Grief and Grandeur – New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

R.STRAUSS – Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings

BRUCKNER –  Symphony No.7 in E Major

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Pietari Inkinen (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 10th April 2010

At the beginning of the concert the NZSO’s Chief Executive, Peter Walls, brought the Chilean Ambassador Luis Lillo onto the platform to speak to the audience. The Ambassador talked about the devastation in Chile in the wake of February’s major earthquake, and thanked the orchestra and the concertgoers present for their support of the Chilean Earthquake Humanitarian Relief Fund. The NZSO has announced that all proceeds from programme sales at this and the Auckland concert on Saturday 17th April will go to the Fund. What a pity, therefore, that the attendance for this concert was noticeably less than usual, despite Peter Walls’ hope expressed in the programme foreword, that because of the music offered the concert would be well patronised. A possible explanation is that a proportion of orchestral patrons continue to take fright at the appearance of the name “Bruckner”, while another is that the combination with Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen seemed to some people as if it would be too much like hard listening work!

Certainly the pairing of two largely elegiac and valedictory scores gave the concert a very specific flavour, exploring a particular ambience in depth as it were, from two different viewpoints. Of course, there are as many responses to great music as there are people, and for some, the prospect of having to square up to any composer’s (let alone TWO composers’) outpourings of grief and mourning can be too sobering, even disturbing an experience, rather too far outside the parameters of “comfortable listening”. It’s precisely because of this that others, like myself, would have revelled in the experience of being taken so profoundly into those darkly despairing realms, far removed from normal experience. In fact I thought that, musically, it was great and imaginative programming.

Strauss’s Metamorphosen, scored for for 23 solo strings, was written by the composer as a lament for the physical destruction suffered by German cities during the Second World War – though the larger view of the composer’s intent would probably include the havoc wrought by the Nazis and the war in general upon German art and culture. The music’s intensity was highlighted in this performance by the musicians, with the exception of the ‘cellos, standing up to play, giving the music-making an extra “gestural” quality, quite choreographic in effect, and fascinating to watch. For me, it added to the performance’s intensity and sense of player-involvement – incidentally, qualities which I’m pleased to observe, seemed to carry over into the second-half performance of the Bruckner as well, even though most of the orchestra members had for the symphony resumed their seats.

Conductor Pietari Inkinen encouraged a deeply-voiced, extremely hushed beginning to the Strauss, the sounds seeming to grow from out of the ground the players stood upon as the violas brought in the first hint of the quotation from the “Eroica” Symphony’s Marche Funebre, one which transfixes this work. The upper strings brought cool and clear light and space to the textures, with intensities hinted at all kinds of different levels, both dynamic and timbral, and everything beautifully controlled and shaped. The work unfolded in great paragraphs, giving we listeners a sense of form and perspective with succeeding episodes, the transitions bringing out remembrances of light and warmth set against darker utterances, the solo violin a plaintive voice amid the ebb and flow of levels of feeling. Conductor and players brought the music up to an incredible fever pitch at the agitato climax, the lower instruments then digging in with a will, bringing out the full emotional force of the tragedy of man’s descent into inhumanity, and properly overwhelming the textures of the music with gloom and despair. It was black and trenchant stuff, taking us right to the abyss’s edge, before enveloping us within the deepest tones of dignified mourning at the close – impressive and deeply moving.

Of all the Bruckner Symphonies, the Seventh (although some would nominate the Fourth, instead) is possibly the most approachable for the uninitiated. It’s a most attractive work, filled with gorgeous melody, rich and varied colourings and a well-balanced amalgam of pastoral gentleness, playful impulse and epic power. The orchestra and Pietari Inkinen gave what I thought was a splendidly uninhibited performance of the work, bringing out and revelling in those marvellously juicy lyrical lines throughout the first two movements, and setting the music’s more ethereal other-worldly episodes against a gloriously epic soundscape of rugged and far-flung proportions.

One of the Symphony’s most distinctive features was a highlight of the performance and a resounding success – the use of those special instruments known as “Wagner tubas” in the work’s slow movement, the music paying homage to the composer that Bruckner admired almost unreservedly. The latter was at work on the slow movement when news of the death of “the Master” reached him, and he used the quartet of these eponymous instruments to express his grief. This was the passage immediately following the music’s biggest and most resplendent climax, when the instruments begin a dignified and sombre lament, which becomes a threnody of deeply-felt emotion – here it was all quite superbly played and beautifully controlled by the musicians.

With the other movements equally as characterful and focused, this was a performance to remember and savour – a soulfully-realised first movement with wonderfully-arched lyrical lines,a vigorous and charmingly bucolic Scherzo, and a Finale whose performance here knitted the music’s somewhat stop-start character together with rare cohesiveness, and brought about a resplendent finish. Pietri Inkinen and his players delivered the last pages of the work with a breadth and grandeur that evoked an image of the world viewed by the composer from what seemed like mountain-tops akin to the portals of Heaven.

All in all, I thought the concert a most promising start by the orchestra and its conductor to the 2010 season.