Passion, poetry and valediction from the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

RACHMANINOV – Caprice Bohémien
SCHUMANN – PIano Concerto in A Minor Op.
SHOSTAKOVICH – Symphony No.15 in A

Alexander Melnikov (piano)
Alexander Lazarev (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 17th May 2014

It was one of those concerts in which everything seemed to me to come together and go “whizz-bang!” It provided in spadefuls just what can make classical music events such unique experiences. It’s that totality of concentration upon nothing else but the music and music-making generated by musicians whose skill, focus and energy create a kind of frisson of recreative involvement. And into this ferment listeners are drawn, to make of the experience what they will. Whatever the music, however light-hearted or profound, it’s that realization of its essence, of its character, which transcends all other considerations.

Well-worn thoughts, one might think, hardly worth repeating? But it was good to be forcefully reminded (as, indeed, this same orchestra had done a week previously through its stunning performance of Lyell Cresswell’s work “Hear and Far” with singer Jonathan Lemalu, conducted by James MacMillan) how a group of musicians can by dint of skilled and committed playing, and without any extraneous trappings, so completely and utterly engage its listeners. I couldn’t imagine better advocacy for live music-making and its availability and continuance than was provided by this present concert.

The evening’s presentation was called, somewhat spuriously, “Russian Fire” – a description which had nothing whatever to do with the delectable Schumann A Minor Concerto, here performed by pianist Alexander Melnikov, a work which epitomizes German romanticism at its most poetic and winsome; while the last of Shostakovich’s symphonies, the enigmatic Fifteenth, is a philosophical, part tragic, part ironic work whose manner is somewhat removed from most of its composer’s earlier, conflict-ridden symphonic essays. Only the brilliant and volatile Caprice Bohémien, written by the youthful Sergei Rachmaninov in 1894, fulfilled the expectation created by the concert’s banner publicity headline.

One could argue that the phrase referred to the combination of pianist and conductor – both Russian and both noted for their brilliance and volatility as performers. That was largely true of conductor Alexander Lazarev, whose demonstrative and theatrical podium manner brought a sense of fiery commitment  to almost everything he interpreted. As for the “other” Alexander (a friend also at the concert afterwards put it succinctly when she said “Thumbs up for the two Alexanders!), pianist Alexander Melnikov, whom I’d seen and heard play “live” before, brought by turns strength and restraint, poetry and precision to his playing of the first two movements in particular of the concerto –  any “fire” as such would have scorched and withered the delicate tissues of such finely-wrought music.

In fact those first two movements of the concerto gave me such unalloyed delight, I was left feeling a tad disappointed by the finale, whose music here didn’t for me sufficiently “dance”. Melnikov gave us some lovely moments, but he seemed more taken with the movement’s ebb than with its flow – I felt neither his playing nor Lazarev’s direction generated quite enough overall momentum for the phrase-ends to be set tingling and the blood to be stirred. I thought of Schumann’s remark about the Chopin Waltzes needing to be danced by countesses, and felt something of the same need ought to apply to this work’s finale – as much as I appreciated what both pianist and conductor were doing I thought in overall terms, the movement didn’t quite get off the ground.

But ah! – such was the spell cast by Melnikov’s noble and poetic keyboard utterances throughout the earlier parts of the work I found it easy to forgive him – and along with everybody else in the auditorium I was charmed by his playing of one of Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives as an encore, one with the most deliciously throwaway ending, which was tossed at us most delightfully and nonchalantly.

It rounded off a first half which had begun in the most spectacular and colourful fashion with a stunning performance by Lazarev and the orchestra of Rachmaninov’s rarely-played orchestral work Caprice Bohémien. This was composed just after the fledgling composer had graduated from the Moscow Concervatory, and it exhibits a confidence and surety in handling his material that’s quite remarkable for somebody writing such an early work.

What’s also interesting about this work besides its depth of feeling is the piece’s exoticism – granted that it’s music depicting Gypsy life, but Rachmaninov was to further intensify this exotic, somewhat oriental-sounding vein of expression in his First Symphony, which was first performed in 1897 and famously ravaged by the critic Cesar Cui, himself a composer, one of “The Five”, though perhaps its least distinguished member.

Had the Symphony’s first performance been better-managed and the work’s reception a more favourable one, Rachmaninov’s style as a composer might well have explored these exotic paths more fully. But as is well known, the young composer was sunk into a deep depression as a result of the Symphony’s failure – and his immediately subsequent works, such as the Second Piano Concerto and the Second Symphony were far less harmonically daring and innovative than the music of both the First Symphony and the earlier Caprice Bohémien.

In Alexander Lazarev the Caprice had the ideal interpreter – Lazarev brought to the fore the music’s excitement and volatility, but also brought out the vein of deep melancholic lyricism which marks Rachmaninov’s work – so those pulsating timpani contourings, throbbing lower strings and brooding winds of the opening created for us a wondrous atmosphere brimming with possibility and ready to explode with bite and energy at a moment’s notice – after briefly doing so, the music returned to smolder-mode, out of which grew the most gorgeous ‘cello tune, reflecting this aforementioned penchant for exotically-coloured expression, as did the solo clarinet melody which followed, and the subsequent interchanges with the flute and horn.

After this had all burst forth and subsided, the dancing began, slowly at first, but gathering in tension and excitement,and culminating in a near-frenzy of abandonment at the end, with players and audience members on the edges of their seats both literally and metaphorically. The conductor (as he’d done in concerts on previous visits) made his notorious “rostrum turn-about” to the audience on the final orchestral chord! – pure showmanship, but in a sense it was what this kind of music-making was about, involving the listeners as palpably as it did the musicians. We loved him for it!

An interval was greatly appreciated in view of the imminent Shostakovich Symphony, just as the business of moving the piano onto the platform  for the Schumann concerto gave us time to readjust our sensibilities after the wild and orgiastic Rachmaninov piece. But unexpectedly, there was more, because the concert happened to be the occasion of veteran NZSO violist Peter van Drimmelen’s final appearance as an orchestra player. So, before the second half got under way, deputy Concertmaster Donald Armstrong stepped up to the microphone to pay a well-modulated tribute to van Drimmelen, highlighting his contribution over the years both to the orchestra and to music in Wellington in general as a player, conductor and organizer.

Then it was ostensibly grimmer business at hand, with the re-entry of conductor Lazarev, ready to set in motion Shostakovich’s final and valedictory Fifteenth Symphony. In point of fact, the Symphony sounded anything but grim to begin with – more like a kind of surrealist entertainment, with a couple of quotations from Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture thrown into the first movement’s somewhat quixotic orchestral mix. Unusually for Shostakovich, this symphony contains several “borrowings” from other composers – apart from the Rossini, most obviously in the final movement from Wagner, but as well from Shostakovich’s fellow-countryman Mikhail Glinka.

Shostakovich wouldn’t be “drawn” regarding any possible “programme” suggested by the symphony, apart from commenting that his intention vis-a-vis the first movement was to depict a kind of open-air toyshop viewed through the eyes of a child – a somewhat misleading description of music that in places palpably depicted more like “something nasty in the nursery”. He was as coy when asked to explain the various quotations from other composers’ works, telling a friend, somewhat obliquely, “I don’t myself quite know why the quotations are there, but I could not NOT include them”.

Lazarev and the NZSO players took us into this surreal world in a trice, with snappy, alert playing that nailed the music’s angularities and brought out its piquant melodic lines, the flute and bassoon foremost among the winds at the outset. The “toyshop” aspect was given full rein from all sides at first – a wonderfully antiphonal sound-picture of disparate elements, into which comings and goings jogged, quite unabashed, the “William Tell Overture” quote, rather like a kind of sub-plot or passing theatre of separate activity on one level, yet at the same time “grown” out of the textures in a wholly unselfconscious manner.

The layered, cross-rhythmed string passages, echoed later in manner by the winds, eerily wound up the music’s tensions, and uncovered darker, more anxious purposes which a skittery solo violin and a couple more jaunty appearances of “William Tell” couldn’t entirely keep down – I thought the NZSO’s playing encompassed all the different variants of character in the music with real élan. And live music-making gave the listener visual bonuses as well, such as the use of the whip, held high and played with delicious precision by one of the hard-working percussionists.

The only place in the symphony I had difficulty going entirely with Lazarev’s reading was at the beginning of the second movement, where I thought the dark, sinister brass chorales were given a shade too quickly and smoothly. But what sombre beauties were then conjured up by Andrew Joyce’s wonderful ‘cello solo, the other orchestral strings coming forth in due course with rapt, properly awed responses. Not being Russian players the brasses couldn’t help their chorales sounding more like Bruckner than Shostakovich, so refined were their outpourings. But the winds’ eerie radio-frequency chords were answered by a superbly-done trombone solo with tuba accompaniment which brought our sensibilities into the music’s very heart, prior to a seismic irruption from the whole orchestra that seemed to suddenly open a wound, and lay bare the composer’s inner existential anguish. Afterwards, we found ourselves in the middle of a sound-world bereft of warmth, compassion and any hope for the future – most unsettling was the silence when the music stopped.

As were the ghoulish chords which began the scherzo-movement – grinning gargoyle-like sounds from the winds, suggesting a kind of “danse macabre” – also, wonderful “kitchen” sounds from the percussion, so very readily did they evoke the convolutions of dancing bones! Eerie, too were the flesh-creeping, Psycho-reminiscent responses of the strings to the solo violin, music from a master of the sardonic gesture, surpassing himself in this, his valedictory symphonic statement.

But what to make of the last movement? – along with its direct Wagner quotation (the “Fate” motif, associated with the deaths of both Siegmund and Siegfried, in “The Ring”) there were references to both “Siegfried’s Funeral March” and the “Tristan” Prelude, before disarmingly linking the last with a quote from a Glinka song….. the references to death are inescapable – Shostakovich was a man dying of heart disease when the Symphony was being written – and both the “Tristan” and the Glinka quotes involve aspects of love. Of course “Tristan” epitomizes all-consuming love, whereas the Glinka song is a setting of verses by the poet Baratynsky concerning a renunciation of love, containing the words “To a disillusioned man all seductions are alien…”. So Shostakovich’s choice of other people’s music as quotations was here replete with significance.

My notes say of the performance at this point, “the orchestral detailing is astonishing!” – and it was during this movement that I became aware of the intensity of the audience’s pin-dropping concentration upon the music and the music-making. The playing of the orchestra seemed to realize every ounce of the music’s message at every place along the dynamic spectrum, from the bleak stillnesses to the blackest, most jagged and numbing climaxes. After these, along with the quotations and the eerie “radio-frequency-chord” were done, nothing was left in the music but the bare bones of life tapping out the remaining, failing pulse-beats until only the silences could be heard.

Conductor Lazarev cannily kept his arms upraised and his hands beating time in ever-dimishing movements after the sounds had ceased, holding the audience breath-bated and spell-bound – and when after a minute’s silence had passed he brought his arms down to his sides the applause was thunderous in its response. He then generously (if rather too fulsomely in one particular case) brought every one of the orchestral soloists, as well as whole sections at a time, to their feet to acknowledge the ovation.

With all due respect to Shostakovich, I thought it really was a concert to die for – a most memorable occasion. For which, much thanks to all concerned!












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