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The Four Seasons

The Four Seasons
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Saturday, 12 May
Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

One of the things I’m enjoying about the NZSO’s programming this year is the non-obvious obvious choices. By this I mean the playing of pieces that are well worn to the point being cliched but which many people have not actually heard in concert. And of course it’s only in concert that one realises just how good they are.

Ravel’s Bolero, performed just the other week, was a revelation, and this rendition of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, which I haven’t heard live in over a decade, was every bit as enjoyable. Conductor Brett Mitchell did what I think is essential on these occasions, which is to try to make a familiar piece sound fresh to jaded ears – especially when anyone my age and up has a strong automatic association with the version that accompanied the National Bank ads from the 1990s, a particularly lush and grand rendition, if musical memory serves.

Mitchell’s approach was to strip the orchestra right back, and it paid dividends. Everything was sharp and crisp, and the dynamics shifted precisely from level to level in the period manner, rather than being finally gradated. The soloist, young Chinese virtuoso Angelo Xiang Yu, also eschewed the traditional approach, producing instead a thrilling range of tones and timbres, from the sweetly soft to the frankly jagged.

Again, this helped us hear the piece afresh, and was mostly successful, although at the occasional expense of some raw notes at the top end. He might have slightly overplayed the playing to the audience, and at times his expressiveness lapsed into straightforward gurning; but with eyes closed none of this was noticeable.

After the interval came Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, continuing the (very loose) Italian theme. Again, this was very well conducted, Mitchell’s unobtrusive style allowing the music to flow up out of the orchestra, as it were. It’s not a piece I knew at all, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, and thought the central cor anglais melody was beautifully played.

Last up was Respighi’s tone poem Pines of Rome. Again this was well done, although perhaps not quite so well as the other works. In particular I felt the second movement, ‘The Pines near a Catacomb’, which is supposed to suggest the depth and darkness of an underground resting place, could have been more genuinely unsettling, and frankly just a bit quieter. Without that deep contrast the finale was fractionally less effective, though still a very enjoyable end to a pleasantly surprising concert.

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