Brilliant NZSO in Slav and Finnish country

Smetana: Sarka from Ma Vlast; Sibelius: Violin Concerto; Tchaikosky: Symphony No 6 ‘Pathétique’

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen with Hilary Hahn (violin)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 23 April, 6.30pm

I have the feeling that while the Wellington audience realizes that Hilary Hahn is quite a good violinist, many do not quite know the extent of her international renown. One doesn’t become a Gramophone magazine Artist of the Year on account of being simply competent – and that was 18 months ago. The NZSO programme booklet, at least, marked the orchestra’s awareness of her pre-eminence with an unusual double-spread biographical essay. There was a full house and I understand some were turned away: a contrast with the situation at the fine Bruckner/Strauss concert a fortnight earlier which, of course, had deserved a similar audience.

Hahn’s vehicle was the Sibelius concerto, oddly, only seven months after the orchestra’s performance of it in the Sibelius Festival with its concertmaster as soloist. That was a fine performance, but this one was superb. Not only did Hahn demonstrate every kind of spiritual energy, from dynamic power to breathless, poetic finesse in her role, but her very presence, petite and all as she is, seemed to inspire in the orchestra a boundless intensity in the tutti, and especially in the cellos and basses (both sections seem remarkably inspired by the leadership of bassist Hiroshi Ikematsu), low brass and bassoons, but also their obverse: misty, shimmering pianissimi in the opening pages and the several magical diminishings of sheer physical power, such as in the slow movement.

Even if her scarlet dress didn’t altogether endorse the emotion of the tremulous, sub-audible dawning passage at the opening, it came to represent the character of her ful-blooded playing soon enough, helped by the commanding projection of sound from her fine instrument.

She played an encore, to cleanse he palette, as it were – the Allegro assai (I think) from Bach’s 3rd solo violin sonata.

What most characterizes her playing is not just the flawless intonation, beauty of tone and the detailed nuances that colour and embroider every phrase, but the celebration of the human spirit, generosity and optimism, belief in the importance of human creativity (if such purple extravagances be allowed). Those are the spiritual messages of all great art, regardless of the specific emotions and images with which they engage.

Those thoughts recurred listening to Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, with its assumed text of despair, a reading that is hard to avoid as one leaves with the last movement in the ears. Yet that is hardly the overwhelming message of the earlier movements, though in a performance such as this where I felt both second and third movements to be in the nature of forced rejoicing, unvarying in their tempo and without much dynamic variety.

It struck me that Inkinen’s immediate start of the last movement was as much to deny any temptation to hear the March-like 3rd movement as an affirmation of over-confidence, to reject it at once as empty bombast, as it was to stop the inevitable, unwanted applause that makes such a juxtaposition hard to bring about.

While the middle two movements are interesting, the Pathétique’s heart, unlike with many great symphonies, seems to lie in the first and last movements which seem far more complex, obscure, ambiguous and plain beautiful than the two middle movements. Their orchestration, their ebb and flow of speed and dynamics, exert a much stronger attraction to the emotions and to tantalize the intellect.

Played at the beginning, and completing this programme devoted to the music of the Slav, and near-Slav world, was the long overdue playing of one of Smetana’s symphonic poems: an imaginative stroke. It puzzles me that so many of the pieces of music that feature in writings about music and that furnish the minds of at least older audience members, from their childhood, are ignored by concert arrangers: the more popular of the Ma Vlast cycle for example, Vltava and From Bohemia’s Woods and MeadowsSarka is a particularly dramatic piece, perhaps not entirely successful in its shape, but susceptible, as shown here, to brilliant and arresting performance; the clarinet solos were most eloquent and there were fine passages from other players such as trombones and tuba.

Lovers of the tone poems lament that a composer of such orchestral flair didn’t attempt the symphony, or more large-scale orchestral music.

In all, this was a brilliant concert fully justifying the big audience, and the presence of this remarkable violinist.

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