12 Jun 2018

Review: NZSO’s An Evening with Simon O’Neill

From Upbeat, 1:00 pm on 12 June 2018

Simon O’Neill and the NZSO took us into the heart of 19th century philosophy and religious mysticism with their program of Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and Anton Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony in E flat.

It was a thrilling concert with tenor Simon O’Neill, conductor Lawrence Renes, and the redoubtable NZSO covering a wide range of moods and emotions.

Kiwi tenor Simon O'Neill

Kiwi tenor Simon O'Neill Photo: Supplied

The Wesendonck Lieder made a good balance with Bruckner’s symphony. These five songs distill down the Wagnerian essence all in the space of 20 minutes or so which makes them a good introduction to the composer’s music.

Each song has its distinctive mood and O’Neill brought these out with finely judged singing. He brought power and delicacy as well as attention to the details of the texts and music. The last part of the second song Stehe still! (Be still) was filled with yearning.

Wagner was working on Tristan und Isolde at this time and echoes of the opera’s soundscapes can be heard in some of these songs with two of them using material that ended up in the opera.

Wagner had discovered the work of the philosopher Schopenhauer at this time and some of the music and lyrics ideas reflect the philosopher’s ideas such as the fourth song Schmerzen with its imagery of dusk, dawn, death, and birth.

Originally for female voice but often performed by men the songs found a passionate and yet thoughtful interpreter in Simon O’Neill.

Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony was a good companion to the Wagner songs and took us into the world of the composer’s devoutly Catholic mysticism.

This is a huge piece lasting over an hour and requires much stamina and fortitude from both performers and audience.

Luckily there was ample on Saturday night. From the opening horn calls over delicately trembling strings to the triumphantly other worldly finale this was a powerful, rich and absorbing performance. The scale and power of the music are built on relatively simple melodies, harmonies and forms that give an effect like some modern drone/minimalist composers.

The symphony has a near ritualistic feel to it that reflects its inspiration in Bruckner’s deeply religious sensibility.

The NZSO and Renes brought out the energy, grandeur, and mystery of the music with a compelling performance that had an almost ecstatic culmination in the last minutes of final movement with its huge bell and organ like waves of sound crashing through the Town Hall.