Triumphant farewell to Inkinen with a neglected Sibelius masterpiece and standing ovation

NZSO Inkinen Festival

Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Op.61

Sibelius: Lemminkäinen Suite, Op.22

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen, with Karen Gomyo (violin)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 13 June 2015, 7.30pm

In an interesting pre-concert talk, attended by a large number of people, David Gilling (co-sub-principal second violin in the NZSO) talked about the unusual introduction to Beethoven’s great violin concerto, particularly focusing on the opening motif from the timpani, and how the rhythm is taken up by the other instruments throughout the work’s first movement.   Incidentally, Gilling gave the lie to the story in the programme notes that the performer of the premiere, Clement, interrupted the work to play his own sonata, with the violin upside down!

The soloist was originally to have been Hilary Hahn, who played with the orchestra throughout its 2010 European tour, but she is now pregnant.  The replacement, Karen Gomyo, plays a Stradivarius violin, and would play cadenzas by the famous violinist of former times, Russian-American Nathan Milstein.

The Michael Fowler Centre was well-filled, including the choir stalls – in fact, I could see very few empty seats.

After the timpani notes opened the concerto, and the delicious woodwind that followed, the answer came in a lovely mellow melody when the strings entered. Inkinen kept things moving forward, and made the listener aware of the structure of the work.

Subsequently, Karen Gomyo’s violin entered, with the beautiful rising phrase that simply grew the musical expression, rather than declaring ‘Here am I!’  She made considerable contrasts in tone and dynamics.  However, after a while I found these contrasts a little too much. Nevertheless, there was beauty of tone and great feeling for the music. The first movement cadenza was very fine – and very demanding.

Despite the smaller orchestra for this work than for the Sibelius, one could feel its power, though sometimes the solo did not stand out sufficiently from it.  However, this is partly a matter of taste; after the concert I heard approval in the words ‘intimate’ and ‘integrated’ from audience members.  Having recently heard a description of a Stradivarius compared with a more modern violin, I wonder if a large hall is not the most congenial venue for such an instrument.

The wonderfully peaceful opening of the second movement brought a rich sound from the orchestra.  Again, I found the soloist’s style rather too mannered for my taste, but I admired greatly her bowing and phrasing.  With the lilting solo was magical pizzicato from the orchestra.  The short cadenza seemed to have less to do with Beethoven than did that in the first movement.

The third movement followed without a break, straight into the jolly dance-like theme of the rondo.  It gave much opportunity for interplay between soloist and orchestra, and a chance for warm and sonorous tones on both sides.  It is less profound than the earlier movements, and featured another dazzling cadenza.  Notable was the distinctive bassoon sound.  The ending was not quite together, but overall, this was an enjoyable performance.

We entered a completely different sound-world with the Sibelius suite – an appropriate work for Pietari Inkinen’s last Wellington concert as Music Director.  He now becomes Honorary Conductor, while his energies will be expended on appointments in Japan and Europe. Since he is also a violinist, a violin concerto was also an apt programme choice.

There were mysteries with the Sibelius – not only from the mysterious atmosphere created through much of it, but also the fact that what was marked in the programme notes as the second movement, the well-known Swan of Tuonela, frequently played as a stand-alone piece, was played third, and what was marked as the third movement, Lemminkäinen in Tuonela followed the first movement.

The opening featured brass, followed by remote-sounding strings and woodwind in this  large orchestra.  Strong cellos were a characteristic, there was a sprightly woodwind dance, and brass had plenty of interesting contributions.  Energy built up, and after a passage for the front desk players, there was a fluttering from all the strings, but nevertheless strong rhythmic drive.  Mysterious sounds from drums and double basses boded evil; the remaining strings put much vigour into their playing, before quietude descended to close the movement, Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari.

The second movement, as noted above, was not as in the programme.  Lemminkäinen in Tuonela began with low tremolo from the cellos, then low woodwind was added, followed by the other strings.  This gave a very spooky effect.  Suddenly, the music burst into a typical Sibelius massive cadence, repeated. Beautiful woodwind solos were part of a continual air of mystery – or is it ‘northern-ness’?  A huge crescendo with everyone playing did not dispel the tragic mood; a cello solo against pizzicato ended the movement.

The Swan of Tuonela is a solemn, even sad piece, with solo cello perhaps epitomising the hero, Lemminkäinen.  Most wonderful, though, were the extended passages depicting the swan, painted in gorgeous tones by the cor anglais (Michael Austin).  Lush sounds from the violas came into prominence, before harp and brass added to the other-worldly atmosphere; the phrases were beautifully spun.

The final movement, Lemminkäinen’s Return, found the mood cheerful, even dance-like, after a busy opening.  Jubilation broke out, before a triumphant ending as the hero returns to life, thanks to his mother’s stitchery, after being killed earlier.

The triumph was echoed by Inkinen afterwards, as he stood the soloists and section leaders.  A bouquet and colourful streamers from the side blocks of seating upstairs, a standing ovation and cheers marked the end of his eight years as Music Director of the orchestra.

Coughing interrupted some of the quiet moments of the Suite.  One may not be able to prevent the impulse to cough, but it should be possible to prevent broadcasting it to over 2000 other people.

Another complaint – time was, in the recent past, when we were allowed to read the programme through the concert.  But now the lighting is too dim, and the typeface is unhelpful too.



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