Immortal (and inaudible) Bach
Friday, February 2
Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke
At the risk of stating the obvious, the reviewer's task is normally to comment on the quality of a performance, in this case the playing of music. So much is straightforward, if subjective. The task is made rather harder, though, when it is not actually clear how well the performers are playing.
This issue came to the fore in the year's first concert for the NZSO – or rather, a stripped-down group of NZSO principals playing Bach and others. The venue was the Cathedral of St Paul, chosen I assume because it is the most 'intimate' location in which one can sell a decent number of tickets. Unfortunately it has a pretty poor acoustic. I've been to a few vocal concerts, and indeed sung, there, and never enjoyed it, but it seems to take an instrumental concert to really bring out its worst features. The sound was muddy and indistinct; I have never heard the Brandenburg Concertos sound so bad, and I hope to never again.
In the Concerto No. 1 in F major, the strings at times actually sounded out of tune, although I doubt they were, while the horns might have been playing in another venue, so different was their sound as mediated by the acoustic. In short, it was hard to tell if Bach was being played with the snap and spark it requires, or to get much pleasure out of the performance. All my neighbours felt the same; and although it may not have helped that we were right up the back of the Cathedral, the sound was reportedly no better down the front.
It wasn't all bad, though; in fact things improved markedly when the players were down to just the strings. And I'm extremely grateful to have been introduced to the Locatelli Concerto Grosso, an expressive, varied and surprising piece from its brooding opening through to the many lovely still moments. Rameau's Suite from Dardanus was still a bit muddy, though better than the Bach, with a warm stately sound.
Alas the second Brandenburg Concerto of the evening (No. 3 in G major) was again pretty poor, the strings sounding scratchy and the cellos little more than a dull hum. Again, though, some quieter moments shone – gleams of light sparkling out of the murk. And the crowd-pleasing Air on a G string was beautifully played, a kind of reverent stillness showing a completely different side to the piece than the lushness that normally prevails. All of which rather suggests that it was the venue, not the playing, that was responsible for the evening's earlier disasters.