Brahmissimo: Third concert with 3rd symphony and 1st piano concerto: magnificent

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen with Michael Houstoun (piano)

Brahms: Symphony No 3 in F, Op 90 and Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor, Op 15

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 14 October, 6.30pm

This Brahms festival which started on Wednesday, has created a wonderful festive atmosphere in the Michael Fowler Centre each evening. Though on Friday, the audience was of reasonable size – I guess around 1200 – earlier it had been smaller, but the atmosphere was there from the first evening. It’s sad that so many things militate against several thousand people waking up to the marvels of good music and Brahms in particular.

The Symphony – No 3 in F major – was played first, presumably because it’s the shorter work – a good 10 minutes shorter – and probably has to be rated less weighty; and the symphony ends quietly while the concerto is simply a more passionate work with a huge emotional range, ending in a mighty climax.

But the symphony begins with arresting timpani to launch the first waltz-style movement and continues in its peaceful, pastoral vein – remember it’s in the same key as Beethoven’s Pastoral. Inkinen’s tempi and the inner feeling within each phrase and sentence, seem to be so right, so inevitable, and his rallentandos – the recur in  the first movement – are perfectly gauged.

You can tell very early in a performance whether it’s going to carry you to heaven and back, or whether there are things that are unconvincing, irritating, deceptive or dishonest. All my recent experiences of Inkinen have been of the former kind.

I was seated in the centre stalls for the first two concerts; this time I was on the left of the gallery facing the violas with the timpani behind them. As a result I probably heard the timpani rather emphatically; and because of sound reflections which do curious things in this space, I also had rich experience of double basses which were on the left of the stage, behind the cellos which, for Inkinen, change places with second violins.

Otherwise, balances between instrumental sections were beautiful.

The second movement is slightly calmer than the first but it seems only to modify the same spirit and very similar musical material. It’s in common time but there are passages of triplet quavers alternating with the 4/4 rhythm. The second theme has the flavour of Dvořák – say, the Eighth symphony – and the mood of the whole suggests that composer, whom Brahms helped and admired and remained on generally good terms with. The oboe and clarinet have significant roles in the movement’s colour and these were beautifully played (respectively Peter Dykes and Philip Green).

While the third movement is entitled Poco allegretto, the pace sounds only a little faster than the second; towards the end, in a very characteristic Brahms idiom, a long horn solo is taken up by oboe then clarinet and bassoon, and then fades quietly to allow the finale, Allegro, to follow. It begins with a connecting chorale-like theme but suddenly catches fire as a real finale is supposed to do; it’s the first real boisterousness to emerge. But as that fell away, Inkinen recaptured the mood of the other movements, and the spirit of peace and acceptance reigned in this very unusual finale which slowly fades out in one of the beautiful decrescendos and rallentandos.

It was a very beautiful performance of a remarkable symphony.

The First Piano Concerto is astonishing: it seems such a profound and mature work to have been penned by a 25-year-old, somehow more heroic and emotionally powerful than the B flat concerto from late in his career. The orchestra has a long introduction whose burnished richness and epic symphonic character hardly created the expectation of a showy concerto.

And of course that is what it is not.

When Houstoun enters the spirit of the music doesn’t change; and the density and weight of the orchestral introduction is transferred to the keyboard. The big chords with their heavy trills announced a complete break from the kind of glittery, virtuosic piano concertos that were being written through the mid 19th century. It seems the sort of concerto that was composed with a pianist like Houstoun in mind, perfectly capable of dazzling with bravura and speed, but whose nature seems far more in tune with music of real intellectual and emotional depth. Nevertheless, there are some highly challenging and visually attractive episodes that Houstoun navigates without ado but with marvellous sonority and panache. Elsewhere, for example in the latter part of the first movement, the piano has passages that respond to his sturdy, fluidly-paced playing that is also quite beautiful.

The end of the first movement seems imminent, but Brahms keeps us waiting and filling our ears with sounds that make the delay a blessing, finally coming to rest in the dark D minor mood of the Mozart’s Don Giovanni – after more than 20 minutes of enraptured, revelatory performance.

The second movement, the famous portrait of Clara Schumann, shows a rapturous, romantic Brahms, and it’s a time to luxuriate in Houstoun’s solo piano passages which had an improvisational character, along with the orchestra in a hushed and profoundly mature Adagio – how can this be a 25-year-old’s first foray in large-scale orchestral music?

It’s interesting that the orchestra, for all its weight in this work, is at classical strength: no trombones or tuba, no percussion other than timpani, no harp, two trumpets and just normal double woodwinds without a bass clarinet, contrabassoon or cor anglais, but with five horns. Horns are a significant Brahms hallmark and throughout this festival of his orchestral music, it has been his glorious handling of French horns that has caught the ear again and again. Happily, the horn section is back in good shape after the interregnum following Ed Allen’s departure, now under guest principal Samuel Jacobs; their sounds were one of the glories of this series, with particularly difficult work in this concerto.

The concerto ends with an Allegro – non troppo and, as always, Inkinen’s tempi seemed utterly right, and though the mood is lighter, hinting at the character of Schumann’s concerto, he succeeds in making us hear that a mighty musical mind is still very present. Though the rhythm is buoyant, the serious spirit remains, and Houstoun’s piano continued to be resolute and strongly based while the second, ‘B’, section of the Rondo is often rhapsodic and decorated by trills and delightful scales and passage-work.  The occasional dramatic punctuations from the orchestra, timpani-based, alternating with translucent textures from lightly-bowed figures in the strings and fluttering woodwind decorations, created a marvellously balanced, complementary structure that was deeply satisfying.

As I finish this review, after attending the fourth concert with the Double Concerto and the 4th Symphony, I retain the feeling that, for all the splendid playing by Mikhail Ovrutsky and Andrew Joyce, and that great symphony, it was the third concert that made the most profound emotional impact, and has induced me to explore other versions of those works, none of which, though interestingly different, seem better than what I heard on Friday in the Michael Fowler Centre.


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