Magnificent Nordic programme from NZSO, Vänskä and Currie

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä with Colin Currie (percussion soloist)

Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten (Pärt)
Percussion Concerto ‘Sieidi’ (Kalevi Aho)
Symphony No 5, Op 50 (Nielsen)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 5 July, 6.30pm

Osmo Vänskä’s name first came to my notice as conductor of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in a series of Sibelius symphonies that returned to the composer’s original versions. Even though the consensus was generally that Sibelius’s further thoughts were best, there were interesting revelations; in any case, the performances were acknowledged as powerful and highly motivated.

Though in his conversation with Eva Radich on Radio New Zealand Concert’s Upbeat, Vänskä hinted at the way he has been rather confined to the Nordic repertoire, it was no bad thing for us to experience this splendid programme; just a shame that Wellington audiences seem to be overlooking the meaning of the increasingly empty boast of being the Cultural Capital: there were far too many empty seats.

Wellington heard the first of the four performances of this wonderful concert (the orchestra goes on to Christchurch, Hamilton and Auckland), and it proved to be a landmark, both for the astonishing percussion concerto by Kalevi Aho and the electrifying performance of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony. Many of us consider Nielsen to be a symphonist in almost the same class as Sibelius, and this Finnish conductor clearly believed in the music’s stature and importance.

While Nielsen avoided referring to a ‘programme’ behind this symphony, it is generally felt that the horrors of the First World War – it was written between 1920 and 1922 – are the unspoken sub-text. Robert Layton, for example, remarks of the end of the first movement that the conflict eventually subsides leaving “a desolate clarinet mourning the terrible cost of the triumph [surely a most unfortunate word to apply to any aspect of the war, especially the Versailles treaty, pregnant with the seeds of another war]”; and an “evocation of the terrible conflict from which Europe had just emerged”.

Violence is audible in many parts, particularly in the role of the insistent automatic-weapon-like rattle of the snare drum in the first movement.

Though it is cast in two movements, each divided into several sections, a strong unity of musical subject matter binds the whole so that the audience is gripped for its entire 35 minutes or so. The symphony emerges as a very distinctive and memorable work in almost any hands, but there was a powerful, arresting atmosphere here, from the very start, with the music seeming to emerge from nowhere as violas rock across a minor third; it announced Vänskä’s intimate understanding and command.

Familiarity with the work creates a tense feeling of anticipation, awaiting the entry of the terrifying snare drum, played by Lenny Sakofsky.  Even though the drum was placed in the middle of the orchestra (where I couldn’t see it) rather than in a soloist’s position at the front, its arrival and its growing, almost overwhelming, force came as something of a shock which mere familiarity with recorded versions cannot quite prepare you for. That staccato attack is not confined to the drum however, and the driving staccato characterizes all other sections of the orchestra.

And it’s not till the last few pages that a sunny rising motif arrives to lead to the beautiful, perhaps more characteristic sound of the lyrical Nielsen with which the second part, Adagio non troppo, begins. If the tempo marking might suggest less of the drama and dynamism of the first movement, that was not the way it happened; though the conflict of the first movement was resolved, there was no loss of momentum or intensity and it proved an entirely convincing sequel.

We’d been prepared for the character of Vänskä’s performance by the two works in the first half: scrupulous, detailed attention to dynamics and to the balance between individual instruments and orchestral sections, but above all, enormous energy and rhythmic impulse.

The concert opened with Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. It’s a piece that I have long promoted to family and friends who might need persuading of the existence of classical music that is irresistible: simple, spiritual and profoundly moving.  However, while I am usually most reluctant to parade comparative remarks about performances, I was unable to ignore the sounds of the recording by the Bergen Philharmonic under Neemi Järvi that is engraved in my head. This playing rather lacked the same clarity and deep spirituality. But its place as a prelude to the massive works to follow was intelligent and should awaken those hearing it for the first time to music other than Fratres and Spiegel im Spiegel by this singular Estonian composer.

The percussion concerto, Sieidi, by Kalevi Aho was jointly commissioned by the London Philharmonic and Gothenburg Symphony orchestras and the Luostoclassic Festival which, the programme notes did not tell you, is in Finnish Lapland (An amazing place; look at:‎).

It might be tempting to denigrate Kalevi Aho’s work as largely a virtuosic showcase for Currie, and to wonder about its musical substance; would it prove to be slight if the huge score were to be reduced to a solo piano version? But that is the equivalent of analyzing the artistic value of a painting by turning it into naked black and white.

While there were moments early on when such thoughts cropped up, admiration and persuasion soon supervened. As well as being mesmerized by Currie’s astonishing prowess, the orchestral episodes that offered the equivalent of the Promenade in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, allowing Currie to move comfortably from one instrument or set to the next, were opportunities for lyrical, reflective and often simply beautiful music. Even as the soloist was in full flight, the orchestral composer was very conspicuous, in complementary developments that were exquisitely attuned to the character of the particular solo percussion passages.

The music evolved, metamorphosed, maintaining the listener’s attention through its varying moods and along its diverting paths. There is of course, no problem with the concerto’s form, formal anarchy has reigned in all styles of music for at least a century. It’s not divided into the traditional three or four movements, and the musical ideas are not handled in traditional ways: sonata form, rondo, or the theme and variations form, though that could be a way of considering it, where motifs are treated successively by each of the percussion instruments or groups of instruments, as well as the orchestra itself.

There were novelties among Currie’s battery of instruments: African hand-drums, and a five-octave marimba, which I had not seen before, and vibraphone. Three other orchestral percussionists participate, their positions prescribed by the composer – in the middle of the orchestra and on either side. The orchestral percussion makes its impact from the very start, as the hand-hit djembe is accompanied by quite stunning timpani and bass drum.

The deliberate visual effect is intended to reflect the shape of the music as attention on soloist Colin Currie moves from right to left and, after reaching the giant tam-tam on the left, begins a return in the other direction with the music generally exploring sounds that sounded distinct from those heard on the up-journey.

It is an extended work and makes huge demands of the entire orchestra, particularly the percussionists. I would be surprised if this performance could be heard as inferior to the premiere performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vänskä. In fact, his agreeing to come to conduct the NZSO in the piece speaks volumes about the orchestra’s international reputation. Obviously, Vänskä would have agreed to conduct this massive programme only in the confident knowledge of the NZSO’s capacities.

While it might be tempting to offer a reserved view about its musical value, I did not share some opinions that it was a bit too long; in spite of the burden of being heard as a virtuosic exercise, there is real music here, of colour, spectacle, huge variety and sustained power; and I was in no hurry for it to end. All of this could hardly have been more vividly, brilliantly brought to life than from the hands of Currie, Vänskä and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.


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