De Waart and NZSO: Brilliant Mozart two piano concerto and epic Mahler performance

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart
Piano duo: Christina and Michelle Naughton

Mozart: Concerto for Two Pianos in E flat, K.365
Mahler: Symphony No. 5

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 6 Apr, 6:30 pm

For me, two of Mozart’s most beguiling works have adjacent numbers in the Köchel catalogue: the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola (K 364) and the Concerto for two pianos (K 365), meaning that scholars believed they were written about the same time, 1779. Certainly, they have both been deeply embedded in my affections, perhaps through the performances I first heard.

This was a little before Mozart’s leaving Salzburg for Vienna (around the same time as he wrote the flute concertos, the Coronation Mass, the Posthorn Serenade, Symphony No 33, the Solemn Vespers). It was the last piano concerto, numbered 10, written in Salzburg; next came the first three in Vienna, Nos 11, 12 and 13, in 1782, the first of the 17 truly mature and immortal piano concertos.

Mozart’s instrumentation varied. What we heard from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under  their music director Edo de Waart, was Mozart’s original score which he played with his sister, Nannerl; it involved, as well as usual strings, only pairs of oboes, bassoons and horns. Mozart revised it later when he played it with a pupil, adding pairs of clarinets and trumpets. The string numbers were interesting too: instead of the usual declining numbers through violins to basses, De Waart employed eight each of first and second violins, and violas; I couldn’t see all the cellos but suspect there were 6, and probably 2 basses. I wondered whether De Waart had employed these numbers to create a fuller sound in the middle range, to balance with the weight of two pianos.

The orchestral introduction was elegant and deeply felt, with flowing rhythms; its character was complementary to the pianos which entered boldly, but quickly subsided to a delicate, rather affecting mood. Rather than pitting them against each other, the main feature of their playing is an almost uncanny interweaving of lines, sharing the music with beguiling charm, often taking over from each other mid-phrase, and ensuring that it was never possible to feel that one was the ‘primo’, the other ‘secondo’, as is usual with duets.

The major attraction was of course, the piano duo, Christina and Michelle Naughton: twin sisters, aged 28, born in Princeton, New Jersey of European/Chinese ancestry. They grew up in Madison, Wisconsin and their musical education was at the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute. They occupy the sort of place among duo pianists enjoyed for several decades by the Labèque sisters. They lack nothing in musicianship, technical skill and interpretive insight.

The second movement, Andante, prolonged the sense of elegance, the pianos often elaborately decorating and echoing the orchestral lines through the long melodies. Till the pianos eventually came to dominate in an extended cadenza-like episode in which the orchestra re-joins just before the end. It seemed like a magical introduction to the spirited, optimistic mood of the Rondo with its long curving lines that the two pianists adorned with tasteful ornaments. They led the confident fugal passage in a playfully rhetorical fashion, that seemed to mock the expectation of a portentous finale.

The whole was far more than the sum of its parts however, as it was obvious throughout that we were hearing a couple of immaculate pianists who performed, as was repeated in promotional material, as if one, each seeming to process her part through the same mind and hands, neither seeking pre-eminence, and creating the feeling that each felt as if merely a half of a single instrument.

Their encore was something of a curiosity and a surprise. No doubt encore pieces for piano duo are thin on the ground: this was Variations on a Theme by Paganini for two pianos – based Paganini’s 24th Caprice, by Lutosławski. The other pianist when it was written in 1941 was composer Panufnik who had also remained in Warsaw during the war and they played it in the city under horrendous German occupation (read Panufnik’s gripping autobiography, Composing Myself). They survived the terrible months in late 1944 when Soviet forces remained passively on the east bank of the Vistula, making no move to defend Warsaw while the German forces destroyed the city; it suited Soviet anti-Polish policies.
One YouTube listener to a performance of the piece by Argerich and Kissin remarked “époustouflant!” The Naughton sisters played it from memory; “époustouflant!” indeed!

I was surprised to see a few empty seats after the interval (it had looked a very full house before), as the Mahler approached. Fancy forgoing the chance to hear, not just an ordinary performance but what emerged after 70 minutes as a superb, emotionally elaborate and intellectually sophisticated creation.

There are trumpet fanfares and trumpet fanfares, and this was the latter, if you see what I mean. Michael Kirgan was flawless: flamboyant perhaps, but arresting, heroic, while at the same time relaxed. The fanfare foreshadowed the spirit and narrative of this, perhaps most familiar of all the symphonies. Then the grand yet melancholy tone of the strings prompted anticipation of the momentous epic that was to follow.

Mahler linked the first two movements as Part I, and he treated the last two similarly, as Part III. Apart from the thematic connections between movements that might have been fairly uncommon before his time, there seems little reason today to think of the work as other than in five movements.

The second movement is marked Sturmische bewegt, mit grosser Vehemenz; De Waart opened with ferocity and vehemence as instructed, while later his orchestra depicted an extraordinary calm, with feathery emotions dominated by beautiful woodwinds, alternating with passages from strings expressing a returning disquiet, and turbulent passages that probably taxed the brass but emerge flawless.

The middle movement, Scherzo: Kräftig, nicht zu schnell (Strong, not too fast) hardly complied with the instruction to express strength; its scherzo character, its luminosity seemed to predominate, and there are charming dance-like episodes of string pizzicato, dreamy horns and woodwinds. Its triple time certainly lends itself to suggestions of the Ländler and the Waltz: whether that it amounts to ‘social commentary on excess’, as the programme notes suggest, bears consideration…

The audience seemed to sigh at its recognition of the arrival of the beautiful Adagietto; and its mood was indeed one of inconsolable sadness, while never losing itself in weakness or lacking in a feeling of profound humanity. Scored for only strings and harp, there were many beautiful passages for those instruments to express poignancy and reflectiveness.

The last movement, Rondo, follows the course prescribed by Mahler: Allegro-Allegro giocoso. Frisch (lively); and there is much delicate, pastoral scoring, initially for strings, gently becoming ‘giocoso’ with horns, oboes, trumpets and the rest, all immaculately played. And a longish fugal section that is the vehicle for dancing and gaiety rather than for musical seriousness.

Not only was this a wonderful performance that would have converted any Mahler sceptic (and the slight thinning of the audience suggests they still exist), but would have left even the most confirmed or blasé listener with a renewed feeling of wonderment and optimism, overcoming for the moment, disquiet at all the world’s increasing turbulence and horrors. Mahler might have lived during a period of relative international peace and temporary personal happiness, yet there was, nevertheless, in this most sanguine, as well as tumultuous of symphonies, material for listeners to this magnificent performance a century or more later to experience a huge range of external and personal emotions, both grieving and ecstatic.


One thought on “De Waart and NZSO: Brilliant Mozart two piano concerto and epic Mahler performance

  1. Roger Neill says:

    Ironic that seats were vacated for the Mahler. It seems that the only way to fill concert halls in London these days is with a Mahler symphony. Off to Mahler 9 with LSO/Rattle at Symphony Hall in Birmingham May 1. So much better acoustic than their regular home at Barbican Hall in London.

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