Edo de Waart’s NZSO subscription concert full of charm and affection with Brahms, Elgar and Strauss

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Edo de Waart with Joyce Yang (piano)

Brahms: Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor, Op 15
Strauss: Serenade for Wind Instruments in E flat, Op 7
Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme, Op 36 (‘Enigma Variations’)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 13 April, 7:30 pm 

Two professional orchestral concerts on successive days looks more like the style of a significant European city, but here it was the chance to display one of the few remaining signs that Wellington is, or rather, used to be, the country’s cultural capital, a title that has really belonged to Auckland for the past 20 years or so.

Orchestra Wellington celebrated the sesquicentenary (150 years) of Berlioz’s death by programming not just the Symphonie fantastique but also its almost never heard sequel, Lélio: le retour à la vie, mélologue en six parties. Probably the most exciting live performance of the former that I’ve ever heard. In certain respects it outshone the Saturday evening concert by the NZSO; though in part that’s a certain Berliozian fanaticism with which I’m afflicted. .

Nevertheless, to hear such a beautiful performance of Brahms’s first piano concerto made this a richly satisfying event.

Brahms’s Opus 15
The programme note had drawn attention to the relative failure of its first performances, when he was 25, in Hanover on 22 January 1859 and in Leipzig five days later, again with Brahms at the piano when it was again hissed. However, it was performed for a third time in March that year by the Hamburg Philharmonic and was acclaimed: perhaps being Brahms’s birthplace helped there.

Though it is not remarkably different from Brahms’ other works, it can certainly be heard as something new in comparison with the piano concertos till that time. *

This was no barn-storming performance of Brahms; in fact, my early feeling was that, apart from the initial assertiveness, there was a gentle, careful atmosphere both from piano and orchestra. The extended piano passages were poetic and meditative rather than flamboyant which linked it perhaps with Schumann rather than the more flashy compositions by the school of virtuosos who were dominating the piano scene around mid-century. However, it did occur to me that the calmness could have been darkened with a little more uneasiness. The element of unease was left mainly to Larry Reese’s singularly emphatic timpani, vividly supported by other percussionists Sakofsky, Guldborg and McKinnon.

The orchestra has a role equal to that of the piano and the two partners remained faithful to Brahms’s intentions. The orchestral playing was exquisite: lovely warm episodes from cellos, Robert Orr’s specially beautiful oboe playing.

It was probably the unusually discreet and subtle slow movement that might have mystified mid-century audiences: no readily memorable tunes perhaps, yet a great deal of delicate, moving music, with long passages where the piano was accompanied by very slender but exquisite orchestral sounds.

The third movement is enriched with enjoyable fugal (canonic?) passages though within a fairly formal Rondo framework. Its performance had piquant charm, yet remaining largely in the minor key, and both piano and orchestra refrained from much that could be called theatrical or dramatic, but which was wholly engaging through scraps of playful wind music. One of the features that puts it in the class of great classical masterpieces is the taste that avoids an excessively protracted Finale peroration. Right to the end, both conductor and pianist displayed their perfect response to the essentially unostentatious character of Brahms’s music.

Strauss’s Serenade
Apart from chronological connection, there was little kinship between the two pieces in the second half: not much more than having been born about seven years apart. Strauss’s youthful Serenade might have been modelled, instrumentally, on Mozart’s wonderful Serenade for 13 wind instruments (one of which is of course, a double bass – I suppose he could have used a contra-bassoon). But it’s a rather slighter piece, nowhere near the length of Mozart’s, yet quite delightful. The real treat was to have a small group of orchestral players in isolation, producing sounds that were perfectly integrated and homogeneous: the sort of sound that one hears only from recordings by the half dozen finest orchestras in the world.

Next: how about programming the Mozart exemplar, K 361, and soon? and yes, I know it’s 50 minutes long. And while we’re in that environment, I love both the Haffner and Posthorn serenades.

The Enigma Variations are among the most played of orchestral works, especially, I imagine, in English-speaking countries. The NZSO has played it well over 100 times in its career; and in Wellington about 15 times since I’ve been reviewing music (since 1987). And while beforehand, Imight have allowed myself to think enough is enough, the reality usually overcomes such churlishness. It did this time.

These were enthusiastically and vividly etched portraits that held the attention, to some extent through Elgar’s arranging them as one might a more structurally formal composition with varying moods, speeds, musical styles complementing and supporting each other. As often with a timpanist of Larry Rees’s flair, his offerings were often very, err… striking. But most instruments had their moments in the spotlight: my notes remarked on flutes, clarinet… Strange recollections from school crop up: the music master at Wellington College telling us that Elgar was one of the greatest orchestrators; and it was hard to dispute that right from the loving first variation describing his wife, the interplay of strings and winds in II, and the bassoons in III, and so on.

And then the link with Matthew Arnold, through his son Richard, (No V). My affection for prophetic poems like Dover Beach, and this:
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,”

The familiar Nimrod emerged clothed with special affection. And I’m always intrigued by No XIII, identified with asterisks and the title ‘Romanza’, with its possible association with a lady to whom Elgar was engaged till she emigrated to New Zealand, Helen Weaver. It got a lovely gentle performance.

Elgar clearly had a gift for friendship. And the sort of self-revelation which is often implicit in other composers’ works, become more explicit with this. Edo de Waart clearly has an attachment to the composer. I await his performance of Elgar’s second symphony.

Meantime, this might have been an unusual mix of music but it was entirely successful on the night.


*The best known of recently composed concertos, in the late 1850s, would have been those of Beethoven Mendelssohn, Schumann, and minor composers like Hummel, Hiller, Ries, perhaps Kalkbrenner, Litolff, Moscheles, Anton Rubinstein. The 1850s and 60s were not a fruitful period for orchestral music.

Liszt’s two were premiered in 1855 and 1857 in Weimar and may have been known beyond Weimar, though perhaps not by the average concert-goer. So apart from Liszt’s, Brahms’s No 1 was the only important piano concerto between Schumann’s in 1845 and Saint-Saëns’s second in 1868 and Grieg’s in 1869.

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