NZSO and Pietari Inkinen all at sea

SIBELIUS – The Oceanides / BRITTEN – Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes”

CHAUSSON – Poème de l’amour et de la mer / DEBUSSY – La Mer

Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano)

Pietari Inkinen (conductor)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 20th April 2012

Having rather too cleverly used the expression “all at sea”  in this review’s heading, I needs must hasten to add that the words weren’t meant in a pejorative sense – but rather as a compliment to conductor and orchestra regarding their powers of evocation!

Compiling a complete list of musical works inspired by the sea would, I think, result in several closely-worked pages being filled. Of the pieces for orchestra, Pietari Inkinen and the NZSO surely gave us four of the greatest, with the help of mezzo Sasha Cook, who followed her heartfelt performance of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer of a week ago with a mellifluous rendering of Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer. 

I thought three of the pieces received splendidly characterful performances, the one disappointment for me being the opening item on the program, Sibelius’s The Oceanides. As a friend said to me during the interval, it wasn’t very Mediterranean – we missed the glint of sunlight on the water and the play of light on the waves, a scenario which would have rendered the “big wave” when it came, an even more impressive demonstration of nature’s power. Here, it instead seemed all very Baltic, and somewhat more subaqueous than Sibelius might have intended – a point of view, but one that played down the Homeric inspiration commented on by the composer: – “It (the Oceanides) derives from the mythology of Homer and not from the Kalevala.”

I wondered whether the good ole’ MFC acoustic played its part in swallowing up some of the music’s airiness – in particular the winds seemed scarcely to speak throughout to my ears in the place where I was sitting, though I suspect it was more the conductor’s “through a glass darkly” way with the music. The passage for glockenspiel, harp and clarinet containing the hitherto “embedded” string theme hardly at all registered, and there were similar places whose evocations of air and light (ironically the program note spoke of the music’s “bright warmth”) were made subservient to the string-dominated soundscapes depicting the ebb and flow of watery expanses. Perhaps in venues like the Auckland Town Hall, the winds will get more of a chance to establish a better sense of the play of sun and wind upon the waves.

Having in previous articles commented upon Pietari Inkinen’s seeming reluctance to explore and bring out the “darker” sides of Sibelius’s music, I now may justly be accused of inconsistency at complaining when he does so! Still, Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes” responded marvellously to the same kind of trenchant treatment, though here I thought all sections of the orchestra were encouraged to “speak” and convey their distinctive colours and accents. The playing of the opening Dawn allowed us to sense the vast and lonely beauty of the sea itself, as well as conveying its darker, more threatening power. This was in complete contrast to the gaiety and human bustle of Sunday Morning with its insistent backdrop of church bells – how wonderfully “precarious” those syncopated cross-rhythms of strings and winds always sound, played here as well as any other performance I’ve heard!

More sharply-etched contrasts came with Moonlight, here dark and dour, unresonant and unromantic and filled with foreboding, followed immediately by the physical assault of Storm with Inkinen really encouraging his players to rattle, roar and rend the air with tumultuous sounds. It was all very exciting, with particularly wonderful brass-playing (the tuba roaring like a kraken from the baleful deep), the performance capturing the “frightened shadows” aspect at the end, with properly spectral strings and winds, before the final free-falling orchestral tumult resounded into the silences.

After the interval, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke added her lovely voice to some gorgeously-wrought orchestral textures throughout the opening pages of Chausson’s seductive Poème de l’amour et de la mer. One of a number of stunningly beautiful works for female voice and orchestra written at about this time (such as Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, Elgar’s Sea Pictures and Ravel’s Scheherazade), Chausson’s “endless melody” style of writing enabled the singer to demonstrate her finely-tuned dramatic instincts, in the first part, The Flower of the Waters (La Fleur des eaux) now hushed and expectant at “O ciel qui de sees jeux dois porter la couleur”, now radiant-toned (at “Faites-moi voir ma bien aimee”, and then later at “Et du ciel extrovert pleuvaient sur nous des roses”), the music evoking roses raining from the sky.

Here, and throughout both interlude and the second vocal episode, The Death of Love (La Mort de l’Amour) conductor and players supported and matched their soloist’s outpourings with a range of tones, by turns refulgent, flowing, spectral and halting. How the music darkens at the words “Le vent roulait des feuille mortes”! – with Chausson’s debt to Wagner, and in particular “Parsifal” evident in those sombre harmonic progressions for orchestra alone, and underpinning the despair of the words “Comme des fronts de morts”.

As for the most quintessential sea-piece of them all, Debussy’s La Mer, Inkinen and the orchestra brought out plenty of crisp detail and strongly-contoured lines – this was no impressionist wallow, but a beautifully-judged delineation of detail whose impulses activated a bigger picture with a widely-flung spectrum of variation. While here I didn’t feel quite as consistently the elemental undercurrents that made Inkinen’s reading of The Firebird of the previous week such a powerful listening experience, Debussy’s seascapes were allowed sufficient power in places to “tell”, again with instruments like the timpani encouraged to sound out (a couple of pistol-shot thwacks in the finale from Laurence Reese certainly added to the excitement!), and the lower strings and brass bringing appropriate weight and darkness to some of that same movement’s climaxes. While we’re on this movement, full marks to the trumpet-player (whom I couldn’t see properly – was it Michael Kirgan?) whose brief but cruelly-exposed solo shone out truly amid the darkness.

In all, an exciting, and richly-varied concert, each of these last two orchestral outings making a refreshing change from the usual “overture-concerto-symphony” format, with, for me, equally satisfying results. Maybe there’s hope for things such as Janacek’s Taras Bulba and Elgar’s In The South yet!








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