300 years of riches from the NZSM Orchestra – What is it about Bartok’s Second Violin Concerto this year?

New Zealand School of Music Orchestra presents:

BELA BARTOK – Violin Concerto No. 2 BB 117
MICHAEL NORRIS – Claro  (2015)
ANTON BRUCKNER – Symphony No.8 in C Minor (ed.Haas): Mvt.4 – Finale

Claudia Tarrant-Matthews (violin)
Kenneth Young (conductor)
New Zealand School of Music Orchestra

St. Andrew’s on-The-Terrace Church, Wellington

Tuesday 2nd October 2018

Though primarily a vehicle for displaying the stellar talents of violinist Claudia Tarrant-Matthews, winner of the NZSM Concerto Competition for 2018, this concert gave considerable added value in terms of the wide range of repertoire, not to mention the quality of the NZSM Orchestra’s committed, focused and excitingly-played performances of the same. Following Tarrant-Matthews’ astonishing traversal of one of the twentieth century’s truly great concertos, we heard an evocative piece, Claro, by the recent SOUNZ Contemporary Award winner Michael Norris, and then, to finish, the finale of what many people regard as the greatest of Anton Bruckner’s symphonies, the Eighth (difficult to “bring off”, but here, most excitingly played, the movement’s somewhat unwieldy structure tautly held together by conductor Ken Young’s visionary direction).

Not for a moment did I think I would hear ANOTHER live performance of Bartok’s Second Violin Concerto during the same twelve-month, much less one that was as skilfully-played and richly-wrought as an interpretation as that of Amalia Hall’s earlier in the year with Orchestra Wellington. But here was Claudia Tarrant-Matthews, fearlessly shaping up to the music with the utmost authority, putting her own stamp on the composer’s idioms and evocations, and together with a group of musicians who were prepared to follow her through thick and thin, enabling the music to come alive,  every detail from both the soloist and orchestra in the mercilessly clear St.Andrew’s acoustic finding its place and expressing its character in relation to its context in the work as a whole.

Tarrant-Matthews’ tone throughout I thought gorgeous in its sheer range of expression, maintained unfailingly throughout the most demanding sequences involving double-stopping, glissandi or rapid passagework, yet sounded always with an ear to what the orchestra was doing, giving such character to her interactions with the winds (a strongly atmospheric cor anglais, for example) or the sometimes irreverent brass. Her cadenza-like displays had a hair-raising, spontaneous quality that contributed to the “rush-of-blood” effect in many places throughout the first movement, most excitingly and satisfyingly. As well, the slow movement’s ethereal opening occasioned a beautiful cantabile from the soloist, giving the big orchestral tutti even more impact with its raw emotion, and in turn throwing into bold relief the ensuing “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” world eerily evoked by winds and percussion. Each variation brought its own character to bear on the narrative so eloquently, the solo violin’s stratospheric work illuminating pinpoints of light as the strings slowly danced, before they and the winds towards the movement’s end generated suitably celestial resonances in the wake of the whole.

The work’s finale – a reworking of the first movement, Bartok enabling the Variation form he wanted its utmost scale of expression, here – burst in upon us furiously, strings swirling about, and the soloist at first steadily and folkishly playing the earthily-flavoured melodic fragments of themes which straightaway “grounded” the music, before “taking the orchestra on” as a kind of sparring partner – most exciting! The themes were here played by the orchestra in such a heartfelt and forthright way, combining emotion and physical energy so irresistibly! – and the soloist replied in kind, before leading the way into a chromatically-flavoured kind of vortex of tightly-wrought exchanges, dissolving into sinuous, eerie utterances.  These moments made for a lovely contrast with the more raucous, “Concerto for Orchestra”-like confrontations, all of which were duly disarmed by the composer and set upon trajectories into different realms – such staggering invention! I loved the Holst-like timpani and brass towards the end, as well as Bartok’s sweetly simple reversion to a child-like folk-figure, so artlessly and innocently played by Tarrant-Matthews, before the orchestra “let ‘er rip” over the final few bars (I think the composer could have let the violinist join in with the fun, but there you go!) – a great, and much-acclaimed performance by all, and deservedly so!

After this, it almost seemed that to go on was risking an anti-climax – however this was decidedly not the case! On two counts conductor Young and his players fully justified pairing the concerto in its wake with two other pieces, both of which received riveting performances.  The first of these works was Michael Norris’s 2015 work Claro, commissioned by the NZSO for that year’s “Aotearoa-plus” concert, and well-received by my colleague Lindis Taylor in these columns, with the words “a remarkable exercise in imaginative orchestration and harmonic ingenuity”. The composer himself wanted to write a piece that unselfconsciously explored the idea of “a gradual emergence of line out of simple little points in space – of expressivity out of abstractiveness”. Admitting that Douglas Lilburn’s work exerted something of a subconscious influence in this case, possibly due partly to the commission being intended for performance with the earlier composer’s Second Symphony, Norris cited Lilburn’s awareness of space and colour as having certain resonances of sustained quality in this later work, though without exerting any direct influence on the piece’s outcome.

We heard harp, percussion, and pizzicato strings at the outset, joined by piano, the pizzicati alternating with bowed notes, the percussive sounds with “held” wind notes, these latter having an “electric current” quality, a feeling of energy being channelled and sent to various places. The sounds began to cohere and make patterns, vary dynamics and pitches, tumbling over the top of one another in a kind of awakening chaos of delight, a rolling, bristling ball of impulses, the light within the “lighter” instruments playing, bouncing and refracting, while the heavier instruments created impulses that moved and shook land masses. A high shimmering string note stimulated wonderment in all sonic directions, with instruments, in Dylan Thomas’s poetic words, doing “what they are told” in describing the play of natural forces.

An uneasy calm was coloured and flecked with a second wave of gradually animated trajectories, as kaleidoscopic scintillations and movements gradually sped up, the instruments fusing their impulses together, sometimes falling over themselves to push the animations onwards, at other times vaingloriously “fanfaring” the soundscape and stimulating challenges from other quarters. The feelings of movement spread steadily and remorselessly through the textures, the variations of texture, colour and dynamics constantly leading the ear on. As the figurations took on more and more girth the excitement from within grew – huge crescendi of sounds dashed themselves to fragments against the music’s basic pathway. In their wake the sounds seemed to settle in overlapping layers, while a solo violin sent out a raincheck call answered by winds and harp, and allowing the instruments which began the piece to re-emerge and gratefully complete the circle. In all, I thought it a marvellously-constructed “adventure” for orchestra, here patiently, fearlessly and sonorously delivered.

That last sentence would sum up almost any successful performance of a symphony by Anton Bruckner, though we were given only a movement from one of the Austrian master’s greatest works this evening, the finale of his Eighth Symphony. A much-troubled work in its genesis, the Eighth was completely revised by Bruckner after suffering the humiliation of having the piece rejected for performance by his chosen conductor, thus leaving two versions for posterity (1887 and 1890), and an ongoing argument as to the relative merits of each version, with, confusingly, a “combined” version thrown into the mix for further argument! Up until recently the edition prepared by Leopold Nowak in 1955 was the one most favoured by conductors, but the earlier edition by Robert Haas (1935) incorporated more of Bruckner’s original ideas from the 1887 version and restored certain cuts that an earlier editor, Josef Schalk, had made to ANOTHER revised edition of 1892! (At this point the reader needs to take a deep breath, and recall the late Sir Thomas Beecham’s response to news of a new edition of somebody’s (it could well have been Haydn’s) symphonies, with the words, “Are they scholarly, or musical?” – which, regarding all of this, of course, is the most important consideration!)……

After reading Ken Young’s note telling us that the edition used in this concert was that by Robert Haas, we could settle down and enjoy the music, its tumultuous beginning with apocalyptic brass and thunderous timpani! Having “cleared his symphonic throat” as it were, Bruckner then gives us an amazingly discursive amalgam of seemingly disjointed motifs, fused together in the best performances by a strongly-projected overview involving no-holds-barred playing and focused, clearly-articulated figurations throughout. Which is precisely what we got from Young and the NZSM Orchestra, with the help of certain extra players to make up the numbers required by the composer in this epically-conceived work. Young pointed out that Bruckner had set orchestras difficulties by requiring “specialist” instruments like Wagner tubas, whose parts were played here most effectively by two extra trombone and two euphonium players. The St.Andrew’s acoustic barely passed muster throughout this encounter with such gargantuan forces, further advancing the urgent need for a recommissioned Town Hall, presently undergoing “earthquake-strengthening”.

Without indulging in a blow-by-blow description of the performance, I can still remark on the “charged” playing by the string sections throughout (only in the latter “working-out” sequences did their lines occasionally register the occasional strained note in their convoluted passagework), supported by sonorous work from the winds, having to deal with equally intricate patterns of symphonic impulse from the composer’s  fertile brain, and invariably golden-toned brass, their sounds somewhat constrained in the venue, but by turns massive and richly-wrought throughout, everywhere sturdily underpinned by alert timpani-playing, the latter especially enjoying his “road-music” sequence with the strings and brasses that at an early stage takes us into the symphony’s heart.

Always of concern for players of these works is being able to keep enough strength in reserve for the massive perorations with which they invariably finish – and the Eighth Symphony is certainly no exception. Here, the monumental build-up throughout the coda, beginning in C Minor, moved inexorably in Young’s hands towards that point when the music turns on massive pivots into the all-encompassing sunshine heralded by those brass shouts of C Major, thunderously supported by the rest of the orchestra. As Ken Young had remarked in farewelling certain players who were completing their studies and appearing in the orchestra for the last time, “You can’t get a better farewell than playing in the Bruckner Eighth Symphony” (or words to that effect!), a statement that was unequivocally affirmed at the end by the music, its composer, the interpreters and the by-now-flabbergasted, but still-appreciative audience!



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