Slightly unusually for the APO this year, the programme on Thursday evening was not as challenging as some of those earlier in the year. This may have explained numerous empty seats around the Auckland Town Hall on Thursday evening. No matter, this was a solid evening of strong music evoking images of three separate countries written by three composers who held their respective countries dear.
Douglas Lilburn’s Drysdale Overture is a New Zealand work that is not programmed enough, in my view. One reason could be because its cousin, the Aotearoa Overture is a bit more accessible, not to mention a touch shorter. It evokes images of the landscapes of New Zealand rather like a Toss Woollaston painting and given that Lilburn composed while he was a student in London, there is a wistful character about it.
From the get-go, young German conductor Christoph Altstaedt showed that he was keenly aware of dynamics and balance in the piece. He conducted clearly, moving around the podium, not afraid to lean back or crouch down to get what he wanted. The Auckland Philharmonia responded accordingly and the quality of the orchestral playing throughout was the feature of the evening.
For this concert, Argentinian pianist Ingrid Fliter visiting here ahead of a Chopin recital at Auckland Museum and concerto performances with the Sydney Symphony was soloist in Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto and given star billing. Fliter’s reputation on the global concert stages has risen rapidly in recent years and she is seen as something of a Chopin specialist. So one could assume that this concerto, where the writing for the piano is far more accomplished than that for orchestra, would be the perfect vehicle to showcase her technical and interpretative skills.
This was a robust performance and carefully nuanced. Robust in that she was not afraid to ensure that the piano was the dominant partner in the first movement and to make everyone aware of that. The second movement Larghetto is more or less an extended cadenza for piano with background orchestral accompaniment. Fliter took her time and created anticipation for both the reflective parts of the movement as well as those parts that demanded technical brilliance. Brilliant too was the orchestra, wonderfully soft, delicately balanced so as not to overpower the soloist. The final Allegro vivace skipped along like the mazurka that it is based on. Perhaps it could have been a touch lighter, a smidgen quicker in places but I am nitpicking. Overall, a satisfying performance justifying the reputation of the soloist. Warm applause was returned with a quick encore of the Minute Waltz, much to the delight of the audience.
Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony is not the cliché that his Ninth is. With its clear influences derived from, amongst other things, birdsong and folk tunes, it is a happy and energetic piece and clearly Bohemian throughout. Maestro Altstaedt showed why his reputation is rising very rapidly in Europe both on the podium and in the opera house with more attention to detail. It showed to the extent that when the orchestra was slightly out of sync dynamically, it was noticeable and a bit jarring but these were only very temporary moments. The second movement Adagio was particularly good as was the triumphant cascade that is the final movement. As Hans Richter, the conductor of the work’s first performances in Vienna and London wrote to Dvorak, “you would have enjoyed this performance very much. We all felt that this is a great work, therefore we were enthusiastic. The applause was warm and cordial”. Indeed it was and well deserved too.