Excellent NZSO concert – Berlioz, Elgar and Tchaikovsky – draws disappointing audience

Travels in Italy

Berlioz: Harold in Italy
Elgar: In the South (‘Alassio’)
Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini (Symphonic fantasia after Dante)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Judd, with Antoine Tamestit (viola)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday, 6 October 2017, 6.30pm

Here was a stirring programme, the items linked by their composers’ inspirations from Italy.  It happens that these three were all superb orchestrators; the works all exploited the orchestra fully.

We have had both Berlioz and Elgar already this year in NZSO programmes; no shame in that.  James Judd was noted for his Elgar performances when he was Music Director of the NZSO – one of the eminent composers of his homeland, just as after him, Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen programmed much music of his homeland’s most famous composer, Sibelius.

Berlioz treats the theme of Harold (aka Childe Harold in Byron’s long narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage) in four different scenes, or movements, and so our eminent viola soloist also travelled, performing from different parts of the stage, not only from the front, which added interest.  Some commentators have seen the work as semi-autobiographical.  It is neither symphony nor concerto, but has elements of both.  Berlioz had recent experience of living in Italy, as winner of the Prix de Rome.

The opening of the work is quite spooky, a portentous wind solo playing against repetitive strings in a minor key, then the soloist played the main theme, standing behind the second violins.  During the movement he began his travels by moving forward to the usual position, on the conductor’s left  It was inspiring to hear the lovely tone of Tamestit’s viola, a Stradivarius from 1672.  One of the movement’s highlights was hearing the harp passages beautifully played, as a counterpoint to the brilliance of the viola solo.  The latter played variations on the main theme, all performed with flair and gesture, but without any element of technical display for its own sake.

The movement, titled “Adagio: Harold in the mountains.  Scenes of melancholy, happiness and joy”, built up feverishly and dramatically, reminding one that it was Paganini who requested Berlioz to write a work, that turned out be this one.  Snatches of brief phrases were tossed around the woodwinds, then things went almost berserk at the end of this movement, and the soloist retreated to the rear of the second violins.

The second movement is marked “Allegretto: March of the pilgrims singing the evening prayer”.  The whole orchestra plays the main theme; this is repeated with muted upper strings, while the cellos and basses play pizzicato and the woodwinds intone a single note.  There is an atmosphere of timorous expectation (rather spoilt by the amount of audience coughing).  A bell tolls as the procession fades away.

“Allegro assai: Serenade of an Abruzzi mountain dweller to his mistress” is the description of the third movement.  There is a splendid cor anglais solo.  Horns rumble away on the main theme; a dance tune is played by the woodwinds, accompanied by violas.  The soloist plays throughout, weaving in and out of the orchestral textures.  All is understated, and muted in the last phrases.

The solo viola has less to play in the final movement, which is “Allegro Frenetico: Orgy of brigands.  Memories of scenes past.”  Tamestit strode to the rear of the basses and played from there.  We heard rambunctious chords from the orchestra, with plenty of brass and percussion interjections.  The master orchestrator maintained the work’s interest throughout.  Violins were frenetic.  After some more quiet playing from the soloist, then Wham! Bang!  The end.

In response to prolonged enthusiastic applause, Tamestit returned to the platform and played an encore by Hindemith: a movement from one of his viola sonatas – a phenomenally fast and furious little piece of perpetuum mobile.

The remaining two works were each half as long as the Berlioz one, which had acted as both symphony and concerto.  In the South is one of Elgar’s inspired shorter orchestral works.  It, too, involves a solo viola, but in this case it was not the distinguished soloist from the Berlioz who performed, but an unfamiliar face, who took over the principal’s chair from Julia Joyce for this item.  A knowledgeable young violist sitting near me informed us that the principal was soon to take maternity leave, so we assumed that the excellent unknown violist was to fill in for her.  He gave a a fine and beautiful performance of the folk-song solo – slow and dreamy.  Perhaps this could be the southern Italy siesta?

The very spirited opening section soon led to quiet playing, the strings using mutes, and the woodwinds playing meditative music.  Some of the Elgar pomposity appears here and there, but this is a characterful work, partly gentle in character, though in the middle of the work there is a grand slow march; as the programme note said “… the texture of the music rapidly transforms between  expressive grandeur and secretive meditations.” Then brass and percussion come to the fore.  There was much light and shade in the music, and a great build-up to the climax.

Tchaikovsky’s theme was much more sombre, inspired by the tragic story of Francesca di Rimini from Dante’s Inferno.  Here was another portentous opening, cellos vying with woodwind for the honours in presenting the dramatic themes.  The violins then took over issuing the challenges.  When the brass broke in, we had the full drama.  The storm raged, to be followed by a sublime clarinet solo.  Muted strings featured in this work too, with a large, sweeping unison melody.  Flutes came to the fore, sounding like a flight of birds.

The work continued with many and varied orchestral colours and dynamics.  Oboe and flute had a conversation; the horn joined in, followed by the big unison theme again.  As the programme note said: “…Tchaikovsky at his most romantically lyrical.”  It was so dramatic one could almost see the stage or screen action – stirring stuff indeed, and all extremely well performed.

It was disappointing to see many empty seats in the Michael Fowler Centre, given it was such an interesting programme.  Perhaps for many people 6.30pm is not a favoured hour for a concert.  Nevertheless for those present, it was an early evening of outstanding music, stunningly well played.


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