Storms, remonstrations and resolutions from the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
Music by Britten and Sibelius

BRITTEN – Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes” Op.33a
– Violin Concerto Op.15
SIBELIUS – Symphony No.2 in D  Op.43

(at the concert’s beginning, the orchestra played a short piece written by Jack Body, the New Zealand composer who died the previous Sunday, in Wellington – this was the fifth movement Non posso altra figura immaginarmi  of Body’s Meditations on Michelangelo for violin and strings.

Anthony Marwood (violin)
Thomas Søndergård (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 16th May 2015

Everything seemed to fall into place throughout this concert, one of the most finely-planned and beautifully-realised evenings of orchestral music-making I’ve ever heard from the NZSO.

Central to its success was the degree of rapport I felt coursing between the players and conductor throughout. Thomas Søndergård, making his debut with the orchestra, secured playing at once clearly focused, finely proportioned and satisfyingly expressive in each of the works presented.

To begin, the orchestra paid a tribute to composer Jack Body, who had recently died. The piece chosen was hardly elegiac, but had instead an appropriate vigour and energy, just as Body himself would most likely want to be remembered. This was an exerpt from a work for strings and violin Meditations on Michelangelo, the fifth movement Non posso altra figura immaginarmi (I cannot imagine another figure) – marvellously scored music, with overlapping figurations, dynamics and timbres giving the listener plenty of antiphonal and textural excitement.

A more sombre note was struck immediately by the opening measures of Benjamin Britten’s first “Sea Interlude” from the opera Peter Grimes, a sequence depicting Dawn, but with the ocean as the chief protagonist, with beautifully-projected surface detailings, underpinned by ominous swellings of oceanic power. Sunday Morning introduced a human element to the scenario, with church bells rhythmically counterpointing various people’s to-and-fro movements in between irruptions of of clamorous activity – a particularly sonorous church bell here sounded a somewhat menacing note towards the piece’s end.

I thought the conductor’s tempo at the beginning of the third Interlude Moonlight a shade brisk at the outset, taking a while to capture a nocturnal version of the opening Dawn seascape, but succeeding in delivering a sense of that oceanic power again waiting to swell up in anger and crush anything caught in its mesh of unbridled fury. This of course came with the final Interlude, the Storm, here a savage unleashing of the forces suggested in places by the previous sequences, Søndergård properly challenging the players at a frenetic, no-holds-barred tempo. From the trumpet’s shrill clamour to the tuba’s tummy-wobbling pedal point blasts, the brass timbres “spoke” with terrific presence and excitement, assisted readily by the timpani – those contrasting moments of exhausted stillness just before the final onslaught made all the greater an impression in the midst of such elemental ferocity.

What a richly-wrought work the same composer’s Violin Concerto is! – the first movement was presented here as a bitter-sweet journey into realms of great beauty and nostalgia, everything held together by the opening motif played on the timpani. I immediately thought of Walton’s music with the entry of the strings, the writing having a similar bitter-sweet quality, as with the soloist’s first “endless melody” cantilena. Though Anthony Marwood’s tone wasn’t as richly-upholstered as I was perhaps expecting, his focus and purity of line was something to savor throughout. I loved the Ravel-like fanfares played first by the violin and then, following an exhilarating downward plunge by the strings, taken up by the brass, as if a character from the composer’s ballet “The Prince of the Pagodas” was about to arrive.

How beautifully Marwood played the languorous solo that followed, gorgeously accompanied by the orchestral ambiences, leading to a deeply-throated ritualistic march, the strings soaring and the soloist playing the opening timpani motif – so atmospheric, so delicate and tremulous as the music stole to the movement’s end. And what an exhilarating change we were plunged into with the scherzo, the soloist’s Prokofiev-like ascending solo line danced over scampering rhythms, towards a “trio” section, orchestral hammer-blows leading to a more circumspect “trio” section featuring discourses between the solo violin and the winds, followed by a breath-catching cadenza, here quite superbly voiced by the soloist, and  evocatively leading into the final movement’s Passacaglia.

We were quite literally spell-bound as the theme began deeply and softly on the trombones beneath the solo violin’s rhapsodizing, then spread like the rays of a rising sun throughout the rest of the orchestra, the structures shaped like ranges of mountains. The music was, by turns stern and dark (brass and timpani), then warm and yielding (strings and oboe), a sense of ritual becoming more and more apparent, energized in places by things like rapid solo violin triplets (excitingly done!) and rapid variants of upward scales, the different sections exhilaratingly counterpointing their rising and falling lines. Having been impressed by the music’s grandeur and solemnity, we were then taken to more valedictory realms by the concluding Andante lento sequence, the solo violin rhapsodizing both sorrowfully and stoically over muted brass and wind chords whose resonances seemed to stretch forwards into the unknown – I thought the performers “held” this elegiac quality with utmost concentration and skill right into and through those heartfelt silences.

Having thus been emotionally wrung-out by the Britten, we were able to replenish our oxygen supplies at the interval in time to square up to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s epic Second Symphony. In conductor Thomas Søndergård’s hands the music balanced this long-breathed character with plenty of rhythmic verve and a good deal of sensitive lyricism. The first movement, notable for a kind of “hide-and-seek” game which the composer plays with his own rhythmic and lyrical fragments, was here beautifully realized, the different figurations adroitly juxtaposed, contrasted and then mellifluously brought together, making for a pastoral scenario depicting both sparkling detail and more rugged, far-flung spaces. I thought the players’ detailings of these scenarios were everywhere exemplary.

The sterner, altogether more tragic ambiences of the second movement were allowed plenty of space to unfold – the dramatic pauses that abounded in this music helped build the tension and uncertainty regarding the narrative’s direction. Sibelius was apparently inspired by the legendary Don Juan when writing this music, though the dark, foreboding moods created by some of the episodes evoked a rugged landscape as readily as a swashbuckling hero’s premonition of death. The ambiences swung from brooding uncertainty and looming tragedy to calmer, more settled ambiences and then back again. All of this was splendidly realized by Søndergård and his players, the dynamic contrasts, antiphonal figures and and rhythmic variants delivered with flair and sensitivity – in fact a single brief brass “fluff” was the only mishap I noticed throughout the music’s volatile and complex journeyings.

I enjoyed the “bristling and spilling over” aspect of the scherzo, Søndergård encouraging his strings to throw themselves and their instruments at the music and take risks by way of conveying near-uncontrollable excitement – and what a contrast was provided by the trio, with gorgeous, lyrical sounds coming from the winds and reinforced by the strings, before the sudden reprise of the scherzo’s opening shattered the repose, with the brass  this time taking the lead. Søndergård excitably pushed along the “transition music” leading towards the finale, then drove both string and brass ostinati figures stirringly towards the first of the movement’s two “big tunes”, here delivered muscularly and full-throatedly on the strings. The counter-melody, at first “teased out” of string murmurings on the winds was here rolled along splendidly, giving way firstly to some hymn-like utterances and then a fugato-ish figure begun by the ‘cellos, and building up with growing energy and force through the entire orchestra until bursting forth on the strings (wonderful horn accompaniments!) as a reprise of the first big tune! I loved it – such a splendid and pivotal moment!

But, of course, it wasn’t the work’s conclusion – and Søndergård became like a man possessed, driving his forces with even more of a will, firstly through the counter-melody’s almost Bolero-like repetitions to its revelatory minor/major key change, and then into the coda and the return of the first “big tune”, the entire orchestra here playing its collective heart out, and giving its all with its conductor and for the composer – if not the most grandly epic performance I’ve heard, it was certainly one of the most exciting ones! What really endured in my memory was the playing’s focus, its unerring direction, and the “sheen” on the sound of every instrumental section throughout the whole concert – performances that one imagines would have had the composers’ shades nodding with contented approval.



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