New Zealand Richard Strauss, Jules Mouquet, Prokofiev: Henry Close (horn), Jacob Webster (flute), Auckland Youth Orchestra / Antun Poljanich (conductor). The Old Library, Whangarei, New Zealand, 22.6.2019. (PSe)
R. Strauss – Horn Concerto No.1 in E flat, Op.11
Jules Mouquet – La Flûte de Pan, Op.15
Prokofiev – Symphony No.7 in C sharp minor, Op.131
Chamber Music New Zealand’s current tag-line is ‘Music up Close’ which rather neatly encapsulates the chamber music experience. However, can you imagine the same epithet being applied to a performance by a full symphony orchestra? Well, I can – now. On its previous visits to Whangarei, the Auckland Youth Orchestra (AYO) had used the Capitaine Bougainville Theatre. Now, for one thing this place is very expensive to hire, which is a severe constraint on an orchestra that really needs ‘out in the sticks’ experience but (as yet) has no sponsorship to support such ventures; and for another the CBT is totally anechoic, so that if you don’t have line-of-sight on the brass they will be all-but-inaudible and if you do they will blow your head off. So, this time AYO opted instead to try out our Old Library recital hall.
Of the floor-space of this rather nice, intimate venue for chamber ‘music up close’, the 75 players of the AYO occupied a good half, leaving space for an audience of no more than 100 at best. Feeling somewhat apprehensive, I sat near the back; even there I was no more than three metres from the back desks of the first violins, which struck me as being too up-close for comfort. For once, though, I was entirely happy to be almost completely wrong; and for that I have the walls and ceiling to thank. Although the Old Library’s acoustic has little or no reverberation its ambience is warm and quite wonderful.
The concert’s structure was slightly unusual: a symphony prefaced by two concertos. When he wrote his Horn Concerto No.1, Richard Strauss was just 18. Apparently, his calling it Waldhornkonzert was a bit of a joke on his father, an eminent horn player who favoured the natural horn. As the work is tough enough to play on a thoroughly modern horn, you can imagine how it must have perplexed Strauss senior. Joking apart, this work is now generally considered to be the finest horn concerto of the nineteenth century. Then again, although Strauss wasn’t the only composer who chucked a solo horn in at the deep end (there’s Nielsen’s Helios Overture, for instance), I doubt whether there’s another end as deep as Strauss’s. Consequently, I felt a twinge of sympathy for Henry Close, who had but one orchestral chord to brace himself before taking the plunge.
Almost inevitably, the water proved to be on the chilly side. However, Henry immediately proved his mettle; utterly unfazed by his shaky start, he quickly captivated the audience with his glowing tone and impressively idiomatic, exceptionally mature interpretation. His spirited first movement – and, for that matter, the other two movements – was blessed with a superb feel for the ebb and flow of the music. Whilst the second movement was perhaps a bit on the slow side of andante, it by no means dragged its feet and was eloquently expressed – and Henry displayed a really nice line in soulful ‘woodland calls’.
Rattling along briskly, the finale positively throbbed with vitality, yet comfortably accommodated the flowing lyric lines. With hindsight, knowing the bomb that Strauss was to drop on an unsuspecting world only a few, short years later, the orchestral side of this concerto can seem a bit penny-plain – however Antun Poljanich, coaxing every last drop of substance from the score, put it in its best possible light. Now, although I like this concerto, hitherto I have always felt that it went on a bit; comparatively, this performance seemed to be over in no time. Hence, it merits a very big tick.
Our second concerto – or, I should say, concertante work – was Jules Mouquet’s La Flûte de Pan, a work which for me, up until a few months ago, was terra incognita. Apparently, Mouquet never actually orchestrated his Sonata for Flute and Piano, and the programme booklet omitted to credit the orchestrator; this is a pity, for whoever it was has done a good job. In complete contrast to Strauss’s solidly German ‘forest’, the pictures painted by Mouquet and ‘Mr. X’ are sultry glades of luminously coloured verdure.
Flautist Jacob Webster was agile, fluent, tonally seductive and in complete command. Moreover, he was beautifully matched by Poljanich’s orchestra, whose succession of warmly radiant, flickering colours created such an ambiance très Française that poor old Pan had to make do with a back seat. Following a first movement ending in a transport of delight, the second movement opened with strings of a lovely sheen complemented by discretely rounded woodwind, feather-bedding the elegant and eager chirruping of the soloist’s ‘birdsong’. Contrastingly, Jacob imbued the lyrical climaxes with a wonderful, somehow almost dreamlike passionate intensity.
In the finale, the fabulous accents and dynamics of the AYO lent real rhythmic ‘bounce’ to Jacob’s breathtakingly nimble chittering. Thereafter, the atmosphere acquired a heady, steamy, even erotic quality (intimations here of Debussy’s Faun), in which Jacob’s flute began, or so it seemed to me, to smoulder sensually. After the short but boisterous coda, I had pause to reflect that this was a most captivating effort.
The one work after the interval was Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony, which in some respects continued – or completed – the programme’s possibly inadvertent progression ‘from wakefulness to dream’. In 1952, Prokofiev was out of favour with the Soviet, consequently penniless, and he was chronically ill, knocking at death’s door. He was asked to write a new work for children and that work evolved into this wonderful symphony Surely, he must have realised that it would be his swansong; for – possibly stimulated by the ostensible ‘childish’ remit – the music became something of a review of his life, an unprecedented kaleidoscope of memories (as opposed, I might add, to direct musical quotations). Poljanich’s notes in the programme booklet showed how carefully he had thought about the music, I expected great things from this performance. I was not disappointed.
I could say that nobody put a foot wrong, but, true as it was, that would tell less than half the tale. This performance was another AYO ‘special’, a transfixing tour de force right across the board. The ‘Big Picture’ was presented both graphically and magisterially; every detail, every nuance on the one hand made its individual point and on the other blended into its proper place in the overall scheme. The orchestra’s sound, from breathless whisper to full-throated roar, continually tingled the spine. The very opening, a throat-grabbing, balefully ‘hollow’ piano chord, left no doubt that something wonderful was afoot. There was the inevitability of the initial progression from sturdy string polyphony to menacing climax; then, the horns tenderly introducing that marvellous ‘Big Tune’, which rose to a tutti flood of melody; in the development were eerie shifts of mood and fearful savagery was brought to the brief climax; thence to superbly wrought, crystal-clear interplays, a sweeping reprise of that ‘Big Tune’ (redolent of Cinderella gliding across the sumptuous ballroom), and the return of the tinkling clock, now tainted by ominous whirrings.
Poljanich absolutely nailed every twist and turn of the giddy second movement, bringing into high relief all its grotesqueries, brilliance, sarcasms, boozy nudges and winks, occasional ‘things that go bump in the night’ and forging an incredible ‘runaway’ ending (that momentarily called to mind the famous carousel climax of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train). Adopting a proper andante, Poljanich steered a subtle course through the curiously allusive third movement, tracing the undercurrents subverting its naïve march-tune, and drawing some beautifully crisp articulation to the lovely, dreamy textures.
Launched by thrilling strings and grumpy brass, their finale more than justified its vivace marking – the orchestra was positively romping. In the middle, how shocking was that alarming ‘writhing’ that contorts, even cripples the main theme, before the music hares off again – with moods shifting so widely and vertiginously that you don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or quiver with fear. The final statements of the ‘Big Tune’, pushed to the level of desperation, were severed heartrendingly by that tinkling clock – and out of the ensuing silence emerged Prokofiev’s alternative, up-beat ending.
And that was my only problem with this astonishing performance. Basically, the choice is to end like Don Juan or to end like Till Eulenspiegel. Antun Poljanich chose the latter simply because he felt like giving it an outing; but surely, given the nature of the music as outlined above, it can only be the former, can’t it? Ah well, I suppose – since you can simply take no notice of those last few bars – it is really no big deal, certainly not when you are so ‘up close’ (in more senses than one) to a performance of such perceptive intensity.