NZSO’s first subscription concert fills the MFC

Apotheosis: Lilburn: Processional Fanfare, Beethoven: Emperor Concerto (no.5, Op.73), Mahler: Symphony no.4

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra: Pietari Inkinen (conductor); Saleem Abboud Ashkar (piano); Anna Leese (soprano)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday, 25 March, 6.30pm

The title ‘Apotheosis’ may seem dramatic, but as Peter Walls pointed out at the pre-concert talk, the two major works were lofty to the extent of being other-worldly.

It must have felt like a sort of black apotheosis in Christchurch a month ago; at this concert, money was collected for the Red Cross earthquake relief fund, and subtle red and black striped lighting was projected onto the back of the stage, behind the musicians.

While graduation from university is not usually quite an apotheosis, nevertheless it was good to hear Lilburn’s Processional Fanfare, originally written for organ and trumpets for the final congregation of the University of New Zealand (which comprised the Auckland, Victoria and Canterbury University Colleges, and Otago University: allowed the more prestigious name because it was the first in the country, but left out of the programme note). It has been used since then for Victoria University’s graduation ceremonies.

Although orchestrated by the composer after the ceremonies moved to the Michael Fowler Centre, the three trumpets were still very prominent, making a great sound. A solo from concertmaster Leppänen was notable, and the play on Gaudeamus igitur, the Latin song traditionally sung at graduations was brilliantly achieved by the composer. The performance was what an overture should be – a well-played, interesting introduction to a concert, that whets the appetite for more.

Beethoven’s mighty ‘Emperor’ concerto must be one of the most well-known works in the piano concerto repertoire, but that doesn’t make it in any way a tedious experience to hear it again; like other works of its calibre it can stand numerous hearings. There is always more to hear, especially at the hands of different soloists.

And what a soloist this was! A tall, handsome young man, with a hairstyle reminiscent of that shown in portraits of Robert Schumann, he appeared the epitome of the romantic pianist. However, there were no histrionic gestures, but a superb technique, exquisite delicacy, and close attention to all the subtleties of Beethoven’s magnificent score.

While Ashkar’s pianissimos were graceful, delicate and very quiet, at times in the first movement the orchestra was sometimes too restrained in comparison with the piano; Beethoven’s writing seldom gives extended passages to the piano alone, but usually has the two forces working together.

Beethoven’s inventiveness within the classical form always astonishes, as does his power. This pianist was equal to all the challenges.

The adagio’s wonderful muted opening on strings always ‘sends’ me, and it could not have been in better hands. The pizzicato cello sound, then the delicate piano entry stirred with their great finesse, yet nobility. The singing second subject was a delight.

There was some slight lack of cohesion at the transition from adagio to the rondo finale, where the tempo slows down and then changes, without a break.

The finale had a robust start but despite his beautiful piano technique, I found the pianist pedalled the runs more than I would have liked. However, there was nothing flashy about his playing, and no unnecessary bravura. The fast passages were certainly very fast, but Ashkar produced an attractive liquid sound.

The brass seemed rather weak in this movement, but overall the orchestra was in excellent form. Tumultuous applause, including from the members of the orchestra greeted the Palestinian pianist’s remarkable artistry.

Mahler’s symphonies are a major undertaking, not least because of their length. At 55 minutes, this was one of his shorter efforts. It was a challenge the orchestra lived up to.

As Peter Walls explained in his talk, there are songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the set of German folk poems published in 1806, in each of the four movements, not only in the final one. He paid tribute to Pietari Inkinen, whom he described as a genius in his excellent understanding and interpretation of Bruckner and Mahler.

After the wonderful opening of sleigh bells and flutes, the superb orchestration brings in the cellos and oboes, providing gentle moments. There was plenty of light and shade here, and as elsewhere, some of the string playing was magical.

Mahler’s delightful juxtaposition of timbres features again and again in this symphony.

The second movement was strong yet measured. Very fine solo passages from woodwind and brass gave emphasis to the music. This movement is notable for the scordatura tuning of the concertmaster’s violin, which makes a harsher and more ominous sound, introducing a devilish character to the solo, ably played by Leppänen.

Anna Leese was greeted with applause when she entered between the second and third movements. It made quite a long time for her to sit, unmoving, demurely, before she got to sing.

The third movement, Ruhewoll (peacefully) opens with an almost dream-like adagio song for cellos and violas alternating with oboe, cor anglais and French horn. This sublime music, with its pizzicato ground from the basses (that returns later, more ominously in the brass section) is a great introduction to the heaven depicted in the fourth movement. The violins join in, and then the wind band.

The gentle and folksy is interspersed with dramatic and even foreboding music later, and then a repetition of an anguished, upwards-rising theme already heard intervenes, prior to the initial theme on cellos and violas returning, altered. Mahler surely has his heart on his sleeve here.

There is a great outburst at the end of the movement, and then a peaceful ending.

Enchanting and at times almost mystical orchestration accompanied the song, interspersed with more violent outbursts accompanying the narrative about Herod the butcher killing the lamb, and St. Luke slaughtering the ox. The emphasis on food in the poem no doubt reflects the undernourished poverty of many in medieval Europe, thus the idea that heaven must be a place with food aplenty.

Anna Leese wore a white dress – perhaps symbolising the childish innocence she would sing about. It was good to hear a younger person sing this movement – too many recordings feature much older singers, who are too mature to sing about a child’s view of heaven, the subject of the song on which the movement is based.

The words of the song were printed in both German and English – but the people responsible for the lighting didn’t think to put the lights up to enable them to be read until about two-thirds of the way through.

Leese’s singing was clear yet rich, although not particularly characterful. Nevertheless, it was a most enjoyable interpretation. Some consonants could have been clearer. The lines towards the end about St. Cecilia and her relations making excellent court musicians were quite lovely, and could be applied to the singer herself.

At the end, Inkinen maintained the mood by holding his baton high for some time after the last, very quiet notes had faded away. The enthusiastic applause resulted in bows not only for the singer and the conductor, but for the oboist Robert Orr, violinist Vesa-Matti Leppänen, and horn player Edward Allen, who contributed much throughout the symphony.

An almost capacity audience was mainly very attentive through the long work, although the middle movements made one wonder about the number of people who don’t know to use handkerchiefs or sleeves when coughing, and insisted on adding percussive elements that Mahler did not score.

Excellent programme notes by Frances Moore aided understanding of the music of this memorable concert, although the programme’s cover, depicting cavalry in early nineteenth-century uniforms, was inappropriate. Beethoven hated the Napoleonic War, and certainly did not dedicate his concerto to the self-proclaimed ‘Emperor’.

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