Rites of Spring – from the sublime to “cor blimey” in all respects

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Rite of Spring

Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending
Walton: Cello Concerto
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jaime Martín, with Vesa-Matti Leppänen (violin) and Jakob Koranyi (cello)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday, 20 November 2015, 6.30pm


Spring was celebrated before a nearly full Michael Fowler Centre on Friday.  Though the very popular Vaughan Williams work and the famous Stravinsky ballet score were composed within a short space of time of each other, their musical languages were vastly different, yet they both in their own ways celebrated spring, one in the English countryside, the other in a primitive Russian past.  Thus the programme was rather a case of the sublime to the cor-blimey – not that I am complaining.


It was good to have the orchestra’s concertmaster as soloist.  Many of us recall his predecessor in that position, Wilma Smith, playing the Vaughan Williams work.  Naturally, this performance differed from hers.  Leppänen began very softly, with the medium-sized string orchestra plus a few woodwind instruments and two horns making up the accompanying ensemble.


Apparently it is not only in New Zealand that this work is an immense favourite with audiences.  Here, it nearly always rates at or near the top of the annual end-of-year ‘Settling the score’ programme on Radio New Zealand Concert, in which listeners’ selections are ranked in order of  popularity.


This was very fine violin playing, if not having quite the warmth of tone that I anticipated, though it did warm up over time.  The orchestra’s contribution was always in keeping with the mood; the horns’ subtle interjections were splendid, as were the flourishes for triangle near the end.  The violin’s solo finishing section was gloriously delicate in its lilting tunefulness, and was greeted with tumultuous applause.


Walton’s cello concerto was not a work that I knew.  It was appropriate to have another English work after something so English as the Vaughan Williams.  It required a normal full orchestra – though it still appeared comparatively small, set among all the places required for the Stravinsky.


A gorgeous quiet opening from the cello immediately concentrated attention on the soloist (dressed quite informally compared with the orchestra members in their tails and white bow ties, who again were contrasted with the conductor in a business suit and tie).  The first movement, unusually, was the slowest (moderato), and conveyed a dreamy and meditative mood; the mute was employed for much of the movement, giving the music a restrained character.


The second movement, allegro appassionata, was faster and more dynamic.  Quite a lot of athleticism was required of the soloist, expressing the tempo marking.  Brass, timpani and percussion contributed largely to the driving mood.  There was pizzicato from the cellist, then a very animated bowed passage.  Koranyi (from Sweden) expressed the varying moods elegantly and with panache, though he did not have the big sound to be heard from some cellists.  However, he met Walton’s considerable demands with style and skill.  According to the programme note, ample as were those for the other works, this movement demonstrated Walton’s enjoyment of shifting accents and changing his metres ‘giving the movement an engaging vivacity and unpredictability’.


The third movement (tema ed improvvisazioni) opened soulfully, the soloist accompanied by pizzicato cellos only.  Many of the solo passages were in the high register.  Ravishing woodwind came on the scene; the following solo section had the cellist drawing on a variety of technical skills in short order.  After this sections contemplative close, we were woken by drum rolls and loud brass flourishes.  Another extended solo section called for more double-stopping and great dynamic variation; all this was accompanied by multiple-toned coughs from the audience!  Deep notes from the soloist, along with chanting flutes, were quite thrilling.  Cellos and basses joined in with their own low notes, while the harp contributed delicious timbres, along with those of the xylophone, to end.


A very full orchestra, of over 90 players, was required for Stravinsky’s tremendous work.  The brass section included 9 horns (two of the players sometimes playing Wagner tubas) and two full-sized tubas, the woodwind four flutes plus piccolo (sometimes 3+2), four oboes plus four bassoons and contra-bassoon; four clarinets and a bass-clarinet.


A century after its composition, the opening of this music (and indeed much else in it) is still startling, and must have been extraordinary at its first performance – and indeed (to impresario Diaghilev’s delight) there was famously a riot.  This music was something the like of which the audience would never have heard before.  I admire the French for their boldness and expressive trait in showing their displeasure, and on the other side, their admiration for the work.  How often today do we get any demonstration of dislike of music?  We’re far too self-conscious and timid!    Not only the dancers must have been very fit for such energetic rhythms, the string players especially needed to be fit to play their fast figures leaping from string to string.


This was the most dynamic, exciting performance of the work that I have heard, and the players were absolutely on top of their game.  This is a work that you experience rather than simply enjoy.  It has probably not been surpassed in the annals of Western music for energy, dynamism and sheer exuberance.  No wonder so many sound shields were in use behind members of the brass and woodwind sections of the orchestra!   There was so much remarkable playing from them, and the thrust and vigour are unlike anything else in music.  The score is crammed full of contrasts.   A section of off-stage brass was very effective in the second part of the work.   Insistent rhythms are a major feature of the work, and come up in various of its 15 sections.


Compared with other of Stravinsky’s works for ballet, there is little melody in Rite of Spring.  The interest lies elsewhere.  Despite the huge demands, and the large number of players, the orchestra played as one.  The performance received a rapturous reception, not least from conductor Martín, who selected individual players for a handshake before standing sections of the orchestra one by one.  Of the strings, he singled out the violas.  But there was no mistaking that the principal bassoon, who introduces the whole work with plangent notes in a high register, won his especial favour.



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