NZSO’s Friday series with Schumann and Schoenberg

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Pietari Inkinen (conductor), Li-Wei Qin (cello)

Arnold Schoenberg: Transfigured Night

Schumann: Cello Concerto in A minor, Op.129

Brahms: Piano quartet No.1 in G minor, Op.25 (orchestrated Schoenberg)

Friday 16 July, 6.30pm

A concert with such an interesting programme as this, and with such a superb soloist, should not have suffered so many empty seats; one is tempted to think that some would-be patrons were scared off by the name Schoenberg – or were they all at the rugby?  There was no need to be scared with this programme.

Schoenberg’s five-movement work, Transfigured Night, based on a poem by Richard Dehmel, is very far removed from atonal.  It is based on a string sextet that he composed early in his career, and is scored for strings only.  It is lush and romantic.

Its slow, quiet start opens with cellos only, then violas join in and later the other strings.  Guest principal violist Jethro Marx (who was in New Zealand earlier in the year with the Zukerman Chamber Players) had plenty to do; his solo passages were strong and resonant.  The section’s position to the right of the conductor made the violas more noticeable, and probably made their sound more prominent.

The music becomes more angular, reflecting the distress of the woman in the poem, who is carrying a child by a man other than her lover.  Towards the end of the work (the movements played continuously) there is contrasting quietude and restful resignation.  All was beautifully played, with much feeling in the last section, and finally, serenity and exaltation.

In addition to the guest principal violist, there was an acting principal of the cellos, a young Englishman, who was able to come to the fore in the cello concerto, where he has a duet section with the soloist.  In addition to these two, an Australian clarinettist was brought from Sydney at short notice, when the orchestra’s regular principal clarinet was unable to play, and a guest principal bassoonist from Amsterdam was also part of the line-up.

The high point of a very good concert was undoubtedly Li-Wei Qin’s playing of Schumann’s cello concerto.  The soloist had a rich sound; no doubt helped by the 1780 Guadagnini cello he plays.

This was his first visit to New Zealand, although he lived in Australia from the age of 13 before going to Manchester to study.  However, he has played with the NZSO before, at the Beijing Olympics Cultural Festival in 2008.  His playing of the work was passionate and romantic.  He has an apparently effortless technique, married to good articulation and phrasing.

The duet between the soloist and the principal cellist was played with typically Romantic ecstatic longing.  The soloist was somewhat flamboyant of gesture at times, but what gorgeous and brilliant playing!  It was a thoroughly luscious interpretation, alternately robust and delicate as required. 

The virtuosic cadenza was completely musical in its execution, despite the soloist not having free rein, free of the orchestra, (or ‘free reign’ as the programme notes had it).  One could only agree with the quotation in the notes from Pablo Casals – ‘one of the finest works one can hear – from beginning to end the music is sublime’.

Li-Wei Qin responded to the tumultuous applause with an encore – a little March by Prokofiev which featured double-stopping and left-hand pizzicato, and was quite delightful.

With its very lively movements, this piano quartet of Brahms perhaps lends itself to a full orchestral arrangement more than many would.  However, I found it strange to hear a chamber music work that I know reasonably well, being played by full orchestra.  The effect was of a Brahms symphony.

There was no question that it is a fine orchestration, but I would still rather have it as a quartet.  It sounded heavy and even dull at times, despite the exciting percussion and winds that Schoenberg has employed.  The delicacy one gets with a chamber ensemble was almost entirely absent, though there were glimpses in the second movement’s trio, especially the lovely woodwind sections.

The opening theme, normally on piano, sounded quite strange on bass clarinet (?). Elsewhere there were big washes of sound where in the original there would be subtlety; the work was expansive instead of introspective.

The third movement became pompous, but the themes were brought out well. The gypsy finale suffered less from the orchestration, its gaiety and syncopation were merely amplified, especially by the use of percussion: tambourine, xylophone, triangle, glockenspiel and side-drum.  But at times the unison effect was rather overpowering.  It was delightful to have a small section in this movement scored for string trio alone.

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