NZSO triumphs in Brahms festival with Inkinen and Irons

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen with Diedre Irons (piano)

Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat, Op 83 and Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op 68

Michael Fowler Centre

Wednesday 12 October 6.30pm

The first of the four Brahms concerts entitled ‘Brahmissimo’ faced an audience that was a bit smaller that I’d hoped, at least in the stalls where I was sitting. I comforted myself thinking this was due to the fact that many might not be able to afford four concerts night after night, that 6.30pm has not yet been adopted as the public’s favourite concert hour and that there is still a lingering, inexplicable thing about Brahms, that must dwell mainly in the minds of the tone deaf or who allow a century-old controversy to prejudice them; or perhaps attention is all directed to the behaviour of an oval ball.

The concert was quietly advertised as part of the REAL New Zealand Festival, designed to accompany the Rugby World Cup games, and was supported directly by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage.

The thousand or so who were there were in no doubt that Brahms was among the very greatest composers and that both performances were on a magnificent scale and deserved the vociferous ovations that they got.

The horns, led by guest principal Samuel Jacobs, opened the concerto rapturously, though with restraint, and pianist Diedre Irons followed in the same way, her solo passage quietly and very deliberately paced. So there was plenty of scope for a controlled amassing of dynamic energy that led to the eventual statement of the leading theme, which was clothed in grandeur.

This was Diedre Irons’s first ever public performance of this work, and it was thus no surprise to detect a degree of tension, that showed itself in the first movement in occasional minor slips, a slight lack of heart-easing lyricism and a tendency to stress individual chords rather than find all the meaning in entire phrases. There were signs of such unease in both the first and second movements though the latter, Allegro appassionato, had a spaciousness and sanguinity, that emerged as passion and excitement.

But the gorgeous Andante transformed her demeanour, allowing her to express herself with breadth and beauty. The entire movement blossomed in a spirit of flowing, relaxed calm, reinforced not a little by the rapturous cello solos from principal Andrew Joyce. In the middle of the Andante an end is suggested but there is a magical revival of life that brought all Diedre Irons’s musical gifts to the fore.

This spirit of ease and confidence carried into the finale where Irons found her way comfortably through the lively passages that invited a certain rubato and individuality of interpretation and both orchestra and piano threw themselves boisterously into the concluding phase.

The first symphony opens in a complete absence of Brahms’s much written-about shyness of the symphonic form because of the shadow of Beethoven. The Introduction is a triumphant conception: grand and expansive, and Inkinen demonstrated from the start, his command of sonority, pace and dynamics that immediately created a high level of anticipation.

Brahms’s quite other approach to writing for the orchestra, between concerto and symphony, was clear: the former taking pains with balance, both between individual instruments and individual sections of, and between soloist and, the orchestra; while in the symphony his attention is on the orchestra in its entirety, as with a single instrument. Here there was no need to create slender textures to allow the piano its space.

The sound was magnificent.

The Andante Sostenuto, second movement, with a prominent oboe – presumably Robert Orr – was a beautiful, calm, balanced, lyrical outpouring.

A nervous clarinet tune seemed to characterize part of the scherzo-like third movement which ends strangely, inconclusively, and Inkinen handled the insubstantial fleeting scraps of music which link the worlds of simple peasant dance with the overwhelming grandeur of the last movement, where the horn-led introduction drew the music suspensefully into the final climactic passages with marvelous subtlety. The restrained build-up made the eventual tutti exultation all the more triumphant as it was driven by the massive string choir operating at full-throttle.

I hope that word gets out that we had a marvellous opening to what is bound to continue as a marvellous mini-festival that offers an alternative to what is absorbing the country at present.

Don’t miss the other three concerts of Brahms’s symphonies and concertos.