Memorable NZSO concert with rising young conductor and acclaimed pianist

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Gimeno with Stephen Hough (piano)

Brahms: Piano concerto No 2 in B flat
Gareth Farr: From the Depths sound the Great Sea Gongs, Part I
Shostakovich: Symphony No 1 in F minor

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 13 May, 6:30 pm

I am sometimes tempted to think that the publicity by the NZSO, which I usually find rather cluttered with over-used superlative clichés, has the unfortunate effect of deadening the impact of those few occasions when something really very special is about to happen. It would have been a pity if constant, indiscriminate hype had numbed discerning concert-goers to an occasion when some extravagant superlatives were warranted.

Nevertheless, the language of the early May press release about tonight’s concert announced a performance by one of our era’s finest pianists, Stephen Hough, and a young Spanish conductor who has been seriously acclaimed in no merely routine manner. Gimeno has been garlanded with praise by very discriminating audiences, orchestras and critics from his 2014 debut with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and on through the Orchestre National de France, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the Dresden Staatskapelle, and others, all in little more than a year. He has just been appointed principal conductor of the Luxembourg Philharmonic; strangely, Bramwell Tovey, last week’s NZSO conductor, was their conductor in the early 2000s.

Brahms’s second piano concerto was placed first in the programme, and so the focus was mainly, as is normal, on the pianist rather than on the conductor, though the grandeur and rapture of the orchestra’s part could not be missed. Of course, that could be put down simply to the fact that our orchestra usually plays like that.

Untypically at that time, apart from Beethoven’s fourth concerto and Schumann’s, Brahms here uses the piano at the start, serenely, with velvety horns, but it’s quickly overtaken by a far more grandly dramatic spirit; and the piano is never absent for very long. The concerto was also a departure from the usual, in the 1880s, having four movements, widely criticised (e.g. ‘an inappropriate attempt to imitate symphonic form’), and in including no cadenzas of a formal sort.

But today, judgements based on such conventions seem tiresome and pedantic. The overwhelming response to the concerto is naturally to the weight, imaginativeness and excitement of the piano part, and that was vividly expressed, but this performance also demonstrated its overwhelmingly symphonic character, to which the pianist was an equal contributor. It fulfilled my own feeling that it is at least the equal of the second symphony and violin concerto before it and rather more weighty than the lyrical third symphony after it.

Stephen Hough’s playing was both meticulous and full of bravura and it was a delight to be able to watch his energetic and balletic playing as well as merely hearing it (I usually don’t bother to seek a seat with a view of the keyboard). It was one of those performances that unfurled just as I envisaged it in that ultimate ‘ideal’ version that takes root in the mind – an amalgam of all the performances you’ve ever heard and that you couldn’t attribute to a particular pianist or orchestra. Hough was responsive to each emotion or gesture, whether subtly lyrical and rhapsodic, or carelessly capricious, enjoying moments of bravura, or dancing with emphatic rhythms – through his hands, not with extravagant arm and body movement.

The orchestra handled the opulent music with arresting rhythmic flexibility, particularly in the scherzo, second movement. For all its weight, the economy of the orchestration is conspicuous, with very few occasions when more than one section, perhaps over a discreet bed of strings, or a soloist – oboe or cello for example – played at a time. Such economy allowed the conductor to exploit big moments the more dramatically.

Gareth Farr’s piece was moved to after the interval. Incidentally, I was not impressed when ushers allowed quite a large number of later-comers to take their seats between movements one and two, some down the front, climbing over people. Let people in by all means, quickly and silently, but insist they remain standing at the back.

Farr’s From the Depths sound the Great Sea Gongs has become one of New Zealand’s most popular orchestral pieces. It’s a showpiece for percussion, with a mesmerising array of rototoms, manned by three percussionists, dominated the stage, rather than actual gongs; so it’s a celebration of the percussion-driven music of various Pacific nations, including Japanese taiko drumming and Bali gamelan. Our Spanish conductor, raised in a musical culture in which strong and exciting rhythms feature largely, sounded totally in control of it. Of course, in contrast to the abstemious Brahms who, as I noted, uses his orchestra fastidiously, in Farr’s even larger, Straussian-sized band, everyone was fully committed: triple winds, five horns and so on. And they made a splendidly exciting, emphatically musical, noise.

In spite of its shameless exuberance, for which the composer would of course make no apology, it’s still real music, and its popularity is properly earned.

Then came one of the most famous first symphonies, up there with Schumann’s, Brahms’s or Mahler’s; and written much younger than any of those. It was written during the early Leninist years of the Revolution, when the relationship between the regime and writers and artists was good and when books and music from abroad were freely available and visits by western European musicians were common.

So touches of Stravinsky and Hindemith and several others ‘progressive’ composers can be heard in this student piece; the influence of Petrushka is strong, particularly in the first two movements. But the word ‘student’ gives entirely the wrong idea of the maturity of the work, which lies in the character of the music itself, and the absence of any hint of ordinary youthful exuberance. Though one could sense his anticipation of a career in which the huge talent of which he was well aware, would flourish and be recognized.

There are many events in the music that one assumes have an emotional meaning, such as the stunning piano chords that bring the second movement to a rude conclusion, seeming to announce an end or a banishment. The Lento that follows seems to draw attention to what some consider at the dominant theme: Death; hardly an expected subject in a first major work by a teenage composer; and Death also commands the last movement, conspicuous in such gestures as the bare timpani eruption, three times repeated. And it might be expunged in part through the anguished and beautiful cello soliloquy.

Gimeno’s view of the work, was both powerful and vivid, seeking clarity of texture, and revealing as much as possible of the characteristics mentioned above. It is permissible to wonder that a conductor who is perhaps no more than a decade older that Shostakovich was at its composition (19), could draw from it such energy and emotional depth, as well as sheer orchestral virtuosity.

This concert, for its pretty big audience, will surely find itself on lists of the most memorable of the year.