Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Brahms’ Schicksalslied gives its name to a programme of uplifting music from the NZSO

By , 25/11/2021

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
SONG OF DESTINY

VERDI – Overture Nabucco
BRAHMS – Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) Op.54
DVORAK – Symphony No. 8 in G Major Op.88

James Judd (conductor)
Voices New Zealand Choir
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday, 25th November, 2021

Welcome back! We have been starved of orchestral concerts for the last three months. It was a delight to have a full symphony orchestra on the stage, albeit with the players discreetly separated. A very special welcome back was due to James Judd, who was principal conductor of the NZSO for some eight years, and who has been closely associated with the orchestra ever since. And a great thank you was due to the management of the orchestra who organised this series of four concerts for limited audiences in the midst of the Covid epidemic, over four days, and in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

The orchestra and Voices New Zealand were scheduled to perform Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, a colossal, taxing work, but under the circumstances, everyone had to settle for a programme featuring a more seldom-heard work, Brahms’ Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), as part of a line-up of uplifting music, starting with Verdi’s Overture Nabucco, and ending with Dvorak’s joyous Symphony No. 8.

Verdi – Overture Nabucco
Verdi’s Nabucco was his first major operatic success. Its simple, singable melodies are immediately captivating. The overture uses themes from arias and choruses from the opera, and it is hard to resist the temptation to sing along with them! Nabucco, by Temistocle Solera, which La Scala impresario  Bartolomeo Merelli gave to Verdi to read, was probably not much of a play (and historically inaccurate to boot), but the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” is memorable, and was used separately on many occasions, including at Verdi’s own funeral. James Judd and the orchestra gave the Overture an energetic yet lyrical reading, notable for the beautiful brass ensemble, and the strong rhythmic drive of the strings.

Brahms – Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) Op.54
Brahms’ Schicksalslied is overshadowed in the repertoire by his longer vocal works of the period, the Alto Rhapsody and the German Requiem. Schicksalslied is a shorter work, but it is of equal note. It is a setting by the poet Friedrich Hölderin, a friend and contemporary of Goethe and Schiller, It is a poem that Brahms found particularly meaningful.

The work begins with an ethereal orchestral passage, then joined by the choir, first by the sopranos, then by the rest of the voices. The music is deeply rooted in the Lutheran tradition, influenced by Bach Chorales that Brahms had studied. The music is typically Brahms, self-effacing, and with no scintillating passages. The melodies grow organically from the rich harmonic groundwork. The first part of the work reflects Hölderin’s words:  “Joyful their soul / And their heavenly vision” – but this is followed by a tempestuous section: “To us is allotted / No restful haven to find; / They falter, they perish / Poor suffering mortals….”

Brahms, however, didn’t want to end the work on a tragic and depressing note, and repeated the opening section in a different key, while still keeping its tranquil mood, It was wonderful to hear this profound and seldom-performed work sung by an outstanding choir, New Zealand Voices.

Dvorák – Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88
Dvorák wanted this symphony to be “different from all the other symphonies, with individual thoughts worked out in a new way”. The Eighth Symphony is cheerful and lyrical, and draws its inspiration more from the Bohemian folk music that Dvorák loved – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._8_(Dvo%C5%99%C3%A1k)  It is an endearing work full of joyful melodies, and the orchestra entered into the joyous spirit of the work. There was a lot of scope for the various sections of the orchestra to shine – the flutes and clarinets in the charming Adagio, the strings in the graceful Allegretto gracioso third movement. The performance highlighted the outstanding qualities of the orchestra, whose individual members seemed to play with freedom and abandon, the conductor himself appearing to float and dance with the music.

This seemed to be a reflection of the bond between James Judd and his musicians, a bond of mutual respect – Judd complimented the orchestra,  and also the audience for being there, encouraging people to applaud between movements if they saw fit – and so they did! Though audience numbers were limited to 400, and people were scattered far and distant throughout the auditorium, those present made a lot of noise showing their appreciation.

The audience was rewarded at the end with an enthusiastic rendering of Dvorák’s Slavonic Dance No.1 Op.46. The small number of people in the hall were sufficient to enhance the reverberating acoustics of the Michael Fowler Centre, which brought out the special qualities of the ensemble. In brief, a superb concert, leaving people who were there in a happy mood!

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