NZSO: Brahms, Schumann & Barber

Brahms, Schumann & Barber

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Saturday 17 June 2017, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs

James Feddeck, conductor
Daniel Müller-Schott, cello

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Tragic Overture – Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Cello Concerto in A minor  – Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Adagio for Strings – Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 – Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

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The short story (tldr):
Despite the conductor, it was a perfect programme from the NZSO – a ‘classic’ [Brahms’ Tragic Overture], a heartfelt virtuoso piece [Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor], an audience-favourite [Barber’s Adagio for Strings], and a seldom-heard masterpiece [Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1].

The orchestra performed magnificently, building form one apex to the another, because the Barber Symphony was the highlight of the evening. It was an assured work from a master of symphonic technique but, incredibly, Barber was only 26 years old when he composed it.

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The long story:

This could be a perfect programme from the NZSO – a ‘classic’, a heartfelt virtuoso piece, an audience-favourite, and a seldom-heard masterpiece. The orchestra performed magnificently, building form one apex to the another.

The Tragic Overture was a bold start to the programme. The first two chords resonated, reemerging dramatically at intervals. The strings were magnificent. Their bow strokes were perfectly homogenous – their staccato, martelé, accents… perfect. When they let loose the sound was awesome – the thick, dense texture of the string sound encouraging the rest of the orchestra to keep up! The viola soli two-thirds through was especially marvellous, answered by the violins and the woodwind choir. Bridget Douglas’ first flute was incandescent.

A classically-reduced orchestra for Schumann Cello Concerto was appropriate and it made it possible to hear the cello clearly. The programme notes [Frances Moore] and the pre-concert talk [Greg Squire] were invaluable. I didn’t realise that Schumann composed the score in only two weeks, that he never heard the piece performed and that he took the cello as his instrument when he ruined his hands stretching them for his ill-fated piano performance career. Certainly, Schumann had a feel for the cello and what it could do. In fact, he was well ahead of his time I think – the dramatic reach of the instrument and the techniques pave the way for Lalo, Dvorak and Shostakovich. The soloist, Daniel Müller-Schott, was immediately comfortable with the orchestra. He was a calm presence and responded to the orchestra and they to him. As expected, his tone – particularly in the A string – was warm and rich. Another Schumann innovation – the three movements were continuous [Question: it was the first piece to do that?] Basically, the first was dramatic, the second poignant – a love song – and the third a virtuosic display. The second movement featured a cello duet – the soloist and the leader of the cello section, Andrew Joyce. It was a joy to hear them combine. Andrew didn’t upstage the soloist but supported beautifully. The third movement was tragically effervescent – an acerbic jest. At one point, the cello soloist almost finished a phrase but it was completed by the woodwind – extraordinary. The stratospheric final notes from the cello and a few cadential chords and then the concerto was over – too soon I think. Maybe Schumann could have spent another week! Daniel rewarded his applause with J S Bach’s Sarabande from the Cello Suite in E Major. He displayed his fluid bow stroke and a mastery of the one of the mysteries of music – the time dilation of rhythm. That is when the longer you leave a potential note unplayed but not rhythmically inaccurate!

The Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber was obviously a crowd pleaser, but that can be a drawback too. In my imagination, I can hear every note comprehensively, so reality can be underwhelming. This was not a perfect performance – a rhythmic hesitation (about that later) and mistimed cello note – but it was very, very close to! As the Tragic Overture, the strings were absolutely balanced – a single instrument with 40-odd players. Again, the viola section was prominent in the layered texture of the piece. At one point, the cellos were scored above the violas and the violin II – maybe a trick learnt by studying the Schubert Quintet in C? The dynamic control was exemplary – the ascending crescendo led to a screaming, tormented chord – a tonal tsunami. It hung there like fate – a Sword of Damocles! After the echoing resonance the silence was heart wrenching, and the following few chords that decreased the tension were achingly beautiful.

The Symphony No 1 from Samuel Barber was novel in my ears. Just like the Schumann concerto, the four movements of the symphony were continuous – without a break: Allegro, Scherzo, Andante and Finale. And it was my highlight for the evening!

I thought the Brahms was excellent but the woodwind and brass were quite reserved. With the Schumann concerto the orchestra was reduced and somewhat restricted. And the  first Barber was only for strings. But the whole ensemble was really READY for this performance and that gave it their all. In the vernacular, from the first chords is was ‘in your face’!

Often composers use the section of the orchestra as ‘choirs’ – the string section, the woodwind choir, the brass chorus. In this symphony Barber mixed up the timbres – violas with cor anglais, cellos with french horn, bass clarinet and contrabassoon with double bass. In the Scherzo he used many metrical changes  – duplets and triplets and syncopations. He altered the dynamics markedly – sfzzpp. The Andante was a marvellous melody with oboe with string and harp accompaniment. He used textures: three soloists from the cello section, a bassoon and clarinet solo. The finale was a sustained crescendo with the trumpet taking turns, the strings tremoloing, the woodwind crashing chords. Amazing! It was an assured work from a master of symphonic technique but, incredibly, Barber was only 26 years old when he composed it [but he revised it 5 years later]. Among about 120 significant works, only 15 were for orchestra, and only a second symphony.

My only reservation was the conductor, James Feddeck. He was authoritative and clearly he got what he wanted from the NZSO – a brilliant programme. Maybe I am shy about ‘spotlights’ but I thought he upstaged the orchestra outrageously. He dispensed with the beat entirely, mostly conducted only the downbeat. He charged at the podium – head tossing, hip tilting, pirouetting. He endangered the first desk of the strings with his pointy end of his baton. Admittedly, his every gesture was like an expressive dancer, interpreting every musical idea into to bodily movement – hand, arms, shoulders, legs. It was distracting from the music and, in the Adagio for strings, I thought it led to a rhythmic indecisiveness for the ensemble. Maybe I got use to it, but the Barber’s Symphony was the only piece that this display of affectation was warranted.

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