Brahmissimo! The second concert with the violin concerto

Brahms: Tragic Overture, Op 81
Violin Concerto in D major, Op.77
Symphony no.2 in D major, Op.73

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen, with Mikhail Ovrutsky, violin

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday, 13 October 2011, 6.30pm

With Brahms being Radio New Zealand Concert’s composer of the week this week, plus this series of four New Zealand Symphony Orchestra concerts, music-lovers are being treated to a veritable festival of his music.  How wonderful this morning (Friday) to hear on radio Jonathan Lemalu’s superlative, sensitive recording of the composer’s Four Serious Songs.

On Thursday it was more of his symphonic music, following the first concert in the series on Wednesday evening.

Concertmaster Vessa-Matti Lepännen spoke to the audience before the conductor entered, dedicating the evening’s concert to the memory of Christopher Doig, who had died that morning.  Among his many, many roles in the cultural and sporting life of the nation he was responsible over recent years for Sponsorship and Business Development for the orchestra, based in his beloved home city of Christhcurch.  In the last week he had greeted the great tenor Placido Domingo in Christchurch, a trip organised by Doig to raise funds for earthquake victims there.

He announced only days ago a scholarship for young singers – as a superb tenor himself, one of the very best New Zealand has produced, he was always encouraging others musicians, as Lepännen attested.

In Wellington he will be remembered best as the Director of the 1990 New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, and the production in that Festival of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, with Sir Donald McIntyre as the principal soloist.  His loss to the cultural scene in this country is colossal; the fruits of his labours will live on for a long time.

How appropriate, then, for the concert to commence with the Tragic Overture, by a composer who spent most of his life in Vienna, a city where Chris Doig had been principal tenor at the opera house for a number of years.

Probably attracted by the Violin Concerto, the attendance was better than at the first concert, but there were still far too many empty seats downstairs in the Michael Fowler Centre.  We have a fine orchestra; more people need to discover it and the great music it plays.

This was as good a performance of the Tragic Overture as I have heard live; the playing had urgency, and was truly dramatic.  The wind solos were given due prominence, while the passage featuring pizzicato strings and haunting woodwind sent shivers down the spine.  The music presaged dire tragedy; it made me think of Lucia di Lammermoor.  The red and black lighting around the stage heightened the sense of looming disaster.

The sombre brass surge in the final pages, with soft descending strings, gave a sense of resolution, even of overcoming tragedy.  It was a masterful performance.

An irritant between items was that the lights were turned down.  Surely they should be turned up, so that audience members can read their programmes?  And they were well worth reading.  Frances Moore’s notes for the whole series were simply outstanding.  Her vivid language and impeccable writing made them a delight to read.

Inge van Rij’s pre-concert talk too, was informative, interesting, and well-expressed.  She spoke of the background to Brahms’s 1879 violin concerto, and the context of his time and place, which resulted in this beautiful yet unpretentious work that did not seek primarily to display the skills of the soloist.  This led to the great violinist Sarasate describing Brahms’s concerto as ‘too symphonic’, which meant it was not a showpiece for the violinist.  However, critics of the time, especially Brahms’s mentor Robert Schumann, had begun criticising works in the latter category.

As a performer on the piano rather than the violin, Brahms needed the advice of his friend, the great violinist Joseph Joachim, on technical aspects of this work, and also, since the latter Hungarian, on the gypsy idioms of the last movement.

The piece certainly has a symphonic idiom, and while opening in the major key, the soloists enters in the minor, and instead of his leading the major theme, the orchestra does it.  The cadenza that Joachim wrote for his performance of the concerto emerges seamlessly from the music it follows, and is the one most often used.

The young violin soloist, Mikhail Ovrutsky, is not one for the traditional ‘penguin’ suit; he wore a dark patterned loose shirt, open at the neck.  He was equal to the task at hand, though I found his ungainly stance on stage inelegant and off-putting.  While his tone was mostly beautiful, it was not always smooth from note to note, i.e. from up-bow to down-bow, and was even harsh occasionally.  At other times he displayed sweetness of tone, but at some of these moments, the orchestra threatened to overwhelm him.  At other times there was, for me, too much metallic string sound from him.  Joachim’s cadenza was fast and vigorous – but was it beautiful?

In the main, the orchestra was in splendid form, mellow and sensitive.  However, they were not quite together at the start of the slow movement.  The divine oboe solo was a little too assertive for my taste, though the tone was lovely, and the harmonising woodwinds were very fine, the melancholic sound thus created, haunting.

The violin solo then entered noticeably softer, and Ovrutsky employed more vibrato than previously, giving greater breadth of tone, appropriate for this movement.  Here, the solo playing was magical, and the mournful ending very refined.

For me, the huge change of mood in the final movement has always been rather hard to take – it is too much of a contrast with what has preceded it.  Again there was some harshness of tone in what was generally a very good performance.  There is certainly nothing wrong with Ovrutsky’s finger technique.

As the programme note stated “…the music never becomes an exercise in extraordinary virtuosity but is instead imbued with a passion that drives the music towards an exciting, breathtaking finish.”

The third offering, Brahms’s Symphony no. 2, features a grand, sweeping opening, counterpointed with delicate figures it.  The orchestra provided gorgeous string tone.  The first movement is mainly bold and brassy, but not without introspection too.  Towards the end of the movement there was some fine horn playing.

The second movement is more contemplative – a mixture of fibre and cream.  As has been said, Brahms makes the most of the material he has.

The third movement opens with a resplendent oboe theme, against pizzicato strings.  The full-bodied sound from the orchestra nevertheless allowed for nuance aplenty.  The exuberant clarinet and oboe both featured elegantly in the finale.  The strings introduced on of Brahms’s bold, sturdy themes; it developed excitedly.  Chromaticism followed (but not as in Wagner), and there was a great final statement of the main theme, noble and heroic.  Brahms seemed to get a little bogged down in this movement, with a tad too much working out of the themes.  However, the textures were always wonderful.

The orchestra looked as if it had successfully complete a marathon – which it will have by late Saturday afternoon.  As the audience gave the orchestra an enthusiastic response, the guest principal horn player. Samuel Jacobs, was raised for a special round of applause.

The splendour of this concert was a fitting tribute to Chris Doig, on the day of his untimely death – a man who contributed much to this orchestra as a consultant, and to many cultural and sporting bodies in New Zealand.


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