Schumann and Barber – adventurous and absorbing sounds from the NZSO, with Daniel Müller-Schott

The NZSO presents:

BRAHMS – Tragic Overture Op.81
SCHUMANN – ‘Cello Concerto in A Minor Op.129
BARBER – Adagio for Strings / Symphony No.1

Daniel Müller-Schott (‘cello)
James Feddeck (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 17th June 2017

Poor old Brahms was left out of the title for this concert, despite his “Tragic Overture” opening the programme, though therein lies a rub – I thought in a sense it was apposite this time round, as the NZSO’s performance under James Feddeck for me lacked any real sense of tragedy – rather it came across as an intermittently “worried” piece of music trying its best here and there to put a brave face on things. Brahms is, I think, partly to blame – if he had called the work something like “Overture to a Tragedy” one might perhaps more easily accept a narrative or scenario which includes contrasting biedermeier-like cheerfulness. It is a difficult piece to bring off in a specific programmatic sense, requiring in places a determined, sharp-etched focus which ought to be taxing to perform as well as to listen to – here a combination of compositional abstraction and all-purpose performing intent made for me a pleasant, if somewhat remote listening experience.

In theory, of course, Brahms was an appropriate choice of composer to introduce a late work of Robert Schumann’s, the latter’s beautiful, whimsical ‘Cello Concerto, here given the kind of performance by the players that fully enabled the music to fully express its unique character. Perhaps it would have been better to have introduced Schumann’s work with either his “Manfred” or his “Genoveva” Overture, though such was the involvement and sense of direction of the playing, we found ourselves transported to the composer’s strangely troubled world with the first orchestral chord. I’ve always thought it remarkable how this composer’s music in particular identifies itself within a few seconds, whatever the work – so “confessional” in one sense and yet so elusive in other respects.

Soloist Daniel Müller-Schott gave a masterful performance, never over-indulging the whimsicality or vain-glorious gestures in the music, but giving full voice to the poetry of utterance that informed the discourse, handling the awkwardness of some of the composer’s writing for the instrument with great fluency. The work took on the character of an extended meditation upon aspects of existence, with snatches of impulse and wry reflection tossed between the solo ‘cello and the orchestra with apparent ease, if occasionally demonstrating near-dogged obssessiveness – a Schumann characteristic, very much an “I’ll say it again, in case you didn’t hear me the first time” kind of thing. These musicians, however were able to vary the emphases and flex the occasionally four-square rhythms in a way that maintained our interest throughout.

Orchestrally there was nothing of the occasional all-purpose blandness that had neutralised some episodes of the Brahms work – in response to the soloist’s first great utterance, Feddeck and the orchestra gave the first great tutti spadefuls of forthright character, and another leading to a solo interjection from the ‘cello that magically transformed the music into reverie and poetry which marked the slow movement’s beginning. A beautiful, rapt opening from soloist and orchestral winds developed into a rich “sighing” passage, like a giant squeezebox or harmonium gently “breathing” the harmonies, the orchestra’s principal cello duetting with the soloist.

Only when the concerto’s opening theme returned did the magic of the sequence give way to sterner realities, as soloist and orchestra briefly sparred for primacy, before the finale’s theme gathered up both combatants and propelled them into the movement’s opening, by way of a perky three-note motiv that seems to find endless opprtunities for exchange and elaboration. Daniel Müller-Schott’s playing worked hand-in-glove with the orchestra’s, everything kept buoyant and supple, the exchanges having an almost wind-blown quality, like leaves blowing about in an autumn breeze, making a strong and definite contrast with the great orchestral tutti delivering the three-note theme with terrific conviction.

The final moment of magic came with the soloist’s cadenza, the lines climbing out of the depths, getting the occasional hand-hold from widely-spaced orchestral chords, while musing and rhapsodising in between, until the bow began gently dancing upon the strings and the music activated and stirred the blood for a final show of trumpet-like triumphal energy from both ‘cello and orchestra. How wonderful to have such playing put at the service of music which responds so rewardingly – for many people in the audience, the occasion would, I’m certain, have marked a particularly happy discovery of a hitherto unknown or unfamiliar work, one to place alongside the composer’s far better-known A Minor Piano Concerto.

Daniel Müller-Schott returned to give us a movement from a Bach ‘cello suite, one which began with big-boned, grandly-arpeggiated chords, their improvisatory nature suggesting some kind of rich, meditative exploration of sounds that speak in ways which transcend what an eminent musician once described as the “tyranny of conscious thought” – timeless utterances that continue to delight and fascinate, centuries after their inception. I’ve since learned that it was, in fact, the Sarabande from the Third ‘Cello Suite BWV 1009.

After the interval came a similar kind of pairing of works to the concert’s first half, that of the familiar with the not-so-known – though this time round only one composer was involved. American composer Samuel Barber wrote his only String Quartet in 1936, later that same year rescoring the Adagio Movement for string orchestra. This single work has become the composer’s most often-played music, heard most frequently in tandem with events of a sombre or tragic nature. In this commemorative respect it could be said to parallel Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the English composer’s “Enigma Variations”.

It was a tribute to both the strength of the composer’s original inspiration and the inspired playing of the NZSO strings most ably directed by James Feddeck that Barber’s work once again exerted its considerable emotional “tug”. There was certainly absolutely nothing routine about the performance, the opening B-flat as sonorous and withdrawn at one and the same time as any sound could have been, the accompanying strings providing the foundation for the melody’s arch-like progressions. The constantly varying time-signatures created a kind of improvisatory feeling as the violins, and then the violas and ‘cellos presented their “versions” of the arched sounds, the piece gradually and inexorably building towards four intensely-focused, feeling-suffused chords before suddenly breaking off, allowing the resonances time to mingle with the silences, and then finish on an unresolved chord after a final statement of the opening theme.

From around the same period of his compositional life Barber wrote his First Symphony, the product of a sojourn in Rome after he had won, in 1935, at the age of twenty-six, the coveted American Prix de Rome. In fact the work was premiered in that city and its immediate success helped earn for the young composer a performance of his work in the United States six weeks afterwards. Further to this came a performance of the work at the 1937 Salzburg Festival, one which drew the attention of conductor Arturo Toscanini to Barber’s work. In response to Toscanini’s request for some more music, Barber sent him the as yet unperformed Adagio for Strings, thereby sealing that piece’s (and the composer’s) fate!

Barber was to revise the symphony five years later, in which form it was to remain. Written in a single movement, and lasting about twenty minutes, the work has been compared with Sibelius’s one-movement Seventh Symphony which, like Barber’s work, moves in a single, continuous arc through its different moods and aspects towards an inevitable conclusion. Rather more volatile in aspect than Sibelius’s nature-inspired grandeur, Barber’s work hits the listener with titanic force at the outset, in places bringing to mind a Hollywood epic scenario, but one convoluted with angularities and tortured-sounding progressions, with strings and brasses vying for supremacy in a sound-world where anything might happen.

Throughout this opening I thought the orchestral playing simply magnificent under James Feddeck’s direction, the physical momentums and the thematic thrusts both coherent and larger-than-life in a properly dramatic way, the first movement both impressive and bewildering in its variety of orchestral incidence. The titanic conflicts and interactions having spent themselves for the moment, the scherzo movement, Allegro molto, allowed the elves and fairies to dance out from the gaps in between ravaged textures and revitalise life’s enjoyment and sense of fun, the winds in particular colouring the textures in beguilingly varied and unpredictable ways – gradually the strings and brasses added their voices to the orchestral games, until the whole orchestra took up the pounding synopations, rather like the Nibelung’s anvils in Wagner’s Das Rheingold!

After this the oboe introduced a heart-easing theme, with strings murmuring a richly-wrought accompaniment, a solo cello furthering the beauty of the sequence as did the clarinet – the strings took up the music’s thread with passionate advocacy, stimulating great rolling swathes of sound from the brasses, and building into an epic climax! – from the ensuing resonances came the first notes of a passacaglia, the strings continuing to pour out endless torrents of emotion, until winds and brasses flung themselves into the fray with wild, angular cries, returning the music to the apocalyptic turmoil of the opening, a cosmos of reiterated incident over which human kind seemed to have little or no control!

What a work, and what a performance! Evidently conductor James Feddeck thought so, too, as he took some pains at the music’s end to acknowledge the contributions made by individual players, too many of whom to list here. The Brahms Overture apart, I thought the whole concert a triumph – of programming, and of performing. A pity the hall was somewhat less than full (the Barber Symphony too much of a “wild-card” for some patrons, perhaps?) – this venture deserved every success and every gesture of public support.

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