Simon O’Neill generates plenty of “Spirit” in NZSO Podium Series Concert

NZSO Podium Series
SPIRIT – with Simon O’Neill

Simon O’Neill (tenor)
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Berlioz – Overture “Le Corsaire” Op.21

Mahler – Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen

R.Strauss – Lieder – Allerseelen Op.10, No. 8 (orch. Heger) / Ruhe, mein Seele, Op. 27 No. 1 (orch. R.Strauss) / Cäcillie, Op 27 No. 2 (orch. R.Strauss) / Heimliche Aufforderung, Op. 27 No. 3 (orch. Heger) / Morgen, Op 27 No. 4 (orch. R.Strauss) / Zueignung, Op. 10 No. 1 (orch. Heger)

Prokofiev Symphony No. 5 in B flat Major, Op. 100

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday 6 August

Hurrah for the NZSO, one of the very few orchestras anywhere in the world able to give live concerts. The large audience showed its appreciation. For reasons not clear to this writer, the concert was labelled “Spirit” though there was nothing particularly spiritual about the programme.

There was no narrative theme to the programme, but this didn’t matter. Many in the audience came especially to hear the renowned New Zealand heldentenor, Simon O’Neill, star of the greatest opera houses and concert halls of the world. They were not disappointed. He presented an uncompromisingly challenging fare, Mahler’s song cycle, Songs of a Wayfarer, and a selection of six songs by Richard Strauss from his Opus 10 and Op. 27 series, composed ten years apart, between 1884 and 1894. These were orchestrated later by Richard Strauss himself and by the German conductor and composer, Robert Heger.

On the face of it, there was much in common to these selections of songs by Mahler and Strauss. They were all composed in broadly the same period, they could all be described as late romantic works, yet they reflect the different personalities of the composers, Mahler deeply introspective, Strauss detached, the thorough professional, focused on his craft. Mahler wrote these songs when he was only 24, getting over a disappointing love affair. The songs, words by the composer, trace the journey of a distraught young man from desperation to acceptance: “I weep, weep! For my love” and “I think of my sorrow” in the first song, but by the second song it is “Good day! Good day! Isn’t it a lovely world?” The words are set to a joyful theme that Mahler used later in his First Symphony. In the third song he has a vision of his lost love, but the final song is about acceptance: “Love and sorrow, and world and dream”.

Simon O’Neill sang these with feeling and empathy, reflected in his powerful yet controlled voice and in his clear diction. His singing touched all by its emotional intensity The orchestra supported him with beautiful responses and echoes to the vocal line, which involved notably fine solo instrumental playing.

The six Richard Strauss songs were originally written for voice and piano and were later arranged for voice and orchestra. The songs are set to poems written by now largely forgotten poets. Strauss wrote the four songs from Op. 27 as a wedding present for his wife, soprano, Pauline de Ahna. These were bracketed by two from the earlier Op. 10. Significantly Strauss added the orchestral accompaniment to the song, Ruhe, meine Seele (Rest thee, my Soul), many years after the song was composed, in 1948, just before his death at the age of 85. The words “Rest thee, rest thee troubled spirit and forget all, thy sufferings will soon be over” had a special meaning in the years after the war. The orchestral accompaniment to these songs added a striking colour, with a fine violin solo in the penultimate song, Morgen, beautifully played by Vesa-Matti Leppänen . This was a memorable performance that will stay in the memories of all who were there to hear it.

The major symphonic work on the programme was Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. It was written in 1944, by which time the war was turning in the Allies’ favour. It is a work written for a very large orchestra. There were 94 players on stage. It is full of rich melodies and strong Prokofiev rhythms. It is a long 46 minute colourful work. Prokofiev claimed to have conceived it as a symphony on the greatness of the human soul. This might have satisfied Stalin and his cultural henchmen at the time, but there is a sense of cynicism behind the lovely melodies and exaggerated bombast. It is a challenging work for the orchestra and without any question, the orchestra coped well with the difficult passages, with some outstanding solos and great brass chorales. A wide range of instruments were at work, including something of a solo passage for the wood block. It would be ungenerous not to acknowledge that the work was thoroughly well prepared and performed with dedication. Yet there was something missing, the passion, the warmth of the melodies, the striking contrasts. It was a deliberately careful, but understated performance.

The concert opened with the vigorous start of Berlioz’s Le Corsaire Overture,  followed by a rich extended melody, then more tempestuous music. The contrasting passages represented the adventurous life of a pirate at sea. The title was a clear reference to Lord Byron’s poem of that name. It is attractive programme music which gave an opportunity to every section of the orchestra to shine, with busy strings and great brass chords. The music embodies the emotional extremes of Romantic music, adventure, pirates, tender nature and love. It was cheerful music, and a contrast to the melancholic mood of the Mahler songs, but it foreshadowed the rousing energy of the Prokofiev Symphony of the second half of the concert. It was an appropriate introduction to a varied evening of music that followed.

This was a great concert with which to open a shortened concert season. It was recorded and is available on YouTube and will go on tour of to many of the main and provincial centres, so that people can access it anywhere in the country.










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