Spain and Aranjuez celebrated by the NZSO and guitar

Rimksy-Korsakov: Capriccio Espagnol, Op 34; Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez; Debussy: Ibéria; De Falla: Three dances from The Three-Cornered Hat

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christoph König with Xuefei Yang (guitar)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 26 August, 6.30pm

Though the programme booklet doesn’t enlighten us, I am not aware that König has conducted in New Zealand before. He is typical of the young conductors of today in having amassed a CV of breathtaking scope and variety – geographically and artistically. Born and educated in Germany, his permanent posts have been in the Ruhr, in Malmö (Sweden), Oporto (Portugal), Gran Canaria and Luxembourg; and he has made numerous distinguished guest appearances throughout Europe and the United States. He generated a high level of energy and finesse in this concert, well equipped through his work in both Spain and Portugal.

Concerts of national music often include music by foreign composers and it’s hard to avoid the colourful works that Spain has inspired from non-Spanish composers.

This one brought out pieces that most people may not have heard live for many years, if ever. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol used to be pretty familiar, and it would have been to the first generation of NZSO audiences for it was in their earliest programmes. For me it’s still represented by a pair of 78s, bought aged 16 – Liverpool Philharmonic: Malcolm Sargent.  It should be part of the repertoire that is presented to audiences that are new to or remain shy of classical music.

Though it’s a splendidly written, highly-coloured rhapsodic composition, it’s also very much a show-piece for concertmaster Donald Armstrong’s violin solos as well as for various solo wind instruments including brilliant flute cadenza by Kirstin Eade (this is a correction: my original review had assumed the player to be Birgit Schwab from Hanover, who was said in the programme to have ‘switched seats’ with principal flute Bridget Douglas). Conductor König made sure all were vividly exposed; and he created exciting climaxes as well as sustaining stretches that were delicate and transparent.

Rodrigo wrote the Concierto de Aranjuez as the catastrophic Spanish civil war was ending and one might look there for the origin of its elegiac mood, but there is no mention of that or evidence in the music.  As is normal for the guitar in a big space, it was amplified, but very carefully; and the orchestral strings were reduced; I couldn’t see the back of the violins, but I’d guess 10, 8, 6, 4, 3. It’s beautifully scored so that the guitar is never covered by the orchestra and there are charming, delicate gestures by solo cello and woodwinds, pizzicato strings, and in the Adagio, the famous cor anglais melody, beautifully played by Michael Austin. Nevertheless, from where I was, well back, left of the gallery, the guitar in the first movement sometimes seemed indistinct in relation to the orchestral sound.

Xuefei Yang’s artistry and virtuosity emerged in the slow movement, in her dynamic and rhythmic flexibility, in overall tempi that were leisurely and expressed an air of mystery that was evoked by discreet means. Individually, the guitar and sections of the orchestra explored the lovely folk melody most imaginatively. It might not be the most profound music, but its reputation, and the affection in which it is held, are well based. It must be the envy of every composer who aspires to provide music for the guitar.

I was delighted to hear her playing of Tarrega’s enchanting, evergreen Recollections of the Alhambra as an encore.

The orchestra was at full strength again for the second part of Debussy’s Images for Orchestra – Ibéria. (All three of Debussy’s big orchestral works, Nocturnes, Images and La mer, are in three sections and one of the three in Images, Ibéria, is itself in three parts). It’s one of the most multifaceted pieces of music that pushes existing forms to the limits; it uses the late romantic symphony orchestra, at times with fiery energy, at times with extreme restraint and delicacy. It’s a fabric of individual instrumental colours, excellent percussion playing, at other times producing great orchestral climaxes. What this performance was not – quite, was to be driven, in the first section, ‘Par les rues et par les chemins’, by a rhythmic energy of really high tension: the wonderfully disparate parts did not completely coalesce. The second part, ‘Les parfums de la nuit’ captured more mystery, and it was the place to hear a beguiling oboe, remote tubular bells as morning breaks and trumpet sounds of a military band announce the approach of the fair day. König held the orchestra back slightly to experience the slowly gathering energy of the festival, building to brass-led climax, in full sun and human exuberance.

Touching on Debussy’s tenuous experience with Spain, the otherwise admirable programme notes made the curious remark that he had been no further in Spain than the ‘village of San Sebastian, a few hours from the French border’. The village has a population today of around 200,000, perhaps 40,000 when Ibéria was written, and you’d get there, even in Debussy’s day, on the main Paris to Madrid railway in half an hour, about 40 km  from the frontier.

Finally, De Falla’s three dances from his ballet The Three-cornered Hat (El sombrero de tres picos) of 1919 (did you know that Wolf’s only opera, Der Corregidor, is based on the same Spanish play of 1874?). Sometimes the Dance of the Miller’s Wife begins a selection from the ballet, but here we had only the Neighbours’, the Miller’s and the Final dances. They were splendid, lively performances, rightly delivering rather more gusto and unrestrained energy that had Ibéria. It was not only boisterous, it was played with great delicacy too, properly letting the audience hear what a great composer and orchestrator De Falla was. There were forays of distinction by flute, horns, bassoon, cor anglais, The Miller’s Dance began deliberately holding back to create an air of suspense rather effectively towards the heavy-footed climax. The orchestra played the Final Dance with great theatricality, emphatic bass instruments lending a peasant quality to the denouement that thoroughly humiliates the Corregidor – the lascivious magistrate.

The sort of thing that would have brought an old-fashioned promenade concert, such as seduced the young to the love of classical music in Town Halls around the country in the 1950s (speaking personally again), to a thrilling conclusion, and it did just that for those at the Michael Fowler Centre.

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