A reasonably well-attended Auckland Town Hall audience was treated to an intriguing programme of works by Richard Strauss, Paul Hindemith and Sergei Prokofiev on Thursday evening with the linking theme of Music of Wartime.
Many scholars believe Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen to be an elegy for the destruction of Munich and other parts of Germany during the Second World War. Strauss himself never let on as to what it meant but was explicit as to the number of players needed – 23 solo strings made up of 10 violins, 5 violas, 5 cellos and 3 double basses. Consequently, it is music that has a dense richness and vocal lines in the same vein as the Four Last Songs which the Auckland Philharmonia performed recently. The orchestra’s string principals performed it elegantly with uncomplicated but clear direction from Polish conductor Michal Dworzynski. Acting Concertmaster Matama Takahashi’s solos were a particular highlight.
Paul Hindemith’s challenging and modern compositions made sure that he was out of favour with the Nazi Government as they rose to and then took over power. His emigration, first to Switzerland and then further west, therefore seemed inevitable. By 1940, he had arrived in the United States to take up a series of lectureships, something he was not overly enthusiastic about. His cello concerto was composed the same year along with his Symphony in E-flat. It’s not the easiest work on the ear and its wartime origins are clear but perhaps it ought to be played a bit more often.
More so as young, rock-star cellists seem to be fashionable at the moment and New Zealand audiences have been rather spolit for choice recently. Soloist for the evening was German / Canadian Johannes Moser whose reputation is well deserved. Having performed with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe last Sunday in Perugia, Italy, he seemed remarkably unaffected by jetlag. He attacked the concerto with unabashed gusto from the beginning much as the orchestra also did. Moser particularly came into his own in the boisterous march that is the third and final movement. At times it feels more like a charging army than a march and it is easy to get carried away with the music. In fact, both soloist and orchestra were very well structured and balanced, full of colour and energy. This was high-quality, high-octane and very memorable playing which was sutably acknowledged by the Town Hall audience. An encore of the Sarabande from Bach’s First Cello Suite was a gentle and sensitive contrast to the Hindemith.
Sergei Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony made up the second half of the concert, an interesting choice perhaps, if you know something of its history. Prokofiev composed most of it in a shared country house located some distance from the grim realities of war in Moscow. Shostakovich, Khachaturian and Kabalevsky were there as well and Khachaturian’s account of the period showed Prokofiev to be annoyingly as regular as clockwork in his habits and in the amount of composition he did.
Prokofiev himself stated that the symphony represented a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit. Is this therefore really music of wartime ? Compared to Shostakovich’s Seventh or Eighth Symphonies for example, Prokofiev seems to be in his own world – a world which is a little too optimistic and unrealistically positive. The symphony therefore reflects the propaganda of the time. It’s a bit shrill and the realism is socialist, the true nature of war, its horrors and its tragedy seem absent somehow.
No matter. This was an exceptionally executed performance from the Auckland Philharmonia and Maestro Dworzynski. There is a clear rapport between the musicians and conductor and the level of attention to detail on all fronts was plain to hear. If I had to pick out highlights, they came in the second and the last movements especially with regard to orchestral colouring, dynamics and balance. It was a thoroughly captivating and highly enjoyable performance.
An truly excellent evening of music all round.