On Friday night last week, it was good to see a good mix of young and old at the Auckland Town Hall to appreciate another excellent NZSO performance and the wonderful skills of one of the best pianists in the world today. It was a bit disappointing to see a few rows and blocks of seats not filled. More so because there was nothing disappointing about the performance.
Composer Anthony Ritchie, who is currently Associate Professor of Composition at Otago University gave the pre-concert talk, not only about the Shostakovich but of his own work “Diary of a Madman: Dedication to Shostakovich”. Inspired by the short story by Nikolai Gogol, the eight minute work is an accessible and at times witty melange of Ritchie’s music peppered with quotes from many of Shostakovich’s works (the 5th and 7th Symphonies and “The Golden Age” being three easy examples) and was a good start to the evening.
British pianist (composer, poet, blogger, teacher and goodness knows what else) Stephen Hough is known world-wide as one of the best musicians of his generation. Recent recordings of Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saens, Chopin and a variety of piano works have enhanced his reputation as a pianist of technical ability, exceptional taste and a wonderful lyric and dynamic style that have captured audiences around the world. I had the pleasure of hearing him in Seattle earlier this year in a fantastic performance of the Rachmaninoff 3rd piano concerto and was very much looking forward to a change of pace in the little-played 5th piano concerto of Camille Saint-Saens, colloquially known as the “Egyptian”. The work is a perfect showcase for Hough’s talents – bravura technical skills, exotic melodies that require a deft touch, and a lot of energy, especially in the final movement. None of which was a problem for the extraordinary Mr. Hough as he took us on the sea voyage that Saint-Saens envisaged from North Africa, to Asia and back to Europe. Conductor and orchestra responded with a sympathetic accompaniment. It makes you wonder why we don’t hear this work more often. We all certainly enjoyed this performance and the applause was generous. Hough gave us a charming encore of Federico Mompou’s “Jeunes Filles au Jardin” from the “Scenes d’enfants” suite.
(Footnote: the secret to the exotic and haunting sounds in the second movement of the concerto can be found here – http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/stephenhough/100062117/secret-about-saint-saens-5th-concerto-finally-revealed/)
Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony is a triumph not only as a response to the savage criticism he received after “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” but as a symphonic work in its own right. Much has written about the symphony but all that needs to be said is that it is one of Shostakovich’s most performed and popular works for good reason – from the very start of the first movement to the haunting notes on the celeste at the end of that movement, it is apparent that this is powerful, emotional, personal music and this performance lacked nothing in terms of detail. Litton, together with concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen and Principal Flute Bridget Douglas in their solos, clearly showed the comedic sarcasm that appears in the second movement and the NZSO strings did not miss any of the searing emotion the third movement with Litton physically calling on the orchestra for every ounce of emotion which was duly delivered. Whatever your views on Solomon Volkov’s “Testimony” (as Anthony Ritchie alluded to in his talk), the final movement does end in something of a triumph, but gloriana it is not and Litton carefully paced it to remind us of that.
A very memorable concert in a number of ways – let’s hope the NZSO is able to invite both Litton and Hough back in the not to distant future.