A beautiful concert of Romantic symphonic music from the NZSO under Thomas Søndergård

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Søndergård
Denis Kozhukhin (piano)

Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, Op. 62
Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54
Sibelius: Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104
Sibelius: Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 18 May, 2019, 7:30 pm

This concert had no challenging contemporary works, no surprises. It was romantic music, all within the bounds of the traditional, standard symphonic repertoire, but it was all beautiful music. The programme spanned 127 years of musical development from Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture of 1807 to Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony of 1924. Over that period the world changed and this was reflected in the music. The individual responsibility, accountability, sensibility and the individual’s role in nationhood became the focus of the European cultural landscape.

Coriolan, the classical hero, or perhaps anti-hero was the subject of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture. It was inspired by Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s 1804 play. Coriolan is an ambitious and arrogant character who turns against his own people, but succumbs to his mother’s pleading not to destroy Rome. He cannot, however, reverse the onslaught he started and kills himself (unlike in Shakespeare’s version, in which he is murdered). The music depicts the drama, the conflict between war and compassion and ends with the fading chords of Coriolan’s slow death. The contrasts in the music, the sense of drama were beautifully, clearly articulated.

A generation later the cult of the individual as hero, something started with the adulation of Beethoven, was dominant. The virtuoso gained ascendancy in the concert halls. Schumann’s Piano Concerto was, in its time, a significant departure from earlier concertos. Schumann wrote in 1839 that:
“Modern pianistic art wants to challenge the symphony [orchestra], and rule supreme through its own resources; this may account for the recent dearth of piano concertos.”

After composing a large number of works for solo piano, he took up the challenge to write a concerto, but having lamented the state of piano concertos, it took him six years before he completed this concerto and was satisfied with it. He saw in the work the reflection of two opposing impulses in himself, the boisterous, impetuous and passionate on the one hand, and the dreamy, gentle and poetic on the other. There is a lovely interplay between the orchestra and the soloist, starting with the beautiful oboe solo enunciating the theme and the piano’s reply. Kozhukhin responded to the orchestra with great sensitivity and mastery, taking up the theme but also enhancing it. His playing was magical, drawing the listener in, with every phrase, every note full of meaning. It was a sensational performance. Kozhukhin rewarded the enthusiastic applause of the audience with an encore, playing Grieg’s To Spring, from his Lyric Suite (Op 43 No 6).

By the time of Sibelius the dominance of the grand romantic symphony was drawing to a close. Playing two Sibelius Symphonies written after each other was interesting programming, and hearing No. 6, followed by No. 7 shed new light on both of these works. No. 6 starts with a sombre opening,  followed by playful passages. There is darkness and light. Unlike in some of Sibelius’s other orchestral works, the themes are fragmented, there are no overarching melodies. The folksy tunes are overlaid on top of each other and interrupted. There are abrupt transitions. This is the most difficult and least often played of Sibelius’s symphonies, yet listening to it one can appreciate its beautiful if personal qualities.

The Seventh on the other hand is dramatic, starting with mournful chords that seem to mark the end of an era. The traditional musical forms, tonality, structure, were all falling apart. Sibelius was familiar with the new trends but did not adopt them. He was always a loner, a composer with a unique voice, his own sound and view of music. In this symphony he abandoned the usual four movement structure. Instead he created a work made up of multiple sections distinguished by frequent changes of tempo, which cohere into a seamless whole. The symphony was in gestation for many years. In the end Sibelius seemed to have considered that he had nothing further to add. At the time when serious classical music was dominated by the music of Schoenberg and his followers, by the barbarism based on folk idioms of Bartók,  by the harsh brutal dissonance of Stravinsky, Sibelius wrote a grand romantic symphony that wallowed in rich sounds. This was his final major work, and it has the stamp of finality about it.

Playing the two symphonies one after the other worked well. It provided an enriched insight into Sibelius’s world. This was a great concert. The orchestra under Thomas Søndergård played with lovely sonority and attention to subtle details. It was, however, Denis Kozhukhin’s wonderful playing that made the concert memorable.


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