Trpčeski’s emphatic restoration of Grieg concerto and a blazing Shostakovich Tenth from Martín and NZSO

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jaime Martín with Simon Trpčeski – piano

Shostakovich: Festive Overture and Symphony No 10 in E minor
Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op 16

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 13 July, 6:30 pm

Last Friday Jaime Martín conducted the National Youth Orchestra in a stunning concert, drawing from young players performances that were both accurate and full of energy. He has shown the same gifts with the parent orchestra.

Shostakovich’s Festive Overture was written just shortly after the death of Stalin and the composition of the 10th symphony; it can more easily be read as music that complies superficially with the expectations of the regime, than the symphony does. If you listen, seeking clues to his real feelings about Stalin’s tyranny, they can be found, right from the ritual brass fanfares and, a minute in, the urgent squeal of the solo clarinet; but one soon falls under the influence of the warm, happy melody from horns as Shostakovich writes the music that fits the occasion. And Martín drove it with an almost reckless flawlessness, instruments tumbling over each other. Just as we’d got used to the huge energy that Martín extracted from the Youth Orchestra, similar electrifying expressiveness worked with the professionals of the NZSO too.

The last local performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto seems to have been in September last year from Orchestra Wellington with Jian Liu. My records show the last performances by the NZSO, however, were in 2005, by Pascal Rogé. From the NZSO’s earliest years, the Grieg was played very often: nearly 100 performances, including a dozen in Wellington, up to 2005. But it has long been regarded by the musical elite as too ‘popular’ to have a place in the Pantheon of great piano concertos.

This performance, if Jian Liu’s last year hadn’t awakened audiences to the truth, put it squarely in the class of great piano concertos. Written aged 24, and certainly strongly influenced by Schumann’s concerto in the same key, it rather refutes the view that Grieg could not handle traditional large-scale forms, even though its rich melodic character has probably not won it friends among those for whom ‘tune’ is a dirty word. The piano leads from the front, not merely with its big chordal pronouncement but with the feeling of melodic integrity and the handling of its evolution. Simon Trpčeski left no doubt that the opening pages came from real musical inspiration, with no sense that Grieg was simply filling his pages with passagework; the dramatic episodes made organic sense and the cadenza, opening thoughtfully, avoided the sort of vacuous flashiness that had come to characterise many of the piano concertos of the post-Beethoven-Chopin-Schumann-Mendelssohn era.

Although I tend to deplore the boringly formulaic style and content of musician biographies as printed in programmes (and I know, they are dictated by the respective artist managements), Trpčeski’s catalogue of orchestras, conductors, venues, festivals and recordings is unusually remarkable. But the notes have scarcely anything about his Macedonian background. I have a particular interest in the Balkans; I first saw the ruined Skopje a few months after the terrible 1963 earthquake, and have travelled through several times, including a visit to the beautiful Lake Ochrid, lying between Greece, Albania and Macedonia; and I hope that both Greece and Macedonia can build on the recent accord over the name, as I have affection for both parts of Alexander the Great’s former homeland.

The piano part felt part of the orchestral fabric rather than as the orchestra’s rival for attention, suggesting that its role was to explain, to enlarge ideas intelligently, to explain a slightly different point of view. One could notice Trpčeski’s close rapport with the orchestra and with the conductor: at the start of the second movement he nodded subtly, approvingly, at what he was surrounded by, and such gestures were repeated. It’s not a long movement, but engaging enough, straight away, often taking pains to duet with solo instruments – flute, horn – in a genuine partnership. And the third movement, Allegro moderato molto, was fleet, light in spirit, leaving what weightiness existed to the orchestra.

For his encore, Trpčeski drew attention away from himself, by inviting Concertmaster Leppänen to join him in the second movement of Grieg’s Third Violin Sonata which served to remind the audience that even though Grieg didn’t persevere with large-scale orchestral works (he did write a youthful symphony but acute self-criticism set it aside; in truth, the symphony often sounds meandering and lacking momentum), he wrote several fine sonatas.  This sonata is a major work and should be played more: in fact it was given an excellent performance by Jian Liu and Martin Riseley at Paekakariki earlier this year. And this excerpt was a splendid demonstration of its quality.

Shostakovich’s Tenth
The second half of the concert offered an exciting performance of one of Shostakovich’s finest symphonies. It was the first written after Stalin’s death, and unlike the Festive Overture, a subtle examination of the nature of the era that had just ended and of what might lie ahead.  I haven’t heard a live performance since the NZSO’s in 2009.

It opens with sombre accents that might not be immediately identifiable as Shostakovich, though not for long, as horns and other brass soon made clear, then clarinet and flute, distinctive though quiet. It’s a very long movement – about 20 minutes – and explores almost all the territory (though not the actual notes) that is explored more particularly in the other three movements.

The second movement began with the powerful aural as well as visual impact of the entire, near-60-strong string body bowing fiercely in perfect accord, biting hard along with side drum, with ferocious intensity and producing an overwhelming feeling of energy and determination: there are indeed moments (for me, most moments!) when the experience of live performance exceeds anything you can even dream of from a recording or a broadcast. Then there’s the strange, rather unexpected fade-out, though it employs the same material; then rising again to end abruptly. These unusual phenomena in a symphony one knows fairly well, never cease to surprise.

The third movement opens mysteriously, with an uneasy five-note theme, mainly strings, an utter contrast with the second movement. But soon, a solo horn toys with a pregnant idea, alternating with bassoon; gradually they come to another brass-heavy tutti passage comparable with the threatening sounds of the second movement. But soon it fades, uneasily, like the cessation of a violent rail storm.

In its opening minutes there’s no hint of a conventional last movement: dramatic, often optimistic, creating a world in which crises have been overcome. Instead, it’s uneasy until a hesitant solo clarinet leads to sudden gaiety – and Shostakovich’s gaiety is usually embellished with sarcasm or mockery and the listener (and the Soviet Composers Union) are left with the disturbing feeling that sounds from hard brass and side drums don’t perhaps mean what they say. Conductor and orchestra handled these murky, obscure feelings brilliantly, eventually seeming to draw from the score a genuine sense of hope, even perhaps, optimism, saying that the future might be better than the immediate past had been, with a climax that blazed with excitement.

It was an astonishingly powerful and committed performance in which this newly emerged conductor, who’d spent most of his career as an orchestral player, showed how he could inspire and energise an orchestra in a quite thrilling manner.

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