NZSO: Elgar & Strauss

Mendelssohn, Elgar & Strauss

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Saturday 25 March 2017, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs

Edo de Waart, conductor
Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano

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Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave), Op.26 – Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
Sea Pictures, Op.37 – Edward Elgar (1857–1934)
Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), Op.64 – Richard Strauss (1864–1949)

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The three works in this programme were completely similar and completely different.

Similarities: Each of them were musical ‘tone poems’, in the broadest sense of the words – not musical ‘paintings’ but emotive, affective narratives of natural phenomenon: the sea and an alpine landscape.
Differences: each of them were in a specific sub-genre, characterised a certain period of time or place: the Mendelssohn post-Classical, the Strauss post-Romantic and the Elgar was undeniably ‘English’.

So, what impressed me most about the concert was the astuteness of the orchestra, led by Edo de Waart. The ethos of each work was maintained – the Mendelssohn was contained and restrained; the Elgar was patriotically elegant; the Strauss was boldly uninhibited.

 

The Hebrides Overture is a ‘standard’ and I suspect the audience have listened to this evocative piece many times. Myself: I played the Overture four or five times as a cellist, and studied and listened umpteen times as a School Certificate Music set work. It is a ‘classic’ piece, in every sense of the word and that can be a problem. How can a conductor find something new to excite a listening audience, when the composer has detailed directions in the score?

Edo de Waart chose a brisk tempo – the initial ‘wave’ theme ascended from the basses and cellos to the violins relentlessly. The cello’s second subject was beautifully disciplined and the violins staccato answers were spiky and acute. When it came time for the development, the strings faded away to nothing and the anticipation for what was to follow was exquisite. And in the last few moments, the first violins were understated. They were not in competition to the other instruments – a filagree, an embellishment. The clarinet duo was darkly resplendent and flute faded away in the distance. Magical.

 

Michelle DeYoung was the mezzo soprano soloist for Elgar’s song cycle Sea Pictures. The words were written down in the programme and I had need to refer to them. DeYoung consistently coloured her vowels and consequently I comprehended only 20% of the words. But it didn’t matter – her voice was a full, abundant, rich tone and I  took it as another instrument in the musical texture.

Befitting the lower register of the singer, most of the five songs were sombre or melancholic.  I liked the simplicity of the second piece, In Haven, with the words by Caroline Alice Elgar, Edward’s wife. It was basically a lullaby, and charming. In the third and fifth songs (Sabbath Morning at Sea by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and The Swimmer by Adam Lindsay Gordon) I noted that the poems stanzas didn’t matched the composers setting – like Art Song or Lieder, these Song Cycle was not a ballad or a verse song.

The latter piece began with a dramatic entry and rapidly turned into a nationalistic ‘English’ theme but that was interrupted. This pattern recurred but it was expanded each time and at last the patriotic ‘English’ theme had full-rein: (and I refer to the words) ‘To gulfs foreshadow’d through strifes forbidden, Where no light wearies and no love wanes.‘ I had no score, but I suspect that Elgar had the direction ‘Noblimente’ in that final section!

 

I went to the excellent pre-concert talk by Roger Smith (and I recommend these when they are offered.) He quoted a book by Michael Kennedy (Strauss Tone Poems, p. 56) that made sense of my feeling about Richard Strauss’s music.
“One does not go to Strauss for Bruckner’s spiritual fervour, Beethoven’s intellectual power and Mahler’s humanitarian misgivings and doubts.  There is depth in Strauss’s music, as any listener to Don Quixote can discover, but he is primarily entertainer and observer rather than moral philosopher.” 

For myself, the Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony) ranks with the Sinfonia Domestica we heard last year. Certainly Strauss was a master in orchestration, even a genius, but the piece seemed like an indulgence.

Strauss demanded a LARGE orchestra: 16 woodwind (including a heckelphone); 18 brass (including Wagner tubas); 54 string players; celesta and organ; and a vast array of percussion including the usual and two tympani players, cowbells, wind and thunder machine. Despite Strauss naming a ‘Symphony’, it was a symphonic tone poem with 22 movements without a break. Maybe we should have surtitles to explain which section we are up to, but that defeats the purpose I guess.

As I said, the orchestra was boldly uninhibited at times – in subtlety and abandon. Two moments illustrate the point: The pre-dawn scene – strings had a pianissimo pedal chord, brass notes resonantly echoing the stillness, the vastness of the night sky; and the chaotic cacophony of the tempest on the mountainside – everyone instrument competing to outdo each other, thunder machine thundering, wind machine operator like a Olympic yacht winch-man.

Another special moment was the section Auf dem Gipfel (On the Summit) and the breathtaking view of the alpine landscape. Strauss captured this moment perfectly in his music and it was, literally, musically breathtaking.

Maybe the occasion was draining, or exhausting – and this programme was performed in Auckland the previous evening – but the were a few messy elements in the execution of the concert, mainly from the brass and woodwind. Some under-pitched notes, some ‘brassy’ octave tones, and non-synchronous rhythms between the woodwind and the strings. I had not heard that before in the NZSO concerts last year – maybe it was a aberration, early in the season.

Despite this, the applause was genuine and extended for each piece, and deservedly so.

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