Brilliance, poetry, power and passion from Trpčeski, Petrenko and the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

LISZT – Piano Concerto No.2 in A Major
MAHLER – Symphony No.5 in c-sharp Minor

Simon Trpčeski (piano)
Vasily Petrenko (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 10th July, 2015

Friday evening’s NZSO concert in Wellington promised to fully live up to its hyperbolic “Power and Passion” description, with Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski at the keyboard and St.Petersburg-born Vasily Petrenko on the podium. Expectations were high, each musician having made a profound and enduring impression when performing previously (on separate occasions) with the orchestra.

As well, the coupling of Liszt with Mahler was undoubtedly an inspired piece of programming, bringing together works by two of music’s most revolutionary creative spirits, each of whom also found lasting fame as a performer. Something of the flavour of that historic interpretative aura seemed to me to be recreated on this occasion by pianist, conductor and orchestra players – a sense of a unique and distinctive event, rather than “just another concert”.

Each of the works of course had its own distinctive world of expression, both composers sharing a gift for thematic invention and organic transformation – and as a programme-opener in this particular context Franz Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto seemed even more-than-usually startling and original. Vasily Petrenko coaxed characterful, almost rustic-sounding timbres from the opening wind chords, to which Simon Trpčeski’s piano responded with beautiful, upward-floating tones, the music shaped freely and rhapsodically, evoking such poignant feeling!

Having suffused the opening vistas with magic and beguilement, Liszt suddenly shakes and stir us from our reverie with charged impulses from the keyboard, which soon lead to terse exchanges between piano and orchestra, a confrontation whose urgency builds into a fierce orchestral tutti, carried on by the piano. In places taking the lead, and elsewhere responding to and mirroring the orchestral patternings Trpčeski constantly caught our ears with his beautifully dovetailed passagework, awaiting his chances topush out out the melodic and harmonic material, in aid of the composer’s on-going transformation of themes and rhythms into new worlds of feeling.

An example of this came with the ‘cello solo that grew out of one of the music’s luftpauses, here played by section principal Andrew Joyce with such rapt beauty as could perhaps have tempted the other musicians to simply stop and listen! Such is Liszt’s inventiveness throughout this work, it often seemed as though such moments were not so much ‘composed’ as freshly created – certainly Trpčeski’s playing frequently gave that impression (and included an unscheduled and extremely forgiving (almost mischievous) smile from the pianist at one point, flashed in the direction of the audience in response to a mercifully faint but still errant cell-phone ring)……

Anyone expecting or looking for moments of bombast or flashy brilliance of the kind some commentators still take pains to try and besmirch the composer’s work with, would have been disappointed with this performance – both Trpčeski and Petrenko drew playing from piano and orchestra which took no passage or episode of the music for granted – each phrase, sequence or episode was characterized in a way that brought out both its intrinsic effect and its place in the whole scheme of the work.

Liszt manages, for example, to use exactly the same thematic material heard throughout the work’s beautifully-wrought opening in the triumphal, swaggering march-like passages that take us to the work’s final pages. Here, it was the music’s finely-judged  emotional focus which the performers brought out consistently, instead of indulging in any vainglorious striving for effect, and sentimentalizing or making vulgar the music. And thus it was throughout – brilliance there was a-plenty (Trpčeski’s playing of the spectacular glissandi near the work’s end raised the hairs on the back of my neck!), as was poetry frequently in evidence as well (any number of breath-catching moments) – but all was swept up in a purposeful whole by the musicians, who did the music’s innovative, and in places daring character full justice.

Trpčeski was able to display more of his pianistic brilliance in an encore, again featuring the work of Liszt, but with another composer present! – one of Liszt’s many transcriptions of the work of Schubert, the sixth of a set of waltzes, a Valse-Caprice Soirées de Vienne. Here was old-world Schubertian charm allied with the feathery brilliance of execution one always associates with great performances of Liszt’s music.

So it was that we then prepared ourselves for the second of the evening’s two works – Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, written almost fifty years after the Liszt work was revised and first performed. The NZSO is no stranger to the symphony, performing it at least twice in relatively recent times that I can remember. But having previously heard Petrenko at full stretch conducting Shostakovich, another composer renowned for his ‘epic’ symphonic creations for orchestra, we in the audience were brimful with expectation that this performance of the Mahler work would be just as vividly realized as was the Russian composer’s Leningrad Symphony.

And so it began – a lively, though ever-so-slightly throaty trumpet solo got the symphony under way, leading to those crashing, lumbering chords which establish the ‘funeral march’ mood of the movement. As much depth as there was in the lower reaches, I found the full orchestral sound had an ‘edge’, giving the more explosive aspects of the music’s grief a kind of glint, a sharpness, adding to the unease. Contrasting with this was such sweetness from the strings with the melody, singing over the top of the black, menace-laden foot-treads of the brass and percussion.

Petrenko then whipped the precipitous mid-movement turmoil into a frenzy, the brass performing miracles of articulation at speed, the strings and winds galvanizing each other, and the percussion thunderous – not until the tuba called things to order with a wondrously full-girthed solo (ending with a similarly breath-catching diminuendo!) did the mourners recover their poise, and take up the cortege’s journey once again. We heard, to great effect along the way, a bleak rendition of the symphony’s opening from the timpani, and some heartfelt lamenting from the solo violin, with yet another surge of audibly-expressed anguish from the orchestra, before both trumpet and flute returned again to that opening fanfare figure, just before the final, non-negotiable pizzicato note.

Without undue delay the second movement erupted in our faces, the notes hurled straight at us with tremendous force from the players! The music subsided as suddenly as it had begun (echoes of the Second Symphony’s finale), seeming to take up a similarly funereal aspect to that of the slow movement, the strings in tandem with the winds moving forwards in mournful procession once again, but then set upon with as much vehemence as we heard at the opening. Again, these agitations fell away – and Petrenko allowed his ‘cellos what seemed like all the time in the world to give voice to their recitative – so inward, concentrated and heart-stopping, a ‘dark centre’ of emotion, it seemed – an unforgettable moment!

Then came the build-up to the movement’s climax, a magnificent cross-beam of gleaming tones, the symphony’s centerpiece, here magnificently delineated by Petrenko and his players –  a sequence that would return even more triumphantly at the symphony’s end. But there were miles and miles of music still to go before then – a scherzo in the rhythm of a waltz-landler was next, the symphony’s longest movement, in fact, here dancing its way across the composer’s world with wonderful insouciance. Punctuating the dance at certain points were richly-evocative horn-calls, sounding as if they were coming from all directions, from romantic forest vistas at all points of the compass – it all brought forth truly magnificent playing from guest (and former NZSO principal!) horn Samuel Jacobs and his band of cohorts!

The dance having whirled to its exuberant conclusion, the symphony ‘turned a corner’ and took us straight to the most well-known part of the work, the fourth-movement strings-and-harp Adagietto, used by Visconti in the film Death in Venice, and a classical ‘hit’ ever since. As it turned out, this performance stole the show,  Petrenko’s direction inspiring such diaphanously-woven textures as to persuade us that the music was of the air rather than created by man-made instruments. In certain places the textures dressed the drifting phantoms of the opening sequences with enough flesh-and-blood to bring them down to earth, exuding breath and energy in pursuit of love and fulfillment (double-basses so sonorous at the very end!) – a superb performance!

In fact, such was the Adagietto’s focus and intensity, the Rondo-Finale didn’t for me take wing to the extent I was hoping for. It was if the work had ‘peaked’ at that point, making it difficult for the music that was still to follow to grip the attention. Of course, at the level of intensity the Adagietto performance operated on, it would have been impossible, even suicidal, to try and sustain such voltage – but  It seemed, in a sense, the reverse of what took place when Pietari Inkinen conducted the same work a couple of seasons ago with the orchestra, giving a performance that spent two movements trying to truly “find itself” before opening up in the latter stages and culminating in a finale that was truly celebratory in feeling.

Mahler never ‘plays himself’ – and I wanted in places in the finale a bit more bucolic warmth and big-heartedness of manner. Perhaps the players were ‘spooked’ by a rare brief lapse of ensemble among the winds in one of their concerted passages – but whatever the cause the performance seemed to take a while to find the music’s definite character. I didn’t really care for the conductor’s ‘teasing-out’ of one of the lyrical episodes before the end, as it involved a lessening of the momentum that helps to makes this movement such a contrapuntal pleasure. Fortunately, it was a brief aberration – and the coda, in which the second movement’s great ‘cross-beam’ theme reappeared and silenced the chattering voices, was here overwhelming in its impact and splendor, Petrenko and his players then ‘letting their hair down’ over the final pages of joyous orchestral abandonment.

“No wonder they love him in Liverpool!” was the comment regarding Vasily Petrenko made to me afterwards by a friend – there was no doubt in my mind, with Simon Trpčeski’s glittering Liszt concerto performance as an additional treasure in itself, the concert was of a quality which truly enriched one’s store of musical experiences, adding wonderment to life’s meaning and stirring the blood most satisfyingly.


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