Romeo and Juliet – beautiful but cool from Inkinen and the NZSO

ROMEO AND JULIET – Music by Tchaikovsky, Berlioz and Prokofiev

Pietari Inkinen (conductor) / New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, June 25th, 2011

British comedians Michael Flanders and Donald Swann penned a number called “A Friendly Duet” for their successful 1960s revue At The Drop of Another Hat, a song containing references to various famous pairs of lovers in history and literature – including, of  course, Romeo and Juliet :

No romance, said Juliet,

I haven’t left school yet,

We’re friends – just friends!

Throughout much of the first half of the NZSO’s Romeo and Juliet concert, which featured the music of Tchaikovsky and Berlioz, I couldn’t help thinking of the Flanders-and-Swann song – the clean-cut, beautifully-modulated and expertly-delivered orchestral playing presided over by maestro Pietari Inkinen impressed on a great many counts, but seemed to me to keep at arm’s length what the publicity associated with the concert emphasized as its essential component – that sadly “done-to-death” concept, passion. True, the right instincts seemed to be closely associated with the venture – the programme notes for the concert spoke of “frenetic music” and “burning passion” (Tchaikovsky), and “unbridled energy” (Berlioz),  while Inkinen and the orchestra achieved in both pieces miracles of evocation and atmosphere with certain episodes, passages that took away one’s breath with the beauty and subtlety of the sounds. However, both Tchaikovsky’s and Berlioz’s music, for me, exemplify romantic expression in its totality, where beauty and subtlety vie with full-blooded extremes of feeling – and I didn’t feel those extremities were sufficiently explored. In quoting Flanders and Swann I’ve obviously exaggerated the touches of inhibition throughout the performances, but for whatever reason, the impression remains of emotion contained rather than given sufficient expressive rein.

I must say, at this point, that in the wake of the conductor’s and orchestra’s recent overwhelming performances of the Mahler Sixth Symphony, I was hoping for more along the same lines with Tchaikovsky et al., playing that expressed the music’s innate volatility and passion (that word, again!). Sadly, it didn’t fire on Saturday night in the way that the Mahler did for me – though I’ve been wondering whether Inkinen’s success with the latter work reflected more his (laudable) punctilious care regarding detail and his players’ strict observance of Mahler’s detailed directions in the score, and less any deep-seated emotional connection on his part with the music. If so, it suggests a cerebral approach to music-making – not a bad thing with music whose appeal stems mostly from its structure, logic and precise detailing, but more problematic with works that make their impact via emotional heft. That’s not to say that the thinking interpreter’s Tchaikovsky or Berlioz can’t work – but in place of the searing “muse of fire” there needs to be, in my opinion, equally razor-sharp focus of thought and action, however unromantic. That’s what I felt we got with Inkinen’s Mahler, but, sadly not sufficiently in evidence here.

What did work during the concert’s first half were a number of extremely focused moments – the fine gradations of tone and colour in the opening “Friar Laurence” section of the Tchaikovsky overture, the beautiful blend of strings and cor anglais (Michael Austin) for the first appearance of the famous “love-theme” (winds doing an equally heartfelt job of the tune’s songful repetition), and the strings” full-throated recapitulation of the theme just before the death-throes of the “star-crossed lovers”. But, expertly drilled though the fight music was, I didn’t think the orchestral flare-ups angry and incisive enough, so that the bitterness and hatred between the warring families didn’t sufficiently presage the tragedy. As for the Berlioz, I thought it odd that the selection of orchestral exerpts made here almost completely avoided the two salient themes of the story – the conflict between the families, and the lovers themselves. So instead of Berlioz’s furious and tumultuous introduction, we began with Romeo alone just before the Capulet’s Ball, and ended with one of Berlioz’s most amazing orchestral evocations, the Queen Mab Scherzo. This actually was the performance’s highlight for me, with Inkinen and his players weaving patterns of gossamer magic through which the most delicately-voiced rhythmic impulses darted this way and that, beguiling the senses with the elfin transparency of it all – a treasurable episode of pure orchestral alchemy. And what a telling evocation towards the end of the soldier’s dream of “drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes…” with deep, menacing sounds louring out of the dark! It was playing whose delight all but made amends for what I thought was a somewhat dull Capulet’s Ball, lacking that last ounce of sheer momentum, of youthful exuberance in the performance that would have readily conveyed that “unbridled energy” cited in the program notes.

In general, the Romeo and Juliet of Prokofiev fared better in Inkinen’s hands, even though the famous pungent crescendi and jagged chords introducing the Dance of the Capulet Knights were despatched quickly and sharply, the effect being taut and terse, or short-winded and literal, depending upon your point of view. I liked the savage tread of the Knights during their dance, however, magnificently underpinned by the heavy brass, and in particular the tuba (superbly played by Andrew Jarvis). The contrasting episode had little mystery and atmosphere, though – more a dancer’s than a listener’s performance. Happily, Young Juliet, which followed, was quite lovely, with solo playing to die for from clarinet (Phil Green), flute (Bridget Douglas) and ‘cello (Andrew Joyce). In fact the solo playing throughout the concert was near-impeccable – deft trumpet and oboe solos from Cheryl Hollinger and Robert Orr in the street scenes come readily to mind as do Nancy Luther’s silvery, nostalgic piccolo echoings at the very end. Again, it was the lighter, more graceful and lyrical aspects of the score that inkinen and his players more readily and successfully brought out, whereas The Death of Tybalt, though rumbustious and exciting at a certain level had no real cutting edge – more like children excitedly playing at war rather than the real, deadly thing. And what is the point of music such as this if it doesn’t convey “hurt” in the playing and listening?

Mention of the marvellous work done by the orchestra’s stellar line-up of soloists brings me to the sadness of acknowledging the last appearance on the NZSO platform of one of the greatest of them all – principal horn Ed Allen. He was appropriately farewelled by a speech from orchestral leader Vesa-Matti Leppänen which brought forth tumultuous audience applause accompanying a standing ovation for Allen, a kiss and a bouquet presented by his double-bass player partner Vicki Jones, and an affectionate hug from his conductor Pietari Inkinen. He will be greatly missed.

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