Youthful Passions And Enigmas in Wellington

New ZealandNew Zealand Brahms, Strauss, Elgar: Joyce Yang (piano) with New Zealand Symphony Orchestra / Edo de Waart (conductor). Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, (PM)

Joyce Yang (c) KT Kim
Joyce Yang (c) KT Kim

Brahms – Piano Concerto No.1 in D Minor Op.15
R. Strauss – Wind Serenade in E-flat Major Op.7
Elgar – Variations on an Original Theme, ‘Enigma’ Op.35

This was the second occasion on which I had heard pianist Joyce Yang tackle a concerto in the key of D Minor with Edo de Waart and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra – last time in 2017 she gave a scintillating performance of Rachmaninoff’s greatest work in the genre, while this time it was another ‘heavyweight’ work, the Brahms D Minor Concerto, to which she brought all the strength, poetry, energy and gravitas the piece needed to help speak its name.

Though obviously not as ‘display-orientated’ as the Russian work, the Brahms concerto, like its own later B-flat companion, certainly requires as stellar a technique from the soloist to cope with its demands; and Yang thrilled us with her unique amalgam of dignity, sensitivity and physicality in realising the young Brahms’s heartfelt creation, a work somewhat attenuated in the making.

I do find a lot of performances of this concerto take a few measures to properly get going, as here – I thought that Edo de Waart and his players didn’t straightaway hit their stride, but once the opening gestures were dealt with, they leaned into the agitations more and more wholeheartedly as the music went on. Indeed, the return of the opening brought forth a searing tremolando from the strings which thrillingly intensified the impact of the music’s build-up to a point where the playing burst forth and most resplendently announced the appearance of the soloist.

Yang confidently and expressively sounded the opening chords of her entry, moulding her figurations and building the music towards the mighty trills which she attacked as part of an underlying momentum, conveying to us a feeling of an indomitable will and purpose being summonsed. The orchestra in response were galvanised, a give-and take between forces set up on different dynamic levels and emotional temperatures.

The big, upward-stepping noble theme was sounded strongly and simply under Yang’s fingers, her whole person held still and upright at the keyboard, allowing her wrists and fingers to do the work, and commanding a real sense of flow and momentum. Winds and strings played their part in tandem with the soloist, leading to the solo horn’s superbly-crafted exchanges with the piano. Yang’s ‘big’ mid-movement outburst then made the Michael Fowler Centre’s rafters rattle, meeting the orchestral forces head-on, trilled piano notes flailing and winds shrieking, and the figurations bubbling and seething with emotion. The music then took us to the climax of an incredible exchange between piano and orchestra, the confrontations shaking and enlivening both players and listeners’ sensibilities before relative calm was ultimately restored. After a recap of those beautiful earlier dialogues between horn and piano, Yang proceeded to plunge into the swirling figurations which instigated a proper soloist-versus-orchestra ‘clash of equals’ conclusion to the movement!

After such strenuous effort we all needed a respite, and Brahms provided just such a haven of poetry and sensibility in the slow movement, winds encouraging the strings to bring back some sunshine to the world, which in turn reawakened the piano, its phrases singing and further expanding, the world murmuring in deep satisfaction at the restoration of peace. In the midst of the calm, the winds sounded an anxious note to which the strings responded with alarm, but the piano stayed close at hand, steadying the outburst’s angst and encouraging the strings and winds to lead the way back to the serenities of yore. Yang’s passagework took on great strength and feeling as the music strove to plumb the deepest recesses of lyrical feeling – very rapt playing was generated by de Waart and the orchestra here – before the pianist began the incredible sequence of trills that mirrored in a more poetic way the tensions of the first movement.

With Yang’s impetuous plunge into the finale’s opening we were away, the orchestra picking up its skirts and joining in the chase for dear life, the playing carrying us along with the utmost exhilaration and energy, the pianist’s incredible reserves of power and clear-sighted focus introducing the great and noble second theme before dancing its way back into the vigorous abandonment of the opening once more. We heard lovely string playing as the orchestra took up a variation of the second theme, sharing it with the piano, before introducing a fugato-like passage combining and counterpointing the lines with the movement’s opening – amazing music! – and then Yang, with a virtuoso flourish reintroduced the opening theme with such vertiginous bounce and elan as to make one almost laugh with exhilaration, before the orchestra summonsed her formally for the cadenza…

Here, Yang’s long-breathed solo phrases moved us inexorably from the music’s power and grandeur to its poetry and warmth, bringing to us the composer’s heroically conceived intermingling of soloist and orchestra in the same opening theme sounded as a series of resonating hunting fanfares from the old German forests, to marvellously nostalgic effect – a series of spontaneously urged flourishes from the piano, and the work’s coda was sparked into action, soloist and orchestra rushing towards freedom and light and fulfilment! Yang’s playing showed her total identification with and feeling for the music she played.

Probably as a counterweight to the somewhat emotion-laden pair of works programmed for the concert, conductor Edo de Waart drew on one of his previous lives as a wind player with and conductor of the Netherlands Wind Ensemble by directing an early Serenade for Winds by Richard Strauss, the single-movement Op.7 work in E-flat. I thought it an altogether lovely work, whose opening sequences profiled the ensemble’s makeup, beginning with the perky, focused oboes, before allowing the flutes plenty of airy figuration space, and then using the clarinets to smooth and polish the music’s surfaces. The horns exchanged heroic-toned gestures with the oboes, before the clarinets and bassoons began a jolly counter-subject to that of the opening, the touches of antiphonal ambience totally delightful and disarming! In the ensemble’s centre was a string-double bass, giving the structure a deep and solid foundation, and underpinning the combinations of lighter timbres.

Altogether more purposeful was the second half’s other work, Elgar’s career-defining Op. 36 from 1899, his Variations on an Original Theme ‘Enigma’, popularly known as the ‘Enigma Variations’. This was, of course the work that made Elgar’s name as a composer internationally, one which he himself described as begun ‘in a spirit of humour’ but continued ‘in deep seriousness’. Edo de Waart asserted his love for the piece in his programme note, and certainly affirmed that statement by dint of this beautifully prepared and sensitively realised performance with the orchestra.

Fortunately, Elgar’s music has long since escaped from that once prevalent parochialism among critics regarding the music’s ‘Englishness’ and the necessity for an ‘English’ interpreter for the music to properly ‘speak its truth’. Here we had an interpreter whose regard for the piece was reflected in his painstaking care over detail, his very centred way with tempo relationships, and his understanding of human nature and its quirkiness as portrayed by the composer.

After a beautifully sounded introductory theme, and a winsome C.A.E. (Elgar’s portrayal of his wife, Alice), but building to a stirring climax, indicating, perhaps, the strength of the composer’s bond with Alice, the music diversified charmingly with each portrayal of a friend – in H.D.S-P., for example, the agitated string-lines created a veritable flurry of impulse and nervous reaction, while the following RBT brought forth a contrasting grace and poise, with both the oboe and the strings variously suggesting wit and charm. And then we got excitingly rumbustious playing from the timpani, and great horns, denoting the energetic manner of one W.M.B., obviously somewhat of a no-nonsense gentleman!

The diverse roll-call of personalities continued with R.P.A., characterised by great and passionate string phrases alternated with charming wind piquancies, an ebb-and-flow portrayal marked by wonderful orchestral control,  closely followed by Ysobel, the NZSO violas producing tender tones both concerted and solo, and then, more disconcertingly, by Troyte, with the timpani instigating several running crescendi to great effect and the heavy brass replying with upward-thrusting relish! How tender and fresh the wind ascents sounded in the following W.N. and how romantically the strings replied with their descending answer – like an Elgarian ‘Invitation to the Dance’!

Everybody was, of course, waiting for Nimrod, Elgar’s tribute to a close friend and confidant, with whom he used to discuss the sublimity of Beethoven’s great slow movements – and the players responded eloquently to de Waart’s direct, unfussy leadership, finding more and more warmth and tonal weight to thrilling effect as the piece finally peaked, then fell away most affectingly, in the space of a single question-and-answer phrase – an exalted moment in time!

It was possible to feel sorry for Dorabella whose music had to follow such an outpouring of pure emotion – but in a strange way, the effect here was all the more touching, a single instrument (the viola) sounding a disarmingly contrasted tone, in this case courtesy of the most ravishing playing, and suitably commented on by the other instruments towards the end. Elgar again heightened his contrasts with the following G.R.S., a fantastically energetic fragment of brilliant orchestration, receiving whiplash playing from the ensemble, and then, in the following B.G.N., employing a solo cello doing what the instrument does best, drawing a rich, romantically-conceived melodic line, aided and abetted by the other strings, but with the solo cello having the last word in a ‘to die for’ manner!

We have come to regard the Romanza Variation, with its doubly enigmatic asterisks signifying an unknown woman who, in the composer’s own words was ‘on a sea voyage’, as possibly having a New Zealand connection – speculation remains as to whether the woman was Lady Mary Lygon, a local aristocrat and acquaintance of Elgar, or Helen Weaver, a girl the composer was affianced to for eighteen months before she broke off the engagement and emigrated to New Zealand for health reasons (incidentally neither woman was actually ‘on a sea voyage’ at the time of the music’s composition, so the ‘mystery’ remains essentially unsolved).

The clarinet, taking over from the solo cello, adopted a brisker, more energetic manner at the music’s beginning, alternating phrases with the strings and oboe, but then, over eerily subterranean murmurings, mingling both sea and ship’s engine rumblings, the solo instrument played a repeated four-note phrase of ineffable longing, taken up mournfully and majestically by the brasses as the sea-and-ship rumblings swelled in volume and intensity – a spell-binding effect! Though the perky opening manner returned, the music again subsided, allowing an affecting echo from the clarinet of the ‘longing’ melody to sound, before fading into mysterious silence …

Of a sudden, the work’s finale was upon us, impatiently hustling us about, pulling at our lapels and wanting all of our attention, before finally eye-balling and ear-catching our sensibilities with several tremendous fanfare-like shouts, proclaiming some kind of arrival or fulfilment or completion of a great work. Though the urgency of the introduction was palpable, de Waart allowed the brass figures room for splendour and majesty, rather than conveying undue haste or impatience. The different orchestral sections covered themselves with glory in their characterful delineations of the fanfare theme and its variants, while the brief reappearance of the C.A.E. variation occurred flowingly and naturally. De Waart’s direction was beautifully paced, building the excitement fittingly to the final resplendent perorations, the players doing themselves and the music’s composer proud!

Peter Mechen

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