Classics and not-so-classics Stravinsky and Rachmaninov
Friday, 24 August
Saturday, 15 September
Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke
This last few weeks have brought two contrasting concerts from the NZSO. The first, Stravinsky and Rachmaninov, was at the more demanding end of the standard repertoire, featuring two relatively little-played works by Stravinsky: the Symphonies of Wind Instruments and the Symphony in Three Movements.
The second in particular was a real pleasure; I especially enjoyed its second movement, which was beautifully judged and conjured up a range of moods, from nostalgia to irony. The soloists at times created an effect almost like that of a quartet playing inside the wider orchestra. Meanwhile the third movement had a syncopated, juddering kind of energy, and made good use of exposed harp and piano lines.
In the second half of the concert, Rachmaninov's Second Symphony was a chance for the horns and the double basses to display a beautifully warm tone. Edo de Waart's abilities as a conductor were also to the fore as he shaped what felt like great hills and valleys of sound. Bursts of triumphant horns and some lovely cor anglais passages also decorated the first movement.
In the second movement, a kind of manic energy made itself felt, and there were superb moments as the bright clarion calls of the horns sounded over the top of swelling strings. A yearning clarinet solo was the highlight of the third movement before the fourth movement brought matters to a joyful end.
The second concert, Classical Hits, had a notably poor attendance, despite its apparent box-office appeal. Maybe Wellington audiences thought, 'Hah, take that to the provinces if you will, but we are superior creatures.' Who knows? At any rate, they missed out on a good evening. My personal highlight was Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faun, anchored (as you'd expect) by a languid, sensual flute solo but also by a rich and shifting set of timbres among the other players.
Another standout was the premiere of Gillian Whitehead's Turanga-nui, the latest composition to mark Captain Cook's arrival on these shores 250 years ago. The opening reminded me of Joseph Banks's famous remark about New Zealand birdsong sounding like 'tuneable silver' bells, while its evocation of seabirds and sandy-shore landings was nothing short of miraculous. Present, too, was an awareness of all the complexities of colonisation and the uncertain feelings on the part of both parties to that process.
Conversely, I was fractionally less impressed with the Tchaikovsky Variations on a Rococo Theme, Andrew Joyce's playing lacking – for me – the rich, rounded tone of a habitual soloist, although there was no doubting his technical mastery of the trickier passages.
As well as Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, the concert also featured Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. Conductor Hamish McKeich took a slightly different approach to the one I'm used to, keeping the orchestra on a relatively tight rein and drawing out the sunnier side of the score; at times I was reminded of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. As an approach it certainly had its advantages, although I did miss the darker side of the opening in particular, which in other hands can sound genuinely menacing.