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NZSO – Inkinen and Capuçon in Saint-Saëns and Bartók

By , 26/09/2009

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.

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