Musicians join in with the fireworks in Wellington

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
OPULENCE – Music by Tchaikovsky, Ravel and R.Strauss

Eldar Nebolsin (piano)
Michael Stern (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

TCHAIKOVSKY – Piano Concerto No.2 in G Major Op.44
RAVEL – Ballet Suite from “Ma Mère l’Oye” (Mother Goose)
R.STRAUSS (arr. Rodzinski) – Orchestral Suite from “Der Rosenkavalier”

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 8th November, 2014

Happily, the days of accepting “as Tchaikovsky’s work” the long-established truncated version made by Alexander Siloti of the G Major Piano Concerto – such grievous cuts in the second movement! –  seem to be at an end. Here, at the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s “Opulence” concert at the Michael Fowler Centre on Saturday evening last, we had, in all of its undiluted glory, the original work as Tchaikovsky conceived it. Those extended solo string lines of the Andante were allowed their full expressive voice, maximizing the movement’s dramatic contrast with the energy and vigour of the outer sections of the concerto.

This done, the rest was up to the musicians – and we got a performance from pianist, conductor and orchestra that, to my ears, simply got better and better as it progressed – perhaps a shade four-square and pompous throughout the opening exchanges (partly the fault of Tchaikovsky’s writing), but with every entry made by pianist Eldar Nebolsin creating sparks and flashes of impulse which eventually built up to the point of open conflagration. Here was, I thought, a demonstration of keyboard virtuosity which seemed to grow from right out of the music’s heart – it possessed a kind of compulsive playfulness that exuded total involvement, far removed from brilliance for its own sake.

Nebolsin seemed to take nothing he played for granted, voicing his lines exquisitely in quieter places, in dialogue with the orchestral winds, then just as spontaneously bubbling his textures up and over with delight in his more rapid passagework. Yes, that odd-sounding “ready-steady-GO!” orchestral entry (not terribly convincing at the best of times!) at about nine or ten minutes into the first movement didn’t “come off” here with any great conviction, but the orchestral winds then played like souls possessed with their concerted triplet figurations that buoyed along the string lines which followed. From then on I thought the playing really took wing, with a grandly-sprung orchestral entry immediately after the pianist’s astonishingly volatile first-movement cadenza, and some riotous exchanges leading up to the movement’s end.

It seems tiresomely cliched to say so, but the Andante’s opening conjured up an entirely different world of sensibility – firstly Vesa-Matti Leppänen’s violin, and then Andrew Joyce’s ‘cello gave us moments of aching lyrical beauty, the players’ lines mingling ease with intensity in a way that might well have caused the pianist to exclaim in rehearsal “What a pity to come in and spoil that!”…….however, Nebolsin’s real-time response was to add to the melody’s beauty with phrasings that actually brought to my mind in places the Brahms of some of the latter’s Intermezzi  – Tchaikovsky, who was ambivalent about the German composer and his music, would possibly be spinning in his grave at the audacity of such a comparison!

But there was more to it than lyrical expression – the exchanges took on a passionately operatic air in places, the piano building “Swan-Lake” climaxes with the orchestral strings, and violin and ‘cello “crossing bows” with a vengeance, before returning things to a state of equilibrium, save for that uneasy sequence shared by the lower strings and brass over tremolando violins – some remnant of a painful and poignant memory of its composer’s, perhaps?

How we all delighted at the whiplash crack of the finale’s opening! – again, Nebolsoin’s playing had such a sense of fun accompanying the brilliance! We got a superb horn-solo as a counterpoint to the second theme, and an exciting, soaring, conflagration of strings in their brief but telling flourish which followed. I thought, in fact, the whole performance seemed to be alight, with plenty of “sting” in the exchanges between soloist and strings – an example was that tricky-run-up to yet another whiplash chord at the beginning of the coda – real panache, a wonderful amalgam of impetuosity and confidence!

Had the Michael Fowler Centre been more generously peopled that evening (was that reprobate Guy Fawkes to blame on this occasion?), the response at the concerto’s end would have been simply overwhelming! We did our best, calling the pianist back for more and richly-deserved acclaim, until we could put hands together no more – Eldar Nebolsin’s was playing which made me long for the days when such a soloist’s appearance with the orchestra would usually be followed up  by a solo recital – alas, as civilizations progress, so, it seems, do they also decline……..

We had been told in an announcement before the concert that the interval would be spaced so as to allow patrons the opportunity to observe the Wellington City Council’s annual fireworks display – so, at 9pm most of us had arrayed ourselves either at a convenient window or vantage-point just alongside the building, ready for the visual scintillations and batteries of percussive retorts accompanying such happenings. It all seemed in perfect accord with what we had just heard, actually – so everybody was in a high old humour when the concert’s second half began.

Certainly, after the “double-whammy” effect of Tchaikovsky at his most extroverted and brilliant, and the full-on battery of fireworks over the harbour, we were all ready for something a shade more subtle and delicate – and Ravel’s music for his Ballet Suite “Ma Mère l’Oye” (Mother Goose) was just what the doctor ordered. A pity the whole ballet is seldom played in the concert-hall, as there’s more to enjoy – an enchanting introduction plus a series of wonderful linking episodes (rather like the “Promenades” used by Musorgsky in his “Pictures at an Exhibition”). Still, the Suite is the next-best thing, and it brought out ravishing sounds from conductor and players in all instances.

The Suite preserves the work’s original inspiration – five pieces written for piano-duet for the children of friends, each piece characterizing a favourite fairy-tale. Ravel, too kept the structure intact when he first orchestrated the pieces in 1911 – the following year he added the “extras” which introduce and then link the movements. Tonight we began with the “Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty”, the sounds like the play of vapours around the head of a sleeping child, as if guardian spirits were in attendance.  The orchestral winds had a great deal of solo work throughout, and the players performed their own and the more concerted lines with requisite beauty and character, especially in this opening piece.

Next came another delicate evocation, “Petit Poucet” (Tom Thumb), whose principal melody, played on the cor anglais, had such an aching, nostalgic quality, one could readily identify with the composer’s longing to somehow re-enter the world of childhood. The forest birds made an appearance in this tale as well, a solo violin joining various winds to emulate their wild, plaintive voices. What a change of ambience with “Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas”, the pentatonic figurations creating bustling, excitable movement before a gong evoked the splendour of an Oriental Monarch! How the composer must have loved writing this!

One of the most famous of all fairy-tales, “Beauty and the Beast”, got truly graphic treatment from the orchestral instruments, the story’s two characters clearly demarcated at the beginning, bright-eyed, almost questing wind-playing depicting Beauty’s attractiveness and open, enquiring mind, and then louring percussion supporting the hideous tones of the contrabassoon to portray the unfortunate Beast – a wonderful noise! Then when the lighter winds and the deep-throated Beast got together, the synthesis was breathtaking in its audacity and clarity – a kind of “vive la difference” to savour and remember.

In fact, the only, very slight criticism I could find to make of the playing was of places in the final movement, “The Enchanted Garden”, whose episodes I thought unfolded beautifully, but a shade (just a shade, mind you!) too glibly – the sequences could have done with a touch more breathless wonderment at some of the phrase-ends and harmonic turns, as a child might experience when exploring some kind of wonderland – places where the music’s hymn-like progressions could have caught and held the flow for split-seconds of poised, ecstatic delight, a “registering” of certain moments, one might say. Still, the final peroration very satisfyingly gathered all together and opened up the vistas to the oncoming sunshine, a triumph of light and good and happiness over the dark, the orchestral harps properly drenching our sensibilities with warmth and excitement.

I hadn’t read the titles of the items as carefully as I should have, thinking that we were going to get the “Rosenkavalier Waltzes” at the concert’s end – which I do love! But instead I found myself enjoying the opera’s notoriously orgasmic Prelude – perhaps there’s something about an unexpected pleasure! – before the music went  on to explore various episodes of the drama. A quick look at the item’s listing clarified what was happening – this was a proper “Suite” from the opera, with an opus number, no less!

The programme note implied that the Suite had been made by the composer together with the Polish conductor Artur Rodzinski, in 1944. But the conductor was in New York at the time while Strauss was in war-besieged Germany, suggesting that the Suite was actually Rodzinski’s work, as he gave its premiere with the New York Philharmonic that same year. Strauss must have eventually approved the work, because it was published in 1945 with its present Opus number.

I thoroughly enjoyed Michael Stern’s conducting and the playing of the orchestra throughout this exercise – I wondered in places whether the work was a couple of sequences too long, but the reaction of the audience at the end certainly dispelled that impression! Parts of it I thought were particularly magical, notably the moments which featured the haunting wind-chord figurations that accompany Octavian’s presentation of the Silver Rose to Sophie at the beginning of Act Two; though I thought some of the opera’s vocal lines lost some of their intensity and focus when played by groups of instruments instead of a single instrumental voice – Sophie’s ecstatically soaring response to Octavian’s presentation here somehow didn’t “tug” the heartstrings as it always does on stage, the impact a bit too generalized from a body of strings or doubled wind lines.

What worked superbly well were the waltzes, particularly the gold-digging Baron Ochs’ lascivious “With me, no night for you too long” tune, which Strauss presents, as here, using, first of all a solo violin (gorgeously played by Vesa-Matti Leppanen) and then, with the orchestral throttle fully open – great moments! But one doesn’t really blame either Rodzinski or Strauss for favouring a kind of good old whizz-bang concert-ending to the suite, instead of going with the prevailing emotions of the opera’s conclusion, and replicating that ambience at the finish.

So, after some heartfelt and beautifully-phrased playing by gorgeous strings (plus some lovely high trumpet work) of the opera’s final “eternal triangle with a difference” Trio, we got the haunting wind arabesques once again along with Octavian’s and Sophie’s final duet – and then the music roared into Ochs’ “Leopold! We’re leaving!” orchestral riot, with great horn whoops sounding above the exuberant rhythms, and a properly-gradated payoff at the end. Everybody seemed to love it! – and as an orchestral showpiece it certainly demonstrated what conductor and players could do, in spadefuls!


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