Witchcraft, Romance and Nostalgia from the NZSO

DVORAK – The Noonday Witch Op.108

TCHAIKOVSKY – Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat Minor Op.23

PROKOFIEV – Symphony No.7 in C-sharp Minor Op.131

Freddy Kempf (piano)

Alexander Lazarev (conductor)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 25th June 2010

Each of conductor Alexander Lazarev’s two recent concerts with the NZSO has featured repertoire which, although not obscure, doesn’t often appear in our orchestral programmes. Both Glazunov’s ballet The Seasons and Dvorak’s spooky tone-poem The Noon-Day Witch are in what I would call the “somewhat neglected” category of orchestral works – I was therefore interested to read NZSO CEO Peter Walls’ description in the programme’s welcoming foreword of the Dvorak tone-poem as “ever-popular”. I would have thought that, for most people, it simply wouldn’t rate in the popularity stakes next to works like the Carnival Overture and the Scherzo Capriccioso. And as for calling the concert series “Russian” – well, I feel the good Antonin would have had something to say about that, Slav or no Slav.

Nonetheless, the second of the “Russian Romantics” presentations by the NZSO was as resounding a success as the first (Glinka, Rachmaninov, Glazunov) with all credit due to the musicians involved. I compared the NZSO’s performance of the Dvorak piece with a recording I own featuring the redoubtable Czech Philharmonic under the directorship of the worthy but relatively lack-lustre maestro Vaclav Neumann. Even allowing for the extra frisson generated by a live performance, conductor Alexander Lazarev and the NZSO’s players brought to the music whole oceans more colour, atmosphere and energy, so that the macabre story of the disobedient child whose life is taken by the pitiless witch at the unthinking invitation of the child’s mother really came to life. Every phrase counted as part of either atmosphere or narrative, the story’s unfolding episodes so very vividly characterised – the opening’s rustic folk-dance, the oboe’s depiction of the disobedient child, and the mother’s anger and frustration leading to her unwitting invocation of the witch were all brought unerringly into focus in varying ways. What incredibly sinister pianissimi Lazarev conjured out of his string players, for example (the conductor involuntarily shooting an accusing glance out into the auditorium at a hapless cougher, at one point), by way of depicting the arrival of the witch and the fear and horror of the mother at her impulsive threat’s nightmarish realisation. Then, how baleful the brass, how wonderfully angular the string-playing, and how brutal and whip-lash the final orchestral payoff!  Despite such full-blooded advocacy, I still didn’t feel as though the work hung terribly well together – it somehow lacked the surety and focus of some of the composer’s other shorter orchestral pieces, such as the two mentioned earlier.

Concertgoers who had heard pianist Freddy Kempf’s poetic Rachmaninov Third a fortnight ago in Wellington would have revelled in the chance to hear him tackle another of the most famous concert war-horses of all time, the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto. I may sound perverse, but after having remarked in a review of the previous concert that the pianist seemed never to completely COMMAND the Rachmaninov Concerto despite the moments of great poetry and depth of feeling, I thought on this later occasion that it was the orchestra which in places wasn’t quite (literally) up to speed in relation to the playing of its star soloist. Conductor Lazarev adopted an expansive approach to the famous opening tune, one which I thought didn’t quite “knit” with the more forthright playing of the pianist. Kempf in fact seemed determined to prove that he could make the most of the biggest virtuoso moments, though to be fair, his playing of the more lyrical and limpid passages as well never missed the chance to generate washes of poetic feeling. But two of the most exciting pieces of interplay between orchestra and soloist in the first movement didn’t quite come off for me because of the conductor’s reluctance to match the pianist’s terrific head of steam, resulting each time in a kind of sudden upward gear-change as the music spurted forward in the soloist’s hands – I was surprised, considering what I’d witnessed of Lazarev’s energy and volatility on the podium and the exciting results he got from his players elsewhere.

What did emerge (as it did during the Rachmaninov concerto performance a fortnight previously) was the music’s narrative aspect – one felt that a story was being told, both by the orchestra (a gritty, dogged build-up to a flailing piano entry reminiscent of similar orchestral textures in the same composer’s Fourth Symphony) and the pianist (a lovely dialogue between the hands, the same phrase tossed back and forward with different emphases and textural qualities, before dialoguing (so operatic at this point) similarly with the orchestra. The cadenza was played with a volatile mixture of poetry and bravura, even if the pianist seemed to momentarily tire towards the movement’s end. Somebody’s rogue hearing-aid interrupted the beginning of the slow movement, which, when conductor and pianist agreed that they would press on anyway, featured the most delicately-voiced string-playing I’ve heard for a long time, allowing Kirstin Eade’s flute to shine through untramelled. Freddy Kempf’s elfin playing suited the central section’s scamperings to perfection, though in the finale (played “attacca”) I felt he could have “roughed up” the music’s textures a bit more, in keeping with the roisterous energies of the orchestral tutti. Still, his scherzando-like playing wove wonderful arabesques of energy, and he certainly unleashed a jaw-dropping torrent of octaves by way of announcing the final “all-together” statement of the finale’s big tune – thunderbolts and whirlwinds indeed! – earning him a momentous ovation at the end. Some people I spoke to thought the encore (Vladimir Horowitz’s amazing transcription of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever March) inappropriate after the concerto, but I didn’t think so – I loved its outrageous excess, and thought Kempf’s performance was positively Horowitz-like in its power and brilliance (I’m SURE I counted only two hands at that keyboard!).

Before the second half began, an endearingly human touch to the proceedings came with Associate Concertmaster Donald Armstrong’s warmly-expressed farewell to one of the orchestra’s longest-serving violinists, Jane Freed, playing in her last concert. Then it was the Prokofiev Symphony’s turn (the composer’s seventh and last) beginning with an unusually forthright piano note, its resonances colouring the string-playing that followed with whole skyfuls of nostalgic feeling, floating like terraced banks of clouds. Alexander Lazarev was in his element with this work, encouraging great surges of string-sound within expansive orchestral paragraphings, but then keeping the percussion-led “other voices” dance-like reply strictly in tempo, ensuring a seamless flow of engagement from all concerned. He brought out the accompanying piano figurations to the big tune’s reprise at the movement’s end in a way that opened our vistas even further and dug more deeply into the terrain’s soil. In the second movement, begun gracefully, but then gathering momentum and pointed articulation, Lazarev galvanised his forces during the motoric percussive episode, cranking up the tempo most excitingly, then slowing again for the strings’ return. Throughout, the players’ instrumental detailing was a delight – I couldn’t see the trumpeter from where I was sitting, but his (her?) waltz-tune was played with just the right amount of delicious vulgarity, for example.

Conductor and players caught the crepuscular, lump-in-throat expanses of the third movement’s opening with great sensitivity – those tunes sung over the music’s dark abysses (Robert Orr’s oboe-playing a constant delight) engendered such a flavour, a bitter-sweet sense of remembrance and loss and resignation throughout. Of course, Lazarev is an “attacca” musician with a vengeance, and the symphony’s finale was no exception, its first note here searing through the ambiences of the previous music’s dying fall and creating a great stirring of blood and breath, ready for the propulsive urgencies that followed. The orchestra equally delighted in the fairy-tale gallop episodes and the gawky gavotte sequences, nicely playing up the music’s contrasts and angularities, the brass players covering themselves with glory along the way, especially during the lead-up to the reintroduction of the first movement’s “big tune”. Lazarev seemed occasionally to want to bring the audience in as an optional chorus during this section, turning his body towards the auditorium with some of his sweeping arm-gesturings, as though the entire space within the MFC had been given over to conductable music-making. I had thought that we were going to get both endings of the symphony, as written by the composer (the authorities objected to Prokofiev’s original elegiac ending to the work, requesting that he write an alternative coda with a happy, boisterous ending!) – but instead of setting this “clip-on” piece in motion at the end, the conductor brought the symphony to its conclusion with a single pizzicato chord as per the original. And that, as they say in the classics, was that! Rapturous responses from all sides at the end, with appreciative plaudits for Alexander Lazarev and more salutes to Jane Freed, bringing a memorable concert to a satisfying conclusion.

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