Wellington Chamber Orchestra succeeds with Šinkovec Burstin in Grieg piano concerto, and other Nordic classics

Wellington Chamber Orchestra conducted by Samuel Burstin with Ana Šinkovec Burstin (piano)

Nielsen: Helios Overture, Op 17
Grieg: Piano concerto in A, Op 16
Sibelius: Symphony No 5 in E flat, Op 82

Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 8 December, 2:30 pm

In my review of Jian Liu’s performance two years ago of Grieg’s Piano Concerto I remarked that I was mystified that it continued to be considered a popular, even hackneyed work when, for many years, it’s been so little performed. That lovely performance with Jian Liu may have prompted the Wellington Chamber Orchestra to take a look at it. If so they served themselves and Edvard Grieg very well.

Nielsen’s Helios Overture is a relative rarity too, perhaps more understandably, though I remember the surprise I felt when I first hear it perhaps 30 years ago, that such an engaging and imaginative piece had eluded me so long. My last record of hearing it live was in 2007 from the NZSO.  I don’t think I’ve heard it from RNZ Concert for a long time and given the current limited range of music played, I don’t expect it.

There’s no problem with Sibelius of course, though it would be nice to hear the 4th or 6th instead of the ubiquitous 2 or 5 or perhaps 7.

The Helios Overture is a concert overture – not evidence of an unperformed opera. Helios was a small-time god in the ancient Greek cosmos. I was a minute late arriving and it had reached the beginning of the enchanting ‘dawn’ theme, first from strings, then woodwinds, depicting the sun rising over the Aegean (a bit difficult as Athens faces south-west across the Saronic Gulf; however, the sun rises from the sea in other parts of Attika peninsula). Nevertheless, Burstin was successful in drawing evocative sounds from the orchestra, the four horns acquitting themselves well, but no better than the perhaps less prominent playing from trumpets and trombones and the woodwinds. Nielsen didn’t seek to create a visual impression, and though I can’t say that I experienced anything approaching a Mediterranean sunrise, the nature of the themes and their orchestration certainly generated an emotional response that one might compare with looking out to sea from Cape Sounion; deeply nostalgic and enchanting – but then I’ve long been a lover of Nielsen, as well as Greece (how about Nielsen as featured composer for Orchestra Wellington in 2021; six symphonies and all?).

Grieg Piano Concerto 
This second hearing of the Grieg concerto in two years hasn’t dulled my affection for it. In spite of a somewhat too emphatic opening (which I should try to refrain from likening to the thunderous cataclysm of early that morning), it quickly settled into a well-balanced performance. The pianist, Ana Šinkovec Burstin, was born in Slovenia and is a recent arrival in New Zealand after a varied musical career in Europe and the United States in the past decade. Though there were moments in the first and last movements where I felt her playing was a little guileless, overall, and especially in the Adagio slow movement, she captured Grieg’s happy mingling of innocent charm and bravura, sensitively, exploiting that unexpected subsiding to silence in the middle of the Finale, creating as magical an effect as I’ve ever experienced. It highlighted the sudden revival of the music’s abandoned, folk-dance character through to the end, under the generally splendid partnership between piano and orchestra.

Sibelius 5 
The presence of the most popular of Sibelius’s symphonies was undoubtedly as good an explanation for the big audience as the concerto might have been. In the past the WCO’s percussion and brass have tended to sound unruly in the generous though recalcitrant acoustic of St Andrew’s; this time, perhaps my position at the back of the gallery calmed things. The result, in any case, was attractive. Though competing themes sometimes risk confusing harmonies, here was clarity, and carefully paced crescendi were always under control, producing the effect that the composer clearly sought. Strings whispered secretively with the support of bassoons, and rich brass choruses expanded to achieve impressive climaxes; flutes and oboes varied the colours nicely.  The first movement ends with an exciting crescendo which the orchestra managed rather splendidly (according to what I scribbled in my note-book).

The Andante Mosso (second movement) uses a lot of pizzicato strings and the playing was fine. Against underlying support of a lovely wind chorale, strings handled the very typically Sibelius episode of throbbing strings carefully, even movingly.

After the peaceful, pastoral Andante the finale opened with lively throbbing strings, and undulating horns created a near-professional impression. The movement is enriched with a deeply moving melody that arrives later, created mainly by horns. The orchestral sound was fairly dense, moving between hushed passages; then slowly evolving crescendi led by flutes and clarinet and eventually, quite elegant brass harmonies.

By the end, there was a very satisfying feeling of a convincing interpretation through a carefully studied pulse that had evolved through the repetition of the almost hypnotic theme, till those last widely spaced chords that always come as a slight surprise.

This was a particularly successful and enjoyable concert, with some of the most beautiful classics from three Nordic countries; perhaps a tribute in particular to conductor Burstin, it has consolidated my respect for the orchestra.

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