The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s recent penchant for applying “catchy” subtitles to its concerts of music suited one of the pieces well on this occasion (the Schumann Concerto) - but the legend “Love Eternal” would have possibly confused any listener coming for the first time to either or both of the Sibelius Symphonies that made up the programme’s second half (most enterprisingly, it must be said).
Neither work is “Romantic” in a conventional sense – each one is a tautly-conceived, atmospherically-scored evocation of structural logic whose sounds reflect both an austere physical landscape and an intensely-wrought sense of human isolation.
Together with ‘Coriolan’, the most rugged and forbidding of Beethoven’s orchestral Overtures, they made a telling and invigorating contrast with the mellow romanticism of one of Schumann’s happiest works.
Conductor Thomas Søndergård had conducted the orchestra before, in 2015, a programme also featuring Sibelius's music, paired with works by Benjamin Britten.
It was a concert which I also happily reviewed, finding the NZSO's playing "at once clearly focused, finely proportioned and satisfyingly expressive".
All of those qualities were again present, in this instance brilliantly complemented by the piano-playing of Russian-born Denis Kozhukhin in Schumann's A Minor Concerto.
Beginning the evening was a tautly-contrived performance of Beethoven's ‘Coriolan’ Overture, its subject-matter the tortured character of the proud Coriolanus, the Roman general turned bitter enemy of Rome - only the pleading of his wife and mother to spare his family breaks his resolve, and results in his falling on his sword, the playwright Heinrich von Collin (not Collins, as in the NZSO programme note) eschewing Coriolanus's fate as in Shakespeare's earlier version of the play, in favour of a more "honourable" action, all brilliantly and succinctly conveyed by Beethoven's music.
Schumann's only Piano Concerto was given a direct, freshly-minted performance by Denis Kozhukhin, his magical playing hand-in-glove with a most beguilingly-woven orchestral fabric at conductor Søndergård's instigation, with magnificent work from all sections - though oboist Robert Orr received a special round of applause from the pianist at the work's end, other contributions such as those by clarinettist Ellen Deverallwere equally worthy of mention.
Each of the Sibelius Symphonies expressed its own characterful sound-world in Søndergård's hands - the Sixth like some ancient and remote yet bracing set of polyphonic voices, the textures at once rich and spare, relying as much on clarity as on atmosphere to generate the work's unique evocation of stillness and ferment.
By contrast the Seventh was a properly epic statement, a single-movement span of ever-burgeoning orchestral eloquence, David Bremner's trombone-playing denoting three great peaks of focus around which swirled great arcs of colour and irresistible energy, a whole world's varied expression of transcendent being.
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Søndergård
Denis Kozhukhin (piano)
Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, Op. 62
Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54
Sibelius: Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104
Sibelius: Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105
Michael Fowler Centre
Saturday 18 May, 2019