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O’Neill Shines

It’s an ill wind that blows no good, as they say, and it’s presumably the coronavirus pandemic that we have to thank for tenor Simon O’Neill still being on our shores. On his previous schedule, he would currently have been in the US singing Tristan und Isolde, but here he was, on stage with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, singing Mahler and Strauss.

The orchestra opened up with a wonderful account of Berlioz’s thrilling Le Corsaire Overture, before O’Neill strode onstage to deliver Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of the Wayfarer) and six Strauss songs: Allerseele and Zueignung (Op. 10) and Ruhe, meine Seele, Cacilie, Heimliche Aufforderung, and Morgen (Op. 27). O’Neill’s singing throughout was nothing short of superb. It’s not just that he has a splendid voice, powerfully thrilling in the upper register and rich and sensitive in the lower ones. It’s also his immense musicianship, his ability to ally head to heart, intelligence to passion.

Throughout the diction was precise, the musical communication of immense clarity. In the Mahler, the emotional extremes, ranging from despair to tranquillity, were carefully outlined; the repeated ‘O weh!’ (‘Alas!’) in ‘I’ve a Gleaming Knife’ conveyed a feeling of great pain. As well as possessing tremendous power, O’Neill sings the softer notes with a startling gentleness. And his performance got better and better as the songs went on, the highlight perhaps being Morgen, where the warmth of O’Neill’s voice was beautifully matched by the orchestra’s playing, especially Vesa-Matti Leppanen’s solo lines.

The second half was a different story, however. Other than a balance of light and shade, it was hard to see the connection between the lieder and Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. The original, pre-coronavirus programme, featuring a Wagner prelude and Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 27, probably made more sense.

It would have been more enjoyable, too, for this reviewer at least. Part of the reviewer’s usual task is to look past their individual likes and dislikes, and judge the quality of the performance. But this is possible only up to a point, and here it is important to be honest and say that I just don’t think the Prokofiev is a particularly outstanding piece of music.

Supposedly Prokofiev has immense melodic gifts – but where is there a memorable melody anywhere in the piece? The musical writing lacks the compression and intense development of themes seen in (for instance) Beethoven, or the range and originality of a Mahler symphony. The tonal palette is dull and muddy in many places, at least in comparison to other parts of the standard repertoire. The last movement is exciting, granted, and finishes with a powerful flourish – but overall the piece is, much like Prokofiev’s spiky, percussive piano music, substantially overrated.

This may be a minority view, though, judging by last night’s reception: excited, halloing applause broke out the moment the playing stopped, and carried on for several rounds. But even that seemed out of line with the warm but more subdued reception granted to O’Neill.

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