Popular Russian orchestral show-piece, unfamiliar cello concerto and colourful, Hungarian, folk-based music

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Kodály: Dances of Galánta
Lalo: Cello Concerto in D minor
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, with Johannes Moser (cello)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday, 17 June 2016, 6.30pm

The programme attracted a nearly full Michael Fowler Centre on Friday.  I had the previous day heard Eva Radich interview Johannes Moser on the Upbeat programme, on RNZ Concert.  What a lovely man he sounded!  His cello sounded lovely too, as we discovered in Friday’s concert.  How good it was that he played a different concerto!  While always loving to hear the Dvořák concerto, it was a great pleasure to hear something different – in fact, so different, and as interesting in the case of the Lalo concerto.

The first work on the programme had a striking opening. The different modalities of Hungarian music were almost immediately apparent.  The composer’s collection of Hungarian folk-songs and dances are the basis of most of his music.  This work was composed in 1933.  We heard wonderful subtleties on the clarinet in a slow dance.  The large assembly of strings sounded particularly sonorous here, and when playing pizzicato while flute and piccolo produced soaring melodies.  The French horns had their turn at leading things – all five of them.  Percussion players had many delicate – and some not so delicate – interventions.

The work was a delight of colour, rhythm and finesse, contrasted with exuberance.  It was a feast of fine orchestration, and provided a jovial boost to any Friday weariness.  A furious rush of music towards the end was followed by a sublime clarinet solo, and a final burst of jollity.

Lalo’s cello concerto
The tall, youthful cellist came on; like the conductor, he was not wearing formal evening dress.  He played the concerto without a score.  Harth-Bedoya used the score only for this work (a necessary precaution in a concerto).  Moser’s cello produced a superbly warm, rich tone in his hands.  To have had two cellists of such calibre as Moser and Rustem Khamedullin in the space of a week has been a luxury.

Written by the French-born, Spanish-influenced Lalo in 1876-77, the concerto seemed to have hints of Brahms and Schumann – the latter’s concerto was written over 25 years earlier – and even of Elgar, whose concerto was written over forty years later.

The orchestra began the concerto grandly, and there was much work for the brass to do.  However, the soloist was to the fore almost throughout the work, mellifluous phrases following one after another, with staccato interjections from the winds; indeed, the latter ended the first movement (Prélude: lento – allegro maestoso).

The second, Intermezzo: andantino con moto – allegro presto, began with muted strings.  There was more gorgeous romantic melody from the soloist, and phrases of the utmost delicacy.  Sparse orchestration in this short movement meant no brass or percussion.

The final movement (andante – allegro vivace) opened enigmatically; the soloist with very quiet string accompaniment, initially only cellos.  Suddenly the brass erupted.  Dotted rhythms predominated here and elsewhere.  Parts of the solo in this movement were elegiac.  The playing was never flamboyant, the cello producing a variety of tones that were always lambent, passionate, tender, thoughtful, or whatever was needed.

An encore after a concerto now seems to be an expected addition to the programme.  Moser played the sarabande (another Spanish influence here) from the first Bach Suite for unaccompanied cello.  This he took slower than had Khamidullin on Wednesday in the latter’s sarabande from the third Suite.  It was soulful, considered playing, and at times the utmost pianissimo gave an ethereal quality.  The audience greeted the encore with rapture.

The major work in the concert was Rimsky-Korsakov’s suite, based on The Arabian NightsScheherazade calls for a large orchestra: there were five horns, nine double basses, a tuba, and large numbers of other instruments too, compared with the requirements of the Lalo concerto.

It is wonderfully dramatic music – I just wish that Radio New Zealand Concert did not play it, or parts of it, quite so frequently.  After the portentous opening depicting the Sultan, it was magical to hear the harp and violin duet denoting the princess (or Scheherazade herself).  These two themes are played countless times, often with melodic, rhythmic or tempo variations, throughout the work’s four sections.  Then the sea took over, relatively calmly at first.  The waves work themselves up gradually, before calm is restored with horn and woodwinds.

The rougher seas return, repeating loudly the theme we first heard as the delicate solo violin and harp near the beginning.  The theme is varied and given many manifestations before returning to the gentle opening.  This ends the section entitled “The sea and Sinbad’s ship”.

This same theme opens the second section, “The Kalendar prince”.  This part follows the pattern of all the sections, in having a variety of tempo markings through its course.  Muted double basses accompany sumptuous oboe and bassoon solos most effectively.  Then a cello joins in, and takes over the solo.  Sinbad’s ship appears to strike some trouble, the brass sounding warnings.  But then everything becomes jolly and highly rhythmic before the bassoon again asserts itself over pizzicato, and the theme returns.

The excellent programme notes (apart from misspelling ‘sprightly’ as ‘spritely’ more than once) mention ‘Rimsky-Korsakov’s mastery of instrumentation’, so much to the fore in this section.  The following one (“The young prince and the young princess”) opens with lyrical music that almost sounded like English music, with its calm melody.  However, it becomes increasingly exotic, and the orchestration richer.  After various goings-on the harp and violin theme returns, then full orchestra takes over again.

The bombastic sultan theme reappears followed by the harp and violin, this time in most virtuosic twists for the latter; Vesa-Matti Leppänen’s solo passages were quite beautiful.  Syncopated rhythms and exciting percussion burst forth,  with lots of concerted string playing, along with brass and percussion interjections.  The strings repeat the big theme.

Wikipedia quotes Steven Griffiths about this work (A Critical Study of the Music of Rimsky-Korsakov,1844-1890. New York: Garland, 1989): “The reasons for its popularity are clear enough; it is a score replete with beguiling orchestral colors, fresh and piquant melodies, with a mild oriental flavor, a rhythmic vitality largely absent from many major orchestral works of the later 19th century, and a directness of expression unhampered by quasi-symphonic complexities of texture and structure.”.

The audience gave a very appreciative response; Harth-Bedoya more or less forcibly removed the orchestra from the stage at the end of quite a long concert.


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