Beethoven blazes to the front of the NZSO’s ‘Five by Five’ symphony series

New Zealand International Festival

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich

Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and Symphony No 5 in C minor, Op 67

Michael Fowler Centre

Monday 24 February, 12:30 pm

Day One of the five concerts devoted to the great fifth symphonies by five great composers opened with a performance that promised a splendidly successful enterprise across the span of the Festival.

It was hard to guess the kind of audience that might buy tickets for a concert at a different time and in a different format from usual. However, the auditorium was reasonably well filled with an audience that seemed younger and more varied than those at the normal subscription concerts.

I had rather expected, at a concert that no doubt anticipated a lot of listeners who were giving classical music a try, some introductory comments from conductor Hamish McKeich. It was probably good simply to let this mighty music speak for itself: even though there was no printed programme or even a list of songs, they launched straight into Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture. The overture was for a play written by a young contemporary of Goethe and Schiller: Heinrich Joseph von Collin. The subject is the same as Shakespeare’s – about a misguided, 5th century BCE Roman general ‘who lets pride and a perverted sense of honour destroy him’ (Folger Library Shakespeare series). Collin is unlikely to have known the Shakespeare play (which has never been particularly popular on the English language stage) for very few of the famous Shakespeare translations by A W Schlegel had appeared by 1804 when Collin’s play was written. I can find no evidence that Schlegel or his successors translated Coriolanus.

The opening chords are dark and compelling, suggesting Coriolanus’s power and blind determination, followed by a gentler lyrical phase that is thought to reflect his mother’s attempt to calm his bellicosity. The impact by the orchestra was of stunning force, all sections magnificently integrated in the expression of purpose, in the resonant and lively acoustic (depending where you sit – I was centre stalls about row S, this place is no less responsive than the Town Hall).

The symphony was no less majestic and powerful; right from that famous call to attention, so much detail and refinement of expression entered into the biting pulses of the first movement as well as a relentless pursuit of a challenging journey the goal of which was always clearly in view. There was space, scrupulous care with note values, suspenseful dynamics and subtle tempo changes that expressed the blazing determination that propels the music.

The orchestra handled the beautiful second movement with a sort of restrained force and no less passion, again making the perfectly familiar music sound freshly enchanting and surprising. Here it was possible to relish individual playing, always by the cellos, and strings as a whole, several times from the bassoon, while meltingly beautiful colours were spread by the horns.

The magical, secretive transition to the Scherzo always takes me by surprise and this time, as in the thrilling tempo changes through the Finale, the hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck experience was real.

We are so flooded by music of all kinds today that it is forgivable to wonder whether another hearing of a great but well-known work will yet again have the same impact as it did, first heard many decades ago.  In this case, from the first moment, under the spell of conductor McKeich, I felt that I was present at a very great performance indeed; I have rarely felt such a sense of euphoria throughout the performance and emphatically, when the last insistent chords died away. Far more than ritual applause broke out at the end.


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