Cathedrals and landscapes – delight and awe with the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
Sibelius and Bruckner

SIBELIUS – Violin Concerto in D Minor  Op.47
BRUCKNER – Symphony No.8 in C Minor (original version)

Baiba Skride (violin)
Simone Young AM (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 28th August, 2015

Sibelius and Bruckner on the same programme? – bracing cocktails of icy spring water, followed by restorative draughts of schnapps, or, perhaps, aromatic coffee? (that is, to say, their musical equivalents!)…… intriguing prospect, one that didn’t arise the last time Simone Young was in New Zealand to conduct Bruckner with the NZSO. Paired with his mighty Fifth Symphony on that occasion was the music of Mozart, Bruckner’s fellow-countryman. The choice of the two composers seemed impeccable, logical and simple.

This time the works were Sibelius’s Violin Concerto and Bruckner’s even more imposing Eighth Symphony – and what was more, Simone Young was to present the original version of the Bruckner, the first time it had been given in this country. Interestingly enough, each of the two works, for all their inherent differences, had birthing difficulties, both undergoing extensive revisions at the hands of their respective composers, though under vastly different circumstances.

Sibelius’s original work was performed, none too successfully, and then withdrawn by the composer, who altered the work greatly, in particular simplifying the difficulties of the solo part. A year later, the work was freshly performed, and was received with enthusiasm, this revised score being the one which is used by performers to this day. (Incidentally, the original version – fascinating to listen to – has been recorded on the BIS label.)

In Bruckner’s case, the composer’s agony began even before his new work was performed – after finishing the symphony in 1887 he was downcast at the response to the score from the same conductor, Hermann Levi, who had achieved such a success with the composer’s Seventh Symphony. Declaring in a note to the composer that he found the music “impossible”, Levi suggested “a reworking” of the piece, and Bruckner, ever willing to comply, spent until 1890 revising the work, which, however, had to wait a further two years before its first performance in Vienna, in 1892.

If never the popular success that was its predecessor, the Eighth Symphony in its revised form is today frequently performed, though a handful of conductors (Young is one of them) have insisted on championing the original version. The differences are too numerous to discuss in a review of this size, though there are instantly noticeable features which demarcate the two editions – the ending of the first movement (blazing in the original, but deathly hushed in the revised version), the trio section of the scherzo (no harps in the original version, and with whole sections of the music recomposed in the revision), and the slow movement’s great climax (six cymbal crashes in the original version, reduced to a single stroke in the revision) – and so on.

Asked in interview why she preferred Bruckner’s original versions of his symphonies (she has recorded them all with her Hamburg Orchestra, to great acclaim), Young talked about these first attempts as “honest visions of a complex and very introverted man, whose first versions of the works were monumental structures, which some musicians of the time felt were impossible to cope with.” She also recounted the response of present-day players in different places to these original works, their enthusiasm and excitement regarding the challenges of being pushed out to extremes, particularly in this symphony, taking the opportunity to praise the NZSO’s work in rehearsal in these respects as well.

So we were set to witness great things, not the least when violinist Baiba Skride stepped out onto the platform to play the Sibelius with Simone Young, in front of the NZSO. I had heard the violinist a few years before, playing Tchaikovsky with the orchestra, and remembered a distinctive “way” she had with the concerto on that occasion – and so it was, in a different manner, with the Sibelius. She began the work in a rapt, inward way, her tone incredibly sweet and magically ‘floated”, her line with little of the nervous intensities or throbbing anxieties that we usually hear – instead, this seemed to be the voice of a soul communing with nature. A brief double-stopping intonation “edge” apart, her playing was free and pure, the touch as light as air, and the orchestral support (a lovely viola solo) properly restrained, dark and richly detailed.

Throughout the movement soloist and orchestra “played off” one another most engagingly, from moments of supporting songful utterances, to exhilarating hide-and-seek impulses, the violin dancing like a wood-sprite through the orchestral tree-trunks, laughter sounding amid the occasional baleful snarlings from darker places. The slow movement beautifully poeticized these soundscapes at the outset, except I found the horns became too insistent in places, the conductor’s bringing-out of the “middle textures” too much of a good thing, submerging the soloist’s heartfelt lines and overbalancing the textures. Still, the violinist was able to recapture the serenity of the music over the final pages, which were beautifully sounded.

More appropriate was conductor Young’s bringing out of those same middle voices in the polonaise-like finale, including the timpani, whose crisply-articulated figures added to the music’s exuberance – the soloist also really “dug in” here, giving the music a kind of “dancing on an ice-floe” character, while the orchestra’s nature-sounds literally buzzed and rumbled all about her – I loved the muted horns’ feisty “buzzings”, in particular! And what great blazing-up of orchestral weight there was mid-movement! – as if all nature was joining in the dance! I particularly enjoyed Baiba Skride’s crystalline upward runs, the final note of each ascending impulse “pinged” with such exuberance and joy!

While Skride didn’t perhaps “command” her instrument with the absolute totality of a Janine Jansen (whom we had heard earlier in the year), I thought her performance no less committed to the music and as fully attuned to its particular character in a pleasingly individual way. The music and playing certainly cleared our musical sinuses in preparation for the copious draughts of symphonic argument that were to follow, courtesy of Anton Bruckner and his greatest symphony.

Having lived for some time with Simone Young’s Hamburg recording of this piece in its original form, I knew something of what to expect from her – she had spoken in her interview of a previous era of Bruckner interpretations featuring “heavier, more laden performances”, and how she had worked to energize and lighten those textures in her own readings. Such was the case here – with every phrase, one sensed the music moving in a purposeful, far-sighted, and clearly-focused manner, intently set upon goals which would take the time they needed to be achieved, and no more. One noticed throughout the first movement the perfectly-graded dynamics, the ebb and flow of impulse and the sense of some vast scheme unfolding as it should.

And what a splendid sound the orchestra made! If Simone Young was right, then the NZSO’s recent excursions into Wagner’s music with the recently-departed Music Director Pietari Inkinen were here paying off most satisfyingly. Though not producing quite as “rounded” a sound-fabric as one might hear on recordings from Vienna or Berlin or Amsterdam from the great resident orchestras in those places, the players seemed to be committing every fibre of their being to delivering what their conductor wanted – a warm, rich, but always transparent sound, through which plethora of tones all the instruments could “speak”. In any performance of any Bruckner symphony the brass need to be out-and-out heroes – and so it was here, with two full rows of players (including a group playing those beautiful instruments we know as “Wagner-tubas”) making sounds which brought all the magnificence of Bruckner’s scoring to glorious life for our wide-eared and open-mouthed pleasure.

So it was that the first movement mightily ran its course, Young never making overmuch of any great upheaval, nor lingering too fulsomely upon any contrastingly lyrical sequence, but keeping the underlying pulse of the giant organism throbbing (despite dropping her baton at one point in the excitement!) – in this way, the sudden outburst at the movement’s end (which Bruckner later excised, and over which circumstance the otherwise excellent programme note was misleading) seemed like a naturally-expressed on-going expression of defiance, a “serving of intent” for what was to follow. Of course, straight away, this was the scherzo, perhaps Bruckner’s mightiest among other titanic utterances, a true “gods at play” display of divine exuberance. This was the movement which “led me into” the work in my student days, and which never fails to stir the blood most satisfying.

Bruckner later thought better of some of his bolder harmonic shifts in his rewriting, and of the exuberant extent of his hammering ostinati patterns, some of which he cut from the scherzo’s main body. But he also reworked most of the trio section (I heretically confess to a sneaking preference for the harps the composer added to the later version of this sequence – first loves are not easily let go! – though I appreciate that the use of those celestial tones at this point detracts from their heart-easing impact upon the slow movement’s yearnings….) which here represented a kind of unveiling of a statue of great beauty, its impact far-reaching and profoundly moving in an austere, even visionary way, amid the madness of the cosmic dance. Afterwards, what joy and abandonment there was, when the dance returned, with brass and timpani hurling their tones back and forth among the mountaintops.

But this was mere play compared with what followed – the symphony’s slow movement, the composer’s most heartfelt utterance to date in his creative career, more so, even, than his lament at Richard Wagner’s passing in the slow movement of the Seventh Symphony. Bruckner’s original conception has his own sensibilities on the rack in places, aspiring, hesitating, crying out, falling back and beseeching, before finally risking all and bringing his very being’s fibre into prominence in the grandest possible way (underlined by six mighty cymbal crashes!). Though his revision of the movement is tidier and less discursive, its spontaneously-wrought essence isn’t by comparison nearly as flavorsome, its relatively cumulative course more abstract than truly heartfelt – though, undoubtedly (as with all great music) there’s a “take from it what you will” dynamic very much for the picking of any listener.

Here, with Simone Young and the intrepid band, the music’s course unfolded as organically as any set of common impulses harnessed to a purpose – I was lost in admiration of the brass’s playing, and absolutely in thrall to the composer’s juxtaposing of the horns with the Wagner tubas, having it laid out before my eyes, so to speak – and with the rest of the orchestra as eager participants in the ritual of sound, creating the “cathedral” alluded to in the concert’s publicity. From Vesa-Matti Leppänen’s occasional solo violin strands, through individual and ensembles wind utterances, richly-wrought string passages and noble brass chorales to tumultuous tutti passages with everybody playing their hearts out, the performance made its way to the music’s summit, before basking in the afterglow of the journey’s achievement, during which a trio of horns (and later the Wagner tubas) exchanged long-breathed phrases by way of bringing forth one of the most sublime codas known to symphonic music of any era – such a privilege to be able to sit in the hall with those musicians during that special moment in time and listen to this music being realized so beautifully.

However, this wasn’t an “unfinished” symphony – and the finale burst in, carrying all before it, the timpani sounding off like gunshots in response to the opening brass fanfares. In many ways this is the most demanding movement of the symphony as it’s so discursive and wide-ranging – heroic, romantic, pastoral, anguished, tender, ruminative, in fact every mood jostling for a place in the scheme of things. Simone Young gave the different strands enough leeway to be able to express their concerns while keeping the music’s momentum firmly set upon the symphony’s great concluding peroration, asking for and receiving full-blooded responses from the players right through to the work’s final shouts of homecoming and fulfillment. At the end the audience’s reception accorded conductor and orchestra whole-hearted and richly-deserved acclaim and appreciation.

The NZSO is repeatedly proving itself as an orchestra which delivers what’s required for such big occasions – and now that Young has left Hamburg to pursue a freelance conducting career, we wish her continued success, while hoping that she includes this country as a regular port of call, particularly as there are several more Bruckner Symphonies whose first editions await their premieres in this particular part of the world. She and the NZSO would on Friday evening have certainly put a girdle around the earth along which the composer’s shade, from his resting-place in Austria, would have danced in joy.












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