Larks and serious business, with Yevgeny Sudbin and the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending

Beethoven: Piano Concerto no.2 in B flat Op.19 (allegro con brio; adagio; rondo: allegro)

Elgar: Symphony no.1 in A flat Op.55 (andante nobilmente e semplice – allegro; allegro molto; adagio; lento – allegro)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, with Vesa-Matti Leppänen (violin) and Yevgeny Sudbin (piano)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday, 17 May 2013, 6.30pm

It was gratifying to see the Michael Fowler Centre virtually full, no doubt due at least in part to the presence on the programme, The Lark Ascending, the work that tops the Radio New Zealand Concert ‘Settling the Score’ popularity programme almost every year.  Works by English composers book-ended the concert, and an Englishman was the conductor, who obviously knew the music very well, especially the Elgar.

While the concert-master played the delicious solo part in the Vaughan Williams, his colleague Yury Genzentsvey led the orchestra in both this work and in the Beethoven concerto.  A slightly smaller orchestra, particularly in the wind departments, played these two works; the full team assembled for the Elgar symphony after the interval.

Excellent, informative and quite lengthy programme notes were not credited to anyone.  The only other negative thing to say about this concert was that there was an unfortunate amount of unsuppressed coughing, especially during the Lark, that quietest of quiet orchestral pieces.  It was absent during Bryn Terfel’s recent concert – what has happened?

Leppänen bestowed a wonderful variety of tonal colours on the piece, including warm and rich, sprightly, and, well, bird-like.  The slower section was considerably drawn out compared with other performances I have heard – but none the worse for that.  All of the many solo passages were superbly executed, and at the end, his colleagues applauded as warmly as did the audience, but they themselves gave a fine account of Vaughan Williams’s music.  Notable was some gorgeous woodwind playing; for example, flute and clarinet together.

Written before the concerto known as no.1, this Beethoven concerto is very much in the Classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart, particularly in the first movement.  The violins did not sound at their best always in the opening passages.  However, the tall, handsome young pianist made an immediate impression in his lilting initial foray, varying his dynamics subtly.  Phrasing was lovingly done.  Sudbin showed great delicacy in pianissimos, and every note was in place.  Compared with most other pianists, he sat very close to the keyboard, and played from almost directly above it.

One was seldom aware of the sustaining pedal, and his sound was full, while never being ‘louder than lovely’.  There was nothing mechanical about this playing; it was always nuanced and apt, such as through the various changes of key, and the athletic runs, for example in the magical cadenza – which ended with surprising little chords.

The slow movement began with an inspiring orchestral flow into which the piano breaks, but without disturbing the tenor of it lofty expression.  There were delightful piano syncopations before a more sombre mood emerged.  The return of the main theme was decorated most deliciously by the piano.  The facility of this young pianist is remarkable.  Yet he makes every note count.  However, I was surprised to hear trills on the piano pedalled; this gave out an odd metallic shimmering sound from the instrument.  The orchestral playing in this movement was sublime.

The finale breaks in as a lively, passionate contrast.  The pianist’s dexterity continued to be varied, and carried expression with it.  The ending of the movement was enchanting; delicate yet strong.

The audience’s enthusiastic response to the pianist was rewarded with not one, but two unannounced encores.  The beauty of the first was somewhat marred by a cellphone’s intervention.  It was a delight not to have a showy piece played, but rather a poised, gently glowing piece.  However, the next one demonstrated technique to burn, including superb articulation, the pianist playing even more over the keyboard than in the concerto.  This was a much faster, noisier piece, with a bit too much pedal for my taste.  Although they were not familiar to me, I concluded that both pieces were by Scarlatti, and some learned friends I spoke with in the interval had the same thought.

The Elgar symphony came as quite an aural shock after the relatively restrained first half, with the much larger orchestra, especially in the brass and woodwind departments.  The opening march-like theme would declare the music to be by Elgar even if one didn’t know.  There were lots of typical surging crescendos; how different from Vaughan Williams’s gentle piece!  Of course the latter was also a considerable symphonist.

Excitement builds in the first movement, tuba and all.  Is it all bluster?  The first significant symphony by an Englishman was not, however, all ebullience. The opening theme returns in quieter mode, before it is shouted from the rooftops again.   It featured gorgeous string writing – and playing.

The second movement has another rather imperialistic theme for full orchestra, with much percussion and a contrabassoon lurking underneath.  Glissandi from the two harps glowed, and then it was back to the march of soldiers in combat, trumpets giving the battle calls.  The music became more than a little pompous, saved by some delicate woodwind and string passages, sometimes in unison.  I detected fine bass clarinet playing.

The adagio was a quiet, elegiac patriotic song for fallen heroes.  The cor anglais intoned mournfully before a resolution of grief arrived.  There were little solos for the string principals.  Passionate, even pleading cries led to a quiet, contented resolution, and peace.

Then straight on to the final movement, unusually set as a lento leading to allegro (not lento-adagio as printed at the head of the notes).  A quiet allusion to the main theme of the first movement, noble string playing, followed by shimmering unisons and chunky alternating staccato passages.  As the whole orchestra asserted itself in bombastic variations on the first movement theme, the music became more than a little Brahmsian Finally, it became frenzied and boisterous.

Perhaps we hear that theme a little too often.  It seems as though it was designed to rouse the masses to heights of either ecstasy or fury.  Anyway, it drew an enthusiastic response from the audience.  The pressure to write symphonies was obviously great; to me, the essence of Elgar is in his Sea Pictures, Enigma Variations, and his many attractive choral pieces.






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