Edo de Waart and NZSO in deeply assimilated music of Brahms, Wagner and Sibelius (with Janine Jansen)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Edo de Waart with Janine Jansen – violin

Brahms: Symphony No 3 in F, Op 90
Wagner: Siegfried Idyll
Sibelius: Violin concerto in D minor, Op 47

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 10 November, 6:30 pm

The programme might have looked fairly conventional, except that the symphony, usually the sole occupant of the second half of the traditional concert, was played first. That may have been because the Sibelius concerto enjoys one of the most exciting endings while Brahms’s Third Symphony is a favourite as a result of its steering a path between peacefulness and joy and quiet drama, ending with one of most reflective, serene finales.

Brahms No 3
Generally, De Waart and the orchestra demonstrated a profound sympathy with the symphony: an awareness of its sanguinity as well as its suppressed passion, in a performance that struck one as authentic and deeply assimilated, from a descendant of performances by De Waart’s compatriots, Mengelberg, Van Beinum, Haitink (though not all are unreservedly admired in this symphony…).  So it’s perhaps a little strange that I noted in the first movement, early on, a certain instability in handling the elusive rhythms, and perhaps in ensemble, particularly among the winds.

The symphony’s laid-back nature doesn’t mean any departure from Brahms’s structural complexity that, on the one hand, can be overlooked in a conscious sense without loss of enjoyment, and on the other can engross the serious listener with score and analytical notes at hand.

There were many felicities in the course of the performance, momentary unstable passages that were elucidated by giving prominence to a few notes or by the emergence of flutes or violas from the orchestral aggregate; a fragile rhythm, nicely managed without simplifying it.

The third movement, Poco allegretto, where a scherzo would normally be, was yet another departure from the orthodox, in C minor, 3/8 time (though they’re very slow quavers), De Waart was unhurried, almost somnolent, passing the lovely main theme repeatedly through strings and winds – exquisitely with horns; it might be tedious in less inspired hands: not here.

The sense of a driving impulse was a major feature of De Waart’s performance, through the numerous tempo and rhythmic changes, that hold one’s attention, absorption in the music. But the result of such impulse is sometimes to overlook the epic grandeur of the work which exists in certain deeply admired recordings (Haitink, Sanderling, Giulini for example), that run to around 50 minutes. This was not a performance of that kind, but one for immediate consumption bearing in mind an audience that might not be ready to give itself to playing devoted to architectural magnificence on the scale of a mighty Gothic cathedral.

Siegfried Idyll 
The Siegfried Idyll followed after the interval, excellent tonic for those who have succumbed to anti-Wagner xenophobia. It needs to be stressed, as I sometimes do to non-believers, that it’s just a small part of the 16-hours of the marvellous Ring cycle where hours of comparable beauties are to be found.

The orchestra was stripped back to ten first violins, descending to four basses and single winds apart from pairs of horns and clarinets. That was Wagner’s published expansion from the small group of 13 that had gathered at dawn on the stairs near Cosima’s bedroom to mark her birthday/Christmas morning in 1870 in their house at Triebschen on Lake Lucerne (yes, I’ve been there on a lovely summer’s day). It was beautifully paced, a sort of aubade, with the scent of a calm night, with elegant, perfectly integrated strings; and an arresting moment from Michael Kirgan’s trumpet.

Sibelius Violin Concerto
Janine Jansen is a Dutch violinist, born in 1978 (the ritualised patterns of artist CVs ignore basic information that is likely to be interesting and pertinent to most concert-goers). She is clearly among the most distinguished of the increasingly large body of brilliant soloists in the classical music world.

Her Sibelius concerto was part of a uniquely refined, perceptive, passionate, imaginative and simply enchanting performance which had the characteristically restrained Wellington audience jumping to its feet, accompanied by prolonged shouts and clapping.

The concerto opened with fairy-like, whispering sounds over pianissimo murmuring strings, that were quickly echoed by Patrick Barry’s comparably fastidious clarinet. The prevailing character of her playing was soon clear: an almost obsessional care with every phrase and a delight in highlighting contrasts that are often handled in a more uniform manner. An early fiery passage that ends suddenly with rising, meandering, pianisssimi theme, that seemed to be delivered with more dramatic contrast than is common. At the heart of the first movement, rather than towards the end, the violin’s cadenza becomes a more central feature than usual, described as assuming the role of the development section rather than merely a spectacular forerunner to the climactic conclusion.

Though Sibelius never allows you to become comfortable with a particular emotion, tempo, style, world-view or belief system, and in every movement the listener runs the gauntlet, it’s the slow movement, Adagio di molto, that approaches a miracle of calm, transcendent beauty. It seems to seek the elusive idea of the sublime, but coloured by unease, evoking the still, Arctic air; and there’s a yearning quality, a sense of loss in through the singular emotional force with which the violin speaks. Jansen dealt enchantingly with the passages where she was virtually alone as sections of the orchestra murmured discreetly, merely embellishing the silence.

Though one knows the concerto very well, I have never been held so transfixed, so alert, so awakened to sounds that I seemed never to have heard properly before. The last movement can suggest a fairly conventional affair, boisterous and exciting, but Jansen’s playing was variously mercurial and endlessly lyrical; it was energised in throbbing exchanges with the orchestra, which was probably inspired by the soloist to sonorities and detail that were comparably dynamic, emerging with unusually clarity. That is a feat that’s perhaps not so hard to achieve given Sibelius’s uncluttered scoring, and a general avoidance of dense, Brahms-like expression.

On every level, this was a remarkable and memorable performance.

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