NZSO under Venezuelan conductor triumphs with essential German and Russian masterpieces

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rafael Payare with Alisa Weilerstein – cello

Schumann: Manfred Overture, Op 115
Prokofiev: Symphony-Concerto for cello and orchestra in E minor, Op 125
Mahler: Symphony No 1 in D

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 27 June, 6:30 pm

A couple of highly promising young musicians whose existence have so far escaped my attention appeared with the NZSO on Friday.  Rafael Payare is the product of Venezuela’s Sistema musical organisation that involves young people seriously in classical music, and has already given rise to one of the most illustrious young conductors, Gustavo Dudamel. Payare is obviously following a similar path.

He is married to Alisa Weilerstein, the cello soloist who played the Prokofiev.

It was easy to see how the orchestra has responded to Payare’s approach both to them and to the music; starting with the overture, Schumann’s Manfred. Apart from Shakespeare, only two English writers have become big business in other parts of Europe: Byron and Scott, and for composers in particular. Byron attracted Berlioz, Donizetti and Verdi, Liszt and Tchaikovsky. Schumann too who was drawn to Byron’s verse drama, Manfred. Byron dismissed Manfred, written in 1817, as something eccentric and untheatrical, writing that he didn’t know whether it was good or bad. He called it ‘mad’ and wrote that he had rendered it quite impossible for the stage. In spite of that, Schumann composed not just an overture but other pieces of incidental music for the play, suggesting that he did envisage that it might be staged. I don’t know whether it was. There was a good deal more contemporary dramatic literature in Germany in the early 19th century than there was in Britain.

The central attraction of the piece was a kind of supernatural being who lives with the guilt of an unnamed crime (it was no doubt that which attracted both Schumann, and Tchaikovsky, in his little-played Manfred Symphony). Byron wrote it in Venice after fleeing England after the exposure of his relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh.  It was the product of the age of Faust Part I (and the character Manfred owes something to Faust in fact – yes, I did read it many years ago) and other works of the Sturm und Drang era including Schiller’s Die Räuber, and the English Gothic novel.

I had not heard the Manfred Overture for many years and wondered whether its strong impression on me would still exist. It was, and very much. Schumann’s account of the subject is taut, melodically strong, portraying the hero’s sombre, disturbed character, and this performance was arresting and excitable, giving Schumann the most persuasive account one could hope for. It’s scored for a normal orchestra, double woodwinds, except for four horns which lent a fine dramatic resonance. The conductor handled the unexpected turns with panache, particularly the mock anti-climax at the end.

Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto was played by the NZSO with German cellist Alban Gerhardt about six years ago, in what I recall as a fire-eating performance, feverish, with pretty fast speeds.

Here there were smaller string numbers (12, 10, 8, 8, 6) and an otherwise conventional orchestra.  The cellist in the open phase did not project her sound very strongly, but her instrument carried the essentially lyrical solo writing engagingly, contrasting with the more sombre orchestral scoring, dominated by its repeating, stolid rising theme that opens the piece. It’s an arresting and dark rather than an ingratiating work however, even though the energy of the Allegro movement is compelling and there’s plenty of more conspicuous playing for the cello.

Most of those I spoke to, unfamiliar with the work, did not find it engaging, which was my own reaction when I first encountered it many years ago. A merely routine performance will never do: its enjoyment demands a highly persuasive performance, to turn what at first seems dry, rather laconic, melodically obscure music into a work that has some real emotional integrity, even at times, excitement. For example, after the cadenza in the middle of the Allegro the orchestra returns to a pulsing cross-string passage that is emotionally gripping, like the sound of a hammering steam train at high speed.

The second is the longest movement and seems to contain the widest variety of moods and speeds, and it’s here that a driving propulsion and a sense of purpose emerged, powerfully inspired by Payare’s direction of the orchestra. Though the last movement begins with what can only be described as a real melody, first-time listeners can be forgiven for sensing a severity and unforgiving character in the work as a whole, and that initial impression can be hard to shake off even as very interesting developments and quite memorable sounds create a work of art that is strong and original without recourse to alienating avant-garde techniques.

It’s quite a tough work nevertheless; and there was no doubt that the relationship between conductor and cellist lent the performance a special energy and displayed a belief in and an affection for the music.

Then came Mahler’s First Symphony. The orchestra reassembled after the interval, at full strength (which I discuss later). It opens with the most uncanny, ethereal sounds, such as no symphony at that time had approached in any way, an exploratory feeling, as off-stage trumpets and then cuckoo sounds on clarinet suggest a pastoral scene, reinforced by one of the most beguiling Wayfarer songs; and quotes from other songs, his own and ‘Frère Jacques’. From the very first, the orchestra created a sound world that was vivid and full of character.

For a first symphony, it is impressive both for its individual character, its novelties of shape and structure and in the size of orchestra used. Much of that character derives from its evolving growth and the revisions which the programme note covers to some extent – born as a five movement symphonic poem in two parts, begun when Mahler was 24 and first performed in Budapest when he was 29. That version included a movement known as Blumine (Flower piece) lifted from an earlier work most of which has been lost. That one movement, found in 1966, had been between the first and second movements when it was played in Budapest in 1889 and again in 1893 and 1894. The Budapest version was called ‘Symphonic-Poem in 2 Parts’.

Between the Budapest performance and the revision for Hamburg in 1893 Mahler added the name Aus dem Leben eines Einsamen (From the Life of a Lonely-one). Just before the Hamburg performance the name Titan was added, though he made it clear that it was not in any way about Jean Paul’s novel. But he removed that title after the Hamburg performance in 1893 and there is no reason for it to be so-called now. (Titan, published in 1800-03, is a somewhat wild, Romantic novel a prominent feature of which is its beautiful and evocative nocturnal landscape descriptions, a feature that can be easily visualised in the symphony).  The third performance was in Weimar on 3 June 1894. Here, the Blumine movement was deleted.

The orchestration of the Budapest version was conventional for the time, with double woodwinds and four horns, but by the 1893 Hamburg performance Mahler had supplied it with three of each woodwind instrument.

For Weimar in 1894 Mahler increased his winds: four each of the woodwinds, and 3 additional horns making a total seven horns. There are two sets of timpani as well as additional wind instruments to lend extra power in climaxes, mainly in the last movement. It still included the title from Titan.

The present form was only arrived at for the fourth performance in Berlin in 1896 when the title Titan was deleted and it was named for the first time, ‘Symphony in D major’.

Its provenance from a tone poem contributes to its greatness and its permanent place in the repertoire: a miraculous combination of imagination and narrative with the structure and discipline of the traditional symphony. This explains the remarkable originality of this first symphony, but it hardly accounts for the confidence its composer displays in handling very disparate materials and the triumph of creating a soundscape that met initially with strong criticism but which really assured its eventual and permanent success. It is that strong, original voice, along with a very rich melodic gift, that has kept it among the most popular symphonic works.

But music does not play itself, and it proved the ideal subject for a young conductor with exceptional energy as well as great musical imagination and the ability to inspire an orchestra that sometimes shows a certain resistance to the efforts of young, gifted, ambitious conductors. This time the orchestra was very obviously won over.

The other aspect of this and of Mahler’s other earlier works is the absence of any impact from the horrors of war, which were to affect to a greater or lesser degree, most composers who lived beyond the second decade of the 20th century. Mahler knew no wars. (There might be no wars to account for the more complex emotional landscapes of the later symphonies, but an increasingly tortured life can explain that).

He was only ten when the short but awful Franco-Prussian war took place and died three years before World War One began. I often contemplate the enormous emotional gulf between Mahler and the composer who was probably most influenced by him – Shostakovich, who grew up surrounded by the effects of the Revolution and then lived through Stalin’s terrors and the Second World War.

Out of the long peace that had brought the Austro-Hungarian Empire to its condition of decadent complaisance, the artist could indulge in the self-absorption that gave rise to Freud and a bit later, Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben and Salome, and compose a finale ending in huge triumphalism, with horns and trombones standing to point their instruments into the audience in an uproarious spirit of invincibility. And the house went wild, with far more noise and clamour than reticent Wellington audiences usually allow.


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