Bruch’s violin concerto and Beethoven’s Seventh survive another (splendid) exposure as great works

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Edo de Waart with Karen Gomyo – violin

John Adams: Short Ride on a Fast Machine
Bruch: Violin Concerto No 1 in G minor
Beethoven: Symphony No 7 in A

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 12 August, 7:30 pm

It’s unusual for the NZSO to stage two concerts on consecutive evenings in the same town, though often enough they travel to different towns for concerts on consecutive nights. This time it was presumably to make full use of Karen Gomyo’s short visit to New Zealand with concerts only in Wellington and Auckland.

In the past I have remarked on the boring CVs about guest soloists that get printed in the NZSO’s, and other concert promoters’ programmes. Their unvarying pattern, moving through lists of festivals, orchestras, conductors, glamorous venues, highlights of the current year, and major premieres. Almost never mention of early years, education, musical studies. Very rarely do they mention earlier visits to New Zealand, unless the NZSO happens to be accorded distinguished orchestra ranking in the artist agent’s hand-out.

In this case, there is no mention in the programme of Gomyo’s earlier visit to New Zealand, in June 2015, to replace Hilary Hahn at the farewell concert for Pietari Inkinen, playing the Beethoven violin concerto. Though the press publicity beforehand mentioned it.

Here, with Bruch’s first violin concerto, her characteristic playing that impressed two years ago, her scrupulous and refined bowing, and dynamic subtlety, found fertile ground and had more scope in the Romantic heartland in which Bruch lived. Beginning with slow, secretive strokes on timpani, that expressed tension as much as magic; the flutes, clarinets and prominent bassoons made way gently for her entry: an auspicious beginning that seemed never to falter thereafter. Her playing seems characteristically quiet and it can lead one to feel that the orchestra is sometimes too loud; I heard one or two comments about her quiet playing, suggesting that she allowed herself to be covered by the orchestra, but the work is pretty carefully written so that the orchestra and soloist are rarely competing for space; the relationship between orchestra and soloist seemed meticulously judged. The violin doesn’t have to be dominant throughout and the pleasure lay then in the music’s sustained melodic beauty, and Gomyo’s delicacy and unostentatious approach didn’t fundamentally change as the movement’s more dramatic phase took hold.

Her brief cadenza towards the end of the first movement was fervent rather than showily spectacular and the rest of the movement is simply a fading away to the start of the Adagio, which though in a gentle triple time sustains much the same mood. It is of course a ravishingly beautiful movement (making you astonished, and sad, every time, that Bruch didn’t find comparable ideas to weave into more of his music).

The Finale is in the conventional pattern and has further memorable melodies that those of us who don’t allow conventional prejudices to colour our views of Bruch, hardly tire of. Her sound was simply discreet and gorgeous, overflowing with soulfulness, even when some fairly spectacular playing was taking place.

The concert had opened with John Adams’s perhaps most famous piece, Short Ride on a Fast Machine. It’s certainly a winner with audiences and De Waart employed no undue restraint in driving as if on a Grand Prix track, maintaining a thrilling pulse for its five minutes. Incidentally, poking about the Internet I came across a book by Magnus McGrandle with the same title and the blurb characterises it: ‘Short Ride on A Fast Machine is a quirky and engaging caper, the story of a young cycle courier from London who goes on an improbable journey to Norway, to pick up a stuffed owl for a mysterious client.’ Reportedly just published; is he paying Adams royalties?

The second half was Beethoven’s equivalent of the Fast Ride, the seventh symphony which, mythically, inspired Weber to write that it was ‘evidence that its composer had lost his mind’, and, Friedrich Wieck (father of Clara Schumann) maintained that ‘the music could only have been written by someone who was seriously intoxicated’. But see below…

The orchestra is taking its period authenticity commitments seriously: here with 18th century style timpani, or kettledrums as they used to be called; a bit sharper in impact and not as opulent. Otherwise normal, double winds, though four horns, two trumpets and no trombones.

The orchestra size and De Waart’s speed intensified rather than reduced its keen-edged impact, that heightens the sense of being slightly unhinged; perhaps Weber could be forgiven if he’d heard a really fast driven performance. I imagine that we don’t know details of the speeds at which Salieri took its first performance in December 1813.

There are many quotable comments on this symphony, perhaps the most famous, Wagner’s who called it ‘the apotheosis of the dance’. But there were a few deaf critics; it was of the first movement that Weber is alleged to have written. But the authority Wikipedia dismisses it. It’s worth quoting:

‘The oft-repeated claim that Weber considered the chromatic bass line in the coda of the first movement evidence that Beethoven was “ripe for the madhouse”, seems to have been the invention of Beethoven’s first biographer, Anton Schindler. His possessive adulation of Beethoven is well-known, and he was criticised by his contemporaries for his obsessive attacks on Weber. According to John Warrack, Weber’s biographer, Schindler was characteristically evasive when defending Beethoven, and there is “no shred of concrete evidence” that Weber ever made the remark.’

It was in the second movement , a mere Allegretto, where there was a pause to catch breath. It was somewhat secretive, emerging into the light of day slowly. The third movement is not actually named Scherzo: merely Presto, with sharply contrasted moods in not closely related keys between the Scherzo A section, and Trio, B section; and there’s the quirky, teasing feeling in the unusual second and almost a third reappearance of the Trio. It came off brilliantly.

As did the last movement, with its sense of cosmic power and urgency, of ‘Bacchic fury’ (Donald Tovey), with its reputation as one of the most extraordinary compositions of all time. De Waart’s dynamic gestures were not the least exaggerated, the fierce down-beats, the writhing basses and cellos and the steadily rising crescendo as it wound its way through a seeming (but not actual, I’m sure) accelerando, to a finish that generated shouts and prolonged clapping.

One often wonders, presented with another performance of a Beethoven symphony, whether over-exposure will diminish its impact at one’s 37th hearing. But it didn’t this time, at least.

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