APO: Visions of Land and Sea,
The Creation

ARTS, Music

The viola is a much-neglected instrument. Falling in the string hierarchy between the violins and celli, it has received the attention it deserves from neither composers nor audiences. And it really does deserve attention, with a richer tone than the violin but with the benefits, contra the cello, of a smaller instrument.

So it was a rare treat to have Australian violist Brett Dean perform in Visions of Land and Sea (Auckland Town Hall, November 12), the penultimate Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra concert of the year. Dean spent 14 years playing in the Berlin Philharmonic, and since leaving the Orchestra in 2000 has forged a remarkable career as a soloist and (as if that wasn’t enough) one of Australia’s most interesting composers.

In his 2007 performance with the APO, Dean’s superb Viola Concerto was programmed. With Berlioz’s Harold in Italy (1834) this time around, it was a less adventurous choice, but a welcome one all the same. It is a curious work written at the request of the great violin virtuoso Paganini, who had acquired a viola and required a work to show it off. Though the viola has some rather magical dream-like moments, there’s little showiness, and it’s more a symphony-with-soloist than a concerto in the usual sense. (So disappointed was Paganini that he never performed the work he commissioned.) Harold was influenced by Berlioz’s time in Italy, and in his Memoirs he wrote that he ‘wanted to make the viola a kind of melancholy dreamer in the manner of Byron’s Childe-Harold.’

In this performance, conductor Baldur Brönnimann coaxed an enjoyable performance from Dean and the APO, particularly in the second movement March of the Pilgrims Singing their Evening Prayer. The superb dynamic control of the constant pizzicati basses underpinned a performance that impressed with its incredible lightness, no more so than in Dean’s delightfully liquid lines and a well-executed fade-out at Berlioz’s clever close. In the final movement Orgy of the Brigands, the viola is largely marginalized but the Orchestra was able to show off its more emphatic strengths.

Following the interval, two short works composed in the opening decade of the twentieth century were performed to round out this interestingly programmed concert. The first was Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s Pohjola’s Daughter (1906), an inconsequential but not uninteresting work. The episodic piece describes the Kavalan hero Väinämöinen’s unsuccessful attempts to woo one of the royal daughters of Pohjola. Excellent solos from the principal cello and trombone and convincing ensemble playing from the strings effectively captured the mood of this resolutely chilly piece.

In contrast was Debussy’s Impressionist classic La Mer (1905), the work that closed the concert. La Mer is a colourful and often sparkling work, and so familiar is its soundworld that it is hard to imagine how ‘progressive’ it sounded at its premiere. In this performance there were moments of real delight, particularly in the final Dialogue Between the Wind and the Sea where principal flute and oboe impressed.

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While evolution may be (to borrow from Richard Dawkins) ‘the greatest show on earth’, the creation-in-seven-days still makes for a damn good story. And Genesis has never seemed more enjoyable that in Haydn’s oratorio The Creation (1798), a monumental, joyful piece that draws on the Old Testament and Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is one of Haydn’s most admired works, and—in running the gamut from the creation of worms to the creation of planets—contains some of his most memorable musical moments.

2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death, and while the composer’s work has appeared on the programmes of many ensembles this year, the recent Auckland Philharmonia performance of The Creation (Auckland Town Hall, October 16) was the best chance to celebrate his powers of musical invention. The concert was conducted by one of the APO’s greatest assets, principal guest conductor (and Haydn authority) Roy Goodman. In orchestras accustomed to Romantic bulk there is the risk of sounding a little frayed when reduced to Classical proportions, but there was no such problem here, with Goodman and the APO giving a sparkling, polished performance throughout.

The Creation is divided into three very different sections. The first part depicts days one to four, with the creation of heaven and earth, light, water, plant life, and the sun, moon and stars. It opens bleakly with the chaos of the universe before creation, and in this performance the Orchestra successfully captured what the great critic Donald Toovey has described as the opening’s ‘ambiguities and boldnesses’, as well as the ensuing explosion into light.

There are three vocal soloists in The Creation, who represent the angels Raphael, Uriel and Gabriel, and these pivotal roles were performed by Australian singers Sara Macliver, Paul McMahon and Stephen Bennett. This experienced triumvirate was impressive from the outset, and in the recitative-like sections was excellently supported by Goodman, with cellist David Garner and bassist John Boscawen.

Haydn has his fun in the second part of the oratorio, depicting the creation of birds, animals and man. Here flautist Catherine Bowie and an assertive Tim Sutton on bass trombone were able to shine in some of the most colourful and witty moments of the piece. Here too the Graduate Choir, which provided the chorus, was able to truly show its rich, full tone and impressive dynamic range.

The unusual third part of the oratorio depicts the first hours of the First Couple in the Garden of Eden. The attention is on two of the soloists, who have now transmogrified from angels into Adam and Eve, and who duet happily for much of the closing third. Sara Macliver and Stephen Bennett were perfectly balanced, with Macliver’s carefully ornamented lines demonstrating her class. While the choir was perhaps a touch underpowered at the close, this was a uniformly assured performance, and a fine testament to the enduring power of Haydn’s music.