NZSO triumphs with brilliant Beethoven and Brahms masterpieces

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart, with violinist Augustin Hadelich

Beethoven: Violin concerto in D, Op 61
Brahms: Symphony No 2 in D, Op 73

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 18 August, 7:30 pm

Though this was a very traditional, heart-of-the-classical-world concert which one might have thought would excite neither the aficionados nor the young and innocent in terms of classical music awareness, it was a very near full house – not an every-day experience for the NZSO.

But the fact is that I cannot remember a live performance in Wellington of the Beethoven violin concerto: certainly, a search of Middle C’s archive brings up none. And I had to go back to the NZSO’s Brahms festival in October 2011 to find the last performance of his No 2.

Beethoven Violin Concerto
Though one doesn’t expect a performance of such a familiar concerto to spark excitement, even the orchestral introduction, which was cautious, expectant and dignified, presaged something splendid. It took hold of the audience almost at once, as if the orchestra, as well as audience, knew that they, the orchestra, were harbingers of something special. So the violin’s entry seemed to still the audience immediately, generating the feeling that a definitive, exultant performance was at hand. There is a special kind of silence that takes possession of an audience when faced with something remarkable.

Augustin Hadelich is of German descent, but born in 1984 to a vintner family established in Tuscany. Aged 15, and already a prodigy on both piano and violin, his career was nearly ended in a fire on the family farm. But five years later he had gained entry to the Juilliard School in New York, and won the Indianapolis international Violin Competition.

Hadelich’s playing was marked by calmness, a sense of determination, clear-sightedness. It produced, at the same time, flawless articulation and perfect intonation that almost seemed inconsistent with emotional warmth, and sheer beauty of tone. One expects to enjoy dynamic variety, but what he produced was a sort of flexibility distilled by taste and delicacy, leaving not a hint of indulgence or excess.

One mark of that was in the studied approach with which the cadenza at the end of the first movement began; its emphasis was on the music and its beauties rather than astonishing with tonal brilliance and virtuosity and it cast almost a sense of religious rapture, that was compelling and utterly stilled the audience. Its perfection was almost machine-like if it hadn’t been for the sheer musicality and essential humanity of its expression.

At the movement’s end there was what sounded like some utterly irresistible clapping.

The Larghetto second movement opened in the same spirit of sobriety, stillness that brought the audience once more to a kind of silence that seemed unreal among two thousand people. And the link-passage to the Finale was stripped of the sort of histrionics that its foretelling often brings about in other performances. It was a warning about the astonishing speed and musical force that Hadelich created in this brilliant movement. Its pace scarcely left room to breathe and its remarkable technical demands brought no slackening of pace till the moment when preparation for the Coda arrived, and it led the music through striking modulations, eventually ending, not in any sort of Tchaikovskyan frenzy, but loosening new and sublimely original ideas. And unlike many, he resisted the temptation to bring the spotlight back to himself in the final bars.

It was a performance the like of which I don’t expect to experience, live, ever again.

Paganini’s 24th Caprice was his way of thanking the audience for their immediate, standing ovation (unusual for the reticent Wellington audience), and its incendiary flamboyance and amazing technical embellishments were spell-binding (extraordinarily elaborate left-hand plus right hand pizzicato).

Brahms Second Symphony
Though the first half had created an experience that might have made another major work even after the interval, seem anti-climactic, Brahms second symphony, again in the key of D, survived extremely well. The orchestra expanded from its Beethovenian-numbers to full size, with 16, 14 violins, etc, five horns, but just double woodwinds. If the limelight had not shone much on De Waart in the concerto (and it truly deserved admiration), in the Brahms his unassuming, discreet yet strong and clear presence on the podium inspired the orchestra.

Brahms claimed somewhere that “I have never written anything so sad”; but elsewhere, Brahms is quoted saying it’s “light and carefree, as though written for a young married couple”. Take your pick; I don’t hear anything sad, and suspect that it was Brahmsian irony – opposite to what he felt about it; nor did De Waart seem to feel that way. And one would hardly choose D major to express grief or even melancholy (nor did Beethoven).

Brahms plunges us straight into the music, with no ritual introduction or conspicuous attention to classical forms, though his argument with the Liszts and Wagners was over his belief in the importance of the traditional structures. The performance seemed to draw attention to the endless compounding and modifying of themes, of scraps of themes, with every detail of Brahms’s rich orchestration resulting in a reading that was sympathetic and deeply satisfying.

Though the first movement is Allegro non troppo, there was hardly a strong feeling of speed or liveliness for quite a while. Some of the most beautiful episodes came from horns, sometimes just the principal, Samuel Jacobs; horns in particular seem to define Brahms’s orchestral palette. And there was lovely playing by other winds. The momentum evolved slowly, almost imperceptibly, as the varying facets of its themes and gestures developed organically and a strong feeling of integrity took hold.

The second movement Adagio non troppo (the ‘non troppo’ characterises Brahms’s devotion to the sanguine temperament, the happy medium, rather than emotional extremes) was pensive, expressive, is rarely jocular, and never suggestive of a suppressed Rossini or Offenbach. Yet it became the sort of spirited music that had emerged in the first movement. Both movements seem essential Brahms and one sensed in De Waart a deep sympathy with what Brahms was talking about and feeling.

The movement that might otherwise be the Scherzo, started in a gentle triple time, but very soon a lively 4/8 time, Presto non assai, took over for a short time before a triplet-quaver rhythm brought yet another change of tempo, though not really of mood and musical sense.  The movement’s variety that De Waart handled so deftly was a delight as were interludes by oboes and flutes.

The utter silence before the start of the last movement spoke volumes about the impact this wonderful performance was having on the audience. So as the Allegro con spirito gathered energy, high spirits, and joie de vivre, the full force of the big orchestra seemed to be employed in a spirit of an almost incandescent joy. Beethoven’s Freude in the Ninth Symphony might have found an even truer domicile here at the end of Brahms 2, than in its original incarnation.

This too got an enthusiastic reception from the very large audience.




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