NZSO’s “Bolero” – well-wrought excitement and elegant ecstasy

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:


RAVEL – La Valse (poème choréographique)

Piano Concerto in G major


SCRIABIN – The Poem of Ecstasy, Op.54

Stephen De Pledge (piano)

Pietari Inkinen (conductor)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 22nd March 2013

What better way to begin an orchestral concert than with music that features playing of rapt, superfine concentration, sharp-edged focus and meticulous attention to detail?

For much of Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, which opened the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s Wellington Concert on Friday evening, I thought the playing and conducting among the finest and most compelling I had heard from these musicians at any time – right from the outset I found myself riveted by the sounds maestro Pietari Inkinen and his players were bringing into being. At first, everything was dark-hued, with each deeply-resonating pulsation, murmuring oscillation and faintly-shimmering texture seeming to grow organically out of what had come before, Inkinen giving his musicians plenty of time and space to properly articulate their figurations and fill out the textures. I thought it all superbly-wrought, the music’s voices resonating with inner life and shimmering with quiet allure, at once transparent and mysterious, clearly-etched and yet still suggestive and equivocal.

The music’s early climaxes came with plenty of force, each one properly “prepared” though seeming natural and inevitable. In this performance we were able to gradually conjure out of the mists of the opening the shapes and forms of dancers swirling in a ballroom, their movements caught in some kind of fantastic intoxication, drawing us into a vortex of make-believe. And so it all continued, at once dream-like and over-wrought, with tender waltz-undulations followed abruptly by upheavals and disturbances from brass and percussion, as if sounding portents of things still to come. Up to the piece’s final quarter I thought conductor Inkinen’s blending of overall movement, phrasing and detail exemplary.

However, as the sense of growing claustrophobia and desperation began to exert its grip, I wanted to “feel” the change more palpably from the musicians. Those “portents” of imminent tragedy should inevitably begin to curdle the music’s flavour, tighten the rhythms and squeeze the air from those textures – for me, the lead-up to the final reprise of the waltz was too relaxed and untroubled to herald an evocation of collapse and dissolution, which the work’s final bars come to deliver so brutally. Still, the coup de grace was expertly and tellingly done; and when it was all over I still felt grateful to conductors and players alike for so much rare and intense pleasure along the music’s way in this performance.

Interestingly, I felt pretty much the same way about the presentation of the well-known Bolero, which concluded the concert. Again, I thought the opening measures of this work here wrought of magic, sounds whose delicacy suggests something borne on air, pulsations of the spheres, the “dance” a mere impulse of distant delight to begin with. I couldn’t see the side-drummer at all (to my great surprise percussionist Lenny Sakofsky turned out to be sitting directly in front of the conductor, though he was almost totally obscured) – it sounded as though he was offstage, so gently-tapped were his rhythmic patterns, so unobtrusive, in fact that the solo flute which introduced the first of the two themes sounded amazingly full-toned by comparison. The ensuing solos and duets and combinations from different instruments were all gorgeously voiced and shaped, though the long-familiar “curse” of the piece – of which, more in a moment – did strike towards the tricky, syncopated ending of the second of the two oft-repeated tunes at one point, the players “turning” the phrase-ending too soon and threatening to throw the whole ensemble out. However, with Pietari Inkinen in charge, things were kept on an even keel, and the music rolled on and into the next sequence.

I always wait for that first massed violin entry, about two-thirds of the way through the work, playing the first tune – such a great moment! For me, those strings bring a suffusion of light and energy which begins to enflame the whole piece, to the point of near-conflagration towards the end. Here, I thought the orchestral playing expert and reliable over the last few repetitions of the tunes, but to me the intensities created by all those wind and brass combinations didn’t build further after the violins had done their thing. It seemed almost as if the conductor was keeping the brass in check towards the end, thus leaving the last-gasp, percussion-underlined sequence to properly heighten the tensions and cap off the work – perhaps those stalwart brass players had given their all during Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy a few minutes before, and couldn’t quite recapture the same level of voltage.

As to the “curse of the Bolero “, among orchestra players the piece is regarded as proverbially treacherous, due to the mesmeric nature of those many repetitions of the rhythm. I recall a radio program played on “Concert” some years back in which a number of prominent orchestral players from top orchestras in Britain and the USA described the experience of playing in the piece, and the frequency of those rhythms simply going off the rails – one player described the experience as a “double nightmare”, being the fear of (a) getting “out” with those rhythmic patterns, and (b) having to figure out how to “get back in” again. One of my recordings (featuring – sacre bleu! – a French orchestra!) bears out this phenomenon, with the side-drummer at one point getting his rhythms mixed up, but, adroitly, (perhaps with the conductor’s help) mirror-imaging his mistake and thus finding his way back in “sync.” once again! On Friday night the glitch occurred almost at the end of the melody-line, so the players merely had to keep their heads and wait for the next repetition to begin.

Within the framework of these two pieces in the concert were a couple of others as different as chalk to cheese, though fortunately separated by the interval. In the first half, after La Valse, we heard the adorable G Major Piano Concerto, with Stephen de Pledge as the nimble-fingered soloist. Though Ravel indicated his debt to both Mozart and Saint-Saens when writing this work, the first movement of this work in particular is very bluesy, and probably owes something to Gershwin, whom Ravel had met (turning down a request from the former to become his pupil, advising him to “remain a first-rate Gershwin, rather than become a second-rate Ravel”). However, there were plenty of different jazz influences at large throughout the 1920s, and Gershwin was of course just one of these – Ravel had already incorporated jazz elements into his 1927 Violin Sonata, written the year before he met Gershwin.

This was a characterful performance, the soloist not afraid to point the music’s angularities in places, getting slightly “out” with the orchestra at one point for that reason, Inkinen and the players adopting a smoother, less spiky trajectory which resulted in the combination “playing around” rather than “with” one another throughout a sequence featuring the opening tune’s reprise. Elsewhere, the accord was mellifluous, if never taken for granted – de Pledge’s spontaneous-sounding playing made for moment upon moment of great interest, his passagework never as smooth and crystalline-sounding as, say, Stephen Hough’s (a keyboard wizard, after all!), but incapable, I thought, of turning out a meaningless or mechanical phrase. I loved the horn solo, but I must say I was surprised when the normally impeccable-sounding oboe seemed to my ears to make heavy weather of a short, but awkward ascending passage in octaves – still, it’s music that certainly keeps everybody on their toes.

De Pledge made something soulful and “human” of the slow movement’s opening solo, eschewing the marmoreal coolness often brought to this passage – his shaping of the melody was taken up readily by the wind solos, which here were simply to die for.The enchantment was taken on by the strings, leading up to the music’s “dark moment of the soul” climax and the consolation of the following limpid exchanges between piano and cor anglais, the pianist again concerned with shaping the figurations rather than simply “prettifying” the textures.

The finale crashed in with great verve, not quite matched by the soloist, whose lack of real incisiveness throughout made for a more muted keyboard effect than usual, though the superb wind solos, begun by the clarinet seemed to whistle up plenty of energies, as did the whip-crack (right on the button!) and the “toy-soldier” trumpet fanfares. Though there was an uncharacteristic fluff from among the otherwise superb horns, the trombone’s sighing four-note figure was a delight, a pearl of insouciance! Conductor Inkinen held back and unleashed his forces at just the right moments, while De Pledge’s playing certainly caught the vertiginous momentum of the chase and the whirling dervish aspect of the final bars with great aplomb! – a thoroughly entertaining performance.

The “cheese” put alongside Ravel’s “chalk” (or what you will) was Scriabin’s amazing “Poem of Ecstasy”, a work requiring all kinds of extra players to come out of the woodwork in the Michael Fowler Centre, for the purposes of the composer’s requirements – quadruple woodwind, eight horns, five trumpets and two harps, as well as, alas, a pipe organ, which the MFC didn’t unfortunately have. We were informed (warned?) in advance by an enthusiastic programme note on the work that a “brilliant and exuberant finish, resplendent in C Major, makes Scriabin disciples of us all”, though as this would presumably be an internal happening, rather like the conferring of a state of grace upon believers, it would be difficult to actually verify. (A friend told me afterwards that he felt a bit nervous when reading this sentence beforehand, as he wanted neither to be made a disciple of anybody, really, and conversely, nor did he want anybody, and certainly not a dead composer, to be declared HIS disciple!).

Despite the lack of a “proper” organ, the work still managed to generate more than the usual number of decibels in performance. As sheer sound it was an awe-inspiring sonic experience, if somewhat cosmopolitan in effect. As I had been listening of late to a recording of a Russian orchestra playing this work, an incredibly exciting and volatile performance, though somewhat disconcertingly coarse in texture, I felt sure that Pietari Inkinen would bring quite different qualities to the performance this evening, and so it proved. From where I was sitting it was well-nigh impossible to pick out contributions from individual players (invariably, bobbing head movements alone gave me a clue as to which clarinettist, which flute-player, which oboist, and so on, were actually playing!) – but I understand that Acting Section Principal Jon Dante was the superb trumpet-player whose recurring motif rang triumphantly out amid the vibrant orchestral textures.

I confess that, in places here, I thought the work’s unashamed rhetoric needed a bit more of the Russian performance’s sheer animal excitement – on the recording, the raw tumult of the sounds leading up to the two enormous climaxes which conclude the work wasn’t quite replicated by the NZSO players. But such a comparison begs the question as to how music in general ought to be played and interpreted, let alone a work by a part-fin de siècle part-futurist-cum-theosophist Russian composer obsessed with mystical oriental philosophy and the phenomenon of synesthesia (in Scriabin’s case, colours linked to musical tones). What Inkinen and the NZSO did with the Poem was, I thought, play it as a musical work with enormous skill and finesse. And if, like with the tone-poems of another great musical innovator, Franz Liszt, this very abstracted, almost literal approach tended to underline the music’s repetition as well as inspiration, it still came across as an impressive and exciting performance of a rarely-played, but worthwhile work by one of the most fascinating of all composers.


















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