Triumphant NZSO concert by Inkinen in Mahler, Stravinsky and Lilburn

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen

Symphony No 3 (Lilburn); Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Mahler); The Firbird ballet music (Stravinsky)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 14 April, 8pm

Lilburn’s Third Symphony is certainly the least heard of his three, written after he had begun experimenting with serialism and had virtually abandoned himself to electronic music.

If its first performances was predictably labelled gritty or avant-garde – in its pejorative sense, or harsh (in the composer’s words), the years have softened its impact on ears attuned to modernism that previously went only as far as Stravinsky or Britten. The echoes of Sibelius or Vaughan Williams heard in the first two symphonies have now been replaced by echoes of, in some opinions, late Copland and Stravinsky.

No doubt as a result of its inclusion on one CD with Lilburn’s other two symphonies, it has gained familiarity, as listeners allow the CD to come to its end with the quarter-hour Third Symphony.

The recordings seem to be favourites of those putting together the midnight-to-dawn music on Radio New Zealand concert.

Lilburn’s technical skills as orchestrator and in all aspects of large-scale orchestral composition have always been conspicuous, but what struck me about this performance was the confidence in handling of the musical ideas, and especially, the way in which Inkinen maintained the pulse, exposed the essential lyrical and eventful features of the score and highlighted individual instrumental motifs, which seemed sensitively directed to giving rewarding moments for a great many players, particularly winds.

The piece is famously built on modified serial principles, but we have become so used to atonal music – music without constant, implicit reference to a home key – that tonal ambiguity does not sound as tuneless or alien as it did when one first encountered it. Certainly there are no lively melodic episodes such as the Second Symphony’s Scherzo, but there is no need to dwell on its serial elements. The actual tone row doesn’t appear for some time and only through reading the score would the average listener recognise it, or even come to hear the way these scraps slowly coalesce into the row proper. They are the atoms that come together eventually as molecules – tunes – and after a few hearings the evolution of the flow and generally light-textured composition starts to reveal its absorbing beauties.

On the other hand, Lilburn’s signature whole-tone oscillations are there from time to time and certain rhythmic and intervallic habits appear. Its five sections are not distinguished by pauses, only by changes of tempo and mood, but once identified, they help the listener to grasp the argument, and the luminous, animated and well-thought-out performance did the rest.

Mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke had replaced soprano Measha Brueggergosman to sing Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Sasha made a mark as Kitty Oppenheimer in Adam’s recent opera Doctor Atomic at the Met; she has sung a lot of choral and symphonic repertoire that calls for solo voices, like Mahler’s Second and Beethoven’s Ninth, and Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer, which she sings at the next NZSO concert. Her opera repertoire is interesting, ranging from Strauss’s Composer, Mozart’s Dorabella, Massenet’s Charlotte.

Hers was a strong and characterful voice, warm and communicative in the middle and low ranges, and capable of comfortable excursions high into soprano territory and of captivating pianissimos. So she explored the four songs that Mahler set to his own words, bringing out their sharply contrasted moods with vivid individuality. Her transformation from the sunny optimism of ‘Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld’ to the panicky grief of ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ was quite astonishing, the repeated cry, ‘O weh!’ filling the air with palpable alarm.

And Inkinen guided the orchestra’s accompaniment, so discreetly written as to avoid burdening the first words of each phrase, with scrupulous care; not that her voice would have failed to penetrate a more rowdy orchestra.

The major work, if that is a fair description after the two beautiful/interesting pieces in the first half of the programme, was Stravinsky’s first ballet for Diaghilev, which suddenly made him famous. It was appropriate to recall in the programme notes Stravinsky’s conducting of the conclusion of the ballet in his 1961 concert with the orchestra, which I was at.

From the very first moment I knew I was in for a radiant, exalted experience, with the almost soundless murmuring of basses slowly emerging, rather like the opening of Das Rheingold. But if hints of Wagner can be heard (as they can in almost everything written in the half century after The Ring, it is Russian rhythms and melodic shapes that soon dominate. The air of foreboding through magic sounds that suggested Liadov’s Enchanted Lake both made me long for an evocative production of the ballet in Bakst’s designs, but also persuaded me that the music, so beautifully played, was more evocative on its own than any staging might be.

Moving and arresting solos came from various players – Julia Joyce’s viola,  and the rapturous horn playing of new principal Samuel Jacobs; sinuous flutes, and major bassoon contributions and the subtly varied strokes of the timpani.

And the orchestra lifted the dark veil of evil as Kaschei dies and  a new sunny mood emerged in playing that expressed the renewal of the lives of the Prince and the captive princesses.

The splendour of this, and indeed, all three works at this triumphant concert confirmed Inkinen’s unobtrusive mastery of the podium, and I find it disturbing that a cabal still exists that seeks out the odd adverse reviews that inevitably appears in overseas media, mostly in unmoderated blogs. Reliable critics wherever he has worked have found his leadership and interpretive talents convincing, clear and imaginative.

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