Antoni Wit and cellist Hurtaud score in wonderful NZSO concert

Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (Penderecki); Cello Concerto No 2 in D (Haydn); Symphony No 3 in E flat ‘Eroica’ (Beethoven)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit with cellist Sébastien Hurtaud

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 21 May, 8pm

Though Antoni Wit had recorded a couple of highly-praised CDs with the NZSO four years ago, he has never conducted a public concert with the orchestra. It is perhaps a timely moment to reflect on the number of performances that the orchestra has recorded with a number of distinguished conductors whose work has not been heard in public concerts. This has long seemed a strange policy, and a great pity.

And this was his only concert, which is being presented in five cities: but why only one programme? Penderecki’s Threnody is hardly a typical or useful representative of Polish orchestral music in the past century, and in any case, it has been played by the orchestra in recent years. There’s so much other rewarding Polish orchestral music; a concert featuring a Szymanowski symphony or violin concerto, symphonies and other works by Panufnik, Lutoslawski, Penderecki would have been a most interesting departure and Wit on the podium would ensure a good reception.

Nevertheless, Antoni Wit’s emergence in the Michael Fowler Centre was a very conspicuous success. There was a a full house, a not very frequent occurrence these days. And the reception given to the orchestra and conductor at the end of the ‘Eroica’ was almost ecstatic. The audience clearly recognizes a conductor with that special gift and whose virtues flow in part from his adherence to the old school of Central European conductors.

The first thing to be noticed after the interval, as the ‘Eroica’ began was the unusual rearrangement of the orchestra. In the first half, strings were in the normal pattern, rising pitch from right to left. But here, double basses were on the far left, cellos in the second violins’ usual place, while the latter were front right. Where I was sitting, facing cellos and basses, the sound was certainly wonderfully enriched from its foundation of low register instruments.

Wit’s gestures are expressive, using an interesting variety of hand movements, particularly of the left hand; but the real secret of the conductor’s magic is much less definable and those in the choir gallery might have had a more interesting visual experience, observing the face which is where most of a leader’s magic resides. The result was constantly arresting music with exciting and finely tuned dynamics that allowed details of the scoring such as clarinet adornments and the middle harmonies from second violins and violas more than usual clarity.

It was Robert Orr’s oboe whose plaintive beauty was most conspicuous in the Marcia funèbre, grave and dignified. It was here, in particular, that Wit created the most deeply-felt grandeur, which tempers the heroic and hopes for the betterment of society with the ever-present awareness of life’s transience and individual weaknesses that bedevil man’s greatest ambitions. A great performance can raise such feelings that lie quite outside any verbal description of the way in which it is achieved.

The ‘Eroica’ is not the sort of work whose later movements become less profound or more light-hearted. And this performance did no such thing. The pulsing force of the Scherzo, often driven from the bottom by powerful timpani and basses, carried on the argument while Wit recreated the great Finale , manicured every phrase with a tireless care for dynamics and moved from one variation to the next with astute tempo changes.

The concert had begun with the Threnody; a typical example of a 1960s composition at the then cutting edge. Basically, like so much of its genre, it mistakes the creation of a powerful emotional state through certain kinds of noise, for music. Unfortunately, the job of a composer of music is to transmute the emotion that might underlie a wish to create a work of art in sound into a fabric of melody and rhythm – music.

The dense tone clusters, better defined in the excellent programme note as ‘sound mass’, worked as intended, with brilliant impact by a conductor and orchestra that brought the piece compellingly to life.

The Haydn cello concerto generally seems to transcend what one is often led to believe about it: an attractive, somewhat light-weight piece. It’s rather more than that, and the beautiful performance by young French cellist Sébastien Hurtaud, limpidly lyrical, mellifluous, and of course singularly virtuosic, would have banished any tendency to dismiss it lightly. I heard some comment about the lack of baroque sound from the orchestra which, from other than eager young students out to demonstrate their critical acumen, is a bit tedious. It was comforting to hear the sensible comments of violinist Tasmin Little at her Naked Violin concert the following afternoon about period instrument practice.

In other words, this performance from a suitably reduced body of strings, and winds as prescribed in the score, was admirable, suiting perfectly music that Haydn had written for the baroque beauties of the 400-seat theatre at Esterháza. Hurtaud’s performance, while well gauged for the acoustic, suggested chamber music sensibility and on this showing, gets his results not through biting attack or conspicuous bravura. Even in the liveliest passages his playing is essentially legato, the notes seem to have no sharply delineated beginning, but rather a continuous song line.

The slow movement is one of the loveliest things that Haydn wrote, much anthologized in students’ albums. It seemed to be where Hurtaud’s soul really dwelt. Yet, in the Rondo finale, he revealed a wonderful energy and breathtaking agility in the handling of the more that usually elaborate and brilliant ornaments with which he so judiciously peppered his playing. The audience virtually demanded and encore and he played the finale from a Cello Suite by great Spanish cellist Gaspar Cassadó.

There was an air of great delight at the Interval after Hurtaud’s performances, just as there was prolonged applause after the ‘Eroica’, at the end of the evening.

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