NZSO: Mozart and Elgar

Mozart and Elgar

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Saturday 29 October 2016, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs

Edo de Waart, conductor
Ronald Brautigan, piano

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Piano Concerto No.24 in c minor, K.491 – Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791)
Symphony No.1 in A-flat major, Op.55 
– Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

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This was an ideal programme, if we only have another work.

The Mozart was absolutely perfect and the Elgar was splendid. The programme demonstrated what the orchestra can do – impressively. The orchestra shone but to be resplendent it would beg an additional contemporary work.  Maybe a contrasting piano concert: Psathas Three Psalms; or a contemporary vocal work like Ross Harris’ The Floating Bride, the Crimson Village…

I was impressed by Edo de Waart’s restrained conducting style. Every gesture – even the minimal flick of a finger or a turn of his hand got a response from the ensemble. It was very refreshing to see a conductor that didn’t impose his egoism on the audience.

The orchestra was appropriately cut down for the Mozart – the strings were geometrically composed: 10 first violin 1, 8 second violin, 6 violas, 4 cello and 2 double basses. Wolfgang decided to have more firepower in the wind section – one flute and two each of oboes, clarinet and bassoons.

The c minor tonality is often associated with drama and the opening theme clearly inspired Beethoven in his third piano concerto years later. There were three notes phrases in the strings and counterpoint from the woodwinds. It was almost a surprise when the piano entered. Just like the conductor, Ronald Brautigan didn’t inflict his insistence as a conceited figurehead. Quietly and reservedly, he was a thread in the fabric of the work. I guess the piano was a new instrument for Mozart and the dynamics and the range were circumscribed.

The thing about Mozart: when we have a first part of a phrase or a melody, we KNOW what will follow – it is obvious – but it so RIGHT, it couldn’t be any other way than Mozart’s intended. The simple Classical melodies and harmonies were brilliantly played by the soloist and the orchestra – the apologetic cadences, and the reserved, restrained dynamics.

Simply put, the performance was perfectly played.

After the interval, the orchestra was repopulated for the Elgar symphony. I not sure what it is but, even if I had not seen the programme, I would know that the symphony was composed by an Englishman. Something about the pomp and the circumstance (no pun or ingenuousness). It was like a ‘stiff-upper-lip’ transformed in to sound – a ‘Downton Abbey’ anthem.

I think that Elgar, even with his first symphony, had a subversive, ironic streak. The first time we heard the ‘Nobilmente e semplice‘ theme it was almost tongue-in-cheek – too much ‘stiff-upper-lip’, too much ‘David Niven’. By the end of the symphony, when he heard it different guises, it was more sensitive and emotional and poignant and optimistic! Not ‘David Niven’, but more like ‘Colin Firth’.

After the discreet -but tasteful – turn in the Mozart, the orchestra was excited to explore the possibilities with this post-romantic work. The strings hurrying passages with offbeat basses swelled into a fortissimo section. I have never seen double basses so physically active before!  At the close of the first movement, the mood was almost ominous but majestic – not so much oxymoronic that you could think. It was sentimental but authentic, real – not plastic or fake.

It second movement was  frenetic – scurrying violins and rumbling basses. It crept without out a break into the third movement – a lyrical, beautiful movement. Again, it was undeniably English – no Tchaikovskyism or Mahlerism. Subtle, refined and gorgeous – in some way it was familiar – a ‘coming home’ feel. At the close, the trombones were muted and the clarinet and strings diminished to the final cadence. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop. The last movement was more sombre – darker and the dynamics were extreme.The ‘nobilmente’  was more soulful and melancholic.

As I said, one more work – a contemporary one –  would have been a perfect programme.

An aside – not a musical one.
Two player – Brian Shillito and Sharyn Evans – were farewelled from the orchestra after this programme. Concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen made mention of the fact, and their combined commitment to the orchestra for more than 75 years. At the close of the concert, the flowers presented to Edo de Waart we redistributed by him to the retiring players – a noble gesture and a significant one from a leader to his co-workers. Well done.

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