Strauss’s final tone poem a mighty opening for the NZSO’s 2017 season

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart with Michelle DeYoung (mezzo soprano)

Mendelssohn: Hebrides Overture
Elgar: Sea Pictures
Strauss: An Alpine Symphony

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 25 March, 7:30 pm

Here was a concert designed to attract various classes of music lovers: those attached to the classical heartland, discreetly coloured by a pictorial Romanticism; lovers of the voice in melodious, conventional guise with music composed at the turn of the 20th century; and finally, for those susceptible to musical expressionism on a vast scale, an evocation of vast natural phenomena and secular voluptuousness.

Though the orchestra had its first major appearance this year celebrating its 70th anniversary a couple of weeks ago, this was the first subscription concert. It drew a virtually full house.

There was a common theme: the depiction of various aspects of nature in music.

As the years pass I find myself more and more aware of my first hearings of music, and Mendelssohn’s Hebrides (or as I first knew it, ‘Fingal’s Cave’) goes back to the third form when the once-a-week, ‘core’ music class, was presented with it, on two sides of a 78 recording; and I just fell in love.  I’m sure it remains the ideal way in to classical music if teachers were prepared to defy their pupils’ compulsive attachment to fashion and junk.

I would like to think that the loving performance guided by Edo de Waart was a sign that it might have had a similar impact on him at a like age.

This was graced by both elegant. sumptuous strings and sequences of richly consonant playing by bassoons and limpid clarinets, of singular purity. The scoring might be conservative, but the orchestra, from very first, displayed an easy confidence painting the shimmering seas as well as the splendidly dramatised storm scene.

Sea Pictures
Elgar’s five Sea Pictures are set to poetry by five relatively obscure poets, including one by his wife (‘In Haven’). The best-known would be Elizabeth Barrett Browning and, to us, the Australian poet, Adam Lindsay Gordon, but Roden Noel and Richard Garnett would be unknown even to English literature honours graduates knowledgeable in nineteenth century poetry.

That is no handicap of course for a composer, most of whom have been on record somewhere saying that it’s poetry of the second class that tends to be the more rewarding to set; beautiful poetry cannot be improved by music.

The songs are amiable, but apart from the last, ‘The Swimmer’, have inspired music that is not particularly varied, and needs a naturally coloured voice to exploit the tepid emotions and situations of words and music. Furthermore, it’s strange that Elgar used the same or closely related keys throughout (G in the first and C in the next two), and common time, adding to a feeling of tonal monotony.

Michelle DeYoung has a rich, strong mezzo voice, that is on the alto side of the mezzo range. She had no difficulty projecting alongside, and at times over, the orchestra. What detracted rather was her pronounced vibrato that even tended to obscure the melodic character of the setting of the first, ‘Sea Slumber Song’, and though I’d hoped it might be under better control in the later songs, it really wasn’t. Until, that is, ‘The Swimmer’ where Elgar allowed himself to inject energy and DeYoung invested her voice with a touch of risk and excitement that Gordon’s rhythmically explicit lines express. So the short phrases of the last song gave the cycle a more spirited and satisfying conclusion.

I suspect that in the theatre her voice could make a more impressive impact – not least in Wagner.

An Alpine Symphony
Strauss’s Alpine Symphony was written in the same era as the Elgar songs, but the two could hardly be more different in intention, spirit, ambition and sheer musical magnificence. It was not finished till after the First World War had started, but nothing of that can be detected in it; Strauss allowed neither war to influence his music. He seemed able to ignore most of the horrors of the age he lived through, until that final elegiac utterance, Metamorphosen.

The orchestra’s last performance of An Alpine Symphony in Wellington was as recent as 2012, under David Zinman, which I heard but for some reason no review appears in Middle C.

In many ways, Strauss’s last symphonic poem can be seen as the summit of late romantic extravagance, for the scale and variety of its composition, the huge array of instruments employed (though the 20th century saw a greater flourishing of mainly percussion instruments and, of course, the questionable involvement of electronic devices). Strings were at full strength, 16 first violins (though Strauss stipulated 18 firsts and 16 seconds), and then 12 violas, with conventional decreasing numbers of others; quadruple woodwinds (and a heckelphone), nine horns, four of them doubling on Wagner tubas, the normal percussion with double timpani, plus glockenspiel, xylophone, wind and thunder machines, cowbells; two harps, piano, organ and celeste.

The noise was imposing, and the generally excellent precision and balance reminded those who needed it, that we were listening to one of the world’s best score or so of orchestras.

Behind the work’s conception, as the programme note made clear, quoting the same paragraph as appears in the Wikipedia entry, lay Strauss’s grief at the death of Mahler in 1911, linking with Nietsche’s pantheism/atheism which Strauss subscribed to. Those philosophical notions underlie, are more important than the overt characterisation of aspects of nature, and enable what might otherwise be a too-prolonged bit of landscape painting à la Caspar David Friedrich to engross the listener (this listener anyway) for nearly an hour.

The performance called on every section of the orchestra to excel itself, from the hushed expectancy of the opening led by basses, horns, then piccolos heralding the pre-dawn world. The programme listed the 22 ‘movements’, useful enough, but it can have the damaging effect of encouraging the literal listener to dwell pointlessly on these pictorial elements. That should be avoided of course, to allow the mere knowledge of the adventure, made vivid for example in off-stage phases (horns and other brass later), to be sufficient for one’s own imagination to conjure whatever images arise spontaneously.

What keeps the work afloat, one need hardly say, is the succession of contrasting, in themselves beguiling, evocative and richly melodic passages, that sound various but with which the composer, and the perceptive, energetic conductor never fails to bewitch the listener; an early, highly picturesque section ‘In den Wald’ – the woodland – ending with dappled sunlight from the full string body as the music transforms into the streamside – ‘neben den Bach’. (Yes, I confess I did pay attention to the ‘programme’ occasionally). On the mountain top comes the beautiful oboe solo from Robert Orr, and several other solos were of course arresting.

There is no need to attempt to follow all 22 linked ‘movements; it’s enough to say that such a flamboyant work calls for the resources and discipline of a first-rate orchestra; and Edo de Waart, a thoroughly engaged conductor, economical of gesture but able to persuade players and the audience that it’s a mighty work that far surpasses the beauties of its many entrancing individual sections.