviving a brief moment of imprecision towards the end to help with driving the argument to its conclusion, the playing eliciting a stunned silence in the auditorium at the brutality and ferocity of it all. Ed Allen’s magnificent horn-playing dominated the third movement, with its repetitions of the five-note theme, the last being a magically “stopped’ call from another world. And it was the wind players who so splendidly articulated the finale’s opening, the oboe’s call of desolation mingling with the bassoon’s sober soliliquies, and flute and clarinet despairingly trying to goad each other into launching a dance of defiance, one which succeeds in activating the mighty show of white-knuckled optimism that concludes the work. Conductor and players – a magnificent achievement, indeed!

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