THe NZSO’s “Monumental” concert…..counting the ways

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

RICHARD STRAUSS – Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings TrV 290
Four Last Songs for soprano and orchestra TrV 296
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No. 5 in E Minor Op.62

Emma Pearson (soprano)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Hamish McKeich (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 9th October, 2020

As much as I’m not a great fan of the use of “catchwords” to describe the content of concerts, such as both the NZSO and the NZSQ have been using to characterise specific events over the past year, I must admit that occasionally the description “hits the spot”, as with the use of the word “Monumental” to describe the orchestra’s most recent concert in Wellington. Though a somewhat “loose” definition, and reining in three otherwise very different pieces of music on this occasion, there was definitely a “monumental” aspect to each of the works played – in fact, it was probably the only commonality the three works shared, certainly sufficient to “bond” our otherwise disparate listening experiences.

Each of the pieces enacted a kind of ritual of human universality, something profound and moving in every case – the tragedy of the opening piece, composer Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings, a lament for the destruction of aspects of his homeland’s culture and heritage through warfare, was as profound on both a public and private level as his final composition, “Four Last Songs”, a gorgeously valedictory paean to earthly fulfilment and resignation to the unknown mercies of death. And in the case of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, written in the throes of its composer’s somewhat congenital self-doubt, the music represented a large-scale, self-revelatory quest towards the distant light, the opening “darkness” of the motto theme which was to bear the brunt of the work’s remarkable journey as intense, terse and tightly-woven as anything its composer had previously written, and here confronted with remarkable directness and resolution which won through in the end.

First up was the wholly remarkable Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings, a veritable cri de coeur from the pen of Germany’s foremost composer of the age, Richard Strauss. For much of the first part of the twentieth century the darling of those wishing to uphold and glory in the idea of German pre-eminence in musical composition, Strauss’s fortunes under Hitler’s Third Reich seemed confirmed after the composer was made President of the Reichsmusikkammer, the State Music Bureau, in 1933. Disillusionment for the composer soon set in with the authorities’ disapproval of his collaboration with a Jewish writer as librettist for his newest opera, and of his refusal to enact discriminatory policies against Jewish musicians – he was forced to resign from his post, and his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren were threatened with incarceration, as were a number of his daughter-in-law’s relatives, many of whom were to be eventually exterminated.

In the informative programme note for the Metamorphosen, a 1945 diary entry by the composer was quoted, revealing Strauss’s long-term feelings towards the Nazi regime – “Twelve years of the rule of bestiality, ignorance and illiteracy under the greatest criminals”. But even more heartfelt was the anguish of the composer at one of the immediate legacies of Nazi rule, the destruction by Allied bombing of some of the most significant German opera houses and concert halls – Strauss is further quoted regarding a particular instance of this tragic loss, that of the Munich Court Theatre – “…..where Tristan and Die Meistersinger received their first performances…… (and) where my father sat at the first horn desk for forty-nine years – it was the greatest catastrophe of my life….”

The most tangible result of the composer’s grieving for the loss of German culture was his writing of Metamorphosen, a work that links to Bach in its contrapuntal mastery, and to Beethoven in its direct quotation of the latter’s Funeral March from the “Eroica” Symphony (in the score Strauss inserts the comment “In Memoriam!” next to this quotation). One commentator whose thoughts on these references I found described critical conjecture regarding their significance as “a can of worms”, leading to a comparison of Strauss’s murky early relationship with Hitler and the Nazis with Beethoven’s initial admiration for Napoleon, with both composers coming to express their disillusionment in musical terms. Others have pointed to Strauss’s copied references to a poem of Goethe’s in the former’s sketches for Metamorphosen, a poem that expresses the elusiveness of self-knowledge, a finding of “the true being within”, and one which perhaps found a sombre realisation in the music. The truth of it all remains a mystery.

I was shocked when checking previous Middle C reviews of the NZSO’s playing of this work to find that I’d last reviewed a performance no less than TEN (!) years ago, one conducted by the orchestra’s Music Director Pietari Inkinen. On that occasion I remembered the stunning “choreographic” effect of the performance highlighted by the musicians (apart from the cellists) standing up to play, the actual placement of the players underpinning the multi-strandedness of the work by ensuring their visibility. In other words it was a feast for the eye as well as for the ear to “watch” as well as “hear” the interactions of the separate lines, the group resembling a “monumental” piece of clockwork in irrevocable motion.

If the visual element was rather less-pronounced in this performance (the players more tightly-grouped around their conductor), the actual musical texture by way of what I remembered of the earlier performance seemed tighter, something probably accentuated by the players’ closer grouping. It should be mentioned that there aren’t twenty-three solo strings “going at it” for the whole time, nor are each of the strands entirely independent – the ninth and tenth violins, the fifth viola, the fifth ‘cello and all three double basses spend much of their time “doubling” with other instruments, in places to add volume to particular melodic phrases – but even so, the work is still a staggering contrapuntal achievement on the part of the composer, and a real test of an interpreter’s ability to make almost half-an-hour’s worth of luscious-sounding string-playing cohere with sufficient variety.

Here we were treated to gorgeously rapt opening sounds from the lower strings, the violas then introducing the oft-to-be-repeated fragment from the Eroica’s slow movement, and the violins joining in with the work’s gradual and dignified “terracing”, the full complement of players eventually engaged as the music intensified into a richly-upholstered sound-texture. As the work progressed, the mood seemed almost celebratory, the lines swaying and soaring as if in the grip of some kind of ecstatic memory – but Hamish McKeich’s direction allowed for plenty of ebb-and-flow of tone and texture with numerous solo and concerted detailings – a series of paired-note exhortations led to a full-blooded outburst, the playing florid and impassioned, when suddenly, the music plunged into minor-key darkness, long sostenuto lines, and with the “Eroica” quotation dominating the heartfelt and deeply-wrought a sense of desolation at the piece’s end.

One might have thought it was piling Pelion upon Ossa in programming the composer’s final composition Vier Letzte Lieder “Four Last Songs” immediately after the equally valedictory Metamorphosen – but though three of the four songs have death as their abiding theme, the music and texts display a calm, accepting, even welcoming character in response to the words’ “end-of-life” scenarios. Composed in 1948 at the age of 84, Strauss never intended these songs to be his “last” works (the title by which they’re known collectively today was bestowed on them by a publisher), though he was undoubtedly aware that his end was near – he had actually wanted to write five songs altogether, but only managed four, the first with words by Joseph von Eichendorff, Im Abendrot
(At Sunset), and the remainder with texts by Hermann Hesse. Together they make a near-perfect sequence, with the first-composed Im Abendrot placed last, as Strauss intended, though he left no instructions regarding the order of the others, which was chosen by the publisher also responsible for their collective title.

My previous encounter with the voice of Emma Pearson, the soprano soloist for these songs this evening, was the New Zealand Opera Company’s 2017 Carmen, in which she played a sweet-voiced, engaging Micaela – but even more memorable was her earlier (2012) astonishing portrayal of Gilda in the Company’s 2012 Rigoletto, which prompted me to comment at the time on her winning combination of “silvery tones, physical beauty and add-water vulnerability”. So I was looking forward to reacquainting myself with her voice and presence, and, happily, wasn’t disappointed.

After a properly dark and turbulent opening to the music, the singer’s opening phrases of the first song, Frühling, rose clearly and confidently aloft, easily penetrating the orchestral fabric and demonstrating a ready responsiveness to the musical ebb-and-flow with an ear-catching variation of tone – a voice which could both soar and float, expressing by turns the text’s exhilaration and tranquility at the onset of Spring. Some exquisite detailing by the orchestral winds marked the opening of the second song, September, with Pearson’s focused direct tones delineating the garden in mourning and the chill of the dying summer – her vocal control allowed her to “resonate” with the instrumental strands in places, and then transfix us with a phrase of great beauty. Singer and conductor shaped the song’s final paragraph, voice and instruments dovetailing sublimely to create at the end a kind of floating strand of sound taken up with lump-in-the-throat poignancy by Sam Jacobs’ noble horn tones.

Another dark beginning to a song came with the third Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep), one which gently roused itself to greet the singer’s entry, a perfect marriage of tones and impulses, Pearson’s voice sounding like a devout prayer with the phrase “Nun der Tag mich müd gemacht” (Now the day has wearied me) before gloriously conveying the “yearning” quality of the following “Soll mein sehnliches Verlangen” (Shall my ardent longing…), her attack on the high exposed notes of the purest quality. There were great exchanges between the singer and solo instrumental lines, including a sequence for solo violin which Vesa-Matti Leppanen delivered gloriously, and to which Pearson replied with almost Wagnerian sweep and grandeur at her re-entry, the music flowing unstoppably, with a gorgeous concluding vocal phrase, “TIef und tausendfach zu leben” (It may live deeply and a thousandfold), and a cherishable coda, horn, strings and wind distilling moments of rapt beauty.

After this, the final song Im Abendrot was a kind of release, a “letting go” (as suggested by the text, with its final line “Is this perhaps death?”), Pearson responding to the great orchestra outburst at the beginning, and to the horns’ brief but radiant salute with calm surety, her voice working with rather than against the orchestral tapestries in replicating the text’s description of a world going to sleep, the flutes’ song of the larks rising like fireflies from out of the darkness. From the rapture emerged the big vocal line at “So rief im Abendrot” (So profound in the Sunset), Pearson’s tones not as clean in the taking of the highest note as she might have liked, but still glorious, after which the solo horn gently underpinned the singer’s final, almost murmured words, leaving conductor and orchestra to suggest the light and spaces beyond the concluding birdsong and the fading light – a marvellous achievement!

As with all performances of a certain “quality”, having some time immediately afterwards to savour a particular listening experience is a joy in itself, which the interval at this concert duly provided. And then it was back to our seats afterwards for our third “monumental” journey of the evening, with both the terrain and the means of traversal fascinatingly different, the piece being the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, to my way of thinking the most “classical” of the Russian composer’s works in this genre while being imbued with just as much “Russian” spirit, colour and atmosphere as any. It was the first Tchaikovsky symphony I got to know, and I can still hear the “sidebreaks” in the 78rpm acetate discs recording I’d got from my grandmother’s “Vinnie’s” shop when a student!

Absolutely superb clarinet playing from Patrick Barry began the symphony with the “motto” theme that dominated the work, here keeping the phrases moving rather than dwelling on their brooding, intensely Russian character. A bassoon joined the clarinet as a kind of “middle voice”, creating an ear-catching flavour as the hushed, but sturdily-sprung march began, the winds “shading” rather than accenting their phrases in rising to the crescendo. The strings joined the march, energised by the rushing, gurgling wind-detailings, preparing for the brass entry, the sounds excitingly layered to cumulative effect. Hamish McKeich didn’t pull the contrasting string phrase around too much, letting it naturally expand at first, but giving it more emotional juice a bit later, the climax slightly anticipated, I thought, by the brass, but still nicely controlled, the horns surviving a “blip” with their very first of a set of fanfares, the music developing some exciting exchanges between sections, until the bassoon led the music’s way back to its recapitulation – some lovely augmented decoration of the theme by winds this time round!

Next, my favourite Tchaikovsky symphonic slow movement got a superb reading, begun in grand style with Sam Jacob’s playing of the opening horn theme, drawing the sounds, it seemed, from out of the air as the music proceeded, the oboe drawing away in a different direction with another theme, followed by the horn and supported by the other winds and the lower strings – out of this came the somewhat Elgarian THIRD melody from the strings, the “phrase-point” of the melody not QUITE achieved at its climax, but the intention was manifestly there! What a movement this is! – and was, here, with the winds instigating a FOURTH theme, supported by the strings and turned into a tremendous “statement of entry” for the motto theme from the work’s beginning! A few poised pizzicato steadyings, and the music set off , revisiting most of the material presented thus far and joining in with an even more impassioned repetition of the “Elgar-but-not-Elgar” theme (so very exciting and this time PROPERLY snow-capped when it eventually descended!!), and a sudden, dramatic return of the motto on vehement brasses and roaring timpani! Thank goodness for the music’s solicitous return to a more elegiac mood, beautifully finished by the clarinet.

Rather incongruously “salon-like” when it first began, the third-movement waltz’s whirling figurations generated ever-increasing clout as the music tirelessly spun its ensnaring lines around and about our sensibilities, the wind-playing an absolute joy to experience, and the strings tireless in their evocations of diaphanous enchantment. The finale, too, exerted its own rumbustious kind of ebb and flow, the motto theme opening rich and proud at first but soon finding itself under siege and taken on a whirlwind journey, brasses declaiming, timpani roaring and strings suddenly goaded into action! I wasn’t sure that the first of the two cataclysmic crescendi in the Allegro vivace hit the spot exactly, but the brass gave a good account of the motto theme amid the rest of the orchestra’s “Francesca da Rimini-like” agitations, and the  orchestral ferment held up brilliantly here until the Maestoso opening returned with its by-now triumphant theme, a whirlwind coda rounding off the jubilant mood. Bravo!

Footnote: Despite some almost Hanslick-like reactions from various contemporary commentators, the work was enthusiastically received in Europe, less so in America – in some ways we are in my opinion somewhat the poorer in our time through invoking blanket “politically correct” disapproval of any comment characterising any ethnic group as indulging in almost any sort of behaviour, as witness what the music correspondent for New York’s “Musical Courier” wrote in 1889 “……One vainly sought for coherency and homgeneousness…in the last movement the composer’s Calmuck blood got the better of him, and slaughter, dire and bloody, swept across the storm-drive score!” Sir Thomas Beecham might have exclaimed approvingly (as he did once, in an entirely different context) – “Gad! – what a critic!”



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *