Monumental NZSO concert of Russian masterpieces with cellist Johannes Moser

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian with Johannes Moser – cello

Borodin: Overture: Prince Igor
Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No 1 in E flat
Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, selections from the ballet

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 13 October, 7:30 pm

Plus a review of Johannes Moser’s solo cello recital
Bach: Cello Suites Nos 1 in G, 4 in E flat and 3 in C
St Andrew’s on The Terrace
Sunday 14 October, 3 pm 

The NZSO concert Saturday 13 October

This Russian programme might have been expected to be a winner, but it wasn’t, in terms of audience size.

However, in terms of musical quality and sheer excitement, it was a tremendous success. It’s a surprise to me that Shostakovich’s 1st cello concerto didn’t fill every seat; does that suggest that our musical horizons are getting narrower every year? For it’s a truly stupendous work, and we heard one of today’s most brilliant cellists sitting at the front of the stage.

Secondly, does a crowd smaller than is expected suggest that the general run of classical music lovers doesn’t hear properly some of the greatest ballet music ever written; that there’s a huge gulf in taste and intellectual curiosity between ballet groupies and Beethoven groupies?

Even the opening overture should be better known and more sought after than evidently it is.

Borodin’s Prince Igor Overture
My first encounter with it, on the radio many years ago, was associated with the then popular story that Borodin had not written the overture down, but that Glazunov had heard him play it on the piano, and with his phenomenal memory, went home and scored it completely. Roughly true but both Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov left written accounts. Rimsky wrote: “…Glazunov and I settled the matter as follows between us: he was to fill in all the gaps in Act III and write down from memory the Overture played so often by the composer…”

Glazunov’s own account is this:
The overture was composed by me roughly according to Borodin’s plan. I took the themes from the corresponding numbers of the opera and was fortunate enough to find the canonic ending of the second subject among the composer’s sketches. I slightly altered the fanfares for the overture … The bass progression in the middle I found noted down on a scrap of paper, and the combination of the two themes (Igor’s aria and a phrase from the trio) was also discovered among the composer’s papers. A few bars at the very end were composed by me.”  

These quotes are from the splendid Wikipedia article on the opera which is fascinating, evidently authoritative and very much worth reading.

Productions are rare in the west, and I was lucky enough to catch it conducted by Mark Ermler in the Olympiahalle in Munich in 1989. A film from the Metropolitan Opera was screened here a couple of years ago.

Borodin’s great historical opera may be heavy-going for some, but it’s got a lot of hit tunes and the Overture contains some of them. It opens calmly, remotely, but in a couple of minutes conductor Peter Oundjian had successfully anticipated the opera’s epic grandeur with fierce brass heroics on top of general orchestral energy. What a splendid introduction to the later direction of Russian music, parallel with Tchaikovsky and Rimsky, but on through Rachmaninov, Glazunov, Medtner, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Kabalevsky, Schnittke, Weinberg (?)…

Shostakovich Cello Concerto – Johannes Moser
This was Johannes Moser’s second visit to New Zealand. In 2016 he played Lalo’s cello concerto, impressing, but it’s not a work on which super-star reputations are often built. However, he could not have made a more astonishing impact than in his performance of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. It was written in 1959 a few years after Stalin’s death, for Rostropovich who famously committed it to memory in four days, and played it with the Leningrad Philharmonic under Mravinsky the same year.

Even more memorably (for us), Rostropovich played it with the NZSO under Maxim Shostakovich in one of the orchestra’s most famous events, in the 1988 International Arts Festival in Wellington (an era when we had truly great international festivals). I will never forget sitting side-on in the MFC gallery, hearing and watching that monumental performance.

Now this weekend’s performance was on a par, from a cellist who had likewise utterly absorbed the work. He played with a ferocity that was chilling, often producing a sort of vibration (different from vibrato) that created all the emotional power that a full orchestra might have supplied; for the work is scored only for strings orchestra and modest pairs of woodwinds (though they are not merely decorative in their contributions), timpani, celeste… and one horn (Samuel Jacobs) whose role was pivotal, somehow providing all the chilling, suspenseful, intense atmosphere that made more elaborate orchestration superfluous.

The cello dominates the first movement, but there are fleeting, less troubled, almost lyrical and rhapsodic passages in the second movement, plenty of scope to hear the orchestra’s dramatic strength under Oundjian’s highly expressive leadership. The four movements are played without break, so the extended and often magically beautiful cadenza which slowly takes shape at the end of the second actually comprises the third movement.

The last movement returns to the troubled spirit of the first, involves the cello in impressive passages combining bowing while plucking strings with the left hand. The work ends with repeated assertions of both the composer’s self-awareness and the emotional value of the signature DSCH (his name abbreviated in German musical notation) as an enigmatic motif. Just in case we were to forget who the composer was: but neither this performance, nor the work itself will ever make that likely.

A charming encore by John Williams was something of an antidote, perhaps a bit long considering the environment.

Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet 
The second half was taken with a memorable performance of about half of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet music – about an hour. The programme book did not attempt to list the numbers included: most were familiar from the three orchestral suites that Prokofiev himself put together, but there were certain episodes not so familiar. Again, perhaps there was a bit much; without the important accompaniment of the staged ballet, the music itself, even in all its variety, dramatic strength, visual evocativeness and its ability to conjure one’s recollections of the ballet itself, doesn’t quite hold a concert audience as does a Mahler or Bruckner symphony of similar length.

Nevertheless, this was a performance that should have reinforced the belief that we have here an orchestra of real international distinction, able to capture a huge range of musical colours and narrative characteristics. A score like Prokofiev’s, though not demanding all the peripheral instrumental forces that some Strauss or Mahler scores do, make prolonged demands on everything from heroic virtuosity to chamber music subtlety and refinement with equal conviction.

So at its end, apart from delight at having lived through the previous two and a quarter hours, I remained all the more disturbed that an obviously remarkable concert had not pulled a full house.


Solo recital by Johannes Moser
St Andrew’s on The Terrace
Sunday 15 October, 3 pm

The added attraction of a solo recital by the soloist was advertised for the following afternoon. It’s a practice that the orchestra should adopt routinely with its soloists who could often serve to attract people to kinds of music – chamber music or song – that might normally be outside their main interests.

At St Andrew’s on Sunday, 3 pm, Moser played three Bach solo cello suites: No 1 in G, No 4 in E flat and No 3 in C. The church was near full. And the three performances were of spell-binding, compelling strength. We have come a great distance from the days when it was proper to play these and other baroque music as if in a straight-jacket, as if baroque instruments and their players didn’t allow rhythmic, dynamic expressive variety. These performances were hugely fluent and expressive with episodes in the preludes and the sarabandes, for example, that were emotional, pensive and full of humanity, and where clusters of notes and double-stopping turned them into impressive ensemble works rather than just one person on one cello.

And on the other hand we heard lively dances in which Moser’s suggestion that the suites could be heard as if describing the phases of a social gathering, from introductory, exploratory preludes through somewhat formal, conversational allemandes to more relaxed, letting-hair-down courantes, gigues or bourrées (in nos 3 and 4), was an interesting way of envisaging developments.

It was indeed a most rewarding hour-an-a-half, both for the audience, and I hope for the orchestra management which should be inspired to expand on this example.

In earlier years, such concerts were organised routinely – just one example, I recall recitals by Julius Katchen in the St James Theatre; but they were frequent.

But I see nothing to indicate such recitals in the 2019 programmes. Surely some of the soloists featured would be delighted to offer small-scale recitals – mezzos Susan Graham and Anna Larsson; soprano Lauren Snouffer; pianists Joyce Yang, Denis Kozhukhin, Steven Osborne, Louis Lortie; violinists Carolin Widmann, Jennifer Koh; trumpeter Håken Hardenberger, the orchestra’s own horn-player Samuel Jacobs … or the quartets of singers in the Choral Symphony and Messiah???