Litton and Hough combine with the NZSO to present an exhilarating concert

Andrew Litton conducts the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra with pianist Stephen Hough

Anthony Ritchie:  Diary of a Madman: Dedication to Shostakovich; Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No 5 in F, Op 103; Shostakovich: Symphony No 5 in D minor, Op 47

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 22 September, 8pm

To label this concert ‘Around the world in 80 minutes’ is to draw a rather long bow: every concert that includes both a New Zealand and a European work could be so called. From Egypt to Russia is not far, and Ritchie’s piece is really from Russia, after all….

But Wellington’s astute concert-goers were not misled: it was an excellent concert both on account of the programme and the performers.

Anthony Ritchie is one of New Zealand’s best and most successful composers; his arrestingly named Diary of a Madman proved a splendid piece, a sort of small-scale ‘concerto for orchestra’; it was originally written for the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, to celebrate the centenary of Shostakovich’s birth in 1906. Its name derived from Shostakovich’s admiration for playwright and short story writer Gogol. He had set the story The Nose and the play, The Gamblers, as operas; another Gogol story was called Diary of a Madman, which uses the formula of ‘laughter through tears’, a formula that is very often present in Shostakovich, Ritchie writes.

It employed a large number of Shostakovich’s tunes from a variety of works, many of which would have been familiar to many of the audience, though not all easy to name. So one way to pass the time was to wrack the brains to identify each one; another pastime was to admire the orchestration of which Ritchie is a master, using xylophone or tuba or side drum with flair and wit, each element seeming to reflect something of the character of the theme involved; and also to become increasingly impressed by the organic structural feeling that accompanied its unfolding.

He hardly had to tell us, in the programme notes, that he had put them together in a process of free-association; so an attempt to find logical associations would clearly be nonsense.  It began in comfortable tonal language and didn’t deviate greatly from its idiom as music to divert and entertain.

It deserves to become a staple repertoire piece.

Stephen Hough seems to be the only great pianist who allows us to hear Saint-Saëns’s piano concertos. Years ago he played No 4; now No 5, which the composer wrote in 1896 in Luxor and Cairo, making use of some local tunes and thus acquiring the nick-name Egyptian (unlike some composers, he was not starved of melodic invention however). But the extent of this material is slight and I hear more touches of Spain and even the Balkans in this concerto.

Hough made his early reputation in certain very conspicuously virtuosic works like the Hummel piano concertos, but his playing has always revealed an exquisite poetic quality and a refined taste that the flights of unbelievable spectacle merely seem to enhance in a perfectly modest way.

On Saturday evening, he gave a spectacular demonstration of the way in which he has persuaded millions of the value of certain neglected music, particularly the much scorned Romantic composers of the second class. He has shown that the main impediment has been the belief that the music was meretricious and shallow, a view that sprang from the influence of the post Romantic and atonal schools. But it can all be blown away by a player’s musical integrity and demonstrative sincerity. Each movement has a strong individual character, with constantly changing handling of the ideas, set in delightful sunny visions.

Saint-Saëns never pretends to teutonic profundity; he can never be mistaken for Beethoven or Bruckner, and though some of his music, for example most of his solo piano works, can be called trite, far more of his music than gets played deserves to be well known. There is nothing predictable or formulaic in this concerto; its progress, as it happens, seems inevitable; nowhere more conspicuous than in the middle Andante movement, where a distinctly, perhaps north African, atmosphere appears, but which proceeds in the most unpredictable ways, portentous, then mysterious, sentimental moments alternating with deep sonorities.

The only common link between that and the Shostakovich was the number 5.

This great symphony responded to Andrew Litton’s attention just as powerfully and colourfully as had the two previous works. If one’s attention had been monopolised rather by the piano, it was now easy to be impressed by the smooth beauty of string playing, the sense of unease that was soon created, the touches of sardonic martial music, ethereal touches from the celeste or harp and the surprising entry by the piano.

At the back of one’s mind, as one listens to this symphony, is always the still unresolved question about Shostakovich’s intentions: how much do we rely on Volkov’s account of its bitter anti-Stalinist subtext, that the words attached to the score were merely to save his skin; or is it expressing a more ambivalent picture of Soviet conditions?

Nevertheless, this performance left no room for doubt about the orchestra’s ability to rouse powerful emotional responses to the music itself; it was perhaps the kind of concert that the NZSO ought to present more frequently.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *