27 Mar 2018

Review: Christchurch Symphony Orchestra’s Pathétique

From Upbeat, 1:00 pm on 27 March 2018

Well, what can I say? This was just a very special concert indeed and that’s something that’s been very consistent indeed now, especially for the last few of the orchestra’s Masterworks Series.

Tony Chen Lin

Tony Chen Lin Photo: Jeffery Wen

Leonie Holmes – Ancient Rhythms (2005)

Saturday night’s concert started, as so often with this orchestra, with a New Zealand work. This time it was a piece written in 2005 by Leonie Holmes; it’s called Ancient Rhythms, and rhythm is certainly a very welcome and significant aspect of the piece.

Strangely, this was only its second performance since its premiere by the Manukau Symphony Orchestra. I say “strangely” because I have no hesitation in saying that, on the strength of just a single hearing, I’d be prepared to say that I think it’s one of the half-dozen-or-so best New Zealand compositions that I’ve encountered.

The programme gave us the usual signposts about the work’s inspiration and expressive intention, but, for once, here was a work that needed no apology or explanation; the music itself was justification and explanation enough.

Not only did the whole piece feel and sound well-crafted, but it had genuine expressive appeal, variety, originality and excitement. And I can’t imagine Ancient Rhythms getting a better performance than the one that Benjamin Northey and the CSO gave us.

It seemed like something that both he and the players had fully absorbed, almost as if it was in their blood. And the genuine enthusiasm of the capacity audience at the end was totally justified.

It’s not that Leonie Holmes has written, shall we say, an ‘easy’ piece, but it had rhythms and textures and sonorities that seemed to awaken our animal instincts and we responded accordingly.

 I’d really love to hear this piece again, so I hope Benjamin Northey might take it up as a piece to programme in the future, either here or elsewhere.

Ravel – Piano Concerto in G (1929-1931)

But, even so, the highlight of this concert was Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto.

The soloist was former Christchurch pianist Tony Chen Lin who, we were told, was making his professional concerto debut with this performance. And what a performance!

This is, technically, a very difficult work, but every colourful nuance and detail was fully projected by the soloist with masterful variety of light and shade and an almost chamber music feel in the way he worked with the orchestra; and the orchestra here were equal stars in the way they brought Ravel’s colourful magic to life.

For much of the piece, I’m aware of watching and listening to the orchestra just as much as the pianist and so many special details were just so brilliantly done. There are just so many solo contributions from the orchestra, but I specially have to mention the CSO’s long-time ‘crack’ percussion section, who also, incidentally, shone in the Leonie Holmes piece.

But Helen Webby’s harp solos were simply wonderfully done and David McGregor’s Eb Clarinet contributions, together with Matthew Lee’s Piccolo and Thomas Eves’ Trumpet stood out over myriad superb wind solos.

And, again, Benjamin Northey was alert to every moment of this exceptionally colourful work, not at all upstaged by the brilliant playing of Tony Chen Lin.

I saw this pianist in a Piano Duet concert last year with Jun Bouterey-Ishido, in which they gave us absolutely astonishing performances of Ravel’s La Valse and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. And that same mercurial virtuosity of both technique and expressive touch was exceptionally evident in the Ravel Piano Concerto as well.

I’d have to say that I’ve rarely seen a Christchurch Symphony audience quite so genuinely and vociferously enthusiastic as they were on Saturday night. That brought an encore of the Sarabande from Bach’s Partita No. 5 which was truly exquisite in its understated eloquence, so beautifully-phrased with the strands of Bach’s contrapuntal texture almost seeming independent in their heart-felt expression.

Actually, that highlights a very slight mannerism in Tony Chen Lin’s playing which was also noticeable in the long solo opening of the second movement of the Ravel; and that’s an only-just-perceptible tendency to play the left-hand ahead of the right hand.

In the Bach it served to clarify the contrapuntal strands, but in the Ravel it was ever-so-slightly distracting. But I’m nit-picking in a performance that was exceptional by any standards.

Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 6 – (Pathétique), Op. 74 (1893)

It was probably the final work on the programme that gave the CSO a sold-out auditorium on Saturday night and that was Tchaikovsky’s mighty Sixth Symphony – The Pathétique.

But, if that was the case, everyone certainly appreciated the two other works equally as much. Some people may still refer to Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece as a warhorse, but again, in a performance like this it really does comes up fresh and newly-minted in a way that fully justifies its frequent appearance in concert halls.

The last time I heard it in concert was with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, but this performance outstripped that by miles.

There was something very different about this performance compared to the many that I’ve encountered before and I’ve been trying to analyse how and why. It may have been helped by the rather dry acoustic of the Charles Luney Auditorium, but there was a clarity of texture that exposed every tiny detail of Tchaikovsky’s score.

It was almost like those recordings from the early days of stereo where multi-micing highlighted subtleties that you normally don’t get in live performances.

This was the case right from the stunningly played opening bassoon solo, which seemed to float and swell with the accompanying low string textures; and Benjamin Northey gave us longer-than-usual silences between phases, both here and later in the first movement, and they were somehow more than just silences, they had an emptiness, an expressive emptiness that’s hard to explain.

The whole movement is full of contrasts, and in this performance those contrasts seemed more expressively diverse and heart-wrenching than I think I’ve ever experienced before.

And when it came to the great majestic climax before the famous lyrical melody creeps in for the last time, the Russian soul seemed to be bared as never before; the playing here was almost unnerving in its impact.

The two middle movements were just as effectively projected, but they’re quite a different, less troubled world than the outer movements, so that when Benjamin Northey started that heart-rending cry that begins the Finale, with barely a break after the boisterous third movement March, all the despair in the world seemed to be contained in those first bars of the last movement.

 And the intensity of that Finale matched the opening movement in a way that made the whole symphony cohesive, and almost terrifying in its impact.

I have to confess that I’d been thinking “I don’t need to go to yet another performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony”, until your producer called and asked for a review, but I was so glad to be there for a night of truly exceptional music and music-making from the Christchurch Symphony on Saturday.