NZSO in splendid Beethoven: the first and the last, under Edo de Waart

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (led by Donald Armstrong).  conductor Edo de Waart

Beethoven:  Symphony no.1  in C major, Op.21
Symphony no 9 in D minor, Op.15

Madeleine Pierard (soprano), Kristin Darragh (mezzo), Simon O’Neill (tenor), Anthony Robin Schneider (bass), Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir (Music Director Dr Karen Grylls)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday, 23 November 2018, 6.30pm

Such is the popularity of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony (no.9) that the Michael Fowler Centre auditorium was sold out.  There were two empty seats next to me, but I did not see many others.

The gentle prologue to  Beethoven’s first symphony (the symphony premiered in 1800) almost sounds like an ending, and reminds one immediately of Haydn, the great master of the symphony, who was still around for the first 40 years of Beethoven’s life.

Excellent programme notes needed much more time to read than was available to me before the concert, but, as at other concerts, I couldn’t read them during the performances because of the strange New Zealand custom of dowsing the lights during orchestral and choral performances, as though they were visual spectacles like plays, opera or ballet.  This is not the case in the United Kingdom, where I recently attended concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and London’s Festival Hall – all performed with full auditorium lighting.

Symphony No 1
The first movement soon bounced into its allegro con brio tempo after its andante molto  introduction. There is then a gradual build-up of volume. Fine woodwind and horn interjections arrived.  The orchestra for this work was  much smaller than that employed later for the Ninth Symphony; brass consisted of two horns and two trumpets.

Crisp, articulated playing was the norm.  Sublime oboe and flute playing was a predominant feature. The music included pleasant variations.

The second movement, andante cantabile con moto, had a tuneful, dance-like opening.  All was very classical and orderly, but modulation passages proved a little more adventurous than Haydn perhaps would have been.

Menuetto: allegro molto e vivace – Trio was the tempo marking for the third movement.  Its lively tempo had woodwinds to the fore; the timpani had plenty of interesting work to do, and an unusual prominence for music of the period.  This movement featured some lovely string playing.

The fourth movement began portentously.  After a rather short adagio introduction, which held the audience in suspense,  until a jolly dance broke out. The dance ends, and there is declamation of trenchant chords again.  The dance theme develops, becoming more complex and intertwined with declamation, syncopation featuring also.  Peace returns, then a wind-up to the end.

The Choral Symphony
After the interval, we were treated to a marvellous performance of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. This final symphony, composed between 1822 and 1824, was performed first in 1825 under the great composer’s ‘direction’, although he was by now totally deaf, and another did the actual conducting.  It received a rapturous reception.  A huge orchestra is required; its premiere in Vienna saw a larger orchestra than possibly had ever been assembled there for a symphony concert.  Many more of every section are required here than in the first symphony.

The first movement, allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso, begins with only a quiet harbinger of things to come, yet its quietude has an amazing quality in its softness.  Some have said that the opening resembles the sound of an orchestra tuning up.  Then comes the first of many outbursts, demonstrating the composer’s revolutionary use of extreme dynamics magnificent crescendo and diminuendo at various points throughout the work. The trumpets became prominent, adding to the rich colours.  A high level of excitement was engendered, accompanied by magisterial majesty,  Horns were splendid, and the whole orchestra made huge, dramatic sounds.

The second movement (Scherzo: molto vivace – presto) carried on much the same mood,  but with incessant rhythms.  Its great theme somewhat foreshadowed the fourth movement. The trio section introduces trombones into the orchestra for the first time in the work.

The adagio molto e cantabile – andante moderato third movement contains many interesting and entrancing variations.  Some brief fugal treatment ensues; what Tovey describes as ‘…fragmentary counterpoint which enhances the effect…’; the movement has an emphatic outrburst before ending quietly.

The mighty fourth movement, is almost of symphonic length in itself, following the relatively short third movement.  The soloists came on, ready for their contributions, the women both in beautiful red gowns.  It has a graceful, almost tentative introduction to the theme, principally from cellos and basses, and a peaceful, quasi-pastoral passage with lovely variations  Horns took over the theme.  The variation from woodwinds with pizzicato strings was utterly transporting.  Brass did their piece, but never too dominating.  Variation was in dynamics as well as on the theme.  A quiet wind-down, a diversion, splendid flutes, and a gradual rise in tension, especially from the strings followed.  Again, the theme came from cellos and double-basses, with the other instruments taking it up, with variations – but the violins gave it to us straight.

Finally we are awakened by soloists and choir.  Bass Anthony Robin Schneider’s invocation ‘O friends!… Joy!’ was intoned richly and incisively by his superb voice.  (A pity that the translation in the programme, and in Wikipedia, gives the mild ‘Oh’ of exclamation, not the dramatic ‘O’ of invocation).

The choir soon joined in. Their words were taken from the “Ode to Joy”, a poem written by Friedrich Schiller in 1785 and revised in 1803, with text additions made by the composer.  The varied tempi in this movement make for increased excitement, until the last words are hurled out at high speed.  The music became dramatic in its build-up; it always seems to be going somewhere.

There were 60 voices in the Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir on this occasion – quite large for a chamber choir, but needed for Beethoven’s ecstatic utterances.  Their contribution was accurate and sonorous, with clear words, and animation.  The choir’s singing and that of the soloists was thrilling.

Only Kristin Darragh had some rather ugly notes near the beginning – possibly they were rather low for her tessitura.  Elsewhere, in the ensembles she was not easily heard at times; the soprano has the advantage (fully utilised by Madeleine Pierard, the superb soprano) of being at the top, while the bass stands out for being the lowest sound, and the tenor stands out because the .music is high in his voice.  Simon O’Neill had the right voice and volume for this role.

Martial airs came from the orchestra, excellently delineated, adding to the grandeur of the music. More percussion is introduced in this movement; bass drum and triangle both have notable solos.

All parts, solo and chorus, are written high in their respective voices.   I noticed that the soloists, when seated and not performing solo, ‘sang along’ with the chorus parts – a nice gesture.  The choir was absolutely great on the final section; the work finishes triumphantly for them, interspersed with beautiful ensembles for the soloists – but some detail was lost in all that was going on.

This was a wonderfully nuanced performance under the highly experienced Maestro Edo de Waart, and the audience showed appreciation most enthusiastically.


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