Wonderful NZSO programme of masterpieces from the heartland of classical music

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jaime Martín with Garrick Ohlsson – piano

Beethoven: Leonore Overture No 3, Op 72b
Mozart: Symphony No 35 in D, K 385 (Haffner)
Brahms: Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor, Op 15

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 13 November 6:30 pm

I had the feeling that both conductor and pianist had, contrary to the indications in the programme, been to New Zealand before. It looks as if I was wrong about Jaime Martín (I wonder if I’m confused by J Laredo of the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio), but I can clearly recall Ohlsson’s visit though I haven’t found evidence in my large file of programmes.

This however, was a monumental concert, given totally to three unassailable masterpieces; it’s the sort of programme that one imagines all music lovers wish was much more common than it is.

The third Leonore Overture was a splendid choice with which to open. It’s the most dramatic of the four that Beethoven wrote for Fidelio over the space of a decade, though Leonore No 2 is the same length and uses most of the same material and deserves to be aired, along with the No 1 and the last one, actually called Fidelio, that Beethoven wrote for the final, successful version of his opera in 1814. It opened with a fine emphatic chord subsiding to beautiful flute- and oboe-led phrases from Bridget Douglas and Robert Orr that use the melody of Florestan’s first aria.

One’s attention was quickly drawn to Martín’s rearrangement of the orchestra, basses on the left and given licence for supercharged command, the distinctive classical timpani, at the level of the strings, demanding attention; second violins front right with violas behind them. Donald Armstrong was in the Concertmaster’s seat

The overture’s depiction of elements of the opera was more than usually vivid, with the string body at its most opulent, horns and trumpets, the only brass in the score, supplying more than enough martial character. The two forays from the off-stage trumpet seemed to come from slightly different quarters, a nice theatrical touch, if my ears were telling me the truth. And the triumphant Coda was more exciting than I felt it reasonable to expect.

It’s a long time since I heard the Haffner live, a favourite from the days when as a student I used to pay nine pence for an hour to explore music in the old Central Library’s record room at the east end of the main upstairs reference room.

Though string numbers were reduced – 12 first violins and normal decreases from that – there were no real concessions to ‘authenticity’ and I enjoyed the greater opulence of the orchestra, which echoed the sort of full-blooded performance we’d heard in the Beethoven. Even so, the idyllically charming Andante was played with singular delicacy, the long piano passages by violins laid out with particular beauty. The whole movement seems to embody the quintessential Mozart: civilized, melodically rapturous, offering room for subtle and delicate gestures at many places.

Such unobtrusive gestures added interest in the Menuetto too, again a movement (anthologized in piano albums) that seems to speak in unmistakably graceful, Mozartian accents, particularly in the Trio. In the last movement, the smaller classical timpani that the orchestra obtained some years ago were delightfully conspicuous, trumpets high and bright, with a feeling that both horns and trumpets were travelling a little to the side of the rest of the orchestra – meaning to suggest that they lent an extra note of enchantment.

Hearing this again confirmed my particular affection for this symphony and made me wish our orchestras programmed the dozen or so best Mozart symphonies routinely.

Brahms’s first piano concerto occupied the entire second half. Modern timpani replaced the classical ones now; as you might infer from references to their contributions in the earlier works, Larry Reese took his role seriously; here in the Brahms, though they are clearly scored to be heard prominently, too seriously? It suited my personal taste, but I’m conscious of harbouring an excessive pleasure in loud low sounds not perhaps shared by everyone.

After the mighty orchestral opening, the piano enters with singular modesty, and Ohlssen did it right, somewhat matter-of-factly, nothing flashy. Soon Brahms was supplying Ohlsson with material for more weighty pianism which he dealt with in a characteristically muscular manner, soon in the company of thrilling, throaty horns. The piano was always admirably in balance with the orchestra and it was reassuring to sense a fine meeting of minds over tempi, expressive gestures, dynamics, the orchestra seeming to rejoice in whatever spectacle or meditative moments the pianist took slight liberties with.

The Adagio is a gorgeous movement, offering the rhapsodic Brahms rich opportunities which Ohlsson handled with gentleness and restraint; again horns often provided important counterweight to the piano and other winds. Pairs of clarinets or oboes accompany and precede some of the most rapturous piano passages that lead to the broad fortissimo in the latter part of the movement. The last couple of minutes of ecstatically prolonged meditation were spell-binding.

The boisterous Finale is then emotionally welcome; though it’s about 12 minutes long, it’s one of those episodes that one longs to go on forever, and the performance by orchestra and pianist never had me in doubt that I was lucky to have been born in a time a place where it could be so splendidly played: in a city with a great symphony orchestra, and in a post-Brahms era, and before the end of civilization as we know it.

Applause was long and impassioned and Ohlsson chose to play an encore that could not have been in greater contrast: Chopin’s Waltz in C sharp minor: restrained, poetic, perfect.


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