Audience gives enthusiastic reception to splendid NZSO concert

‘Visions of Happiness’

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Pietari Inkinen, with Mikhail Ovrutsky (violin)

Wagner: Siegfried Idyll, Op. 103
Korngold: Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Tchaikovsky: Symphony no.4 in F minor, Op.36

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 5 April 2014, 7.30pm

What better composer to open the programme than Wagner, with conductor Pietari Inkinen fresh from conducting Wagner in Europe and Australia!  However, this was very different Wagner.  The Idyll was written as a birthday present for his wife, Cosima, in 1870.  (She wrote about it in her dairy, according to the printed programme!)  Not that a full symphony orchestra performed it for her to wake up to on the day; the composer wrote it for a group of 15 musicians, and gave it a full orchestration much later.

The lines were carefully delineated in this performance of the lush, romantic music.  The delicious woodwind writing was particularly notable.  All began in a calm, unhurried manner, horns and bassoons making a marvellous foundation for the strings, as did the pizzicato double basses.

Idyllic, indeed.  The exquisite first climax led to long, quiet passages before the major climax, with its lovely horn and woodwind solo melodies.  After a little more excitement the horns first and then the strings shimmered.  Stillness returned after the opening tune was reprised.   Just before the end, the horn and flute returned; all is then peace and tranquility.

This was a wonderful rendition, even if a little slow for my taste.  All the subtleties of the writing emerged, including the typically Wagnerian chromaticism, and some gorgeous suspensions.

Erich Korngold is a composer probably more associated with film music than with symphonic music, but as well as the latter, he wrote operas.  The orchestra was slightly smaller in the string sections for the concerto, but many more brass players were added, along with percussion.  This work, along with its predecessor and successor in the programme was dedicated to a woman, we were told in the excellent pre-concert talk from Roger Smith, of Radio New Zealand Concert.  The programme notes gave the titles of films in which some of the themes were used, but stated that it is not clear if they were written first for the movies or for the concerto.

The first movement (moderato nobile) began with a romantic melody from the violin, enhanced by the beautiful tone the soloist maintained throughout the concerto.  Despite the movement’s description, I found it more colourful and romantic than noble.  There were certainly times when symptoms of film music were present. An unusual feature of the entire work was the extensive use of the celeste, played by Kirsten Simpson.  I can’t think of another composition that features the little keyboard bells so much.  Famous for its use by Tchaikovsky in his Nutcracker ballet, it makes few other major appearances.

Ovrutsky has a passionate style and great technical prowess on his instrument, but musical integrity always came first.  His mastery was exhibited frequently, especially in the first movement cadenza.

The second movement (romance – andante) gave further opportunities for the celeste, and also for the harp, accompanying another romantic melody from the soloist.  This was played with plenty of nuance, fine phrasing and subtle colouring.  Korngold gave the violinist plenty of scope – rather more than he gave to the orchestra, though the latter nevertheless had many rich colours.

The Finale was marked ‘allegro assai vivace’, and fast it certainly was.  Here was a change of character, demanding furious violin-playing, and an episode where the orchestra strings played with the wood of their bows.  A magnificent theme began with the harp and lower strings only accompanying the soloist, then the violins were added; a most effective device.  Yet more prominent celeste added to what became a cheerful and bouncy movement, with a suitably climactic ending.

What is the response to my colleague’s aphorism – more corn than gold, or more gold than corn?  Equal measures, I’d say.  However, the negative element in the remark is no reflection on the evening’s superb soloist.

As an encore, Ovrutsky played with the orchestra Massenet’s justly popular ‘Méditation’ from his opera Thaïs, most sensitively and with subtle variety.

Tchaikovsky’s splendid Fourth Symphony was indeed substantially a vision of happiness, though some of it did not realise the vision. The supreme orchestrator gave the audience much joy, even if he did not always achieve it himself.  The immense
invention in this symphony is astonishing.

The absent string players were back, and the grand opening fanfare (the fate motif) sounded out.  Unfortunately the were a few false notes from the five horns (as there had been in previous items) this first time, so that it lost some of its impact. Following the fanfare (andante sostenuto) the moderato con anima was indeed just that – very energetic. Wonderful woodwind solos, especially from the clarinet, were a major feature.  You could dance a ballet to this movement.  There is no doubt that this is the composer of Swan Lake.  Conjecture: somewhere in the Russian woods, there emerge sprites looking for some fun. But they are met by witches, who chase them away, and call up thunder and lightning to scare the little ones… Fate issues its warning again, but soon everything is peaceful, because everyone has left the scene.

It was magical to hear the woodwind interjections from different sides of the platform.  It emphasised how much better it is to hear a live performance than a recording, even given the best of Dolby stereo.  The movement’s ending was thrilling and dramatic.

The andantino second movement opens with a beautiful folk melody played on the oboe, repeated by the cellos.  It is followed by a benign and soulful string melody, that nevertheless has lighter touches.  The orchestration is full of colour, not least from the bassoon, here.

The scherzo begins entirely with pizzicato, giving a thoroughly playful mood to the music. Tchaikovsky described the movement as having the effect ‘…when one has had a little wine and feels the first glow of intoxication’.  Oboes, then flutes and piccolo end the flight of fancy with one of their own.  Horns and clarinets contribute – those sprites from the first movement must be
back.  Pizzicato returns, and all works up to a jolly ending, then bang!

Straight into the allegro con fuoco Finale, that also has a Russian folk song as a main theme.  Brass and percussion have a field day, and multiple conversations run alongside the grand theme.  There is a huge build-up of excitement – then the fate theme emerges again.

Pietari Inkinen had everything (well, almost everything!) under control.  He used no huge gestures; just a slight nod to bring in each section for its entry. This was powerful music splendidly played.  There was an ecstatic response from the usually phlegmatic Wellington audience; the conductor called on individual woodwind players to stand and acknowledge the applause.

There were numbers of guest players, including Moky Gibson-Lane, here from overseas, playing sub-principal cello.  However, there were far too many empty seats for a concert of spirited, well-played music by mighty composers.


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