For twelve years, Radio New Zealand Concert has held “Settling The Score” on New Year’s Day. The idea: to find out what listeners rate as their 65 favourite pieces of classical music. The choices over the that time have sometimes provided a few surprises as well as confirmation of many favourites – New Zealand listeners seem to be rather ‘English’ in their choices given the prevalence of Elgar and Vaughan Williams amongst the top 20 or so but more of that later.
This year, an excellent innovation – call for votes early, then hold the event live at the Auckland Town Hall, have it simulcast on Radio New Zealand concert and reveal the top 20 on the night. Little wonder that the Town Hall was sold out and, as the host for evening TV3 presenter John Campbell noted, there was a high sense of anticipation in the air.
Beethoven, as you might expect, features frequently in the 65 with 8 pieces featuring and the concert commenced with the last movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony (11th in the rankings). An energetic, if slightly unbalanced and rushed performance, I thought but well received by the audience. This was followed by New Zealand soprano Madeleine Pierard singing “Im Abendrot” from Richard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” (ranked 15th), a delicate and nuanced performance from a highly-regarded artist well known to Auckland audiences. Shostakovich had done all right in the rankings with the 7th and 5th Symphonies featuring but it was the second movement of the 10th Symphony that had secured 16th place and this was performed with power by the APO without missing some of the sarcasm inherent in Shostakovich’s music. The Largo from Dvorak’s 9th Symphony (ranked 12th) had to figure at some stage and its 12th placing was not a surprise, a work the APO knows rather well. From one popular symphony, we then went to another in the form of the second movement Scherzo from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (ranked 10th) – sadly a little ragged, to be honest, perhaps there wasn’t enough time to rehearse this as much as the others.
The second half began with an audience favorite, the first movement of the Elgar Cello Concerto (in 9th and the most favourite concerto by a small margin over years, but……), performed beautifully by APO Principal Cello Eliah Sakakushev von Bismarck who conveyed all the emotion and elegance that it was quite sad that he couldn’t give us the whole thing – definitely one of the highlights. As noted above, Elgar scored well this year with the orchestra continuing with “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations (ranked 7th) which kept much of the audience happy. Overall, the second half pieces seemed more rehearsed than the first half with the Auckland Philharmonia providing good weight, power and elegance throughout.
And so to the top 3 works (or “did the ‘Lark’ ascend again ?’ as someone put it) – in third place was the much-loved Mozart Clarinet Concerto with APO Sub-Principal James Fry as soloist, again nicely done. Sadly for Vaughan Williams fans, The Lark Ascending was knocked off its prime perch and had to settle for second place but of all the pieces performed, it got the best performance of the night with Principal Violin Amalia Hall utterly captivating the audience with an outstanding performance. I’ll be honest, it’s not my favourite work and I’ve heard a few bad performances but Hall captured every chirp and flutter of the lark so well. The finale of “Jupiter” from Holst’s “The Planets” (itself a completely new entry into the list) seemed a bit anti-climatic by comparison but as the Bringer of Joy, an appropriate way to finish an excellent evening of high-quality music.
A nod to Host John Campbell who gave interesting introductions to each piece without being overbearing. And kudos to the Auckland Philharmonia too – it can’t have been easy to get through such a varied repertoire at relatively short notice especially with musicians frequently entering and departing the stage. Music Director Eckehard Stier, conducting some pieces from memory and other with a score was certainly vigorous in his direction. Let’s hope it becomes an annual event.
The full Settling the Score list can be found at: http://www.radionz.co.nz/concert/programmes/settlingthescore
The concert will be rebroadcast on New Year’s Day on Radio New Zealand Concert as well as on the web (http://www.radionz.co.nz/audio).