18 Jun 2018

Review: CSO’s Fear and Courage

From Upbeat, 1:00 pm on 18 June 2018

The title of this concert was Fear and Courage. I don’t know who works away at inventing these titles, but this was a good one given the works on the programme.

Pianist Nikolay Khozyaniov

Pianist Nikolay Khozyaniov Photo: Arim Almuelle

Bernard Herrmann: Psycho: A Short Suite for Strings (1960)

‘Fear’ is a prime element in Alfred Hitchcock’s famous 1960 film Psycho, although, out of its movie context, this Short Suite for Strings, sounded mainly ‘nice’ or ‘quirky’ rather than expressing anything truly scary.

I’d even go so far as to say that the famous knife-slashing violins in the second movement sounded ‘amusing’ rather than frightening. Despite the movie’s age, this ‘sound-effect’ seems to be universally familiar and I recall many a student violinist throwing these knife-slashes into the mix during warm-ups and rehearsal breaks.

The movement titles also strike an amusing chord (if you’ll pardon the pun); in the vein of Caesar Franck’s Prelude, Aria and Finale or Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, this suite from Psycho has movement titles: Prelude, Murder and Finale.

Despite a revival of interest in Herrmann’s film scores, these extracts seemed thin on content, although played with ample commitment from the CSO strings, making them a pleasant enough opening warmer on an appropriately foggy night.

Some of Herrmann’s film scores for Hitchcock like Vertigo or North by Northwest have recently been reassessed as having more worth than mere work-a-day film music, but for me its just very derivative late nineteenth century romanticism with the addition of lots of syncopation and, in many scores, a huge array of percussion.


Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26

The word ‘Courage’ in the concert’s title might well apply to any pianist who’s prepared to take on Prokofiev’s blisteringly virtuosic Third Piano Concerto. But the demands of this scintillating masterpiece held no fears for Nikolay Khozyainov.

The ease and brilliance of his playing was evident from the start. From rapid passage work, to bravura risk-taking and lyrical expressiveness, Khozyainov won the audience from his first entry to the spectacularly flamboyant ending.

There were a few instances when the excitement of the moment had the soloist racing ahead of the orchestra, but I’d far rather have that than taming such exhilarating playing. And conductor Benjamin Northey proved a flexible and responsive partner, keeping the orchestra alive to, and very much in character with, every twist and turn of Khozyainov’s youthful spontaneity.

He’s a very young-looking twenty-six year old and, while he may not have the weightier touch that we’ve come to expect in Prokofiev concertos, his clarity of texture and precision of articulation was all the more telling for a certain lightness in his technique.

The last time I encountered this concerto was in a performance by the great Denis Matsuev with the London Symphony Orchestra, and the sheer, almost nonchalant weightiness of his playing was astonishing, but it’s important that every musician has something of their own to bring to a work and there’s certainly a place for Khozyainov’s way with this piece.

And the audience response said it all, with loud vocal approval and many on their feet.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47

As we left the venue, all the talk was of the phenomenal concerto performance because, despite a well-structured and disciplined performance of Shostakovich’s great Fifth Symphony, it failed to ignite in the way it should.

There was certainly some very fine playing, especially from the brass, but something about the performance didn’t quite hit the mark.

It’s tempting to blame the venue, but quite often a great performance can overcome the limits of an acoustic and we’ve seen so much of that in Christchurch since we’ve been forced to rely on some makeshift venues. And this orchestra and conductor have given us some wonderful and memorable performances in this same venue.

It’s not the main venue that the CSO uses these days, but I particularly remember last year’s Beethoven Ninth there, and that worked superbly.

But in Saturday night’s performance a number of things just seemed a bit subdued or distant.

The strings lacked sufficient tonal depth to project the ferocity of Shostakovich’s writing, and some of the wind solos, particularly from flute and horn, needed more firmness of phrasing and intonation.

As I said, it was a disciplined and committed performance for the most part, but Benjamin Northey himself seemed, at times, less than wholly committed to the unrelenting intensity of the score. In some of the quieter sections he seemed content with accurate playing rather than bringing out the underlying feeling of fear, or resignation or ominous threat. 

And because of this, I felt that the end result emerged as tasteful and restrained rather than fully conveying the context of ‘fear and courage’ that inspired this colossal symphony.

I mean, Shostakovich had withdrawn his Fourth Symphony because he realised that the authorities wouldn’t find it acceptable and it wasn’t performed in the Soviet Union until after Starlin’s death.

And, although I’m not one to try to assign specific meaning to Shostakovich’s works as many do, the feeling, in the Fifth Symphony, of triumph and glory undermined by ridicule and satire is palpable.

And Benjamin Northey clearly knows and understands this, as his spoken introduction indicated, but I just didn’t feel that it was a tangible feature of the performance.

Even so, it was good to hear this piece, even if the Prokofiev performance was the highlight of the concert.

Christchurch Symphony Orchestra – Fear and Courage            
Wigram Airforce Museum, 16 June 2018
Conductor – Benjamin Northey
Pianist – Nikolay Khozyainov