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A performance for all time

Love Eternal
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Saturday, 18 May
Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

This concert provided a platform for two striking European talents, Danish conductor Thomas Sondegard and Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin. The Dane was first out of the blocks with a stirring rendition of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, in which the opening bars had an extra resonance and a kind of focused punch beyond what the orchestra normally produces. I would have liked a little more sweetness and tenderness in the second, ‘Volumnia’ theme, but overall the storytelling was very well done, and the potentially tricky ending finely judged.

But this was no more than an appetiser to the main course, Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. Kozhukhin came on stage looking more than normally self-assured, even for a soloist, but the reason for his confidence was rapidly revealed. Unlike so many pianists who take a highly percussive approach, he had a stunning touch, one both gentle and electric, in the manner of some of the great players of the past.

The concerto, an integrated rather than a showy piece, also demanded highly intelligent playing, and the sensitive call-and-response passages with the oboe in particular were delightful. Soloist and orchestra seemed completely in harmony; at times just as it felt like a melody was falling away from the piano, the cellos – or another section – would catch it and lift it up. Elsewhere Kozhukhin conjured up lovely flowing lines on the piano, and handled the occasionally abrupt transitions in the material seamlessly.

In the second movement I especially enjoyed the note of yearning in some of the rising orchestral phrases, and a beautifully burnished horn sound just before the music flowed into a third movement characterised by thrilling, quicksilver lines from the soloist. Overall his playing displayed exceptional taste and compelling execution; alongside Steven Hough’s recent visits, it was one of the best examples of piano-playing I’ve seen on these shores.

After those treats, the two Sibelius symphonies could have seemed like a come down – but were nothing of the sort. The Sixth Symphony opened with a sense of soaring energy amid cold mountains. There were all manner of highlights, including the beautifully balanced counterpoint of the second movement and the immense range of timbres presented with exceptional clarity in the third movement. The fourth movement was exceptional right from its stark opening chords. Even the big climaxes were delineated perfectly with no blustering or rough edges. And the ending was, to borrow a phrase from Jane Austen, “charity itself”, descending gently into silence.

The Seventh Symphony was likewise excellent. At times the orchestra produced an almost confessional stillness, with the strings very much to the fore; again, there was always something in reserve and what felt like great glaciers of sound were expertly shaped, never losing the flow and sweep of the music. It was a fitting end to a fantastic concert.

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