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Ravishing Berlioz and Ravel

Berlioz, Debussy and Ravel
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Saturday, 21 April

In this engaging, French-inflected performance, full of strengths, perhaps the standout was the mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke. Wellington has been visited by a few high profile singers recently, notably Anne Sofie von Otter, but few have impressed me as much as Cooke. Singing Berlioz’s Les Nuits D’Ete, she showed off a voice that was liquid and subtle, especially pleasing in the dark tones of its lower register. Accompanying her, the orchestra beautifully brought out the melancholic, sensitive aspects of the – occasionally melodramatic – text.

Berlioz’s music, accompanying the words of the French poet Theophile Gautier, painted a picture of loss, desire and voyaging. This latter theme had already been picked up in the opening work, the premiere of Salina Fisher’s Tupaia, commissioned to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s landfall in New Zealand. Again, this was wonderful stuff. I enjoyed Fisher’s Rainphase, performed last year by the NZSO, but this was better still – an exploration of the complexity and intensity of voyages of discovery that was instantly memorable.

At times the playing was intensely evocative, bringing to mind the swaying, surging roll of the sea; at other times it quietened, and a constellation of high notes called to mind the ‘tunable bells’ that Joseph Banks famously heard in the birdsong of New Zealand as he encountered it for the first time.

Conversely, Debussy’s La Mer isn’t a piece that I enjoy enormously. But one couldn’t fault the orchestra’s playing. The percussion instruments, so often in the background, were to the fore here, especially in the first movement; later on there were thrilling deep notes from the brass; and several thunderous climaxes were extremely well executed.

Finally we were treated to a rendition of Ravel’s Bolero – which, despite seeming like a banal choice, is actually something that few people have heard performed live, as music director Edo de Waart correctly pointed out. And it was a delightful rendition, with a longer, more flowing melodic line – and more legato – than is usual, bringing out the full contrast between the militaristic drumming and the longing embodied in the melody. It wasn’t quite clear how it fitted into the rest of the program – but no one seemed to be complaining.


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