Rapturous Mahler and more, with the NZSO

HARRIS – Three Pieces for Orchestra

HAYDN – Cello Concerto No. 1 in C Major

MAHLER – Symphony No.5 in C-sharp Minor

Li-Wei Qin (‘cello)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Pietari Inkinen (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 17th July, 2010

This was a blockbuster of a concert, regarding both its overall length and the epic nature of the music throughout its second half. The Mahler Fifth Symphony isn’t the longest of the canon, but it has an epic grandeur that invites big, measured utterances, and the performance by the NZSO and its conductor Pietari Inkinen squared up to the work’s demands magnificently. Earlier we got Ross Harris’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, evocative vignettes of different times, places and personalities, followed by some lively, elegant Haydn from one of the stars of the world of ‘cello-playing, Li-Wei Qin.

Having a piece of contemporary music, and especially a world premiere put onto a programme always gives a concert a special flavour. Such occasions are welcomed with great interest and expectation in some quarters, and received in more conservative circles with attitudes ranging from mild tolerance to avid dislike. Ross Harris’s piece got its foot in the door rather cleverly with its different evocations of three places in Europe associated with well-known composers, one of whom was Mahler, whose name is of course forever linked with Vienna.

The work was a commission from Peter and Kathryn Walls, and was originally intended as a “calling card” for the orchestra to take on their European tour later this year. With each of the three European places named in the piece planned as part of the orchestra’s concert schedule, it seemed an ingenious idea that the orchestra should play at least the movement from the work referring to the concert’s location on each of those three occasions. One would think that concert promoters in each of those cities would jump at the idea of having a visiting orchestra play a piece written about their own part of the world, each piece emphasising an association with a great composer.

I hope the idea of touring the work goes ahead, if only because the music is so good – each piece unerringly captures a world of vivid impressions concerning a place and its effect upon a powerful creative mind. The Vienna/Mahler piece is a spiky, grotesque waltz, not unlike that of the composer’s Seventh Symphony scherzo, from which there is a quote at the music’s beginning. Parts burlesque, reverie, nightmare, and satire, the piece catches a volatility, a juxtapositioning of vastly different moods throughout, the waltz-rhythm as much a tribute to Vienna as to Mahler’s use of the dance in his music. Of the three pieces I thought it the most subtle in that the direct links to the music of the associated composer were the least “signalled”, leaving the world of pastiche far behind.

The second piece, entitled Lucerne/Wagner, began with a tolling bell, the resonances drifting over still waters, evoking the scene that must have greeted Wagner on many a morning while he lived at the Villa Tribschen, on the shores of Lake Lucerne. This was reputedly the happiest period of the composer’s life, so it was interesting that Ross’s tribute had an elegiac, almost valedictory tone, with a cor anglais solo beautifully played by Michael Austin. The last piece was called Dusseldorf/Schumann, the music right from the start restless and agitated, for me reflecting Schumann’s energetic and obsessive activities as a composer and anxieties as a performing musician. Throughout the piece the Schumannesque fingerprints juxtaposed nervous tensions and dream-like fantasisings, with golden “Rhenish-Symphony” horns summoning the composer back from the most distant realms of his creativity, and returning the music to the opening agitations, the piece concluding with an ethereal upward flourish, an ending which seemed to take most listeners by surprise.

People have been quick to point out that such an ending to a piece doesn’t make enough of a rousing impression on audiences, especially when it’s an unfamiliar work. I thought the music’s “not with a bang but with a whimper” conclusion entirely appropriate given Schumann’s tribulations and eventual descent into madness while at Dusseldorf. I was more concerned with the obviousness of one or two of the quotations in the second and third pieces, quotes which pushed the pieces more towards the realms of pastiche – I wondered whether the “Rheingold” and the “Prophet Bird” motifs in the second and third pieces respectively needed to be quite so exposed, especially as, in the “Mahler” movement, by comparison, the references to original work made for a somewhat less cliched effect. Even so, I thought that each of the pieces was quite delectably written, managing to say significant things about the ambience of interaction between composer and location in all three instances – rather like acts of homage from one creator to three others. As such, it’s a very “international” piece that should travel well – and I feel certain the orchestra will have a lot of success with it, wherever they play it, either in part or as a whole.

By dint of his association with Vienna, both as a choirboy in his young years and as a senior composer, Haydn was readily aligned with Mahler for the purposes of this concert. And if there appears to the ear very little in common between them stylistically, each composer did share and express a joy in the countryside which they expressed in their music, Haydn far more so than many of his classical contemporaries, and Mahler through his frequent “nature-music” episodes in his scores. With the latter’s Fifth Symphony, however, the impression is less of evocation of nature than of a kind of neo-classical spirit, the composer declaring that he wanted the work “to combine the contrapuntal skill of Bach with the melodiousness of Haydn and Mozart”. As for Haydn himself, there were touches of rustic vigour in his newly-discovered ‘Cello Concerto in C Major, played here by one of the stars of the world of the ‘cello, Li-Wei Qin.

This was a gentler performance than I was accustomed to, having recordings by both Rostropovich and Yo-Yo Ma, both of whom ride the work using their instrument as a kind of bucking bronco in places, a very exciting and earthy “pesante” approach to which the music readily responds. But Li-Wei Qin made the work his own through gentler, more restrained means, very musical, if in places somewhat circumspect, my impression being that he was putting the music first and the performer second. The scaled-down orchestra kept things on a similar wavelength, concentrating on beauty of tone and unanimity of phrasing, rather than snap and bite. He didn’t make the upward scales in the finale behave like skyrockets, or evoke the madness of a Keystone Cops chase with rapid figurations – it was a performance that spun the music out like gossamer thread, everything more elegant than earthy, and in the end coming off beautifully.

The evening’s heavyweight business came with the Mahler Symphony in the concert’s second half. I thought that, corporately and individually, the players delivered this work magnificently, under the direction of Pietari Inkinen. Right from the opening trumpet fanfare (Michael Kirgan’s playing of this had a wonderfully urgent sense of sounding an alarm to the world, which sent shivers down the back of my neck!), one felt that the players were there for the long haul, bar by bar, bringing out everything they possibly could from the music. I was struck by the excellence of the solo instrumental playing as much as by the ensemble – and this work, as with a number of the Mahler symphonies, abounds in opportunities for solo playing, quite scarily in places where the player is so exposed (as with that trumpet opening).

I can recall hearing at least two previous performances by the orchestra of this work, the most recent being in 2006 with Susanna Mälkki (coincidentally, from the same part of the world as Inkinen)  – and, while I admired Mälkki’s skills and her commitment to other music she conducted here, I thought her interpretation of the Mahler fairly unsympathetic. The work was rattled through at what seemed like a tremendous pace, which brought forth brilliant playing from the orchestra but with so much of what I thought of as the music’s character ignored – its tremendous weight at the start, its charm and circumspection in the middle, and its lyrical beauty and good humour at the end – all seemed to me sacrificed to brilliance. Of course, this is music that, like all great works of a similar ilk, can be played many different ways and still work its magic upon audiences – rarely is a great piece of music performed to nobody’s (or everybody’s) satisfaction.

Thankfully, Pietari Inkinen seemed far more involved with the work’s spirit throughout, taking great pains to characterise strongly the symphony’s three parts – the grim purpose of the first two movements, the dancing energies and nostalgic remembrances of the third movement, and the romance and gurgling good humour of the final two movements all received their dues. Where the interpretation really blossomed for me was with the third movement, the waltz-scherzo, the movement of which Mahler predicted that “conductors for the next fifty years will take it too fast!”. Inkinen seemed to have fully heeded the composer’s warning, and directed a performance with such lilt and charm and sensitivity to changing moods that the whole hall took on a kind of ambient glow at the shared pleasure of it all. The horn section, led by Ed Allen, played like heroes, sounding their frequent calls with golden tones across magically-conceived soundscapes, while the rest of the orchestra danced and ruminated by turns, Inkinen getting from the players real point to the Viennese rhythms throughout.

Another of the work’s features was the contrapuntal character of Mahler’s writing, again in the waltz-scherzo, but also in the finale. Conductor and players brought out these interactive lines with lots of energy, humour and bubble, the music given room to breathe and for the phrases allowed plenty of “point” – in fact the music takes on an almost concerto grosso aspect in places, with frequent quotations from the composer’s own songs and the counterpoint to which the melodic lines were yoked given as much to a variety of solo instruments as to the strings or brass sections. As for the work’s most famous movement, the strings-and-harp Adagietto, beloved of both film-makers and musak-merchants, it was played here so simply and with such pure intensity (at a natural breathing-pace) that it sounded for all the world as though it had been freshly-composed – it just unfolded, strand by strand, episode by episode, to magical effect (and I loved the basses’ choreography throughout their final descending phrase, the players swaying and digging into each bow-stroke as though their lives depended upon the outcome).

My only reservations came with the first two movements, neither of which I thought generated enough “weight” to adequately support what the brass players were doing so wonderfully with the top lines. I didn’t think there was quite enough sense of enormous crushing power in the tread of the first movement, and especially not in those baleful chromatic descents which conclude with percussive strokes that ought to shake the surrounding’s very foundations – I wanted the lower instruments at those points to really dig in and to “thwack”, to bring us right to the edge of the abyss, as it were, generating more of a sense of “Do not go gentle into that good night” throughout what the composer intended to be a funeral march. In the second movement, I felt the music’s baleful aspect was underplayed, the horns for one not given sufficient encouragement to roar in places, and the percussion held in check for most of the movement – that is, until the appearance of the work’s mighty crossbeam, the great brass chorale, where Inkinen seemed at last to really “open the music up” and give us a searing glimpse of something akin to the eternal, the orchestral playing magnificent almost to the point of pre-empting the chorale’s re-appearance at the end of the finale.

Had we experienced this degree of tonal weight and deep intensity earlier in the work, I would want to say that the performance was the finest I had ever heard of the symphony. As it was, Inkinen and the NZSO were able to spectacularly convey the work’s cumulative effect sufficiently for us to take into our hearts something of the composer’s idea of this worlde’s joye. No matter that the concert stretched on into the night later than was usual (a 7:30pm starting time would have helped in this case) – the exhalations of pleasure I heard from people all around me at the exciting conclusion of the symphony’s finale spoke volumes regarding the thrills of the music-making and the success of the concert.

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