The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents
Paul Lewis (piano)
Eduardo Strausser (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
ROSS HARRIS – Cento (2005)
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – Piano Concerto in E-flat Op. 73 “Emperor”
ROBERT SCHUMANN – Symphony No. 2 in C Minor Op.61
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Thursday 11th May 2023
“The work is an abomination” declared fellow-composer Jenny McLeod upon hearing Ross Harris’s “Cento”, commissioned and performed by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra for its 25th Anniversary in 2005. According to the excellent – in fact, indispensable! – SOUNZ website (containing ‘most anything one wishes to know regarding Kiwi music and its composers!), Harris was given the brief of using “pieces that the orchestra has made its own over the last 25 years”. His response was the musical equivalent of a poetry “cento” (a work made up from brief quotes taken from other verses), deftly constructing a musical tapestry of excerpts which takes the listener on a whirlwind orchestral ride of far-flung compositional variety and drawing from at least three hundred years of musical provenances in doing so.
It was all a kind of “first cousin” of antics familiar to those who could recall the zany Hoffnung concerts (which seem to have fallen out of fashion in recent times), with the composer tacitly inviting us to “tease out” from the kaleidoscopic array of sounds any references we detected to works from the standard classical repertoire. Depending on their respective tastes and sensibilities, some listeners might well have sided with Jenny McLeod’s reproachful reaction to such a farrargo, while others, like myself would have taken the opposite viewpoint and admired both the skill and daring of the accomplished collage of tones, marvelling at the frequent fusing of contrasting sound-colours and rhythmic impulses, here with predictably volatile, and there with surprisingly harmonious results.
I wrote down as many references as my memory could muster during the piece’s eleven minutes, delighted at greeting old friends, abashed by some I knew but couldn’t name, and puzzled by a couple of strangers whose tones rang no bells! To give just a few examples, I noticed the recurring preponderance of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” vying with Beethoven’s Seventh, Mahler’s Third and Brahms’ Second Symphonies, along with several “Ivesian” touches of combinations of opposites that “worked” despite diametrically-opposed essences – the most outlandish of these for me being Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony finale being jostled along by F.J.Ricketts’ cheerful “Colonel Bogey” march-rhythms! Conductor Eduardo Strausser’s and his players’ juggling of such determinedly whimsical snippets out for mischief and mayhem was itself, I thought, sheer delight, exhibiting both control and panache in abundance.
After such a work-out the musicians must have been more than ready for whatever challenge was next – and it came with the music of Beethoven, in the form of the “Emperor” Piano Concerto (hence the concert’s title), no less. The orchestra was joined by the English pianist Paul Lewis. making his first-ever appearance in Wellington, following a previous visit during 2022 to Auckland, where he’d already performed a complete cycle of the concertos to critical acclaim.
Following in the wake of the Harris work, Beethoven’s music was always going to give a more-than-usually purposeful and cogent impression, something that the grand opening exchanges between orchestra and piano further emphasised, proclaiming a kind of “sovereignty” which obviously fuelled the idea in some quarters of the piece having imperial associations, and resulted in its nickname (though whatever its provenance the title “Emperor” had nothing whatever to do with the composer!)
The opening gestures done, the orchestra straightaway took up the “swing” of the music, with conductor Eduardo Strausser encouraging magnificent tutti passages that contrasted memorably with the beautiful “voicings” from the different groups. The strings brought both strength and sensitivity to the journey via eloquent shadings and colourings, as did the winds with phrasings as individually ear-catching as were their various ensembles. The horns sounded wonderful with their duetting lines, while the trumpets and timpani were excitingly impactful! All of this preceded the soloist’s re-entry in which the piano seemed at first very much part of the ensemble’s musical fabric, before building to a more substantial and authoritative soloist’s voice.
I must say Paul Lewis’s playing surprised me at first with what I felt was an amiable quality, having previously listened to various of his piano recital recordings and thinking at the time that he was a very serious musician indeed! Throughout the concerto’s first movement his playing readily exuded both poetry and vivacity by turns, never “barnstorming” the line, even when delivering the great, hammered chords exchanged with the orchestra towards the end of the development section of the music. This was a quality underlined by his sitting still at the instrument, and letting his hands and fingers do the work in relation to the rest of his body. It all suggested what seemed to me something of a “victory beyond the battle” kind of approach to the work, more so than I’d been used to in my previous listening experiences of it – definitely a “musician’s” more than a “virtuoso’s” performance, and one that resulted in my finding myself continually leaning forward in my seat to take in the detail, instead of sitting back and letting the grandeur of it all wash over me….
With the slow movement’s opening the orchestral playing again enchanted the ear, Strausser drawing from his strings a rapt quality of utterance which the pianist’s first notes illuminated like early evening stars, the opening notes of each entry “placing” the sounds to a most disarming effect. Lewis’s subsequent fuller-toned chordal ascent then glowed as if moonbeams were issuing forth from behind a cloud, suggesting warmth more than out-and-out grandeur. After the pianist and the winds had resounded in turn the rapt opening theme, a moment of hushed wonderment led eventually to a joyous explosion of pianistic energy into which the orchestra unreservedly threw itself also. We were aroused, galvanised and charmed in our turn, with Lewis again playful of pianistic aspect rather than scintillating or trenchant, and thoroughly enjoying, along with his conductor and cohorts, the various adventures throughout the finale, right up to that moment of poignant rapport with Larry Reese, the timpanist, at the end of the work! A sudden pianistic irruption of energy goaded the orchestra into doing the same, into which exuberant valediction Lewis actually joined with the players – a final, heart-warming gesture of solidarity!
The interval’s leg-stretching ritual having been undertaken, I was back for the second half, eagerly anticipating the Schumann Second Symphony, the first of the composer’s four I’d gotten to know while still a student. I recall having read over the years various commentaries professing to explain why it was Schumann couldn’t REALLY write for the orchestra and had to be “helped”, a process which certain conductors had gone along with and apparently edited the scoring to order, while others had declared the practice “an abomination” (where HAVE I heard that word before?). As I had not too long ago bought a couple of CD sets of the complete Schumann symphonies conducted by a new generation of maestri who HADN’T thus interfered with the composer’s scoring of his music in any way, I felt heartened that Maestro Strausser, tonight’s conductor, might be of a similar bent in such matters. And so it thankfully proved.
From the outset, the sounds of the brass rang forth clearly and atmospherically over the Bach-like contourings of strings and winds that made up much of the character of this beautiful work. Nowhere was there heard any kind of obfuscation of detail, the lines beautifully balanced and the trajectories nobly advanced. The allegro, when it came perhaps felt at first a bit tense under Strausser’s beat, with the dotted rhythms slightly clipped, as if a shade TOO eager; but the development section of the movement, with its beautiful “sighing” motif enchanted the ear, as did the syncopated wind chatterings and undulating timpani rolls which lead back to the allegro’s beginning. This time, all was suitably heroic and energetic, with repeated-note fanfare figures adding to the excitement and giving the lie to any thought of technical ineptitude on the composer’s part.
The Scherzo, a splendid creation, here bristled with near-obsessive energies, conductor and players making the most of each of the two contrasting Trio interludes, the first featuring quixotic, even garrulous exchanges between the winds and strings, and the second a throwback to the Symphony’s polyphonic opening (Schumann’s homage to the spirit of Bach), again with winds and strings here gorgeously blending lyrical and cerebral lines in masterly fashion. I loved it all, apart from what I thought a somewhat vulgar presto-like tempo adopted by Strausser for the movement’s coda, one certainly not indicated at all in my score – my favourite versions on record (conducted by Kubelik, Sawallisch, Karajan, Schuricht, etc.) all bring out the timpani and the brass to thrilling effect without unduly speeding up the tempo!
Of course the effect here was as momentary as it was subjective, as Strausser and his players then proceeded to give a reading of the slow movement that was as enchanting as any I’d previously encountered! – the opening strings imparted a quiet, deeply-felt beauty to the melody similarly taken up by the solo oboe and counterpointed by the bassoon. The horns, joined by the other winds, with clarinet and flute taking their turn, all made their own magic and paved the way for the strings to return to claim the melody as their own – or so it seemed to our entranced ears, amid all the re-echoings bringing us to the movement’s end.
Strausser took the final at a goodly lick, enough to emphasise the music’s girth and energy in the playing from all the sections, festive brass fanfares alternating with vertiginously swirling string textures and babbling winds at the beginning, before the music got down to an equally vigorous “working out” interaction, the winds calling attention to a kind of redemptive theme which other instruments swirled around and about , as if encouraging it to “flower”. Of course, in tandem with the return of the work’s opening fanfares it eventually blossomed, bringing about a most vibrant conclusion, a sense of recognition and concourse between creative souls, sonorously celebrated on this occasion by superb playing from the entire orchestra.
Rather than the proverbial “darkness to light” journey of the kind beloved by the Romantics, what came across to me seemed like a coming together of different energies – the opening movement’s fanfares posed the question, and then, throughout the course of the work interacted with similar kind of questing impulses, until, step-by-step, the music was able to reach a true synthesis in the work’s final movement. It was, I felt, conductor Eduardo Strausser’s and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s real achievement with this performance that these elements came together so magnificently at this concert