New Zealand Kodály, Lalo, Rimsky-Korsakov: Johannes Moser (‘cello), New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Miguel Harth-Bedoya (conductor). Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington. 17.6.2016. (PM)
Kodály: Dances of Galanta (1933)
Lalo: Cello Concerto in D Minor
Rimsky-Korsakov: Symphonic Suite Scheherazade Op.35
Former music director of the Auckland Philharmonic, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, took time out from his current duties as conductor-in-chief of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra/Oslo to make a welcome guest appearance on the podium of the NZSO for a programme aptly named “Scheherazade”. Music by Zoltan Kodály and Eduard Lalo featured in the concert’s first half, but, Rimsky-Korsakov’s eponymous symphonic suite made a resplendent climax to an evening of colourful and exotic music-making. In this respect, both the Kodály and Lalo items contributed to the same excitement, colour and folk-tale atmosphere.
Kodály’s “Dances of Galanta” was inspired by the composer’s childhood memories of living for a number of years in Galanta, a small market town on the main route between Vienna and Budapest, and listening to the Gypsy bands playing their traditional songs and dances. Kodály later discovered several books of Hungarian dances published in Vienna in the early 1800s, and containing music “after several gypsies from Galanta” – so he used these tunes and rhythms as a basis for his “Dances”, following the traditional Gypsy structure of contrasting slow (lassu) with fast (friss) sequences, as did Franz Liszt in many of his earlier Hungarian Rhapsodies.
I thought the performance was brilliant and breathtaking in so many respects – firstly in the manner that the players attacked and dug into their music, not in a brutal or rough manner, but in a whole-hearted, expressive and detailed way. It was playing which seemed to me to have a kind of “attitude” – a determination that the music’s inherent qualities would be expressed – hence the lower strings’ digging into their opening phrases, and the horn’s full-throated calls soon after.
Throughout the work there were so many opportunities for individual players to shine – a justly famous clarinet solo, soon after the beginning, for example, played with superb control by Patrick Barry – and as many sequences for strings and ensembled winds which Miguel Harth-Bedoya shaped with such purpose and variety of expression. In fact, it all seemed completely at one with the music, so that no section seemed in any way half-hearted or merely decorative – it all simmered, throbbed and crackled with intensity, from the heartfelt statements of the “big tunes”, through the quirky instrumental detailing of the various transitions, to the unbridled energies of the “friss” sections which drove the work to its brilliant conclusion.
Mention the name Edouard Lalo and the first thing which comes to the average concertgoer’s mind is a work for violin and orchestra called “Symphonie Espagnole”. Funnily enough, in Lalo’s native France the “Symphonie Espagnole” is reputedly far less known, and the composer’s single opera, called Le Roi d’Ys (The King of Ys) is said to be his most popular work. Of course Lalo wrote other things, including a Symphony which none other than Sir Thomas Beecham recorded – and there’s an attractive ballet called Namouna, as well. I had forgotten that I’d heard this ‘Cello Concerto before – not an encouraging sign, I thought at first – and the opening of the concerto was no help in this respect, with the writing for the solo instrument down in the doldrums of its lower register! Another thing I found disconcerting was the brass writing in the first movement, which seemed to consist almost entirely of sforzandi chordings, most of which came the hapless listener either repeatedly or unexpectedly – it gave me an uncomfortable feeling of running through a coconut grove during a storm, trying to dodge the falling coconuts.
But after that unpromisingly gruff beginning, the writing for the solo ‘cello began to do beautiful things, especially in conjunction with the winds, and adroitly avoiding those projectile-like coconuts. This was partly due to the superbly-voiced playing of German/Canadian ‘cellist, Johannes Moser, whose solo lines sang, whispered, chattered and declaimed in masterly fashion throughout. The concerto’s slow movement was an amiable enough diversion, alternating between drifting melancholic lines for orchestra and ‘cello, and livelier Spanish-style dance episodes – but it was the finale of the work which really captivated my interest, containing as it did the one melody that I remembered from the last time I heard this work. Beginning with a beautiful cantabile melody from the soloist, the music then turned on its heels and danced into some brilliant exchanges between ‘cello and orchestra, the latter introducing an arresting, angular melody which was really all arms and legs, but which stuck in the mind for ages afterwards as a result.
As a bonus to the concerto, ‘cellist Johannes Moser gave us the Sarabande from the first of JS Bach’s ‘solo ‘Cello Suites – and I can only describe the sounds the player conjured from his instrument as celestial – such purity of tone, such fullness of phrasing, such rapt concentration, such exquisite shading of dynamics. I will risk cliche by saying that it seemed, for a few moments, as if time and space had come to a standstill to enable us just to listen to and be moved by what was being played….
In a sense Rimsky-Korsakov’s work “Scheherazade” took up in visceral excitement from where Kodály’s “Dances” in the concert’s first half had left off. Based on the tales of the “Thousand and One Arabian Nights”, the music began with the story of the Sultan Shahryar and the beautiful Scheherazade, whom the Sultan had just married. Having discovered that his first wife was unfaithful to him Shahryar had beheaded her and then vowed to take revenge upon womankind by similarly executing each of his subsequent wives after one night of marriage – and it was now the latest wife, Scheherazade’s turn. As resourceful as she was beautiful, Scheherazade of course escaped death by relating to her bloodthirsty husband a series of unfinished stories, night after night, for a thousand and one nights, after which, of course, her life was spared.
Right from the portentous opening, with brass and lower strings menacingly depicting the Sultan and his vengeful, bloodthirsty intent towards all women, conductor Harth-Bedoya encouraged the NZSO players to “gird the music’s loins”, and give Rimsky-Korsakov’s colours, textures and rhythmic trajectories every chance to express their full effect. The characters and situations in the various stories were made to spring to life against a backdrop of atmosphere and detail which straightaway transported us to those realms of far away and long ago, while vividly retelling them as if a kind of “here and now”. Having encountered in no uncertain terms the Sultan’s murderous intentions, we were then presented with the purity and gentleness of the lovely, if equally determined character of Scheherazade, through her beautiful, but unflinching violin solos which followed.
Concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen’s playing of those solos was wrought of magic throughout, and never more so than over the last few minutes of the work, when Scheherazade’s blissful and ecstatic tones soared over her husband’s deep and gentle murmurings of contentment, his anger completely dissolved in peaceful accord with his beautiful and steadfast Sultana. Of course, supporting the violin-playing all the way was a fantastic array of individual and collective instrumental detail and a collective spirit from the orchestra which, thanks to its inspirational conductor, never faltered. It was, to my great delight, as fine a performance of a favourite work of mine that I ever hope to hear.