New Zealand Symphony Orchestra Conducted by Edo de Waart, with Samuel Jacobs (French horn)
Escher: Musique pour l’esprit en deuil
Mozart: Horn Concerto No 4 in E flat, K 495
Strauss: Sinfonia domestica, Op 53
Michael Fowler Centre
Saturday 30 July, 7:30 pm
In an account of the music I got to hear in Sydney last December (see review of 4 January 2016), I reported hearing two concerts by Edo de Waart and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra; one of them featured Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra and I allowed myself to be delighted that we would probably be getting some fine Strauss from him after he took over the reins of the NZSO.
This was the first Strauss outing, though we heard Mahler’s Third Symphony and Beethoven’s Eroica under De Waart in April. Last year, you’ll recall, he came and conducted Mahler’s Ninth in August.
So the somewhat less often played Sinfonia Domestica was much looked forward to. However, I was a little surprised at the not-full house for this splendid concert, and can scarcely believe that anyone would pass up such a concert in order to sit in the freezing wind in the Stadium to watch a football match.
The concert opened with a real surprise – a symphonic poem by a Dutch composer I’d never heard of: one Rudolf Escher whose father was the half-brother of M C Escher, the artist whose architectural etchings depicting irregular, impossible perspectives have continued to intrigue.
There has always been curiosity as to why the Netherlands has scarcely produced any famous composers, at least not since the Renaissance. Some of those you think might be Dutch turn out to be Belgian, like Joseph Jongen. But there are Alphons Diepenbrock and Willem Pijper; and there are a few others from the mid 20th century, including Rudolf Escher. His Musique pour l’esprit en deuil (‘Music for the spirit in mourning’) impressed me from its opening, the almost inaudible notes, finding in it a great deal of what I enjoy generally of the music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It was written after Rotterdam, where he lived, was bombed to oblivion by the Germans in 1940 destroying most of his scores and possessions. While the music clearly expresses grief, it was also strangely beautiful and compelling, engaging with a rich, complex palette from a large orchestra that was skillfully and interestingly handled. There was apparently no detailed programme; anyway, I rarely try to conjure a narrative or images when listening to new music, though occasionally things come to mind.
Obviously, the composer had much on his mind here, and Edo de Waart helped the music to play itself so that the highly evocative score was endlessly absorbing without any need to look for a story or visual imagery. The scoring was very colourful, with a piano creating a steady beat for a while, along with a wide variety of percussion, all of which seemed inevitable rather than used just because it was there. The big, slowly assembled, anguished climax came (I don’t think it was intended to depict the bombing, which would have been too trite and superficial in a composer of such obvious subtlety and intelligence), and faded calmly over a long coda, with acceptance.
Mozart’s fourth horn concerto followed; such a disconnect damaged neither work. The total break between Escher and Mozart, occupied by extensive changes of players and orchestral configuration, to a small body of strings plus two each of horns and oboes. It sounded perfectly adequate after nearly four times that number a few minutes earlier.
The horn soloist was Samuel Jacobs who is soon to return to the position of principal horn in the orchestra after an absence that included the same position with the Royal Philharmonic in London. Even without the obvious international distinction of the post with the NZSO, and the impressive pedigree detailed in the programme booklet, the ears bore evidence enough of gorgeous playing confirming him as one of today’s most distinguished players.
The main feature of his playing is an almost unreal smoothness and perfection of tone which makes no gesture at all towards the idiosyncratic sounds produced by a natural horn, the use of which has become popular even in some late 19th century music. Even for a valved horn Mozart offers challenges, but audible flaws seemed inconceivable. The orchestra matched the elegance of the solo playing.
The riches of this splendid concert were not exhausted however. Strauss’s domestic symphony is not as often played as for example, Don Juan, Also sprach Zarathustra or Don Quixote; and that’s not just because of the embarrassing intimacies that Strauss exposes us to, or the enormous wind forces that he calls for. There’s a certain naiveté and excess that is not always perfectly matched by subtlety and taste; and it’s those characteristics that no doubt fueled its enormous success at its premiere in 1904 in New York and at Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia (6000 attended there over two nights), as well as the rather pious and pedantic attacks and ridicule that some critics have directed at it. If Strauss had refrained from offering any detail at all about the inspiration behind it, I’m sure its reputation would be very different.
Happily, the programme notes did not enlarge too much on the story and the audience was ready to be won over by the spectacular size of the orchestra (five saxophones, nine horns, quadruple winds elsewhere) and the stunningly accomplished performance that could still, and did, generate a rare excitement. That the house did not sell out to a knowledgeable public (do we still have one?) made me cringe for the groundless boasting by civic leaders about the ‘cultural capital’ which has been unjustified since the 1990s.
De Waart’s performance dwelt on the colour, drollerie and the purely musical elements of the composition, while taking care not to overplay aspects that lend themselves to burlesque or caricature. Then, the grand virtues of this episodic and idiosyncratic composition could be heard without hindrance and be enjoyed simply as a somewhat excessive orchestral showpiece with plenty of entertaining features and musical strengths.
It certainly succeeded splendidly at that level.