NZSO’s season-opening concert splendid, popular programme under Hamish McKeich

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich

Rossini: Overture, L’italiana in Algieri
Haydn: Symphony No 104 in D ‘London’
Prokofiev: Symphony No 1 in D, Op 25 ‘Classical’
Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op 56a (Saint Anthony Variations)

Michael Fowler Centre

Wednesday 27 February, 7:30 pm

After nearly a fortnight touring this programme through seven towns throughout the country, the NZSO reached Wellington, where there was probably some expectation of highly polished performances. It was the first of the orchestra’s 16-concert, Podium Series. The surprise, to a certain extent, was that the orchestra not only seemed to have achieved a wonderful degree of clarity and flawlessness, but that it had lost no sense of spontaneity and delight in their playing.

Perhaps that was most striking in the overture, which was not only immaculate, but had lost none of its wit and its variety of subtle instrumental detailing that always highlighted Rossini’s smile-inducing orchestral writing. The mark of a gifted orchestrator doesn’t rest entirely with a flair for managing a huge orchestra, using exotic instruments to create a bewildering range of remarkable sonorities; Rossini knew how to generate excitement and delight through teasing the ear with quite economical instrumentation allowing single instruments to have fun and to entertain, handling quite conventional forces with imagination and sensitivity. The slightly reduced string body (14, 11, 10, etc) which was appropriate for this piece and for the tour, remained for the rest, including the Brahms.

The programme notes remarked that the opera itself, The Italian Girl in Algiers, was worth getting to know. However, Wellingtonians (and Aucklanders) know that, as New Zealand Opera staged it in both cities in 2009.

The overture
Once upon a time, concerts routinely began with an overture; it was a very good practice, for the very reasons offered by the programme notes: ‘music to put them in a good mood, excited and ready for what was to follow’; such an aim is as valid for a concert as for a performance of the opera for which it was written. That pattern fell out of fashion a few decades ago when orchestras decided that many of the best-known overtures were too trivial to accompany the challenging and heavily cerebral music in the rest of the programme. I’d love the old tradition to be reinstated: there are scores of excellent candidate overtures.

Happily, Hamish McKeich has common sense and no pretentions.

So the overture began with almost inaudible pizzicato and then the most beguiling solo oboe (from Erin Banholzer), establishing the mood delightfully; and later other winds, the highest and lowest, piccolo and bassoon, did likewise. Later, Rossini responded magnificently with the rich sounds of the strings and timpani, double basses making a particular impact.

Haydn’s 104
The symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, too, tend to be neglected by today’s big orchestras that are more equipped for the music of Beethoven and the 19th century. The suggestion that Haydn’s last symphony, the ‘London’, was a clear predecessor of Beethoven was convincingly demonstrated in this performance, the orchestra here employing forces much the same as in the overture, apart from baroque timpani. Here again, McKeich’s thoughtful handling of the music’s character was clear from the start in the careful, stately treatment of the introduction. The main part of the first movement was in striking contrast, bold and confident, taking pains to mark the distinct, Haydnesque surprise contrasts.

The slow movement emerged in some ways as slightly lacking distinction, though there were charming interjections by flutes and characteristic pauses. The Menuetto was allowed more distracting episodes, with a certain melodic variety; the greatest break in mood coming with the Trio’s move into a minor key, slightly slower, all managed sensitively. The fourth movement really brings no surprises, following the normal Haydn pattern, though with the employment of an orchestra much larger than he was used to in Austria, yet toying with certain passages and offering ear-catching moments as the use of long pedal notes from the bassoon that one doesn’t usually notice, and making excellent use of those sonorities.

The ‘Classical’ by Prokofiev
Prokofiev’s first symphony was, naturally enough, a youthful work, but not as adolescent as the radical exhibitionism of his first two piano concertos. Its humour seems to have been one reason for its programming in this concert. However, it’s hardly main-stream, Haydn-Mozart era, and it’s a bit hard to find much Haydn flavour, apart from a sense of humour, or any reflection of typical ‘classical’ music at all, given the term refers to music between 1750 and 1800.

With a normal classical-sized orchestra, pairs of winds, with only trumpets and horns in the brass, this was a clean, clear-headed performance, employing unannounced modulations and tunes that are much more recognisably Prokofiev, than ‘18th century’. The orchestra seemed totally at ease with the style. Though it’s not challenging, the performance held the attention, as neither composition nor its performance could be called routine. The third movement did deviate however, in the use of a dance that predated the classical minuet – the gavotte, which was often included in Baroque suites, especially Bach’s. Perhaps one missed the variety of a movement in triple time. The last movement, molto vivace, might have sounded a bit flippant, though it does no harm for the image of classical music to be subjected to allegations of non-seriousness – after all, Beethoven offered many such examples.

Brahms with (?)Haydn
Finally, we were back in the main-stream with Brahms. The origin of the tune is unimportant even though such musicological by-ways often interest people like me; however, the story is well-known. And it fitted with the concert’s theme. It might be Brahms’s first purely symphonic work apart from his two delightful serenades and the mighty first piano concerto; oddly, to my ears it lacks the interest of those earlier pieces. Regardless of the variety he brings to the theme-and–variations form, it doesn’t deviate from its B flat key, and even without perfect pitch, that becomes … well … monotonous. Nevertheless, I always found sufficient pleasure in its invention and rich orchestration, now with four horns, a contra-bassoon as well as the impact of Brahms’s genius to lift it above most of the symphonic music of the early 1870s (Bruckner, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák had hardly started). And the shortcomings of the tonality faded with the impact of the last, passacaglia-inspired variation that presages the marvellous finale of the fourth symphony.

However, under McKeich’s baton, the performance was thoroughly studied, the orchestra responsive and in top form. Their balances were rich and heart-easing, pacing, dynamics and rhythmic elasticity all warmly satisfying. As well as being a Bruckner passionné, I love Brahms too.



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