Audience cheers the last of the NZSO’s Brahms concerts

Academic Overture, Op 80
Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, Op.102 (allegro, andante, vivace non troppo – poco meno allegro meno allegro)
Symphony no.4 in E minor, Op.98 (allegro non troppo, andante moderato, allegro giocoso, allegro energico e passionata)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen, with Mikhail Ovrutsky (violin) and Andrew Joyce (cello)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 15 October 2011, 2pm

In this concert, unlike any of the others in this series, the major works were both in minor keys.  However, it started with a work of a cheerful and light nature, described by Inge van Rij in her pre-concert talk, as “Popular and serious styles working hand in hand”.

It was pleasing to see a much bigger audience at this concert.   Obviously there are many people for whom the weekend is a much more suitable time to come to a concert, rather than 6.30pm on a weekday – at which time, inexplicably, most of the NZSO concerts have been scheduled this year.  As befitted an afternoon concert, the orchestra members wore a different mode of dress, the men in white shirts and grey ties with dark lounge suits, while Pietari Inkinen wore a dark shiny suit, and shiny black shoes.

The Overture used a smaller orchestra than that required for most of Brahms’s symphonic works; this was in response to the requirement of Breslau University, from whom the composer received an honorary doctorate in 1879.  Nevertheless, the work has flair as well as precision, in its reworking of student songs, including at the end, the well-known ‘Gaudeamus igitur’.  The playing was robust and energetic, and despite fewer brass and woodwind players, there was a loud and emphatic ending.

Compared with the violin concerto, the double concerto for violin and cello is seldom played.  Yet it is a very fine work, Brahms’s last for orchestra, and worthy of more frequent airings.  Some have thought it strange using instruments of such different pitch and timbre, but the cello has a huge range – and Beethoven’s Triple Concerto is one of the most mellifluous works of the classical repertoire.

The cello opened the action, with double-stopping and high notes.  Then cellist Joyce played a brilliant duet with the violin soloist, both players employing great subtlety and expression, rhythmic drive and unanimity.   Maybe sitting a few rows further forward than I did on Thursday evening was better for sound, or perhaps Mikhail Ovrutsky played with a more mellow tone.  Whichever applies (or neither), I did not find fault with his tone on this occasion.  On the contrary, he played with great feeling, especially in the lyrical middle section of the first movement.

The second movement, too, revealed the unified interpretation and performance of the soloists.  There was an evocative woodwind chorus, and the mellow sound of melodious strings in the final section.  Always, Andrew Joyce produced a rich and attractive timbre.

The third movement featured lithe cello, followed by the same liveliness and spirit on the violin.  The technical proficiency of both soloists was very apparent, while the positive mood of this movement gave the whole work a hopeful feel, despite its earlier minor key.  While the movement is serious for much of the time, it is not as sombre as many of Brahms’s works are.  Its triumphal ending resulted in a show of great enthusiasm from the audience, while the orchestra showed its warm appreciation; the members were obviously very impressed with the playing of the visiting soloist and of their own new principal cellist.

The flowers which Joyce received at the end he gallantly gave to his wife, acting principal violist Julia Joyce; Ovrutsky felt obliged to emulate, and gave his flowers to the nearest female cellist.

The symphony constituted the major work on the programme.  Its swaying opening bars immediately drew attention.  This was deliberate, careful, skilled writing.  Here, there was a little untidy string playing, but this was most unusual.  Drive and energy were characteristic of the attack.  Falling thirds formed part of the massive architecture; the movement was characterised by almost relentless forte.

The andante second movement stopped short of being relentless.  It had even more vigour, but was also more luminous and meditative, this mood alternating with tension and grandiosity.   Typically with Brahms, it featured memorable themes.

Allegro giocoso was just that – bright, jolly and exuberant, and according to some commentators, this was his only orchestral scherzo.  At the end, it is almost overwhelming in its power and volume.

The finale is in the form of a passacaglia, with 31 variations on a theme from a Bach cantata.  A grand opening in the brass department was followed by ominous chords before the figure from Bach was stated, coupled with the falling thirds from the opening movement.  Lovely deep brass dissonances interspersed the lines of the other players.

At times, Brahms is portentous and annoyingly repetitive.  At times, he is sublime and a master of melody, and of lofty thought and expression.  The music is frequently scintillatingly soft and expressive.  His frequent favouring of the cello and the oboe makes one wish he had written concertos for these instruments.  Indeed, he is reported to have greeted Dvořák’s cello concerto with the remark “If I had known it was possible to write a cello concerto like that, I would have written one myself”.

The falling thirds appeared again, with the brass playing a sequence rising from the bass.  There was a rousing end to the symphony, and the series, and a warm reception from the audience, the cheers resounding as the leaders of the wind section stood individually, before the whole orchestra received the applause all its members richly deserved.



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