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Schubert with the NZSO – head held high in symphonic company

By , 03/03/2014

NZSO – “Five-by-Five” Lunchtime Concert Series

New Zealand International Festival of the Arts

SCHUBERT – Symphony No.5 / Rosamunde Overture D.664

Marc Taddei (conductor) / New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Monday 3rd March

Had Marc Taddei and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra given us only the symphony in this, the second of the orchestra’s innovative “Five-by-Five” lunchtime concerts, it would have been a brief, if still delightful affair – but help was forthcoming, courtesy of the same composer’s equally winning Overture to “Rosamunde”, music whose stern, dramatic opening served to quickly focus our thoughts on the musical matters in hand. It all suited the occasion to perfection, as, once the dark, arresting introduction had unequivocally captured our attention, the grace, charm and high-spirits of the following allegro vivace put us all in the best of possible moods for the symphony to follow.

Marc Taddei had briefly talked on the radio a few days previously about Schubert, mentioning his kinship with Mozart as regards the symphony’s construction, but emphasizing the later composer’s proximity to the dawn of romanticism in the arts. For this reason he indicated that “a more relaxed approach” to the score would be his ideal in realizing the music with his players. We were able to register this in the overture – after the black-browed and dramatic introduction had spent its force, the music’s essential lyricism, geniality and good humour readily came to the fore under Taddei’s direction. I thought the wind-playing was particularly fine, the sounds both characterfully pointed and phrased with plenty of winning grace.

So, we were well-primed for the symphony, a work which I hadn’t heard in concert for some years – in fact, so chequered has been my concert-going habit over the duration, my last actual memory of hearing the piece live was in the 1970s in Palmerston North, at a concert given by the Alex Lindsay Orchestra with conductor John Hopkins. Though I have very little recall of the sounds from that occasion I would imagine they would have been quite different in character to what we heard in the Michael Fowler Centre. Of course, much of the difference would stem from my recollection of the Lindsay Orchestra having a somewhat smaller number of players than did the NZSO.

Not that Marc Taddei went for a consistently full-throated approach to the music – in fact I was impressed by his readiness to “yield” to the work’s more poetic and lyrical aspects, and his disinclination to “drive home” the more fully-orchestrated sequences to maximum possible effect. Because, compared with those forces I saw play the work many years ago in Palmerston North this was certainly a sizable orchestra – “A little TOO big,” observed a friend (whose judgement I respect) afterwards. “Yes”, I countered, relishing discussions such as these, “but surely that’s less important than having the players, no matter how many there are, focus and fine down their tones and get the music’s actual “voice” across?”.

That’s what I felt was happening, throughout the first movement – an approach to the playing, via the players’ attack and their phrasing, that knew what it was about, that concentrated upon singing lines and detailed phrasing more than generalized force and mechanical passagework. With each player focused on those priorities it didn’t really matter as to the numbers – the focus and concentration was all. I did like hearing the exposition repeat;  and only with the recapitulation did I feel the need for a bit more affectionate caressing of the lines, a kind of bringing of past experience to bear on the notes and phrases. But I was still impressed by Taddei’s way with the music, getting the musicians to sing their tones naturally, and without forcing or beefing-up of emphasis at the paragraph-ends.

The slow movement was also very fine, enlivened by a slightly quicker, more urgent and “troubled” manner in the minor-key sections – it gave the whole a kind of shape, a real and telling contrast of character, an approach which also worked well with the heartfelt, sighing coda. Of course, the reverse was the case with the scherzo – at the outset it was all muscle and bucolic energy, even if the unison opening wasn’t quite together first time up.  Then, with the trio, the whole mood changed, strings aglow, winds with smiles on their faces, and the horns gloriously mellow.

A further contrast came with the finale’s opening, nimble and urgent, with deft interchanges between strings and winds – and what a contrast with the plunge into the minor-key mode! – real “sturm-und-drang” stuff! The repeat gave us the chance to hear it all again, including the beautifully-held moment of breathless silence before the second subject entered, with its Mozartean grace and sense of well-being. With splendid attack and poise, the triplet rhythms danced the music to a joyous conclusion, one greeted with plenty of enthusiastic applause from a well-satisfied audience.

 

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