“Emperor of Composers” – an eponymous Piano Concerto and a lovely Symphony, “live” from the NZSO

BEETHOVEN – Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor”
–  Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral”
Diedre Irons (piano)
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Wednesday, 8th July 2020

Following its hugely successful inaugural post-lockdown concert Ngū Kīoro… Harikoa Ake (Celebrating Togetherness), the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra has refocused its concert activities on rather more conventional repertoire with this all-Beethoven presentation, a sure-fire audience drawcard which certainly worked its magic in that respect, the result being a sold-out Michael Fowler Centre for the concert. An additional attraction was the presence of Diedre Irons, one of the country’s finest pianists, as the soloist. Most enterprisingly, the orchestra made arrangements for the concert to be streamed “live” on both radio (RNZ Concert) and on “Facebook” by RNZ Concert’s recording team and camera operators. My experience of hearing previous concerts I’d attended in the Michael Fowler Centre via recordings by RNZ Concert had already disposed me positively towards the results achieved by the latter, often securing a finer, better-balanced sound than I’d had when attending the actual concert – so people who had recourse to viewing and/or listening to the broadcasts were, in my opinion assured of an excellent musical experience sound-wise!

In addition, the “live-stream” audience was advantaged by an informative commentary from the Concert FM announcer, as opposed to the complete lack of documentation available in either written or spoken form for the concert-hall audience – I was surprised no programme was printed for distribution, the ticket-holders having been “informed” that “a printable programme was available on-line”. To my way of thinking, this situation was a poor advertisement for the orchestra and especially when one of the items performed, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, had a definite and informative “programmatic” aspect which, had it been printed and distributed, would have helped people new to concerts to enjoy the experience more deeply (the usually-eschewed audience-clapping between movements which took place on this occasion suggested that there were a number of people present unfamiliar with the music and with concert-hall conventions.

Nevertheless, the crowd was a cheery one, and the buzz of excitement beforehand was palpable, no doubt partly a reflection of people’s delight at having a real, “live” concert to attend once more, and partly a response to the programme’s undoubted appeal – it was something that altogether seemed to reflect and revitalise the world of live music-making as it existed before the pandemic’s ravages. What better composer than Beethoven could be chosen to reflect in his music this “revitalisation”? Of course, with so many great works to choose from, the concert organiser could hardly go wrong – easier, though to choose the “Emperor” Piano Concerto as the stand-out work among Beethoven’s compositions in that genre than to suggest a Symphony, where there are so many equally great ones! As it turned out, the “Pastoral” was an inspired choice – though what more arresting way might there be to begin a concert than with a piano concerto whose “title” is “The Emperor”?

True to its nickname, the work was here grandly begun, with each of the three opening orchestral chords bedecked by answering solo flourishes from the pianist, Diedre Irons, resonating from these arresting gestures in differing ways and setting the tone for an intriguing interplay of interpretative energies from orchestra and piano throughout the movement. Conductor Hamish McKeich and the orchestra then set off as they meant to go on, gathering the music’s detail up and into a trajectory of sure-footed, finely-graded purpose, each statement beautifully “terraced’, flowing from one another with its own character shining forth (some wonderful horn-playing) but keeping both ebb and flow subject to the overall rhythm’s driving energies. Irons’ piano-playing was straightaway more expansive in reply, savouring her phrases with characteristic point and focus, but opening up the poetic vistas and ensuring that every note, it seemed, was given its proper weight, reaffirming its place in the scheme of things.  This slight duality of purpose between orchestra and piano was evident with every orchestral tutti,  McKeich and his players pushing the basic pulse ahead by a notch or two, followed by Irons’ slight expansion of those same pulses as if responding to the beat of a slightly different drum. One couldn’t fault Irons’ eloquence in what she did, though in one or two places I thought the left-hand passagework seemed slightly too emphatic at the expense of forward movement. Still, the music’s line was always engagingly maintained on both “sides”, nowhere more so than in the exchanges leading up to the recapitulation of the work’s opening, begun with orchestra and piano hammering chords at one another at point-blank range with great gusto!

Conductor and players got a lovely “colour” at the slow movement’s beginning, capped off beautifully by the flute’s  voice joining the strings. The piano’s entry instantly enchanted, with the winds seeming almost loath to properly dove-tail their utterances with the soloist’s opening phrases for fear of breaking the spell, but unhesitatingly joining in later, horns contributing a kind of “dreamy fanfare” carried on by the winds over the pianist’s poetic musings. Later, flute, clarinet and bassoon exquisitely took up the music’s lines with the piano in tow, right to the movement’s precipitous edge, with the sounds teetering on the points of the music’s far-flung pre-echoes, and “the horns of elfland” softly beckoning, the piano then plunging into that exhilarating hurly-burly of the finale’s beginning, daring the orchestra to do likewise! Again, Irons’ manner was grand and expansive, obviously the fruit of her deep love of and familiarity with the music, a warm and rich response to Beethovenian energies, as much glowing and retrospective a viewpoint as immediate and spontaneously-wrought. McKeich and his players matched her every impulse, gesture and outpouring with sounds that rounded off the colour, variety and wholeheartedness of the music and its performance.

The concert’s second half wrought for us a different kind of sublimity, perhaps a more solitary and personal outpouring of emotion on the part of the composer, in the form of the “Pastoral” Symphony, written  a year or so before the “Emperor” Concerto. Famously described by Beethoven as “more an expression of feeling than painting” the work nevertheless has enough pictorial elements to constitute a seriously-regarded “programmatic work”, the three middle movements in particular depicting specifically-described natural and human-generated phenomena, such as a brook’s rippling water, various bird calls, a village band, and a violent thunderstorm.

I so relished the first movement’s performance, here – I thought McKeich and his players straightaway caught that “first, fine careless rapture” of experiencing nature at first hand, a true “awakening of pleasant feelings” as described by the composer. I loved how the playing suggested the rusticity of the sounds, through the ever-so-slight “chunkiness” of the rhythms, avoiding any sense of glibness or picture-postcarding. The famous “walking rhythms” of the first movements development section were deliciously realised, the crescendo in each case having a “glowing” quality, a true “expression of feeling” which overwhelmingly suffused the senses. All the instruments involved covered themselves with glory, here, with the rhythmic gait of the strings, the singing quality of the winds and the sonorous glow of the brass producing a memorable evocation of contentment.

For me the “Scene by the Brook” wasn’t quite so effusive at first, the string figurations not given the “room” for the stream waters to gurgle and babble as I would have liked – but the winds were, by way of compensation, encouraged by McKeich to play out and generate a scenario of exquisite beauty, with beautiful exchanges of timbre and colour among the various instruments. The conductor’s encouragement of whispered tones from the strings throughout placed the emphasis on the winds and created something of a Beethovenian “chaos of delight” through the birdsong – and the nightingale, quail and cuckoo imitations at the movement’s end were sublime!

The scherzo, styled by the composer as “Peasants’ Merrymaking”, involved me the least of all the movements, save for the wind-playing – oboe, clarinet and horn played their parts to perfection as “not very confident” village musicians doing their best! Despite the efforts of the players I thought McKeich’s tempi here produced a somewhat bland effect, not rumbustious and “hearty” enough at the beginning, and with too extreme a tempo change for the more vigorous sections, certainly one beyond the capabilities of a rustic village band! The storm, however, was sensational, with the timpanist using hard sticks (and possibly “authentic” drums – what articulate skins!), all of which imparted real menace to the thunderclaps, augmented by the screaming winds and baleful brass – a terrific onslaught!

Came the finale, introduced by gorgeous wind and horn solos, and sublimity returned, the balances beautifully judged, the tempo allowing a radiance sufficient room to flourish and suffuse the ambiences, and the playing filling out the ample spaces with a heartwarming generosity. I liked, as with the first movement, how McKeich again got a certain chunkiness of articulation in places, maintaining a rustic kind of feeling and entirely avoiding any slickness or unwanted glossiness to the end result – the work’s rapt conclusion rounded off a singular and rewarding concert experience.





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