Asher Fisch, Louis Lortie and the NZSO in splendid form with classical masterpieces

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Asher Fisch with Louis Lortie (piano)

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op 18
Strauss: Tod und Verklärung, Op 24
Wagner: Overture to Tannhäuser

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 6 September, 6:30 pm

Asher Fisch is taking this NZSO programme with pianist Louis Lortie on a four city tour. It’s his first visit to New Zealand, though I encountered him as conductor of the production of Wagner’s Ring cycle in Adelaide in 2004 (it was an Australian production, in some kind of reaction to the cycle borrowed from the Châtelet Theatre in Paris, six years before).

Rachmaninov’s Number Two
‘Rach 2’, along with the Tchaikovsky No 1, are probably the most popular of all piano concertos. The opening is magical: seeming to emerge from nowhere and by no means easy to invest with definable feelings; however, they got it absolutely right, with the slow emergence of the crescendo of rich, opulent sounds. Perhaps the piano was a bit recessed during the following violin-led passage, but the balance was recovered and Lortie’s command technically and interpretationally was immaculate.

I was seated centre stalls and was a little surprised how, in full-orchestra passages, individual instruments tended to be obscured, while those less densely orchestrated had impact and clarity. All the usual wind instrument strengths were there – particularly, a beautifully pure solo horn passage expressed peace after Rachmaninov’s long period of depression following the shameful performance of and reaction to his first symphony.

There was fitful applause at the end of the first movement which I charitably ascribed to a genuine feeling that it had been particularly moving.

The second movement offers lovely solo opportunities to flute, then clarinet, over calm rolling arpeggios from the piano. My pleasure increased here as I reflected on how long it had been since hearing a live performance of this richly romantic masterpiece. There are several near-solo, piano passages that serve as kinds of cadenzas with quite subtle music from individual instruments, till eventually an actual cadenza takes over, rather briefly, followed by a resumption by dreamy, legato strings. Again, Lortie’s performance was of the greatest subtlety, wonderfully in sympathy with the entire work.

The last movement, more rich in tumbling bravura, is also music of engrossing variety of emotion, pace, with a return in the first few minutes of a meditative beauty; and it resumed its basic character, maintaining a fast pace to the finish. Rachmaninov’s orchestration never drew attention to itself but it is a major element in the concerto’s greatness and that was thoroughly exploited in the subtlety of its performance, wrapping itself sensitively around the piano part.

Greatly loved, some might even call it hackneyed, it might be; but that in no way diminishes its reputation, and this evening’s performance confirmed its standing most convincingly.

It puzzled the audience at the end when Lortie manoeuvred himself back to the piano and another chair was brought out; and it dawned on us that Fisch himself was going to take part in an encore. I didn’t recognise the duet movement they played, though it was pretty clearly Mozart era though I didn’t think it was actually him. So I was surprised to learn that it was in fact Mozart: the second movement, Andante, from his Sonata in D for piano duet, K 381.

Tod und Verklärung
In the second half German classics held sway. Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung is among the composer’s earlier compositions and for many, his most moving (for me too). Written aged 24, immediately after Don Juan, it always feels like the music of a much older composer, long exposed to the pains of life and realities of death.

My last recollection of it by the NZSO is in 2010, under Alexander Shelley.

Immediately, it created a sombre mood of a unique character, opening without first violins, confining the orchestra to second violins, violas, cellos and bases, bassoons and timpani.  But soon its mood is modified as first violins enter as well harp and flute. The sudden outburst by timpani, trombones and tuba, announcing the struggle between life and death, was more stunning than I have ever heard before. It quickly subsides as the orchestra’s handling of the tortured mood and dynamic changes took charge, expansive, with a sort of profound grandeur. Bridget Douglas’s flute created a trembling agitation depicting one part of the battle.

Through the turmoil of near-death experiences, Fisch never allowed the tension and excitement to subside. Its singular beauties were constantly threatened but never overwhelmed by brass-led crescendo passages that depicted the dying man’s agonies, and his reflections on a heroic life, on love, on his pursuit of ideals. Interestingly, Strauss commented on the fact that while Don Juan started and ended in E minor, this work dwelling fundamentally on death starts in C minor and ends in C major, the most sanguine of keys.

There dwelt, throughout, a powerful, ecstatic feeling that one might consider the epitome of late Romantic sensibility. That is certainly the way I have always felt about it, since first hearing it in my 20s, and the many hearings since then have not altered my opinion or reduced the profound impact of the work. This performance confirmed again my love of its conception, enhanced strongly in this musical realisation from Asher and the NZSO.

Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture
It seemed slightly odd to end the concert with an overture, though I could tell, given the decision to perform these works, that arranging things in terms of length and in handling the piano in the easiest way, led to this sequence. Before the concert I had wondered whether scheduling it last might have encouraged the orchestra to follow the overture with the Venusberg music, the ballet music that Wagner had to write for its 1860 Paris Opera production, and which is often played immediately after the overture in concert. Given that the concert ended a quarter of an hour before usual, that would have been entirely possible.

Asher Fisch emphasised the pseudo-religious character of the music with the tune from the Pilgrims’ hymn, evoking sounds hinting at an organ in the apotheosis of a religious occasion.  But the equally important element in the overture is the Venusberg music, which is expanded in the ballet that became Act I, scene one in the Paris version, and Fisch drew from it all the wildness that is inherent in it, with as much as possible of the erotic freedom permitted in a respectable concert. The overture ended with a grand return to the pious strains of the Pilgrims chorus, leaving no doubt about the success of conductor and orchestra in handling this rather over-the-top music.

The performance of overtures, which used to be a standard way of opening concerts till a couple of decades ago, should be resurrected. This case, even though in an unorthodox position in the programme, at least offered an example of the sort of music to be found in scores of the once popular and well-known overtures that introduced and illuminated most concerts in the old days; and more importantly, are still an ideal way for young people to be won over to classical music.

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