NZSO: Escher, Mozart, Strauss

Mozart & Strauss

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Saturday 30 July 2016, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs

Edo de Waart, conductor
Samuel Jacobs, french horn


Musique pour l’esprit en deuil – Rudolf Escher (1912-1980)
Horn Concerto No.4 in E-flat major, K.495 – Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791)
Sinfonia Domestica 
– Richard Strauss (1864-1949)


An odd programming choice.
Basically it was a sandwich – the bread: two post-Romantic/Impressionist pieces with immense instrumental forces, and the filling: a delicate, precise filigree of a Mozart concerto.

The orchestra for the Escher and the Strauss were considerable.  Escher: seven percussionists and woodwind 4;5;4;4 and a saxophone. Strauss: nine french horns, woodwind 5;4;4 five bassoons and a quartet of saxophones – soprano, alto, baritone and bass saxophone [I have never seen a bass saxophone!] I couldn’t escape the memory of the last NZSO concert – Éclairs sur l’au-delà (Illuminations of the Beyond) – when Messiaen had similar forces at his command, but he didn’t use them – or sparingly so. Escher and Strauss used all of the instruments for a good proportion of the pieces. It was an impressive and robust sound.

Escher composed Musique pour l’esprit en deuil (Music for the spirit in mourning) in 1940. The programme notes noted that it was ‘a modernist response to the destruction and violence around him‘. Certainly the music was disquieting and unsettling. The beginning was subterranean – a rumbling bass drum, the low strings of the double bass and a grumble from the contrabassoon, rising up to the cellos and violas. Darkly impressionistic he used the orchestra as one instrument with many subtle voices and timbres. The melodies were fragmented and sent around the sections – it was more impressive in a live performance when the audience can listen to the aural perspective from individual players.

The music moved with a crescendo to a shattering climax for the full force of the ensemble. And, subito, it abruptly stopped. A piano took up the melody. After the totality of orchestral timbres it was almost shocking. The double basses motif were rumbling again, the cello tremolo and the french horns muted.  There were repeated measured steps for the strings, trombones and tuba – plodding, trudging, weary.  I was reminded of Holst’s Mars, the Planet of War. That was almost heroic – ghastly, but heroic. Escher’s outlook was more bleak – dejected and disconsolate. After the third climax the atmosphere was more positive but the cor anglais sombered the mood. Then the violins and flute lightened the mood. I think the final passage was affirming – not transcendent but hopeful.

For the Mozart thankfully the orchestra was decimated – I guess I should say ‘abbreviated’ or ‘reduced’!  It was a chamber orchestra – strings: 10,8,6,4,3, 2 horns and 2 oboes – and it perfectly complemented the soloist. I noted that some of the players were ‘promoted’ – Peter Dykes was the first oboe, Michael Austin swapped his preferred cor anglais to the oboe and the leader was Donald Armstrong.

From the start the clear, crisp articulation from the chamber orchestra was a delight. Samuel Jacobs was outstanding. His dynamic control, especially in his first cadenza, was exceptional. He cut an elegant figure – no posturing or flamboyant gesture – elegant even when he emptied the ‘condensation’ [as all the brass players maintain] on the floor after the first movement. The second movement theme was dangerously close to be a Romantic melody, but Mozart controlled it by pulling it back to the conventional apologetic cadence and the expected four, eight, and sixteen-bar phrases. The third movement was a galop, a joyful romp. At the close, the strings had the equivalent of a percussionist’s ‘paradiddle’  – rapid semiquaver tune returning to the main melody.

Mozart was a timeless genius, and this piece exhibited the joy of making music with friends: the players, the soloist, the conductor and the audience. Given the strictures of the Classical form, what Mozart did was absolutely incredible. I loved it – but given the programming ‘sandwich’ it was an odd choice. It was like having a Vienna gateau, a sachertorte, between two courses of roast venison and boar.

The Strauss was scored with five ‘movements’ but they the were played with no break – 45 minutes or so. The orchestra was immense, and Strauss employed them all. Again the ensemble was one instrument with many vocal layers – a wash, an emblazoning of sound. Precursor of film music, Strauss often used the string with long chordal  background and the woodwind staccato or sweeping flurries of sound. The violas were important in the melodic texture and the oboe d’amore soloist was excellent.

After reading the programme notes I understood that Sinfonia Domestica  has a definite ‘programme’, like Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazadebut unlike that piece the themes were not personified in particular instruments but were scattered amongst the orchestral timbres. After Franz, the baby, went to sleep the calm Adagio built in to a passionate, ecstatic ‘love scene’. When the glockenspiel announce the coming of morning, the orchestra ‘took off’ – maybe a caffeine hit! The ensemble erupted with timpani pounding and cymbals clashing – it built into a triumphant, glorious (and unfortunately scrambly) conclusion. The music was amazing but….

I want to say that my ‘review’ should be focussed on the music only but I  can’t reconcile the music with the programme. Despite Strauss’s exhortation that: “What can be more serious a matter than married life?…But I want the Symphony to be taken seriously“, the ‘glorious’ message of the monumental music was completely out of kilter with quotidian experience. I understand that the heroism of the ordinary life should not be underestimated, but this symphony? The forces involved? It was not subtle. I think Strauss’s idea was at the least conceited or narcissistic, or at the worst sarcastic.

I have a friend who has aphasia after his stroke and, faced with a piece of writing, he continually interjects with: “What does it MEAN?” That’s what I want to know. The artistic display – the hours of the extensive composition, the labours of the musicians to rehearse and play the piece, the comprehension and attention of the audience… As a piece music it was amazing, but what does it MEAN?


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