Lawrence Renes, NZSO and Simon O’Neill in superb Wagner songs and monumental Bruckner 4th

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Lawrence Renes; tenor: Simon O’Neill

Wagner: Wesendonck Lieder
Bruckner: Symphony No 4 in E flat

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 16 June, 7:30 pm

This subscription concert was advertised as ‘An Evening with Simon O’Neill’, obviously in the hope that the name of New Zealand’s internationally most distinguished singer would match that of the recently retired Kiri Te Kanawa. But it didn’t work as the auditorium was hardly half full. Nevertheless, O’Neill is indeed one of a small handful of leading tenors in the Wagner class. Sure, he doesn’t compete in the public mind with his contemporaries Roberto Alagna, Jonas Kaufmann, Juan Diego Florez, Josef Calleja, Rolando Villazon, because he has emerged as a superb Helden-tenor, the fach particularly associated with Wagner. But he has done much else, for example as Otello, Cavaradossi in Tosca in New Zealand, Papageno in The Magic Flute and symphonic tenor roles such as Mahler’s Eighth and Beethoven’s Ninth. Clearly, Wagner in Europe and North America now keeps him very busy; why on earth not here?

So I wondered whether the orchestra might better have programmed him in the real thing: in a couple of the great excerpts from the music dramas like Siegmund’s ecstatic, passion-driven episode in Walküre Act I, ‘Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond, or the Prize song from Die Meistersinger, or ‘In fernem Land’ from Lohengrin.

One can’t help wondering why a certain Wagner passion that arose with the 1990 Festival production of Die Meistersinger, which had four pretty full houses in the Michael Fowler Centre, evaporated so soon; Auckland’s Flying Dutchman a couple of years later didn’t do well and that a wonderful, semi-staged, all-New Zealand-singer Parsifal twenty years later didn’t even get one full house.

So this concert might better have been ‘An Evening with Bruckner’, for that was both three times as long as the Wesendonck Lieder, and is a greater work.

Wesendonck Lieder
However, O’Neill’s performance of the little song cycle, even promotionally spiced with references to the possible love affair between poet Mathilde Wesendonck and the composer, beautifully sung as it was, hardly competed with the possible alternative of two or three excerpts from Wagner’s stage works.

O’Neill’s voice is much more than either a fine lyric tenor or a commending Helden-tenor; there is a remarkably warm, polished and simply beautiful quality that was immediately obvious from the first notes. His performances seemed to be fully sensitive to the meaning and the fervid emotional feel of the slender poems in the flavour of early 19th century German lyric poetry. All five songs are linked in mood and musical feeling, though it is the third, ‘Im Treibhaus’ with its clear relationship with the music in Tristan und Isolde that seems to make the strongest impression, and where O’Neill’s instinctive affinity with Wagner’s musical complexion was present.

Its generous setting allowed more time for the mood to unfold that in ‘Schmerzen’, the next song, which moved through its text more brusquely, sounding more Lohengrinish than Tristanean.

And in the last song, ‘Träume’ (the programme note lost the umlaut) which, like ‘Im Treibhaus’, was marked by Wagner “study for Tristan und Isolde”, O’Neill created an uneasy, unsettled mood in a song that can be somewhat more sanguine in the hands of some singers, at least in its central passages. I had the unusual experience of having expected the last song to evolve more and in differing ways; not for the first time, I felt that Wagner might have made a more extended – indeed elaborate, Tristanish meal of it.

Even though Wagner only orchestrated this last song, they feel incomplete without orchestra. Felix Mottl orchestrated the others. There’s a 1976 orchestration by Hans Werner Henze which employs lighter textures, and observing fewer players in some parts of the orchestra, I had wondered whether that was used. But the orchestra tells me that Renes had simply reduced the string numbers.  For an account of the various orchestral arrangements over recent years look at

Bruckner 4th
Much as it was a pleasure to hear such a fine and idiomatic performance of these songs, the main fare was undoubtedly the Bruckner symphony. It did surprise and disappoint me that so few of my fellow citizens felt it important to hear this very approachable Bruckner symphony in live performance, especially, I assume, the second version which is quite a bit shorter than the first of 1874.  Perhaps a better known conductor might have made a difference, but I felt from the very beginning that in Lawrence Renes, here, was a man with a splendid grasp of the music’s demands. The biographical note made no reference to his major orchestral performances (a lot of opera however – odd when he’s here for an orchestral concert).

Not all symphonies create such an immediate feeling of expectancy, like the start of a much looked-forward-to trip. But that, to my delight, was the impression from the secretive opening horn solo; that restraint seemed to be prolonged since much of the first few minutes are in the hands of solo or duetting instruments over quiet tremolo strings. The atmosphere Renes created in the superficially repetitive first movement had miraculous characteristics of suspense, expectancy and calm, constructed on that rare, octave-wide motif that never out-lived its hypnotic power.

If the first movement was, as Bruckner instructed, ‘Bewegt, nicht zu schnell’, for 20 minutes, the true slow movement, though marked ‘Andante, quasi allegretto’, felt as if the rest of one’s life might fruitfully be absorbed by this rapturous music, and its 15 minutes or so seemed to be over far too soon. Renes’s approach was scrupulous, handling every detail as if his listeners were already in a state of trance or rapture. Here the weight rested with strings: violas and cellos, along with often quite exposed solo woodwinds, which seemed to carry its essence, even when the whole orchestra eventually became engaged, then subsided as they played the little dotted motif over and over.  I could understand the hesitant clapping at the movement’s end: I would guess it was from those who actually knew and loved it so well that this beautiful performance and its hallowed ending had moved them so profoundly.

So after more than half an hour of generally painstaking, meditative music, the Scherzo can seem as if Bruckner was simply responding to audience expectation of a brisk, even jolly, movement. But he gets it out of the way in about 10 minutes, including the charming little Ländler-like Trio section, led by clarinets and strings. It seemed, as always, a bit unexpected when the superbly polished trumpets and trombones of the orchestra which launched the Scherzo, return to punctuate its predominant string and woodwind filigree.

But the Scherzo has prepared the audience for a Finale of the traditional sort, in the kind of sonata form that is the usual first movement architecture. Yet the work’s limpid charm never abandons it, and the orchestra shifted from blazing brass-led fanfares to the most delicate passages where solo flute or horn for example flutters over shimmering strings with basses delivering a commanding beat.

Renes worked with the orchestra about seven years ago I gather, though I have no memory of having heard him conduct. He is an acolyte of music director Edo de Waart; I hope his return, very soon, can be arranged. Along with the chance to hear Simon O’Neill singing in his home territory, this was a superb concert.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *