Robert Ibell and Catherine McKay – cello and piano: Boulanger and Brahms

Nadia Boulanger: Three Pieces for cello and piano, (1915); Brahms: Cello Sonata No 2 in F major, Op 99

Robert Ibell (cello) and Catherine McKay (piano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace. Wednesday 30 September

The first of Nadia Boulanger’s three pieces is marked modéré. Though it’s the only one of the three in a major key, it is calm, of exquisite peacefulness though written nt eh first year of the first World War. It offered the chance to hear Robert Ibell,outside the orchestral or string quartet clutter, as a cellist able to draw the listener into a sound world filled with delicacy and subtle colours. For the cello part enjoyed most of the melodic character of the piece while the piano, just as engagingly played, decorated the music with a rocking motif and supported the delineation of its graceful shape.

The second piece, ‘Sans vitesse et à l’aise’, had an open air feel, though nothing too lively; Boulanger’s debt to Fauré could be heard in the melody here, elusive, fragile, leaving one seeking their prolongation and perhaps repetition, but French art is distinguished by its reticence and economy of expression and Boulanger was the inheritor of that and its transmitter through her many famous pupils (not all of whom followed all her precepts).

The title of the third piece was just as apt as the others: ‘Vite et nerveusement rythmé’; it was a bit louder and more extrovert, certainly a bit agitated, but it broke off for a meditative phase, and later returned to a quick quasi dance in commontime. The highly attractive and persuasive account by both players, sustained throughout its duration, makes one curious about Boulanger’s other music. It is odd that it is the compositions of her sister Lili, who died very young, which have gained more exposure in recent years.

Brahms’ second cello sonata was probably the main draw-card for this recital; so it was for me in anticipation though, in retrospect, the above experience altered things. In all, this was a highly persuasive, beautifully played performance by both musicians, though I was a little bothered sometimes by the imbalance between cello and piano and felt that the piano lid might well have been down in order to allow the cello its due; it was not such a problem in the emphatic and impetuous gestures.

The second movement, affettuoso, was particularly – well – affecting, shifting between careful pizzicato and dreamy legato, with vibrato that was perfectly pulsed. The rise and fall of dynamics, the long crescendi, in the third movement, building towards dark passionate climaxes, and then subsiding to a divine quietness, was the real Brahms. So was the strong playing of the final Allegro molto.

In two weeks we’ve had recitals by violinist and cello plus piano: look for our review of next Wednesday’s concert by viola and piano (Helen Bevin and Rafaella Garlick-Grice) to complete a set of duos for strings and piano.

Music and the print media

Music and the print media

28 September 2009

The arrival on our desk of the two-monthly English magazine, Opera Now, prompts thoughts about the satisfactions and delights that are to be gained from real magazines, alongside the easy immediacy of the Internet.

Even one who is basically fearful of a technology which seems ephemeral (who can say how safe is the stored material on tapes, CDs, memory chips, and how accessible it will be as the technology to access it evolves, becomes redundant), confesses to making frequent use of it for reference; and occasionally I find myself pursuing an unintended line of research or study. But for a generation not made accustomed in childhood to a computer screen and the complexities of software, its use remains fundamentally disagreeable.

I simply love books and the printed word on paper, and I’m not about to throw out my large collection of reference books. Thus I print articles from the Internet so that I can read them in a civilized manner.

In spite of the sad decline in the intellectual standards and coverage of the more significant arts by most newspapers (and all of those in New Zealand), I still subscribe to a daily paper, as my parents did, reading what is worth reading (in about 15 minutes). I also subscribe to magazines, varying over the years from Landfall and the New York Times Review of Books to New Zealand Books and the Guardian Weekly and many others from time to time.

And the Listener, though with increasing despair as it sinks to the level of Sunday News or Women’s Day: the Listener still has the best books section in New Zealand, even if its handling of music is now skeletal (in its first few decades it was the most important vehicle for news about music in the country; nothing has taken its place).

I’d intended to write about music magazines however.

William Dart ran New Zealand’s only substantial music magazine in recent times, for more than a decade, Music in New Zealand. Its loss is serious, and it seemed to me an indictment on both the professional musical sector (NZSO, the other orchestras, New Zealand Opera and Chamber Music New Zealand), Radio New Zealand Concert and the university music schools, that means were not found to rescue and maintain it.

Most of those bodies publish their own so-called magazines, but they are merely promotional tools. If only they would recognize that most of their readers toss them in the bin after five minutes perusal, and instead, devoted the otherwise wasted money, collaboratively, to producing a real New Zealand music magazine. (As an aside, I deplore the universities indulging in similar, extravagant and fatuous corporate image-making: glossy ‘magazines’ seem de rigueur; and then there’s the advertising! It astonishes me that the Tertiary Education Commission doesn’t simply forbid this sort of make-believe commercial behaviour, as utter waste; overt commercial-style competition has no place in a proper university).

The only musical genre in New Zealand that enjoys an independent magazine is opera, with New Zealand Opera News (as former editor, I take pleasure in its important role and am pleased that Garth Wilshere and the New Zealand Opera Society are successfully continuing its publication).

Opera Now is something else. It’s now 20 years old and undoubtedly the best opera magazine in the world (I can make the comparison as I also see the A5-sized London-published Opera, the New York Opera News, the French Opéra Magazine and the German Das Opernglas).

Opera Now does much more than print reviews and interviews with the latest and hottest young singers and conductors and directors; there are articles on aspects of opera production, history, on opera companies and their funding and their political environment; a regular series by architect Adrian Mourby studies wonderful opera houses old and new around the world; and 23 pages schedule opera performances that proliferate around the world. This issue features on the scene in Berlin and the former east Germany, and St Petersburg, incidentally tracing the sites of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades.

It is evidence of the extraordinary renaissance of opera worldwide, that you’d never guess from reading our own media, and which brings despair at the poverty-stricken state of opera here, and of music in general.

Opera Now is also big and glossy, full of brilliant photos of the bizarre and unbelievable productions that mainly European companies create; the increasing flow of new operas, many of which still play to thin audiences, but some of which are discovering that there are benefits in paying a little attention to audiences’ tastes. Even if you never get there, this is the magazine to fill your dreams of St Petersburg, Lyon or Valencia, Dresden, Venice or Barcelona, or even of Santa Fe, Buenos Aires, Sydney… and today, Shanghai and Beijing.


NZSO – Inkinen and Capuçon in Saint-Saëns and Bartók

Festive Overture by Shostakovich; Cello Concerto No 1 in A minor by Saint-Saëns; Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen with Gautier Capuçon (cello)

Michael Fowler Centre, Saturday 26 September 2009

One could, for a start, have some small regret at the content of this programme. Capuçon is one of today’s most gifted young cellists and it might have been interesting to hear him in a more meaty work.

The repertoire of big popular cello concertos is sadly limited: Haydn, Dvorak, Elgar, Schumann, Shostakovich No 1… we all have our own rankings; and there are lots in the second division that are by no means contemptible; and some of them might be first division works for many people: Lalo, Kabalevsky, Barber, Britten, Finzi, Dutilleux, Hindemith, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, several others by English composers and many by Vivaldi and Boccherini, and several concerto-like pieces by Tchaikovsky, Bloch, Bruch, and the list goes on. If you’re curious, try Wikipedia – ‘List of compositions for cello and orchestra’; you’ll be surprised.

Saint-Saëns is certainly eminent among them in terms of the sheer attractiveness and popularity of his first concerto (his second lacks the invention and charm of the first), and I believe that he suffers, like many French composers whose names are not Debussy and Ravel, from the mistaken Germano-Austrian dominance of classical music.

Though Capuçon is still under 30, one is unlikely to hear a performance of greater refinement, tonal subtlety, than Saturday’s performance by Gautier Capuçon; one where there is almost an oversupply of nuance in every phrase, but in which many individual notes are multi-coloured, carrying their own miniature emotional landscape.

It is rare to hear such exquisite softness from a concerto instrument; for example, after the first big tutti of the first movement, and in the way he minimized his sound as the first movement subsided into stillness for the Allegretto to emerge. For one thing, it is to risk the cello being covered by the orchestra, but that risk did not exist with Inkinen’s singular care with the orchestra’s delicacy of sound and expression.

The two were of the same mind.

The audience was prepared for what was to be heard in the two major works, through the opening performance of Shostakovich’s brilliant Festive Overture; the opening brass fanfare stunned the auditorium with its sonic clarity and the consummate blend of instrumental timbres. The strings were no less arresting in their undulating rhythms and dynamics and their shimmering colours, as if gently buffeted by the emotions of the music.

Though it’s a bit of a show-piece, it proved a magnificent vehicle, capable of demonstrating both the music’s real merits and the orchestra’s prowess. While the external parts gleamed with polish and fastidiousness, the internal workings of the orchestra were those of a beautifully tuned engine.

Nothing could have better proven that excellence than Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned during World War II by Koussevitsky for his great virtuoso orchestra, the Boston Symphony.

Those qualities of individual instrumental brilliance that were audible in the earlier pieces, had their most conspicuous display here; almost every member of the woodwind and brass sections, along with timpanist and percussion, captured the limelight at some point in music that was exposed, daring, witty, sometimes simply beautiful. Bartók the orchestral virtuoso was stunningly on show here, unobscured by the theatrical setting that might allow you to overlook the orchestral genius of a work like the ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin.

Purely as music, I don’t think it’s in the top rank, but it has few peers as a demonstration of the way in which the 20th century symphony orchestra has become such a magnificent and sophisticated creation, perhaps one of the greatest cultural institutions that civilization has created.

I had the feeling here, along with the evidence from the Sibelius Festival, that Inkinen had hit his form, had finally confirmed his authority with the orchestra and his own impressive artistic coming of age; the result was a musical performance of real distinction.

Blythe Press, violin, in Chausson, Prokofiev and Pärt

Chausson: Poème, Op 25; Prokofiev: Five Melodies for violin and piano, Op 35b; Pärt: Fratres

Blythe Press (violin) and Emma Sayers (piano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace. Wednesday 23 September 

Don’t ever overlook the lunchtime concerts at St Andrew’s! Of course, they vary widely, in genre, between instruments and voices and sometimes other things, in musical experience and skill, but more often than not, there’s a real treat in store.  

Every so often a concert comes along that deserves a much bigger crowd and perhaps a more prestigious venue, though that’s a factor I fight; for one thing, it is being used as a principal criterion by The Dominion Post for publishing music reviews, with some unfortunate results.

Wednesday the 23rd was a special one.

I’ve been observing Blythe Press, violinist from the Kapiti Coast, since he was a notable performer in the Schools Chamber Music Contests. After starting studies at Victoria University he gained sufficient awards to enable him to complete a music degree at Graz, in Austria. His record of competition triumphs is already, at 20, impressive.  

I fancy this is my first hearing of Chausson’s Poème, in the piano version. It sounds so different, with the violin standing tonally more distinct when accompanied by the piano (I cannot find a piano arrangement listed in Chausson’s entry in New Grove or on the Internet: it must be a publisher’s arrangement).

Yet its warm romantic spirit remained intact in the hands of these two players; nothing sentimental, or exaggerated, but rather, taste, sincerity of expression, and a considerable technique – I mean of both players – that was unobtrusive, and at the disposal of the music. It consists of several short sections, thematically linked but varying in character, and each, even the somewhat light-weight section hinting at the salon, emerged with honesty, in this context.

Prokofiev’s Five Melodies are a surprising product of the composer’s years of exile, this written in California. No hint of the wild young man of forbidding dissonance and ferocious technical demands, these pieces are to enjoy, and their choice could well serve to remind listeners that not all music after the first World War sought to poke the audience in the eye.

Yet they are by no means child’s play, though Press made them sound fairly plain-sailing. Nevertheless, the melodies would hardly have arisen in the imaginations of earlier composers, such is the strong personality of Prokofiev’s music and Press negotiated all the writhing, complex lines.  

Prokofiev is not a composer to be in the proximity of, say, some of his English contemporaries, who might sound flaccid and insipid in the same room (are my prejudices showing?). The playing of both musicians was arresting and their virtually flawless and riveting performances simply held the audience – bigger than normal – spell-bound.

As if two small masterpieces were not enough, the pair then played what has become one of the best–loved chamber pieces of the past 30 years. Fratres is an extraordinary piece in several ways, one being its non-specific instrumentation; its original incarnation was for string quintet and wind quintet, but the version played here is one of the most effective, allowing its clear musical character to emerge independent of the crutch of colourful combinations. Press’s fast opening cross-string arpeggios established his authority at once, and with the emphatic piano chords, a wonderfully gripping experience held the audience. The mystic passages that followed evoked the monastic atmosphere that Pärt sought, monks moving about dark gothic aisles, and finally the piano chords punctuating the violin’s great oratorical statement, were so impressively and movingly expressed by these two instruments.

Jack Liebeck and Stephen De Pledge at Upper Hutt

Violin Sonata, Op 24 ‘Spring’ (Beethoven); Sonata No 1 in E (Howells); Sonata No 2 in A, Op 100 (Brahms); Sonata in E, Op 82 (Elgar)

Jack Liebeck (violin) and Stephen De Pledge (piano)

Expressions Arts Centre, Upper Hutt. Monday 21 September

Chamber Music New Zealand have been promoting solo piano recitals by Stephen De Pledge, in their main concert series in the major centres, and violin and piano recitals involving De Pledge and English violinist Jack Liebeck in a series of concerts for the so-called ‘associated societies’ that exist in smaller centres.

When the tours were published I wondered why this arrangement had been decided upon in the light of the kind of attention Liebeck has been getting in concerts and recordings in Britain and elsewhere.

Fortunately, the proliferation of chamber music organizations in Greater Wellington makes it easy to enjoy both the piano alone (at the Wellington Town Hall and at Waikanae) and the duo at Upper Hutt and Lower Hutt where different programmes were being presented.

At Upper Hutt the emphasis was on English violin music, with an unfamiliar sonata by Herbert Howells and a somewhat better known sonata by Elgar. Before they began the Howells, Liebeck said a few words about his awakening to English music, and his keen advocacy of it was clear.

The Howells sonata has four connected parts that hardly follow the classical pattern. The opening movement spoke with a rather English voice, to be sure, in reflective elegiac tones which soon turned more lively, though hardly suggesting emotions that would have upset Victorian England (it was composed, I must point, out durng World War I). In the second movement the pace slowed again and my reaction was both to wonder at the insight shown by both musicians and their rapport, and to regret the absence of an anchor in the form of a melody or two.

The music evolved again, rather than making a distinct change, by means of emphatic piano chords into a third movement with rudiments of a dance-like tune. A fourth movement, assai tranquillo, seemed to be the composer’s most natural form of expression for it was here at last that there was a oneness between the music and the spirit of the two players.

I had heard Elgar’s violin sonata a few months ago played by a couple of local musicians; I did not know it well at that stage, and it remained something of an enigma. But in the hands of these two, it emerged as a work of considerable stature, a variety of moods and styles that Liebeck and De Pledge commanded with great conviction, both in the opening flourishes and as it settled into an attractive lyrical character and clearly structured shapes.

The first movement ended with a fine sense of power and authority. The last movement was coloured in the early stages by an ‘English light music’ quality that I find uninteresting, and its conclusion seemed to fall short in a sense of resolution and grandeur. It was the second movement with its two very distinct parts that I found most persuasive as the players exploited it melodic strengths and here, in its gorgeous muted tones, I was conscious of being in the presence of a considerable violin talent.

The other two works were familiar. Beethoven’s Spring Sonata was a delightful start to the concert, demonstrating the violin’s elegance and lyricism and the pianist’s flair for turning phrases in ear-catching ways, pointing to features and emphases that seemed somehow new.

The least interesting, most surprisingly, was Brahms Second Sonata. It was entirely flawless and unexceptionable, but perhaps as a result of the context, it seeming of rather less stature that it actually possesses, the last movement failing to rise to a finale of much consequence.

However, in spite of what was probably a personal response on my part, nothing detracted from the impact of this very fine artist, and enjoyment of the rapport that was always evident between the two musicians.

Nota Bene among the elements at St Andrew’s

Nota Bene handle Ghosts, Fire, Water: Conductor: Robert Oliver

Music of the elements, from Renaissance England and [reactionary] New Zealand. With Donald Nicolson (piano and organ), Rachel More (actor)

St Andrew’s on the Terrace, Sunday 20 September

It was an imaginative theme but, as so often, musicians seem only dimly aware of the importance of lighting and atmosphere in creating that last but important element in giving their audience a good time. The bright, shiny surfaces of the church and a zillion watts of light were enough to discomfort the most sophisticated and determined ghost.

I tried shutting the eyes but it didn’t make a difference.

In the same way that the character of designs, costumes, lighting, physical credibility of the singers is as important (nearly), as the musical performance in an opera production, so the visuals are significant in any live performance (otherwise I’d stay home and listen to a CD).

The idea of this programme was interesting; it took the choir out of its more common sort of programme, which has been rather more varied, covering most genres and eras of vocal music. But was a full evening of renaissance music a bit much from such an ensemble, even with a novel theme – the elements – guiding it and a baroque and renaissance expert at the helm?

Yes; by the end of the concert, I felt it was. The director and choir were obviously conscious of it, as the concert was punctuated by poetry and both halves ended with pieces by New Zealand composers. The last item, Douglas Mews (Senior) Ghosts, Fire, Water, which gave its name to the concert, was as typically intriguing and surprising as that underperformed composer usually is; nevertheless, I felt that the music, for all its atmosphere, was rather the handmaid to the words, by James Kirkup, inspired by his seeing the Hiroshima Panels.

The piece by Jonathan Crehan (Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire – his own words), accompanied by the piano, well written for the voices, conventionally modern in its syncopations, suggested that Crehan might have had a bigger ensemble, such as the National Youth Choir, in mind.

The concert opened with the other main theme – settings of the texts ‘Veni sancta spiritu’ and ‘Veni creator spiritus’, first an anonymous plainchant Apart from the recurring theme of the elements which even found material in a mass by John Taverner (The Western Wind).

Its parts were separated by a variety of motets and songs as well as poems by Tudor poets and others such as Longfellow, Blake, Frost and Emily Dickinson; most of the words in the  second half were from Shakespeare, as you’d expect, from The Tempest and ‘Blow, blow, thy winter wind’ from As You Like It. ‘The Quality of Mercy’ speech from The Merchant of Venice seemed a stretch in relation to the theme.

The poems provided a context for the music; or was it the other way round? The connections were, naturally, more intellectual than instinctual: Joyce scholars might have rejoiced in the echoes between the water in his poem and the Palestrina motet ‘Sicut cervus’, but the reality was arbitrary; was its place strengthened by Joyce’s musical talent and sensibilities? Rachel More read the verses, with a clear voice, though she did not always capture the tone of the subject, her voice tending to follow the same falling cadence at every phrase end.

There was more interest and variety with the use of several capable soloists from within the choir, notable were Jane McKinlay and Katherine Hodge and bass Chris White who, sometimes with others, sang as a quartet or quintet. Hodge’s voice was a fine match for the Mews piece.

The final note of variety came with a two-section piano piece by Pepe Becker, Aquarius (aqua L. = water, you see), played with considerable insight by Donald Nicolson.

But whatever the verbal and conceptual notions that drove the programme, the sheer variety of words and music, choral ensemble and solos, complex polyphony (Dufay or Palestrina) and the casual effect that slightly misfired in ‘When that I was a little tiny boy’, it was a good evening.

East of Vienna – Wellington Chamber Orchestra

GEORGE ENESCU – Roumanian Rhapsody No.1


BORIS PIGOVAT – In Argentinian Style

BELA BARTOK – Hungarian Peasant Songs

ALFRED HILL – Symphony in A Minor “The Carnival”

Wellington Chamber Orchestra

Donald Maurice, conductor

St.Andrew’s on the Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 20th September, 2009

Now here was an enterprising programme! – two of the composers whose music was featured I had never heard of; and no less than FOUR New Zealand premiere performances were given, the works by Gary Goldschneider, Boris Pigovat, Bela Bartok and Alfred Hill.  George Enescu’s colourful Roumanian Rhapsody No.1 was obviously the “taster” which began the concert, the music’s beguiling opening melodies and catchy rhythms providing exotic atmosphere aplenty, and setting the scene for further, more unfamiliar explorations to follow.

Conductor Donald Maurice encouraged a lovely improvisatory feeling with the winds’ phrasings at the Rhapsody’s opening, choosing tempi that set the rhythms of the dances nicely in motion, and characterising each differing section of the music with lovely colour and real feeling – a nice touch was getting the violist to stand for his brief gypsy-like solo! The more energetic sections went with real “schwung” in this performance, the woodwinds and horns covering themselves with glory, and the rest of the brass making the most of their more raucous moments. The players caught the “folksiness” of it all splendidly and put across episodes such as the lead-into the work’s “friss” section with infectious excitement and a great rush of adrenalin.

American composer Gary Goldschneider, who spent a short time in the 1980s teaching in both Nelson and Wellington, conceived his work Sinaia while on a trip to Roumania in 2001, after being carried away by the splendours of the historic Peles Castle, located in the town of Sinaia amid mountainous surroundings. Goldschneider based his work on Roumanian and other Eastern European folk-rhythms and melodies, using the device of a recurring motif representing Peles Castle to unify the different episodes of the piece. The work’s contrasting sections create evocative, even mystical ambiences from the outset, a strong, darkly-wrought opening throwing subsequent quixotic pizzicati and agitated, claustrophobic waltz-measures into relief, everything vividly and enjoyably characterised by the players. Another New Zealand connection came with the composer of the next item In The Argentinian Style, Boris Pigovat, through the advocacy by Donald Maurice of another of Pigovat’s works Holocaust Requiem. In gratitude to the New Zealander, Pigovat wrote In the Argentinian Style for Donald Maurice earlier this year, a “tempo di tango” piece that uses another South American dance style, the Milonga. The players delivered this with great verve, and real rhythmic bounce, Donald Maurice encouraging the violas in particular to make the most of their “moments”,  with warm and sonorous sounds.

Both works in the second half originally came into being for smaller forces than orchestra – Bartok’s Hungarian Peasant Songs were originally written for solo piano, but then orchestrated by the composer, while the Symphony by Alfred Hill began as String Quartet No.3, before being recrafted for orchestra 43 years later in 1955, but keeping the same nickname, “The Carnival”.  Throughout the Bartok, I thought the players’ instrumental detailing was exemplary, capturing the music’s wistful, melancholic aspect at the beginning, the winds in particular bringing a colourful “tang” to their exchanges with the brass in the “Peasant Songs” section; while horn and strings beautifully set the scene in the second part for the big processionals to follow – my notes read “majestic brass, imposing strings, winds add to the splendour with Kodaly-like shrieks” – the whole conjuring up the feeling of sounds springing from the very soil on which the dancers’ feet trod.

And so to the Symphony by Alfred Hill, whose string quartet version I had heard and enjoyed, but which equally captivated me in its orchestral guise, its rumbustious opening and attractive Italian-style rhythms moving with wonderful insouciance in this performance throughout the movement’s different episodes, towards a lovely, sospiro-like ending. The oboes relished their jaunty moments in the scherzo, strings digging lustily into their peasant-like drones, then relaxing into a brief but graceful contrasting episode – such skilfully crafted music, nicely realised.  I loved the strings’ command of the sinuous melodic lines in the slow movement, taken up by long-breathed winds, the expression reaching Elgarian depths of feeling in places.The finale, in a sense, returned us some of the way to the world of the Enescu Rhapsody which began the programme – a sultry, gypsy-like spirit galvanised Donald Maurice and the players, setting a sombre melancholy against a vigorous impetuosity, whose energies carried the day, and brought the concert to a suitably rousing conclusion.

Sibelius Festival 2009 – Pietari Inkinen and the NZSO

DON QUIXOTE (R.STRAUSS) – with Gautier Capucon (‘cello)
Friday 18th September

Saturday 19th September

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra : Pietari Inkinen (conductor)

Was it a previously undiscovered ‘cello concerto by Sibelius that made an appearance right in the middle of the orchestra’s festival of the composer’s music? – alas, no! any rumours of there being a work which had somehow survived the self-critical silence of Sibelius’s last thirty years turned out to have no substance. The “cello concerto” was by the Finnish composer’s almost exact contemporary, Richard Strauss – and it wasn’t really a ‘cello concerto at all, more of a concertante work in the form of themes and variations for solo ‘cello and orchestra, with significant soloistic contributions from both viola and violin. What was it doing in one of the Sibelius Festival concerts? – Peter Walls teasingly answered a query along those lines at a pre-festival talk involving him, Pietari Inkinen and Vesa-Matti Leppanen, by saying that it was there because Sibelius never wrote a ‘cello concerto. But the orchestra had engaged French cellist Gautier Capucon to tour a programme featuring one of the Sibelius Symphonies, and Tapiola, as well as Strauss’s magnificent tone-poem Don Quixote, the concertante work.

One could have complained about this on several counts, one being that we were deprived of hearing a couple of Sibelius’s other tone-poems which could have easily filled up the concert’s spaces had the Strauss not been played. In fact, another of the problems of organising the concert was that the first item, Tapiola, wasn’t really a suitable work with which to begin the evening  – it’s too terse, austere and uncompromising a piece to set upon an audience first time up. We could have instead had En Saga or Pohjola’s Daughter, or even, as an alternative, the Four Legends, all of which would have more successfully “tuned the audience in” at the outset.

However, we would have been the poorer had Gautier Capucon not made an appearance at the concert with his performance of “Don Quixote”– not only did Strauss’s music make for a fascinating comparison with his Finnish contemporary’s (worlds apart from Sibelius’s quintessential nature-work Tapiola), but the music’s performance was outstanding. The orchestra played with a brilliance in places that was richly satisfying to experience, as was Capucon’s own complete identification with the title-role. He seemed to “live” the part of Don Quixote, expressing as much with his face and body-language as with his playing, constantly engaging and interacting with the first violist (representing Sancho Panza), the concertmaster, the conductor and the rest of the orchestra – a true piece of music-theatre. With these players in charge, the old story came to life, the music no longer having need of words to express Don Quixote’s knightly delusions.

Despite my reservations regarding Tapiola as a concert-opener, Sibelius’s masterful tone-poem was given an impressive performance, the playing readily conveying the work’s bleak austerity and dark foreboding, if underplaying the last ounce of raw savagery which depicts nature at its most elemental. I wonder whether Pietari Inkinen was simply too refined a spirit and elegant a musician to push the music to the extremes that are sometimes called for – I recall for example his mellifluous but oddly undercharacterised performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique earlier this year, where the same strictures seemed to apply. What impressed most here was the tension generated between strings and winds, the rhetorical opening exchanges building up a dark, brooding quality, and the tightly-focused quicksilver dialogues readily suggesting fairy laughter amidst the prevailing gloom. But for me the picture remained tantalisingly incomplete, with the brass entries towards the end having insufficient snarl and bite to evoke the forest god’s baleful presence, the dry-ish MFC acoustic perhaps partly to blame here, for the lack of ring and presence.

In the pre-concert discussion Peter Walls had remarked on Sibelius’s Second Symphony resembling a kind of detective story, with the composer sprinking clues throughout the first movement as to the nature of the whole. Inkinen and the players contributed to the compositional sleight-of-hand by keeping the opening movement moving, the strings allowed just a little room to breathe within their phrases, their warmth and richness actually making the horns sound somewhat lack-lustre in comparison. I thought the brass-writing throughout the symphony was hampered by the hall’s lack of resonance, the antiphonal calls throughout the second movement in particular having little atmosphere and spaciousness. Even so, the “mountain-tops” sequence in the same movement worked its magic, with the beautifully-played solo trumpet nicely supported by strings, winds and horns. The brass  brought out the music’s epic character with powerful chording and magnificently-controlled crescendi, a perfect foil for the answering poetry of the strings, with their “big tune”. I wanted more whirlwind recklessness from the strings with the third movement’s vivacissimo, but Inkinen and the players generated plenty of excitement in the build-up to the finale, the strings singing almost crazily throughout, and the winds making the most of their “journeying” tune on its first appearance, as did the rest of the orchestra with a magnificently-delivered build-up towards the final peroration, the brass at the end giving all they had.

And so to the final concert the following evening – three rarely-played symphonies in a single evening making a treat for Sibelians and an intriguing prospect for the uninitiated. Fittingly, I thought the concert the best of the series overall, though my judgement could well be impaired by a particular fondness for the works presented. The pieces represented the composer in different guises, classicist, polyphonist, visionary, nature-poet and epic adventurer, each symphony sharing some of these aspects but having its own strongly distinctive character. Part of the success of the evening was due to Inkinen and the orchestra bringing out that special identity held by each work, with the Seventh Symphony making a fitting climax to it all.

The Third Symphony presented the strongest possible contrast with the Second the evening before – here were restrained orchestral textures and cleanly-conceived classical lines, the voices balanced and poised throughout. Inkinen got his first movement string polyphonies to bubble over beautifully, their effervescence building up nicely to the point where the strings and winds reintroduced the opening theme with a roar and a swing; though I felt the true climax of the movement came in this performance with the “giant’s strides” of the timpani and lower strings leading away from the brass crescendo and through hushed vistas towards the ritualistic hymn-tune with its wonderfully conclusive “Amen”. The slow movement had an enchanting “other world” ambience throughout, with winds and then strings in characteristic Sibelian thirds, contrasting nicely with brilliantly melismatic recitatives from the winds in the movement’s more animated episodes. The finale’s opening pastoral playfulness featured some adroit rhythmic dovetailing from strings, winds and muted horns, before the grand processional of the final theme suddenly appeared, winningly introduced by the ‘cellos, and spreading across the rest of the strings, the different textures making for an ear-catching effect as the power and momentum of the music increased – glorious playing from all, right up to the end.

There’s an “other-world” quality about the Sixth Symphony which some people find elusive and even puzzling. Despite what seemed like a less-than ideally poised beginning from the strings, the vibrancy of the playing quickly regained the ground, the music’s timeless aspect unfolding as inevitably as the lines of a great renaissance polyphonic motet, the horns calling forth the dancers at the string-saturated climax, led by the harp’s dulcet notes and the winds’ first energising steps (how could anybody not respond to such music?)…..the slow movement similarly hinted at a parallel kind of perfection, the winds ringing the timbral changes with great point, especially the oboe, the music’s stillness-within-the-bar beautifully caught. Horns made the most of their off-the-note accompaniment, the music at once lyrical and plangent and full of character, building towards the inevitable climax and release-point with marvellous spontaneity – at the end, the elfin swiftness of the strings’ figurations transformed meditation into dance with the surest of touches.

In an ideal world I would have requested more assertiveness from the brass in the scherzo movement, though the players found more of a voice for the final flourish. And had I been Inkinen I would have again encouraged my brass and excellent timpanist to play out even more in the finale, though each of the irruptions had more weight and snap than the previous one, so that the cumulative force of the last outburst had something of a proper cataclysmic effect, if falling a little short of the  glimpse into the abyss. Inkinen and the orchestra made amends with the epilogue, the string phrases filled with visionary fervour, and everything impulsive and heartfelt, as the music seemed at one and the same time to suggest eternities while turning and glancing homeward once more. If not of unalloyed greatness, this was music-making of something approaching the highest order.

Almost straightaway, the epic, questing Sibelius was returned to us with the very first phrase of the Seventh Symphony – the NZSO’s playing had both breadth and forward impulse from the opening ascent of the strings, through the hymn-like sonorities of its opening section, and to the first of three great trombone solos, sometimes characterised by commentators as great peaks rising from a continuous mountain range.  Inkinen took his time and allowed the music to unfold, with the dancing figures evoked by timpani, strings and wind, through the skitterish play of the elements and into the rolling orchestral juggernaut of strings and timpani that prepared the way for the trombones’ second appearance, here magnificently supported by the rest of the brass, the strings tumbling and skirling with the winds after the heavy batteries had shut down. Nobly heroic horns and graceful string replies led to tricky cross-fertilisations of rhythms and motifs – Inkinen and the orchestra right on their toes throughout this section, generating excitable interactions from which grew the final trombone solo, big and imposing and lovely, with strings arching upwards and bringing tensions to fever-pitch. A shout from the brass, a cry of anguish from the strings, and the crisis passed – in the MFC it seemed as though human angst had spent itself and nature was reassuringly drifting back to its place of pre-eminence.

At the end there was applause, prolonged and heartfelt, from those of us who had witnessed Pietari Inkinen’s and the NZSO’s wondrous Sibelian journey in concert. At this point I couldn’t help thinking that some kind of ritualistic public acknowledgement of the undertaking, perhaps from some representative of the Finnish government (what about the New Zealand Government?), or even a prominent Finnish person resident in New Zealand, would have added significance to the occasion. Apart from the pre-concert discussion on the festival’s opening night, there was precious little else visible to people to help suggest that the orchestra and conductor were doing something out of the ordinary. There were no displays featuring Sibelius, Finland and things Finnish that I noticed, no flags, national costumes, photographs, art-prints (what about those beautiful Kalevala illustrations familiar to those of us who buy recordings?), and certainly no groups performing Finnish songs or dances in the MFC foyer beforehand – things that would have added colour and interest and distinction to an event described as a “festival”. Really, it was all left to the music and the musicians, whose commitment to the cause brought forth magnificent results; and whose efforts were not yet done –  several recording sessions involving these same symphonies had been scheduled for during the coming week. If the recordings manage to capture something of the excitement of what we heard on the festival’s final night, they will be a series of sound-documents well worth waiting for.

Sibelius Festival – 2nd concert: Symphonies 1 & 4

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen

Sibelius: Symphonies Nos 1 and 4

Michael Fowler Centre, Thursday 17 September

The second of the four concerts in the NZSO’s Sibelius Festival drew a much smaller audience than the previous night, with its Finlandia and the Violin Concerto. Old story: a soloist is essential to the box office.

But because this one contained the Fourth Symphony – and the First too, which is far from merely journeyman work – and because it was played with such vision and spellbinding build-up of tension at its climaxes, this was the best of the four concerts.

I would have reversed the order of the two symphonies, because the profundity of the Fourth would have been my choice of music to carry away and to ruminate upon during the following hours.

The music to go home with was left for the First Symphony, which is a splendid work, already showing clear marks of the fully mature composer. It has been fashionable to denigrate it by hearing Tchaikovsky and others in parts of it – yes, Wagner, Schumann, too if you want – but such pursuits are usually profitless.

After all, you might argue (I would) that if you can’t hear a composer’s antecedents at least in his early works, then he is a phony, has not learned his trade.

It is simply the first great symphony (if we overlook Kullervo and the Lemminkainen Legends) on the journey of a genius, and fortunately, Inkinen sought to discover and rejoice in its strengths and its character, building tempi and phrasing in ways that best reflected those strengths, as well the overall architecture of the distinct phases, movements and the whole.

It was replete with the immaculate and expressive playing of the soloists, from the shimmering strings and the trembling clarinet of Patrick Barry [I have been corrected, having assumed, unable to see from the stalls, that it was principal, Philip Green, who did contribute at other stages]  at the opening, that immediately lifted the spirit in anticipation of a great and moving performance. At once, it can be no one but Sibelius: then bassoons and the fuller wind assemblage and Laurence Reese’s arresting timpani.

The opening of the second movement is already true Sibelius, its big rhetorical voice beautifully uttered by low woodwinds, and solo cello, magnificent in its calm. The horns over tremolo strings, a hint of Siegfried’s forest murmurs that are no longer of Wagner.

Not only does one have to remind oneself of the high virtuosity and expressive refinement of each of the wind soloists, and string principals, as they emerged, but also to wonder at the miraculous ensemble that the whole achieves. Though I do not pretend to be a student of the recorded archive, listening recently to a couple of examples has demonstrated the superb quality of the NZSO.

The Fourth invades territory that is new to Sibelius. There are sounds early in the first movement that presage the spirit of Gorecki; more use of cellos and basses than elsewhere; instead of warm woodwinds we have attenuated sounds from cellos and basses and clarinets and oboes that produce narrow, textureless sound.

Though there is a lighter spirit in movement 2, which is vivace, coloured by flutes and oboes, the symphony’s proper character returns in the third movement, long, introspective, with pauses, with protracted phrases that rival Bruckner. At its end I wanted no more. I felt this might have been Sibelius’s Bruckner 9, unfinished yet complete. In some perverse way, even though the performance was utterly persuasive, I have always wondered if the last movement is merely to meet conventions, not true to the work’s real essence.

Like most people, when I first heard the Fourth, let’s say forty years younger than I am now, I simply thought, in spite of the quiet dancing in the second movement and the lift in the last, that it represented a low point in Sibelius’s life, and I could hear only a troubled soul. I would have been immensely sad if I had died before reaching an age when I think it one of the most beautiful creations in music. And this performance, from a young man at whose age I was still unready for it, was the most profoundly moving of the entire festival.

Sibelius Festival: No 5 and Violin Concerto

The Sibelius Festival: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen with Vesa-Matti Leppännen (violin)

Sibelius: Finlandia, Violin Concerto, Symphony No 5.

Michael Fowler Centre, Wednesday 16 September

When the 2009 NZSO season was announced I sensed certain misgivings in some people who wondered if a Sibelius festival was really such a good theme, and if it would fly.

Yes, we had a talented young Finnish conductor whose reputation, we gathered, was growing fast overseas; and a Finnish concertmaster who’d make a pretty authentic fist of the violin concerto. But typically in New Zealand, I continued, and continue, to hear certain carefully phrased reservations. It seems not to be possible that another orchestra, in a country like New Zealand might have found a young conductor who was doing himself and his orchestra a power of good; like a Simon Rattle making the Birmingham orchestra equal to the best in Britain, and a Maris Janssons raising the Oslo Philharmonic to international rank, or perhaps Andris Nelsons who’s now in charge of Birmingham (notice: two Latvians? A smaller country than New Zealand). Can’t happen here?

A couple of Naxos CDs of Sibelius have won high praise, but for many people, that’s not important; Naxos isn’t Deutsche Grammophon is it?

Personally, I’m much more sanguine.

In the first concert, I sat middle stalls, not where I sit very often, and it was wonderful. Finlandia began, with its portentous rhetoric flowing from the sonorous body of strings, the weight supported magnificently by the basses and cellos. They breathed deeply, overflowing with Finnish national passion, turning to a quasi-religious hymn that sustained this most emotional of national musical poems.

It was the obvious way to start the festival and certainly, on that first evening, it seemed to me a great idea. (Which is not quite the same as being a commercial success).

Though I heard the expected comments about the soloist in the violin concerto, egos noting that there were weaknesses and asking why we could not get a big name to play the piece. But this was a Finnish show, Inkinen and Leppännen are friends and the latter is not only an excellent orchestral concertmaster, but a considerable soloist.

In fact Leppännen’s performance was, in most ways, extremely fine, and whether it was just sentiment on my part, I sensed real empathy between violinist, conductor and orchestra. The opening passages were sheer magic from both orchestra and soloist, conjuring a dim Arctic light through tremolo strings. His extremely refined pianissimos were sheer magic and there was no remaining calm during the well-planned climaxes in the first movement.

The orchestra’s double bass section has, perhaps through the leadership of Hiroshi Ikematsu, become a force to reckon with, creating a dense luxurious sound that can never be excessive. This concerto can use a great deal of that quality, particularly in the second movement, and it was deeply satisfying. There were, I suppose, signs of tiredness, slight flaws in scales and arpeggios in the last movement, but far more important was the feeling of complete artistic unity that drove the work with such emotional power.

The Fifth Symphony has become the most popular. Compared with the hushed, wintery opening of the Concerto and the deeply meditative hymn in Finlandia, the Fifth is summer time. This performance was so carefully prepared, with an ear to the most careful balances, yet suggesting happiness, though not perhaps, an unbridled joyousness.

Bassoons make themselves felt here as much as heard, and their passages, over shimmering strings, were memorable. The second movement curiously betrays its origins in the mid-century symphonists, but Sibelius takes command with characteristic wind symphonies that the orchestra played with all their usual refinement and warmth.

If I had any disappointment, perhaps it was with the handling of the emergence of the thrilling ostinati that drives their way through most of the last movement. Inkinnen seemed to have judged the rate of acceleration and of the crescendo correctly enough but, as with the performance of No 2 on Saturday, that longed-for sense of impending climax didn’t take hold of me early enough. Perhaps it’s age.