A splendid feast
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Saturday, 13 April
Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke
Most classical concerts are a little like the standard Anglo meal: a main course, accompanied by side dishes. This was more in the Italian vein, where one traditionally gets both a primo piatto and a secondo piatto, and both are of (roughly) equal importance.
That being so, the primo piatto was served up to us by soloist Joyce Yang, performing Brahms's Piano Concerto No 1. At the risk of sounding like a young fogey, I felt that Yang fell into the same trap as many modern pianists, playing with an overly percussive sound. But there was no doubting her musical intelligence or her technical mastery, the rapid passages dashed off with ease and her octaves as sparkling as her outfit. I especially enjoyed the passages where she exchanged short, jagged lines with the orchestra. And such was the strength of the first movement that I was reminded how, in ages past, it was commonplace for people to clap in between movements.
The slow second movement was exceptionally well played, Yang's total command of the music's structure coming to the fore. Meanwhile the orchestra produced a sound that could only be called noble, playing so beautifully, and so much in balance with the soloist, that you could have wished both soloist and ensemble to keep going forever. The third movement was every bit as good as the others, offering up moments of perfect stillness; Yang's dazzling playing suggested, somehow, that at times she was creating notes out of nothing.
In between the main courses we had Richard Strauss's Serenade for Winds. For me this wasn't such a great success. Although the second half in particular was good, the tutti passages felt too much, somehow, and the piece as a whole, though charming, lacked the balance and intensity of the Brahms. I'd rather have heard something quite different, perhaps an edgy and modern palate cleanser.
But that was of little import once we were into the secondo piatto, as it were: Elgar's Enigma Variations. I had said, in reviewing the previous concert, that the orchestra's rendition of Holst's The Planets boded well for this concert, and I was happy to be proved right. The opening was so crisp, so sharp, that it made most other versions seem muddy. Every detail – the bubbling woodwinds, for instance – was allowed to come through, even while the overall tone and structure had absolute clarity.
It was, in a sense, a very European rendition of an English classic, and there were times – in the third variation, R.B.T., for instance – when I would have enjoyed a little more playfulness, a greater sense of irony. But mostly the musical choices were superb: W.M.B. lively without being blustering; R.P.A. taking on a darker hue than usual; Ysobel sounding both calm and beautiful. There were lovely little moments, too, such as the rallentando in W.N., and the extra-gentle opening of the famous Nimrod variation.
I noticed, in passing, that the programme repeated the usual theories about the 'Enigma' theme – is it Rule Britannia? Is it some other tune concealed as a counter-motif? And so on. A much more convincing theory, for me, was advanced in a Proms concert I attended some years ago, where it was argued that the enigmatic theme is extra-musical, and is, quite simply, love – Elgar's love for his friends, love for humanity, and the biblical claim, which he liked to cite, that of all things love is the most enduring. Rather than supposing that he had some kind of strange counter-theme hidden in the music, like a child's puzzle, this seems an explanation much more befitting the quality of the work – and indeed of this performance.