Rachmaninov and Stravinsky – not such strange bedfellows, courtesy of de Waart and the NZSO

STRAVINSKY – Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920 rev.1947)
Symphony in Three Movements (1945)
RACHMANINOV – Symphony No. 2 in E Minor Op. 27

Edo de Waart (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday, August 24th, 2018

What a pleasure it was to be able to read in the programme NZSO Music Director Edo de Waart’s comments about each of the pieces due to be conducted by him in this evening’s concert with the orchestra. His words resonated on a number of fronts, one of them historical as he touched on the NZSO’s special relationship with Igor Stravinsky, who, in 1961 visited New Zealand at the age of 79 as a renowned “guest conductor” of the orchestra. On that occasion the conducting was shared between the composer and his assistant, Robert Craft, the latter directing the orchestra in one of this evening’s works, the Symphony in Three Movements, and Stravinsky himself taking the baton for Apollon Musagete, followed by the Lullaby and Finale of The Firebird.

Equally fascinating (as well as speaking volumes regarding his versatility as a musician and conductor) was de Waart’s recounting of his own history with some of the music, notably the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, which he had previously performed many times as oboist/director of the Netherlands Wind Ensemble. To then read of his enthusiasm for Rachmaninov’s music via his comments on the Second Symphony (he conducted all the symphonies on record with the Rotterdam Philharmonic) suggests a sensibility on the conductor’s part which inclines towards the inclusive rather than the drawing of demarcation lines between composers based on judgements wrought from fashion or intellectual snobbery.  In their very different ways both Rachmaninov’s and Stravinsky’s works have undergone such travails over the years courtesy of self-styled “high priests” of opinion regarding artistic merit – one turns with some reassurance to Sibelius’s observation on behalf of his vocation in general, that “no-one ever erected a statue to a critic”, even if there exist a handful of exceptions to that dictum.

In fact, Rachmaninov’s and Stravinsky’s differences as creative artists were never the cause for the degree of disjunction between them promoted in certain circles of musical academia, people who regarded their own judgements as something akin to “holy writ”, and dissenters as somewhat lacking in “proper” faculties (Theodor Adorno, for one, regarded Rachmaninov’s music and people’s enjoyment of the same as “regressive” and in one famous instance even “infantile”!). The composers themselves were surprisingly accepting of one another’s music, Rachmaninov speaking of Firebird and Petrushka as “masterpieces”, and regarding even Le Sacre du Printemps as having “solid musical merits in the form of imaginative harmonies and energetic rhythms” (one can, I think, hear Rachmaninov’s debt to Stravinsky in the pounding rhythms of the first of the former’s Symphonic Dances of 1940).

If Stravinsky’s opinion of Rachmaninov’s music was expressed somewhat more equivocally, it was without rancour or condescension – he spoke in later years of the latter’s earlier pieces as “watercolours”, adding that he then “turned to oils and became a very “old” composer”, but qualifying his judgement with the words “….do not expect me to denigrate him for that.” – an attitude in marked contrast to that of many of Stravinsky’s devotees who saw it as their “duty” to summarily disparage Rachmaninov’s music. The two composers famously became neighbours in Beverley Hills towards the end of Rachmaninov’s life, their social interactions apparently marked not by discussions about music but about agents, managers, copyrights and royalties! (For a more detailed account of this interaction between the two composers, click on the link below, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra Public Relations Office, to an article by commentator Michael Steinberg.)


Stravinsky used the title of his work for wind instruments to refer to the original meaning of the word “Symphony”, a “sounding together” – the music derived from a chorale Stravinsky wrote in honour of Debussy, who died in 1918, which gradually developed into what the composer called “a grand chant” using the “objective” tones of wind instruments, as opposed to the “warm, human tone” of strings.  He himself claimed the work lacked any general appeal, containing nothing that resembled his earlier, more popular compositions. Even so, the music at the outset contrasted strident, attention-grabbing wind chords with passages for mellow brass, everything spacious and beautifully al fresco. The mood throughout resembled an enactment of some kind of ritual, not unlike the iconic Le Sacre du Printemps in the intensities generated by the different sections, though with a somewhat loftier, more austere overall effect. At all times, Edo de Waart got playing from his instrumentalists which could only be described as sublime, the ensemble by turns sharply-focused and richly-rounded, the sonorities replete with varied interest and engagement.

The later Symphony in Three Movements seemed to more readily evoke the composer’s past, in the outer sections recalling (once again) the muscularities and acerbities of the aforementioned Le Sacre, as well as using a piano obbligato reminiscent of another of his ballets, Petrushka. The work’s opening sequences resembled in places a circus band that had gone off the rails, with the percussion having great fun! Throughout the movement there seemed an almost “Concerto for Orchestra” aspect, the composer’s writing skilfully interactive while keeping an openness of texture. The piano was given a lot to do, almost like a mediator between sparring elements, each determined to “be themselves”, come what may!  I loved the strings’ articulation of the gentle jog-trot rhythms at the second movement’s beginning, with the harp taking on the obbligato role here, while the winds coloured their sounds for de Waart most exquisitely, relishing their ad lib-like contributions, and creating some magical ambiences together with the strings. The music led the ear innocently enough to the finale’s beginning, at which point what sounded like a jingoistic kind of anarchy unfurled its flag to the strains of pompous fanfares, the composer flying in the face of his own pronouncements regarding music, here (“…music is powerless to express anything except itself…” for example – Igor Stravinsky: An Autobiography 1935) by admitting that he was inspired by World War II newsreels of goose-stepping German soldiers, and that the build-up towards the music’s triumphal ending marked the war’s turning-point in favour of the Allied forces. The debate regarding the composer‘s words in relation to his own music continues, meantime……but for now, I’m happy to report that de Waart and the players gave a performance of the whole that bore out the conductor’s description of the music as a ‘glorious work”.

So we came to the concert’s second half, featuring music by a different composer, one whose attitudes and intentions regarding his work (and music in general) are on record as diametrically removed from any Stravinsky-like ideas of music’s “powerless” objectivity as could be. Edo de Waart unequivocally described Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony as “a haunting and deeply moving work”, thereby cutting the Gordion Knot of binding judgement regarding musical styles by treating all of the concert’s individual works entirely on their own merits. It was ironic, therefore, that, his conducting of the Symphony to my ears didn’t seek to invest the work with any particular nationalistic or geographical character of sound other than a kind of echt-European mellowness of utterance – in other words, his was an objective, well-rounded and beautifully-proportioned reading, one which allowed “the notes”, as written by the composer, to speak for themselves.

Which is another way of my saying that the music here wasn’t made to sound any more “Russian” than what the composer had written into the score. While my preference, when listening to this music, is for rather more “temperament” expressed in occasional volatilities and explorations of near-extremities of tone and timbre, I relished de Waart’s obvious love and respect for the music and its composer, and the orchestra’s sensitive, well-rounded and at times brilliant playing.

We heard a beautifully long-breathed opening pair of exhalations which set the work in motion, before a light, lithe allegro moderato swung into action, its phrases beautifully weighted and nuanced. Throughout each succeeding episode de Waart and his players similarly wove layer upon layer of lyrical utterance, both strings and winds shaping their expression next to great rolling crescendi from the brass, capped by scintillating percussion, until the dancing exuberance of the movement’s coda was done.

More excitement was to be had from the scherzo, incisive strings and ringing horns leading the way, de Waart keeping the exuberance seemly, as well as curbing any overt sentimentality in the phrasing of the second theme, apart from a touch of portamento in one of the upward string figures. The brasses got their galloping syncopations excitingly right, the strings reducing things to a whisper before the whiplash entry of the Trio – here, clear and incisive rather than weighty, though the brass resonances rang deeply and richly soon afterwards. What I always think of as the “Rimsky-Korsakov” sequences – those lovely prancing, wind-decorated martial figures! – had plenty of exotic glitter before things accelerated excitingly towards the reprise of the opening, the movement then racing to its suddenly sombre conclusion, its spectral brasses and ghostly whisperings vanishing into the night.

Again, the famous opening of the slow movement, with its “continuous melody” wrought by strings and clarinet, was simply and directly expressed, with exquisitely-judged playing from clarinettist Patrick Barry, matched later by the NZSO strings, and supported by the other wind-players. Nothing was over-wrought, de Waart keeping the heart-on-sleeve emotion of it all within the realms of natural utterance, while encouraging an interactive sound-picture, the wind counterpoints and brass-and timpani climaxes all part of the greater flow. This served to highlight the finale’s joyous release of energies, even if I thought the horns could have been allowed a more exuberant voice in places – still those echoes of the previous movements made their mark amid the festivities, as did the hushed build-up of the ‘bells” sequence towards a sonorous, scalp-tingling panoply of ringing sounds whose effect was all the greater in the context of the conductor’s restraint elsewhere. And though I occasionally craved more raw excitement in places, I relished de Waart’s insistence on clarity of detail at all times, my ears in a constant state of titillation through registering so much that’s normally masked or underplayed.

A thoroughly-deserved burst of acclamation from an appreciative audience greeted conductor and players as the music’s final hammered-out chords flung their energies out to the four corners of the hall – splendid stuff!







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