James Judd and the NZSO’s Travels in Italy

12/10/2017

Berlioz, Elgar, Tchaikovsky: Antoine Tamestit (viola), New Zealand Symphony Orchestra / James Judd (conductor), Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington. 6.10.2017. (PM)

BerliozHarold in Italy Op.16 – Symphony with viola obbligato
ElgarIn the South (Alassio) Op.50 – Concert Overture
TchaikovskyFrancesca da Rimini Op.32 – Symphonic Fantasy after Dante

Conductor James Judd was made Music Director Emeritus of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra after serving as Music Director between 1997 and 2005. He recently returned to the orchestra’s podium to conduct what I thought was, for the most part, a stunningly brilliant concert, featuring some of the best playing I’ve ever heard from the orchestra. Two of the concert’s three items received performances I haven’t heard bettered by anybody, either ‘live’ or on recordings.

In the case of the opening item, Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, the presence of one of the world’s finest viola players, French-born Antoine Tamestit, certainly advanced the outcome’s cause, while the performance of Elgar’s Concert Overture In the South (Alassio) confirmed Judd’s status as one of a mere handful of ‘great’ living Elgar interpreters. However, in both cases, it was the playing of the NZSO, brilliant, evocative, sensitive and detailed, which furthered the potential of these factors to work their magic so tellingly.

In the wake of these two vibrant realisations, Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, placed last on the programme, seemed to me relatively lacklustre, as if the players had given their all and were going through the motions, albeit at an alarming rate of knots! I would have preferred to have heard the work earlier in the programme, rather than as here – it felt to me as if the music had become a kind of ‘tacked on’ concert finale, something orchestrally brilliant with which to wow the punters and send them home happy! In fact, the music of Francesca isn’t like that at all – and I thought the work’s impact weakened by both its placement and Judd’s ‘hell-for-leather’ (so to speak!) treatment.

Such a joy, by comparison, to go back and discuss the Berlioz performance, earlier in the evening! – here was focus, skill, commitment and finish from all concerned! Violist Antoine Tamestit played his role of the Byronic melancholy dreamer “Childe Harold” to perfection in the work, conjuring up sounds of the utmost poetry across what seemed an endless range of dynamic levels. And I hadn’t previously seen a soloist use the concert platform so theatrically in this music, Tamestit taking his position at the beginning of each of the movements in a different location – next to the harp, up by the horns, at the back of the double basses – and playing the first few measures of his solo in that spot before slowly walking (sometimes, while still playing!) towards the front next to the conductor. Described thus it appears gimmicky – but in fact there was ‘nothing of the circus’ about what Tamestit did, so absorbed were we in the beauty of his playing of the simplest accompanying phrase, not a note wasted! In fact, one scarcely gave a thought to the initial reaction of the dedicatee, Niccolo Paganini, that the solo part lacked virtuosity or excitement.

It’s a work in which the orchestra is an equal partner with the soloist, and therefore different to many concertante-like works. In fact, Berlioz described the work as a “symphony with viola obbligato”, the soloist involved “to a greater or lesser extent” – in places the viola definitely does take a back seat, the hero, for example, mostly standing back and letting the brigands get on with their last movement orgy unimpeded! Despite his initial reaction, Paganini himself came to appreciate the composer’s sheer genius in its bold conception, with the words “Beethoven being dead, only Berlioz can make him live again”, and a gift to the composer of twenty thousand francs.

The opening of the work is orchestra-only, and was here characterfully delineated by deeply sonorous strings and lower winds at the very beginning, a fugal opening giving way to Berlioz’s “Harold” theme on the winds, epitomising the hero’s loneliness and isolation in the Italian Alps. The other two aspects of the movement which captivated me were, firstly, the quiet playing of both soloist and orchestral players in places – the dialogue between viola and harp at the former’s first entry literally transfixed our sensibilities with its sudden hushed beauty at the repeat of the opening exchange – and, secondly the brilliance and focus of the rapid-fire dovetailings of instrumental sound throughout the movement – poetry and motion in perfect accord!

I’ve always loved the second movement’s hypnotic forward tread depicting the March of the Pilgrims, their theme accorded by the composer the most imaginative and atmospheric treatment in between tolling bells and resonant echoes. The viola adds its counterpoint to the processional without ever joining in with the devotions – though Berlioz’s hero can’t help echoing the resonances of the scene with his sul ponticello arpeggios both in the middle section and right at the end. I could have imagined this movement taken a notch slower, to even more atmospheric effect, but the musicians made it work beautifully as here. The third movement’s Serenade also came off splendidly, by turns vigorously rustic and charmingly lyrical, the winds having a real al fresco ambience, firstly oboe and then cor anglais prominent, the viola again very much the observer rather than a participant.

Judd and the players ‘exploded’ the finale’s opening chord with proper vehemence, the strings muscular, the heavy brass wild and weighty, repeatedly throwing down their challenge to the traveller in response to his recounting of past experiences. I liked the ‘glint’ of the orchestral exchanges, the brass pulling both winds and strings into the fray, the forces seemingly imbued with a wild and restless mountain spirit, unable to be tamed or quelled! What a bizarre stroke of Berlioz’s genius is that throbbing string passage answered by the snarling brasses, like an anarchic spirit haunting the more ‘conventional’ orchestral agitations! A brief, ambivalent-sounding lyrical moment from Antoine Tamestit’s viola and the orgiastic sounds of ‘wine, blood, joy and rage’ swept everything before it into a delirious and resonant silence, broken almost immediately by our enthusiastic and appreciative applause! Afterwards, the violist recounted for us an amusing story as a preface to his jaw-dropping encore, an amazing toccata-like piece by Paul Hindemith.

Coming back after the interval to an ‘overture’ seemed a little strange, but we got ourselves accustomed to the ‘concert of two halves’ idea with plenty of help from conductor and orchestra, and, of course, the music. This was Elgar’s splendidly Straussian “In the South”, an ‘overture’ which bore the subtitle “Alassio” (the place on the Italian Riviera where in November 1903 Elgar and his wife Alice decided to sojourn, after finding their originally planned destination overcrowded with English visitors!). The exuberant opening of the piece here threw the figurations skyward and then burgeoned excitingly with weight and brilliance, brass snarling with energy and strings sending swathes of tone across the soundscape. Judd and his players here seemed on fire with vigour and excitement, a feeling which resounded amidst the orchestral textures before melting into nostalgic beauty with some lump-in-the-throat clarinet playing echoed in wind-blown fashion by the strings – and what wonderous answering surges of Straussian string tones delighted our more sensuous sensibilities!

Equally striking was the “giant’s footsteps” passage, said to be suggestive of past glories of Ancient Rome’s military might (Elgar talked about “the conflict of armies on that very spot long ago, where I now stood…”), and here richly presented with all its different emphases, and whose ‘dying fall’ led to the work’s most achingly beautiful sequence in the form of a viola solo, here played with such tenderness and understanding by another visiting viola-player, Giles Francis, from England. The opening’s reprise put an end to such remembrances, Judd and his players building resplendently and excitingly to a brilliant conclusion. Though I sensed there were touches of fatigue in the playing towards the end, I thought this was an uncommonly satisfying reading of a great work, detailed, characterful and energetic.

Perhaps if Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini had been presented in the concert’s first half, the performance might have been more freshly-wrought, and given more of the same detailed focus and interpretative energy that so brought to life the programme’s other two works. As might have been the case with the players, we also in the audience were perhaps less receptive to such a full-on emotional onslaught at this stage, having already been ‘fronted’ by Berlioz and Elgar in no uncertain terms. Whatever the case, I thought the performance too generalised, coming across as more ‘orchestral showpiece’ than an evocation of a number of complex and deeply-felt emotions.

Tchaikovsky was writing about the horror of the poet Dante’s vision of the Inferno, and of his pity at the fate of two lovers, Francesca and Paolo, eternally doomed by circumstance and human cruelty to be buffetted by unceasing winds for their sins of the flesh – in fact Dante tells us in “The Divine Comedy” that he fainted at the end of Francesa’s story, overwhelmed by grief at the lovers’ fate. Such a scenario in music would seem to call for harsh, doom-laden contrasts of great character, set against moments of great tenderness and pity – but after the superbly detailed evocations we heard throughout both the Berlioz and Elgar works, I found Francesca, for all Judd’s and the players’ strenuous efforts, wanting in real ‘ownership’ of the phrases and sequences and their characterisations.

A brief example – I thought clarinettist Patrick Barry’s playing of the solo midway in the piece which heralds Francesca’s telling of her story to the poet simply breathtaking in its evocation for just a few seconds, up to the point where the conductor seemed to, ever so slightly and impatiently, ‘move him on’ – and the spell the player had created was broken! The rest was all beautifully played, but for me that ineffable quality of identification which had so illuminated the rest of the programme seemed not to be there…

Naturally Judd’s and the orchestra’s performance had its moments – there were of course some exciting sounds and virtuosity aplenty from the players. But, perhaps what was needed at this point was something less emotionally fraught to do with Italy, rather like Britten’s Soirees Musicales settings of Rossini, or Respighi’s The Fountains of Rome or even Liszt’s Tasso (the orchestra has recorded the latter for Naxos Records, incidentally). Still, when all was said and done, the important and most memorable aspects of the concert had made their mark via Berlioz’s as well as Elgar’s music. For this listener especially, the memory of Antoine Tamestit’s performance of Harold in Italy with James Judd and the NZSO won’t be easily forgotten.

Peter Mechen

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