New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Edo de Waart’s Masterworks: Brahms & Beethoven
Lilburn: Festival Overture
Brahms: Concerto for violin and cello in A minor, Op.102 (Double Concerto)
Beethoven: Symphony no.3 in E flat, Op.55 (‘Eroica’)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Edo de Waart (conductor), Nicola Benedetti (violin) and Leonard Elschenbroich (cello)
Michael Fowler Centre
Saturday, 16 April 2016, 7.30pm
In a review of the NZSO just over a year ago, I said “You can’t beat Beethoven on a good day – and this was a very good day”. That was one hundred percent true of this concert, with new Music Director Edo de Waart. I thought it was brilliant planning to get an audience in to hear a programme that was at least in part familiar. They would then be so delighted with what they heard that they would want to hear de Waart’s other programmes through the year (he returns in August and October). It was gratifying to see the Michael Fowler Centre completely sold out.
Lilburn’s overture is one of his most appealing orchestral compositions. After a splendid attack, a cello theme introduces an exchange of ideas, with delightful interplay between sections of the large orchestra, though in themselves the various themes are quite spare. Already in this early work (1939, while he was still a student in London), Lilburn’s characteristic dotted rhythm motif appears. The piece is bombastic and contemplative by turns, the big brass line-up contributing to the former characteristic. It was a good opener for a concert of grand music.
Violinist Nicola Benedetti is on her second visit to New Zealand; it is a first for her partner, Leonard Elschenbroich. The violinist wore a bright red-orange fitting dress; the cellist did not wear a tail-coat, but a simple jacket. Neither was de Waart in tails – is it time the NZSO itself phased out this anachronistic dress?
The Brahms required a slightly smaller orchestra: there were no trombones, and some sections were down-sized; the cellos were brought forward nearer to the centre of the stage, with violas behind them.
The work opened in typical Brahms style with a brief tutti, then immediately the cellist gave passionate utterance in a solo passage. What marvellous tone he produced! Then the woodwind gave us a lovely pastoral section before the violin entry.
Playing from music scores, the soloists were in absolute unanimity. It was very lyrical playing from Benedetti, but from my seat, her sound was not particularly strong. As a colleague pointed out, we do get used to hearing recorded music, where the technician or producer can twiddle the knobs to bring the solos out more. Later, the violin sound penetrated more, when the orchestra was not so full or loud.
Elschenbroich produced subtly gorgeous nuances. Of course, the cello is in touch with the floor of the platform, and so can gain more resonance than the violin is able to. His playing reminded me of a singer who reported that his teacher said “Do something with every note.” I could not help thinking that it would be great to hear this work in the acoustic of the Wellington Town Hall – bring it on! All the elements made up to an epic first movement. The horns were very important, and their parts were beautifully played.
The slow movement featured a warm string melody with many mellow asides for winds, and an exquisite ending for soloists and orchestra alike. The third movement began bouncily for the soloists, cello first. Elschenbroich was the more flamboyant of the two performers (some would say this is a characteristic of the players of that instrument), but not to an excessive degree. There was precision and attention to detail from both – and indeed from the orchestra also. The work demonstrated the power and the pathos of Brahms. Technique was always subservient to the music as art for these two outstanding soloists.
The large audience was very attentive, and besides lengthy, enthusiastic applause from the audience to the soloists there was applause also from orchestra members. A nice feature was that the two soloists played in the orchestra for the Beethoven symphony that followed the interval.
The Eroica symphony is familiar, but like all great works of art, one can always find new insights, new elements, in every good performance. And this was a very good performance indeed. The orchestra was reduced again from that used for the Brahms work, and the playing, particularly in the first movement, was more detached and precise than is often heard in Beethoven. The delicate passages were delicious. Despite the symphony being so well-known, the playing had a spontaneous feel, brisk and energetic.
The sombre theme of the funeral march of the second movement was a contrast after the cheerful first movement. Its piquancy was brought out in the minor key version of the initial theme. Oboe and bassoon underlined the mood. How astonishing this symphony, the longest so far written, must have sounded to audiences accustomed to Haydn, Mozart and their contemporaries! The theme passed magisterially from section to section of the orchestra. Basses had a wonderful statement all their own.
The scherzo third movement was exciting; how amazing it is that one who was already considerably affected by deafness (in 1803, the year of the Eroica’s composition) could write such music, with all its subtleties and variety. The tricky horn calls in this movement came off perfectly.
The finale is notable for the extensive use of syncopation. These passages and the clarion call responses are such unexpected features of a classical symphony. If we were not so familiar with it, we might find these quite comical. They are certainly warm-hearted and entertaining, as are the dance-like passages that follow. But Beethoven never lets us wallow for long. Soon, more aggressive themes interrupt, and the dance passages change their modality to the minor. The development of the themes is quite astonishing. More off-beat music from oboe followed, the orchestra taking up the theme in a heavy, almost parody fashion. After lots of magic of all kinds, the triumphant conclusion arrived, again syncopated.
Edo de Waart and the orchestra gave us a magnificent rendition of this ground-breaking symphony. Not only did the audience afford the conductor prolonged and enthusiastic applause, orchestra members did the same.