NZSO’s “Home is where the Heart is….”

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:


Larry Pruden: Soliloquy for Strings

Dvořák: Cello Concerto in B minor, Op.104 (allegro; adagio non troppo; allegro moderato

Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances, Op.45

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Pietari Inkinen, with Daniel Müller-Schott (cello)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 13 April 2013, 7.30pm

The title alludes to the fact that these works were either devised, or revised, when their composers were a long way from home: Pruden in London, Dvořák in the USA and Rachmaninov in the States also.

Larry Pruden’s work for string orchestra was a fine concert opener.  Its dreamy, unison opening for violins only, led us gently into the concert.  Other strings followed, the minor key giving the work a melancholic air, although there was plenty of passion present.  For a while the music wandered around a rather stark landscape, then became tense and astringent, before a calmer mood overcame the tension, and excitement built up.

A solo violin section led to a gradual resolution of the argument; a slightly uneasy peace settled by the end.  Throughout, the strings played with panache and sensitivity, giving a fine reading of the piece.

Dvořák’s Cello Concerto must be one of the all-time favourite concertos, and it is always gratifying to hear this well-loved work played live in concert – on this occasion by good-looking young German Daniel Müller-Schott.

The minor key opening belies Dvořák’s usual good humour and cheerfulness, with its storm of notes, noble theme and blaring brass.  Dvořák could never keep a good tune down for long, and some significant woodwind passages, and a beautiful melody that emerges on flute, were succeeded by another for the horn, calling across the beloved Bohemian landscape.

Sweeping strings and brass introduce a new subject, leading to the soloist’s incisive entry, taking up the orchestra’s themes.  The following passage-work was indeed demanding of the cellist, but Müller-Schott was its equal, before mellifluously rendering his first major theme.  Lots of orchestral detail emerged, especially from the woodwind and brass sections.  Lovely phrasing graced Müller-Schott’s lyrical playing; bow changes were imperceptible.

The early part of the development did not rise to the level of excitement that I was anticipating.  However, the final pages made up for it, with gorgeous string sound from both orchestra and soloist.

Nevertheless, there were times when I was expecting a fuller and warmer sound from Müller-Schott.  Whether this lack was a function of the Michael Fowler Centre, I couldn’t say.

The delicious opening clarinet of the slow movement followed by the cello soloist’s entry and the orchestral cellos’ pizzicato comprise one of music’s magical moments. The ravishing build-up of passion following this is as dramatic as an aria in opera.  The woodwinds reprise is gentle, only to be shocked by the tutti that follows.  The soloists’ melodies do not quell the ardour, but nevertheless lead the orchestra to calmer waters.

There were moments here when the solo was drowned by the orchestra – surely not the composer’s intention.  The cadenza was enhanced by a flute obbligato from Bridget Douglas.  Some of Dvořák’s most superbly magical writing is here.

Both Tovey and the friend with whom I attended the concert remarked on how the composer seems repeatedly to be bringing the movement to an end, and then carries on.  The positive side of this is that we hear constantly renewed beauty from the music.

The allegro slow movement is an utter contrast. It presents a rollicking band, while the cello solo veritably dances.  The sheer breadth of sound from the entire orchestra was breathtaking.  The cello section of the orchestra had plenty to do.  The ending was superb, thanks to the composer’s lovely writing for winds, while the soloist had much lyrical playing to delight the audience.  His technique is splendid, as was his command of the music, but I had anticipated a bigger, richer sound than we always got.  I am referring to timbre and tone rather than volume.  Nevertheless, this was fine, sensitive playing.

Müller-Schott greeted the continuous enthusiastic applause and cheers by playing an encore: Ravel’s Habanera.  In this I heard the sort of tone I had been seeking in the concerto – without orchestra, it came through strongly and eloquently.

Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances was a work only vaguely familiar to me, but it proved to be full of delights.  The delicate, quirky opening was followed by slow intoning accompanied by woodwind solos, and a discreet piano.  A splendid section for woodwinds followed, including an alto saxophone solo, plus some fine cor anglais playing.  Then grand phrases for strings swept us away.  All very dramatic and very Russian, and punctuated by an insistent three-note figure.  This movement was designated ‘non allegro’ (fast but not too fast?)

A strident brass opening of the second movement (andante con moto – tempos di valse)led to a solo violin passage of eloquent phrases, played by Vesa-Matti Leppänen.  This was followed by solo oboe.  Then we were into the lilting waltz, with its quirky interruptions.  The principal double bass player entered into the waltz, with his swaying instrument, the brass plate behind the tuning pegs reflecting the light as it moved.  The movement was full of good cheer.

The opening of the third movement (lento assai – allegro vivace – lento assai – come prima – allegro vivace) reminded me of Sibelius, but it soon changed to something more insistent.  Splendid percussion was a feature of this movement.  Another Sibelius-like theme emerged on the strings.  Brass flourishes appeared before a return to the slow and sombre temper again, with a lovely cor anglais solo.  The harp was notable.

Tremolando strings along with clarinet created a very spooky atmosphere.  This was such effective writing, full of contrasting dynamics.  Back to waltz rhythm again, and then the music worked up to an allegro, packed with excitement and rollicking brass at full pelt.  Drums and cellos sounded Sibelius-esque again, while off-beat rhythms reminded me of Carl Orff.  A tumultuous ending with gong strokes finished a wonderful and satisfying performance of a work of great variety with marvellous rhythms and luscious orchestration.

The printed programme was graced by Frances Moore’s superb notes, in which unfamiliar material was presented in a refreshing way.

Wellington audiences are having four days of an embarrassment of riches: three Houstoun Beethoven sonata concerts, this NZSO concert, and a Sunday afternoon concert from the Wellington Chamber Orchestra.

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