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Splendid Russian concert from Pinchas Steinberg conducting NZSO with Simon Trpčeski

By , 08/07/2011

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pinchas Steinberg and Simon Trpčeski (piano)

Night on Bald Mountain (Mussorgsky); Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op 26 (Prokofiev); Symphony No 4 in F minor, Op 36 (Tchaikovsky)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 8 July, 6.30pm

I sat one seat away from a couple who, at the end of the symphony, sat stony-faced, and I mean with countenances sculpted from the finest granite: arms folded, so that any suggestion of an agreeable emotion, in sympathy with the storm of applause, and even a few shouts, was out of the question.

I suppose there are still a few people who came across some of the writers of the puritan school of severity and joylessness, and have themselves never listened with normal ears; people who dismissed Tchaikovsky as contemptible for having written music that is widely loved: the church of “if it’s popular, it can’t be good”.

If you detect a note of irritation in my reaction, you’d be right. For I happen to be one who thinks the two finest symphonists of the 19th century, after Beethoven, are Brahms and Tchaikovsky, closely followed by Schubert, Bruckner and Dvořák, and then Schumann, and you-add-the-rest. Anyway, this was a simply stunning performance.

Steinberg may not be a household name like Abbado or Barenboim, Gergiev, Rattle or Haitink, but he’s got a pretty respectable pedigree in opera and orchestral music with major orchestras and opera companies.

He conducted Tchaikovsky’s F minor symphony, without the score, with a searing conviction, whether through the most breathless pianissimo or the most ferocious and tempestuous climaxes. A powerful opening gambit was to be expected in the first movement, but it was followed by a thrillingly slowly paced waltz episode, where the orchestra was guided in serenely lyrical music that might have been misplaced from any other composer’s slow movement. Then it was the control of slow crescendos and slow accelerations (and their reverse) that contributed to the tension and the brilliance of the landscapes revealed from the mountain-tops.

If there were moments when I was slightly worried by the hush or the stillness of some passages, their importance was soon revealed through their contrast with the storming victories that followed. Steinberg’s secret was to invest familiar music with a revelatory freshness.

No conductor is needed to produce the many rapturous individual solo performances by oboe or clarinet, flute, horns or bassoons, or even perhaps by the beautiful playing of cellos at the beginning of the Andantino, but a Steinberg was definitely required to bring about the transitions and the evolutionary passages, and the whole structural grandeur and excitement that held the audience transfixed throughout (perhaps that was my neighbours’ problem).

Then there was that remarkable Scherzo: pizzicato strings, whose dynamics undulated voluptuously, and as phrases passed two or three notes at a time through all the five strings sections. The pizzicato parts were separated by a Trio of the most exquisitely refined woodwind and brass playing, finding colours and subtleties that were fascinating, hardly imagined.

It was the last movement where all Steinberg’s genius was consummated; the rhetorical eruptions, driven by the sweeping left arm, built through the energy that he inspired in the players to a coda of ferocious pace and white-hot emotion.

Mussorgsky

The concert had got off to a splendid start with a devilishly thrilling account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s version of Mussorgsky’s witches’ Sabbath. It was polished, biting and for those predisposed towards the supernatural, exciting or terrifying. The sudden shifts, in the opening fanfares, from one orchestral chorus to another were at once vividly contrasted and seamlessly joined. The strings glowed with a dark velvet refulgence.

Nothing was as rapturous as the way the orchestra dimmed and quietly left the mountaintops at the end.

Macedonian pianist

Then the concerto, with Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski.

A local weekly described his country as being only 20 years old.

In case that evokes the image of a land rising from the ocean back in 1991, a word of encouragement: this was the Greek kingdom over which Alexander the Great ruled in the 4th century BC, when his conquests spread Greek influence as far east as India. Slavs settled in its northern region from about the 7th century and it was an independent Slav kingdom in the late 10th century AD. It was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1355, and when they were finally driven out in 1913 it was divided between Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece. The Slav northern part became part of Yugoslavia from 1918 and it was a republic of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia after the Second World War.

It gained complete independence in 1991. There is inexplicable tension with Greece over the name since it is also the name of the Greek province immediately to the south with its capital Salonica.

Prokofiev’s Concerto No 3

The music. I was a bit disappointed that the most familiar of Prokofiev’s piano concertos was chosen for Trpčeski’s one concert (to be repeated in Napier, Hamilton and Auckland). He did write five of them, all worth hearing; what about a less-known Rachmaninov (1st or 4th), or the intriguing Scriabin concerto, and much other Russian piano music?

That said, the 3rd is highly entertaining: the first movement opens encouragingly, the orchestra playing a droll waiting game, for the piano’s entry which is without fuss, acting the part of an instrument of the orchestra rather than the flashy hero who holds himself apart. The remarkable thing was that, through Trpčeski’s modesty and refinement, the piano’s presence had a much greater impact, and actually charmed us through the constant varying weight of contrasting phrases; it all enraptured the audience from the start.

What surprised me however, half way through the opening Allegro, was a feeling of uninvolvement, that the tension, the temperature, had dropped below the level of full commitment. Yet Steinberg was undoubtedly creating a colourful canvas with finely wrought dynamics and rubato, even though some of it seemed to lie at the surface of musical experience.

The second movement kept me involved more steadily, with a piano part that took on more a life of its own; the sudden outbursts at speed, the hugely vigorous episode in triple time that just as suddenly subsides, with its several retreats to quiet lyrical passages. All the quirkiness of Prokofiev’s score, with shimmering lights, ever-changing rhythms, some motoric, some lyrical, were exposed. In the last climactic build-up there was a fleeting impression of faltering synchronism, but Beecham’s injunction was followed: all finished together.

Prokofiev seems to delight in throwing off balance an audience’s preconceptions of the character of the three movements of a concerto. The simplistic fast – slow – fast pattern has been long banished and myriad contrasts are found within each movement, by much more obtuse, unorthodox means. Nevertheless, pianist and conductor brought about a level of delight and musical fascination that was rare, again with its treading water episodes allowing time to reflect.

After his third return to the platform following great applause, the pianist took a page from a music stand near him and concert master Vesa-Matti Leppänen and principal cello Andrew Joyce brought their seats forward to surround the pianist who then told us that they were to play a trio arrangement of a Macedonian folk dance. They carried it off brilliantly, digging into the characteristic rhythms that one encounters in all the southern Slav countries. The audience was even more vociferous.

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