No Better Way for Edo de Waart to Conclude his First NZSO Season

New ZealandNew Zealand Mozart, Elgar: Ronald Brautigam (piano), New Zealand Symphony Orchestra / Edo de Waart (conductor), Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, NZ. 29.10.2016. (PM)

Wellington, NZ. 29.03.2016. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Photo credit: Stephen A'Court. COPYRIGHT ©Stephen A'Court
Edo de Waart © Stephen A’Court

Mozart – Piano Concerto No.24 in C Minor, K.491
Elgar – Symphony No.1 in A-flat Op.55

With this programme the NZSO’s still-new Music Director, Edo de Waart reached the climax of his first season here in Wellington. It’s one which I think has successfully given the lie to a comment I heard from somebody at the season’s beginning, that the orchestra had made a “safe” choice of a conductor towards the end of his career, one which would more than likely be his final permanent appointment and which he would “coast through” without expending the fire and energy of more youthful and robust years.

It’s true that the marketing of de Waart as “the Maestro” and the labelling of the series as “Edo de Waart’s Masterworks” has something of the “grand siegneur”, bordering almost on an elongated valediction, which might well give rise to those sentiments expressed above, in certain quarters. But the performances from conductor and orchestra have, to my ears, sounded anything but valedictory, including two stellar presentations of Mahler symphonies (an epic Third and a buoyant, youthful-sounding Fourth), and fresh, beautifully-crafted readings of some of Mozart’s greatest works, the Fortieth Symphony, the Fourth Horn Concerto, and this latest offering of one of the most deeply heartfelt Piano Concertos, the C Minor, K.491.

De Waart even managed to make musical sense of a work I’ve always regarded as something of an aberration, Richard Strauss’s Sinfonia Domestica, and then at a later concert realising all the autumnal beauty of the same composer’s Four Last Songs. Beethoven and Haydn (the latter not in Wellington) have also figured throughout the season, including a good (without being earth-shaking, in my view) “Eroica”; though, to be fair, thought more highly of by my colleague Lindis Taylor in his perceptive review.

In short, de Waart’s first season with the NZSO has given me considerable delight, as well as fuelling my expectations for next year – with works such as Elgar’s Sea Pictures and Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony promised (both of which are in the conductor’s opening concert), as well as a further Mahler Symphony (No.1) and a concert version of Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust later in the year, those expectations have plenty of enticing raw material on which to feast and keep alive!

As for this evening’s concert, there was plenty to look forward to, with the aforementioned Mozart C Minor Piano Concerto K.491 sharing the programme with a landmark work for British music, Elgar’s A-flat Symphony. In the concerto the soloist was Ronald Brautigam, whom I’d not previously heard in concert, and who’s developed something of a specialist reputation as an exponent of the fortepiano – here, on a modern concert grand he gave us a performance of the keyboard part which I thought appropriately echoed an “authentic instrument” world, never once hammering or barnstorming the music, but keeping the dynamics finely gradated and within the bounds of what the composer might have called “taste”. What shadows and anxieties generated by the music weren’t allowed an overtly spectral aspect, the realms of darkness instead well-defined, and relying more on ambivalence and the power of suggestion for their on-going fascination.

One of the glories of this particular concerto is the prominence the composer gives to the wind parts, probably indicating the presence of any number of gifted players in Vienna during Mozart’s time. Again and again we had occasion to delight in the detailing of the individual lines, the dovetailing of the different timbres, and the interaction with the soloist. The NZSO has, for the last few years, developed a kind of “royal family” of talented instrumentalists in this particular area and their skills, both individual and corporate, came to the fore in this concerto.

Though employing a larger wind section than usual – flute, bassoons, oboes and clarinets, as well as horns, trumpets and timpani – the orchestra used a modest number of strings, in accordance with common period practice today. It’s ultimately the responsibility of the conductor, of course, to make sure that everything is heard, no matter what the orchestral strength – but here the orchestral balances had an attractive transparency, which I’m certain the reduced string numbers would have enhanced, but which also reflected the spirit with which the music was delivered.

This performance seemed to bring out the music’s stoical qualities in the first movement, with the piano almost an arbiter between the strings’ darkness and urgency and the winds’ contrasting poise and lyricism. The recapitulation of the opening thrilled us with its orchestral muscularity, as did the pianist with his solo cadenza – after which the movement had the impudence to end quietly, the piano most unusually joining in with the final orchestral sequence, uneasily playing a series of arpeggios as the music died away.

The piano sang the slow movement’s opening so sweetly, strings and winds variously answering with full-throated tones, with the winds’ delivery of the following pert minor-key sequence an enchanting effect. A subsequent episode had the horns joining in at the bottom of the texture, burbling away beneath winds and strings and thoroughly enjoying themselves. It was all realised without any self-consciousness, with not a detail’s sweetness wasted, Brautigam fully complicit with the interchanges, and ready at the principal melody’s return to adroitly add embellishments to the line.

So mellifluous was it all that the attacca finale’s minor-key beginning brought us around with a turn, despite its sotto voce beginnings – suddenly here was furrowed-brow purpose moving us on, the three muffled drum-beats at the beginning of every phrase serving notice that the honeymoon of the slow movement was well and truly over. Brautingam, de Waart and the players seemed to goad one another into pointed exchanges with each variation, culminating in a vigorous stamping-dance sequence which was all part of the movement’s creative trajectory, conjuring up great excitement!

But austerity and severity returned – the pianist’s sure-footed tripping into his final 6/8 metre variation gave some cause for hope, but his anxious chromatic figurations were soon taken up by the orchestra, and suddenly conflagrated with a final whipcrack flourish, leaving little doubt as to the composer’s fraught state of mind at the concerto’s conclusion.

At least with the Elgar Symphony which followed the interval, one got the feeling at the end that its emotional trajectories had reached a point of triumphant arrival, however hard-won the victory might have seemed. Certainly, the work of each composer demonstrated a willingness – perhaps a need? – for the music to inhabit some tranquil spaces amidst the darkness and strife; and each of the slow movements here could lay claim to be set among the most beautiful written by their respective creators.

In the case of the Elgar Symphony, conductor Edo de Waart and his players gave the most beautiful performance of this Adagio movement that I’ve ever heard in the concert hall, capped off by the most magically hushed playing of the final bars by clarinettist Patrick Barry and the NZSO strings – a moment worth the price of a ticket to the concert alone. Elgar’s veneration for Beethoven’s slow movements, immortalised in the well-known “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations, here received further, even more heartfelt treatment. As a music-loving friend of mine used to say regarding such experiences – “They’re moments you die for, really….”

And, again, as with the Mozart Concerto, the finale stole in and dispelled the dream, here with dark, sombre tones from the strings, Elgar again recalling Beethoven with his ghostly march-like figures, not unlike those of the latter’s Fifth Symphony Scherzo movement. De Waart and his players conjured up whole vistas of foreboding, here, with the work’s opening motif sounding almost spooked by the overbearing ambiences, caught up in the music’s grim vortices, and trying to reassert itself amid the gloom. An eruption of energies broke the waters and set the music on its unstoppable course, gathering in great shouts from the brass, shrill choruses from the winds, surges of emotion from the strings and seismic outbursts from the percussion – the man certainly could write for the orchestra!

As for the first two movements, each was characterised by conductor and players with a surety and wholeheartedness that dug in and warmed the core of the music into life. Neither of Elgar’s two symphonies “play themselves”, in a sense that getting through the notes simply isn’t enough – while it’s almost impossible for musicians to give boring performances, however uninvolved, of many of the great works by other composers in this genre, it seems to me that Elgar’s symphonic writing requires something extra. It’s what I would call a kind of “inner life” which comes from specific characterisations, so that the music literally leaps from the pages.

One of these characters is a kind of “stride”, a firm-footed step, a muscularity and vigour whose pulsations drive the music forwards, trajectories which dominate the first two movements of this work. We heard this right from the outset with the steadily-pulsing “motto” theme, beginning quietly, and then bursting unashamedly forth, a very public and ceremonial manner, put across here with great pomp and splendour. When the allegro determinedly begins, surging forward, the “stride” becomes even more purposeful and vigorous, as it did throughout this performance, always determined, always focused on some “end”, ready at any moment to melt into some more lyrical sequence or “interlude” before taking up the cudgels again.

In between these “striding” impulses come moments of relative tranquillity, some of them heart-stopping in their beauty – each of these beautifully prepared and delivered by the players. De Waart demonstrated a wonderful patience in letting these sequences have room to breathe, with magical results – Elgar once described a piece of his as having a “wind-blown” quality, making specific reference to the scherzo’s lyrical moments as “something you would hear down by the river”. In de Waart’s and his players’ performances of both of these opening movements, I thought I heard this quality as an integral part of the music’s fibre – something lyrical and free, out in the open, borne on the wind’s breath, by turns playful and tranquil, all suggested by the music-making we heard.

Something that only recently occurred to me was that Edo de Waart’s conducting lineage of influence would have surely included at least two great Dutch conductors, Bernard Haitink and Eduard van Beinum, both noted Elgarians. Their distinguished predecessor at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Wilhelm Mengelberg, apparently also took an interest in Elgar’s music, though I’ve not been able to find any specifically documented performances. Tradition or no, it was our privilege to be present when de Waart led the NZSO through this epoch-making work, leaving, in the memory of this listener, a performance for the ages. No better way could have been imagined for a conductor to conclude a first season as Music Director of an Orchestra.

Peter Mechen

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