Edo de Waart and Ronald Brautigam confirm stature: symphonic conductor and Mozartian pianist

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart with Ronald Brautigam (piano)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No 24 in C minor, K 491
Elgar: Symphony No 1 in A flat, Op 55

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 29 October, 7:30 pm

Ronald Brautigam’s is not exactly a household name and his performance history is impressively confined largely to Mozart and Beethoven, though not always in performances with high profile conductors or orchestras. Most of his playing is on the fortepiano of the age of Mozart and early Beethoven.

While that partly explains his relative obscurity to the popular audience, it doesn’t detract from his high reputation among those who take their classical music seriously and comprehensively. In fact, last December, in Sydney, I heard Brautigam and De Waart with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in this very programme, plus, I should add, an engaging, round eight-minute performance of White Ghost Dancing by Ross Edwards, perhaps the most widely popular of Australia’s contemporary composers.

In Wellington, we heard only the two big works, though the concert reached the normal two hours with a little ceremony marking the retirement of two very long-standing players, violist Brian Shillito and violinist Sharyn Evans.

The C Minor Piano Concerto
For the Mozart, the orchestra was reduced to the likely size of a Viennese orchestra of the late 18th century – around 30 strings, flute and pairs of horns and woodwinds including, unusually, both clarinets and oboes, and authentic timpani. Though such perceptions can be unreliable, I had the impression of a more 18th century sound than I heard in Sydney; that could be auto-suggestion or the effect of the size and shape of the Concert Hall in the Sydney Opera House. It was clean and elegant, with a beautiful balance emerging in the sombre, two-minute-long opening passage; no affectations or excesses.

No period fortepiano was needed to produce a warm and persuasively Mozartian performance, as Brautigam’s revealed himself as a pianist of great skill, refinement and intelligence. There are several passages for solo piano throughout the work and here he refrained from drawing attention to himself or his exemplary and brilliant playing. In one of Mozart’s only two piano concertos in a minor key (and one of the very greatest), there was often a distinctly plaintive feeling in which oboes and the lower instruments – cellos and bassoons – were particularly effective.

This was a spirit that Mozart elaborated in the last movement with its contrapuntal writing that was, nevertheless light in spirit and unfailing elegance.

Above all, there seemed to be a singular rapport between conductor and soloist revealing an unerring unity of approach and a common perception of Mozart’s style and melodic and instrumental character.

Elgar No 1
I have been known to utter remarks about Elgar’s symphonies that are a reaction to what can be heard as either grandeur or pomposity, and the outer movements do offer much opportunity for these feeling to be confirmed.

I exempt the very opening Andante from these feelings as, in spite of the plain and singular grandeur of the big tune (after all, it IS entitled ‘Nobilmente’), it establishes a meditative spirit that needs to be carefully maintained and was indeed carefully enunciated under De Waart. And again, after the Allegro proper begins, there are a page or two of gentle, rather beguiling music before a growing attack of grandeur emerges.

Part of the problem for me is the sheer unsubtlety of some of the big tunes that have undoubtedly been important in the music’s remaining very popular. There are those brass-band inspired, mini fanfares for trombones and tuba; but then one has to set them aside as they are followed by passages of interesting lyrical writing that is delicate and suggest that Elgar had paid attention to the French composers who were his contemporaries, not that I would include Debussy among his influences. It is after all, more common to link Elgar with his German predecessors – Brahms and perhaps lesser figures like Bruch. The tunes might sound ordinary but it is what he does with them that establishes him as a major composer. So the first movement actually ends in a sound world that is restrained, imaginative and quite moving.

The second movement again is driven by a tune that’s a bit obvious, but is it essentially different from the folk-inspired tunes Mahler used? The tunes are used in a splendidly expansive and energetic way and De Waart drew fine playing from the orchestra, though moments of brass exposure might have been a little more subtle.

One of the symphony’s characteristics that I delight in is the way each movement draws to its end in meditative calm; in the case of the end of the second movement you can be forgiven for wondering whether the next movement has arrived unannounced. And the rapturous Adagio hardly changes in mood as the Lento opening of the last movement begins.

All this adds up to confessing that the slow third movement is my favourite: endlessly gorgeous, allowing one to savour Elgar’s refined use of the orchestra, taking more care than some late Romantic composers to assure the distinctness and clarity of each instrument. In spite of the large, almost Straussian orchestra, the Adagio in particular is not the product of an empty jingoist, but that of a remarkably refined and intelligent composer.

I sometimes recall the music master at Wellington College, in the once-a-week ‘core’ music class, remarking as he played us 78s of the Enigma Variations, that Elgar was one of the greatest orchestrators, and thinking, for many years, that was an odd and extravagant claim. (How many students at ordinary state schools today get that sort of life-enhancing exposure to great music?) But listening to his music with open ears many decades later, I think he was right. This was a performance that fulfilled all the expectations one can have of the composer Elgar; some twelve minutes of some of his tranquil, happiest and most inward invention, in these warm, reflective landscapes.

Even in the sometimes blustery last movement there’s that long episode about five minutes before the end, of peaceful meditative music that paints an unimaginable picture of the world just five years before the 1914 catastrophe.

It was good therefore to see a pretty full house for this splendid concert that reaffirmed the taste and interpretative talents of Edo de Waart.

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