Brahms & Beethoven

Brahms & Beethoven

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Saturday 16 March 2016, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs

Edo de Waart, conductor
Nicola Benedetti, violin
Leonard Elschenbroich, cello

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Festival Overture – Douglas Lilburn (1915-2001);
Double Concerto: Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor – Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony No.3 in E-flat Major
– Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

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For the entire concert, I was impressed by the balanced sound, the dynamic range and the musical phrasing from the orchestral ensemble.

Edo de Waart had placed the strings, from his point of view, on clockwise fan of violins 1, violas, cello and violins 2 with the the double basses tucked behind the cellos. The placement of the strings is always problematic, but I liked this method. The sound of the violins 1 and 2 was stereophonic, and the cellos spoke more distinctly.

That was evident in the first few moments of the concert when the cellos state the first theme in Lilburn’s Festival Overture. The NZSO have a relationship with Lilburn’s orchestral works and the trills, the scotch snaps, the juxtaposition of minor and major chords seemed to be second nature for them.

Husband and wife team Leonard Elschenbroich and Nicola Benedetti, joined the orchestra for the Brahm’s Double Concerto. The dramatic opening chords ushered an impassioned plea from the cello. Eventually the violin answered and the duo engaged with answering phrases culminating with a sweeping, soaring melody before the orchestra took over. The second movement was lush and sympathetic. The soloists projected a gorgeous tone –  sonorous on their low strings and generous on their upper. The orchestra responded – the woodwind choir was magnificent and the plucking cello counter rhythm, three against four, was perfect. The third movement was electrifying and exuberant.

Both the soloists were committed to the performance – their body language swaying, looking to the heavens, to each other, to the conductor and orchestra. I have heard this concerto many times, usually on CD, and this interpretation was the best rendition I have heard. Ardent, impassioned, tender. The nuanced sound from the soloists – the sense of pace and phrasing, both slower in the allargando and faster in the accelerando, the flawless bowing technique – made this performance a stand-out. The ecstatic ovation was well deserved – but before acknowledging the audience, the conductor, the orchestra, Leonard and Nicola had a spousal moment together. It was affectionate and touching.

I was privileged to see the NZSO Foundation masterclasses that Nicola and Leonard conducted in the last ten days for students at the Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University. They were magnificent teachers, honing in to one or two features that the students could work on. In 30 minutes, each of the pupil’s performances was significantly improved. The students themselves, and I’m sure the audience and those looking at the video online, were completely inspired.

Nicola and Leonard’s commitment to music making was expressed in the second half of the programme too. They donned black clothes and were hidden amongst the orchestra in the fifth desk of violins 1 and the 2nd row in the cellos. Maybe it was a farewell to New Zealand and the NZSO – this was their last concert on their tour – but it was extraordinary and altruistic.

The programme notes, authored by Frances Moore, were very helpful particularly for the background story to the Brahms’ Double Concerto and the insightful comments about Beethoven’s formal structure of the ground-breaking Third Symphony.

Beethoven turned a corner with this symphony – basically, he ushered in the Romantic era. The world would never be the same again. After the two dramatic chords Edo de Waart reined the orchestra in, like a dressage mount, keeping the crescendo building to the recapitulation. Again, the dynamic contrast was impressive – crashing chords to whispering bassoon entries.

In the second movement the funereal element was highlighted by the space between the strings, the violins melody and the earthy grumble from the double basses and cellos, and the poignant theme from the woodwind and horns. The fugue was masterfully played. All of the instruments were involved – even the timpani.

The third movement was energetic and witty. The strings deliberately disguised the pulse but the woodwind emerged with a lively tune. The ensemble turned that into offbeat rhythms that were delightfully resolved.

The simplicity of the opening of the fourth movement belied the incredible complexity of the music that followed. The orchestra broke into a pesante figure at one point, almost like a Cossack dance. Oftentimes three questioning phrases were stated and, after a finely judged pause, the answering phrase was given. After this monumental achievement, we could forgive Beethoven for an extended cadential phrase – about 15 bars in length!

The audience delivered a rapturous applause for the orchestra and their new Music Director. A brilliant concert.

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The NZSO facebook page has a video of the two soloists discussing the Brahms.

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