NZSO opens the musical year with Bach, Rameau and Locatelli

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, led by Vesa-Matti Leppänen

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos nos. 1 in F (BWV 1046) and 3 in G (BWV 1048); Air from the Suite no.3 in D, BWV 1068
Locatelli: Concerto in E flat, Op.7 no.6 ‘Il Pianto d’Arianna’
Rameau: Suite from Dardanus

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Friday, 2 February 2018, 7.30pm

The orchestra made a start to the New Year that was rather different from usual.  A band without conductor, but led from the violin, that was made up of between 12 and twenty-five players, depending on the work being played.  Unusually, the players stood to perform, except of course the harpsichordist (Douglas Mews) and the cellists; the horns and percussion had chairs to sit on in those movements where they were not playing, in the Rameau Suite.  The men’s dress was black shirts, business-style suits and dark ties, not full penguin-rig.

It was a thoroughly refreshing performance; I heard audience members expressing this sentiment as they walked away afterwards.  I was fortunate to be sitting at the front of the church, and so did not suffer from the effects of the long resonance time which may have affected people sitting further back in the packed venue.  However, I could see and hear well and my fears about fast baroque music sounding jumbled in this venue were unfounded.

What I heard was crisp, vital playing.  The string players for the most part adopted baroque bowing technique, played with greater detachment of the notes than they would employ in playing Classical or Romantic music, and rendered stress and phrasing in a baroque manner. The wind instruments were all modern ones; their greater force than had their ancestors in the Baroque period meant that they were sometimes a little too loud for their string colleagues.  Nevertheless, their contribution was tasteful; there was no attempt at vibrato, and notes were frequently slightly detached.  The playing was in a straightforward manner.  However, when the winds were playing, the harpsichord could barely be heard.

The concert began with a fanfare from two trombones placed in the side gallery, near the front of the church.  They were unannounced and their contribution was not to be found in the printed programme.  When Leppänen spoke to the audience following the first Bach concerto he mentioned the fanfare as a celebration of the opening of the 2018 NZSO series, but did not name the composer.  Two of the musicians whom I asked thought that it was Monteverdi, which seemed not only likely, but appropriate, being brass sounding from a high gallery à la St. Mark’s in Venice.  It sounded great in this acoustic.

Brandenburg No 1
The first, and longer, Brandenburg Concerto, was played stylishly.  The contrasts between Minuet, Trio, Polacca, were delightful.  The concertino players: Leppänen, plus three oboes and two horns, were admirable.  Leppänen’s leadership of the ensembles was effective throughout the concert.

The Locatelli work is seldom heard.  It is described as a short opera without words, but sad in theme (‘pianto’ is Italian for tears, weeping), depicting the sufferings of Arianna, deserted by her lover, a story much beloved of writers of opera.  The composer’s dates were 1695 to 1764.

This work was performed by a smaller ensemble.  After an andante-allegro movement, came a largo with a singular and appealing violin solo, followed by an even slower grave movement.  Throughout, the instruments depicted the drama.  Another allegro led to a final largo; an unusual way to end an orchestral work, but appropriate to the tragedy of the operatic story; mournful for the sad end of Arianna.   Again, there was beautiful playing from Leppänen.  The music could not be said to be as inspiring as that of Bach, nor as lively as Rameau’s offering to come.

After the interval came another unusual work, by baroque French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau.(1683 to 1764).  The suite consisted of 14 movements, but some of these were repetitions.  Dardanus was an opera by Rameau written in 1738 but greatly revised in 1744.  A very sprightly Overture was followed by ‘Air gracieux pour les Plaisirs’, and gracious it was, featuring flute.  Then we heard percussion, consisting of a traditional (not modern) timpani (strictly timpano, in the singular) and a tambourine, expertly played by Thomas Guldborg and Leonard Sakofsky respectively, in a movement, repeated, named for the instrument: ‘Tambourin’.

The Pleasure ended, with the ‘Entrée pour les Guerriers’.  The movement was indeed martial, with drum in a very lively march.  It was followed by a repeated rigaudon, a French dance of lilting quality.  It began with strings only, then woodwinds joined in.  The next movement, ‘Air’, was slow and piquant in character.  Minuets were elegant and yet bright, with a change to the minor key for contrast.  The ‘Tambourin’ returned, but with piccolo adding a sparkling quality.

‘Air Tendre’ opened with a cello solo, soulfully played by Andrew Joyce, then flute entered.  There were notable passages from Leppänen’s violin.  The final ‘Chaconne’ featured oboe, and later bassoon joined in.  The mood was jolly and sombre by turns, and completed a delightful suite that was lively and interesting at every turn.

Brandenburg No.3
We returned to Bach for his Brandenburg Concerto no.3, probably more popular than the no.1, as the audience showed by their prolonged applause at the end.  A smaller ensemble performed it, in a very energetic and rhythmic style, the allegros being faster than one often hears.  Again, it was a complete contrast with the preceding work.  In this music I was aware of the vibrant and rich viola tone.  The adagio was short and solemn, before a return to liveliness for the last allegro.

Leppänen spoke again, saying that the encore had been included in the printed programme: the firm favourite known as ‘Air on the G string’ (Air from Bach’s Suite no.3 in D, BWV 1068).  A larger orchestra played this final item.  The pizzicato on cellos and double bass was most effective, and the beautiful melody was fully exploited, without any un-baroque excess.

All in all, a most satisfying concert to open the year’s NZSO season.


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