Polish Pride – an Antipodean tribute from the NZSO

Polish Pride

SZYMANOWSKI – Concert Overture

CHOPIN – Piano Concerto No.2

CHOPIN (arr.Stravinsky) – Nocturne

LUTOSLAWSKI – Symphony No.4

Diedre Irons (piano)

Jacek Kaspszyk (conductor)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 29th April 2010

Polish hearts beat staunchly both at the beginning of and throughout this special concert in the Michael Fowler Centre, as Beata Stocyńska, the Polish Ambassador to New Zealand, addressed those present in the Michael Fowler Centre at the invitation of Peter Walls the orchestra’s CEO.  Mrs Stocyńska spoke of her countrymen’s and women’s pride in their culture and the achievements of their creative artists, such as Fryderyk Chopin, whose 200th birthday was marked by the proclamation of a “Year of Fryderyck Chopin” by the Polish Government. There was tragedy, too, at the mention by the ambassador of the recent air-crash in Russia that claimed the lives of the Polish President and a number of government officials, an event that gave this concert and its music all the more poignancy for those present. Adding his dignified gravitas to the occasion was the Governor-General of New Zealand, the Honourable Sir Anand Satyanand, speaking on behalf of all of the non-Polish people present, and eloquently but simply conveying a nation’s sympathy for another’s anguish and grief.

The tributes concluded, it was then over to the musicians, who moved the proceedings forward spectacularly with Karol Szymanowski’s Concert Overture. Anybody unfamiliar with Szymanowski’s music would have presumed that the overture was by Richard Strauss, so unerringly does the younger man imitate the latter, at the time the most famous composer in Europe. In fact Szymanowski almost out-Strausses Strauss, if not to the music’s advantage – though exciting and forceful, the work is simply too heavily scored, and risks tiring the listener’s ear before the end. Conductor Jacek Kaspszky controlled the profusion of youthful orchestral exuberance as best he could, although one was still left with a “less-is-more” feeling after the tumultuous waves of instrumental tone had ceased once and for all.

If the excitement and energy was all too palpable during the Szymanowski Overture, similar qualities were in short supply during much of the performance of the Chopin piano concerto which followed, at least in the orchestral playing. Though numbered as the second, the F Minor Concerto was actually composed earlier than the E Minor No.1, and, despite the young composer’s love for Mozart’s music, shows little of the latter’s aptitude for using the orchestra as an effective protagonist, especially in the outer movements. It’s music that doesn’t ”play itself”, requiring instead plenty of positive and energetic advocacy, which conductor and orchestra seemed strangely reluctant to fetch up, with the result that, when pianist Diedre Irons wasn’t playing, the music seemed to amble inconsequentially along. Right at the outset there was genuine poetic feeling from the strings, and some nice work by oboist Robert Orr, but thereafter things were oddly lacklustre – some nicely shaped bassoon-and piano exchanges later in the movement raised hopes, but the duetting if anything seemed to further inhibit rather than stimulate any contrasting vigour and muscle in the tuttis.

It’s interesting, and fortunate, that the slow movement of the concerto is an absolute gem – inspired by the young composer’s passion for a singer, Constantia Gladowska, the music conjures up a kind of breath-stopping enchantment throughout, underpinned by a richly-woven carpet of sensitively-sustained orchestral tones. Diedre Irons wove one magical arabesque after another in this movement with finely-spun feeling and delicacy, nicely supported by the orchestra at every turn. But as for the rest, there was little to enthuse about – no strong impulse or spark that would have energised those admittedly dull orchestral textures and given the interchanges between piano and orchestra some interest. The pianist was doing her utmost (and how good to have her perform with the NZSO once again), but the orchestral response to her elaborate solo paragraphings and spirited lead-ins during the outer movements suggested that hearts and minds were largely elsewhere.

Igor Stravinsky’s piquant orchestration of Chopin’s A-flat Nocturne Op.32 No.2 served to demonstrate the well-known balletic inclinations of one of the twentieth-century’s greatest composers. Written in 1909 for the impresario Diaghilev, to extend an existing ballet using Chopin’s music for the famed Ballets Russes, Stravinsky produced a delightful neo-Tchaikovsky-like realisation which brought out all the sentiment of the original (a lovely “stopped” horn at the cadence-points of the opening section) and gave bright Russian colours to the more vigorous episodes in the middle part of the work. A lovely, diaphanous ambience gave the conclusion a sombre beauty, Kaspszyk and the players nicely realising the setting’s mixture of delicacy and turbulence.

Both delicacy and turbulence were writ large in the evening’s final work from Poland, the Fourth Symphony of Lutoslawski. Overshadowed at first by the incredible popularity of his Third Symphony, with its engaging tunefulness and high drama, Lutoslawski’s Fourth is a much tougher proposition, shorter, more introverted and darker, in places elegiac. The work has a two-movement layout, each part relating to the other in a way that creates a kind of arched structure, the first movement making its listeners, in the composer’s words, “hungry, and finally even impatient” for the fulfilment of the second part. So we heard the clarinet’s gentle, lyrical theme at the start against a murmuring accompaniment, extended later by both flute and clarinet,and interspersed by episodes of faster, more mercurial and less predictable music – these are marked in the score “ad libitum” and the performers asked to improvise, to shape the gestures according to their own impulses.

The players were transformed, engaged, focused and totally committed to making these sounds – my notes refer to things like “impassioned tolling-bell figures – great swinging strides from basses, snappish brass clusters splash colour and tighten tension, strings soar and sear…”  and later “claustrophobic ostinati from strings with brass and percussion bouncing backwards and forwards off walls…” the impression thus given of sometimes elemental, sometimes feverish activity. Against this were the moments of stasis, in line with Lutoslawski’s avowed intention of delaying the listener’s desire for continuity and resolution through unexpected contrast and variety. I noted “pointillistic shimmerings from strings, iridescences from everywhere, like fireflies at dusk” and “great spaces, deep loneliness, railway lights humming along lines in the middle of nowhere – a sense of impulses coursing over vast spaces, subdued but purposeful…”. One’s gradual awareness of the process of resolution of these disparate elements became a profound listening experience – throughout the performance the focus of the playing and conducting was palpable, spell-binding in its intensity and brilliance, and unerring in its control and direction, for which the musicians received their just dues from the audience at the end.

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