In the 1930s and 40s the United States received a cultural shot in the arm with an influx of artists, writers and composers from war torn Europe. One such émigré was the Hungarian Béla Bartók. In contrast to the experience of others who were fêted upon their arrival, Bartók’s time in America was characterised by frustration and poverty. In spite of this—or, some might romantically argue, because of this—Bartók managed to write one of his best works there, shortly before his death in 1945.
The work, Bartók’s 1943 Concerto for Orchestra (lamentably, one of only a few orchestral works by the composer), was the distinct highlight of a recent concert by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (Auckland Town Hall, October 3), under the baton of Pietari Inkinen. The Concerto is a vibrant, mostly energetic piece, blending classical form and Eastern European folksong in five movements; a work that tests every player with prominent moments in each part.
In this concert, every performer rose to the challenge, particularly in the second movement ‘Game of Pairs’, where the polished playing of both the wind and brass sections was neatly framed by Lenny Sakofsky’s perfectly weighted percussion. The third movement Elegia, described by the composer as a ‘lugubrious death-song’, was suitably solemn, while Inkinen’s lively tempi brought considerable excitement to the virtuosic final movement.
The concert opened with Shostakovich’s Festive Overture (1954), a work that is a world away from his great and gloomy Tenth Symphony of a year before. The frisky Overture, which begins with a brilliant brass fanfare and almost never lets up in its five-minute span, was played at pace and with necessary dexterity by the NZSO. It was, however, a little difficult to establish the work’s raison d’être in the context of this programme, particularly when considering the underwhelming charms of the concerto that followed it.
The work in question was Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No 1 (1872), a piece described in the programme booklet as ‘modestly engaging’, but much-loved by cellists (it was Pablo Casal’s favourite) and composers (it was, bizarrely, considered by Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff to be the greatest cello concerto ever written).
The soloist for the concert was Gautier Capuçon, a French cellist who has performed in New Zealand twice before to great acclaim. Capuçon is only twenty-nine, yet already he has a formidable performance record as both a concerto soloist and chamber musician. He is a dream soloist, combining youth and Gallic good looks with prodigious talent.
This talent was evident from the outset in this performance. Though the piece offers limited opportunity for showiness, Capuçon’s rich tone, particularly in the lower register, was beguiling. Capuçon’s rapport with the orchestra was notable, and the structural subtlety of the concerto, with its conjoined movements, was adroitly handled by both orchestra and soloist.
As an encore, Capuçon treated the audience to Massenet’s rather sentimental Meditation (from his opera Thaïs), arranged for cello and string orchestra. The playing was again beautiful, but as with the Saint-Saëns Concerto, it was pity we weren’t offered something with a bit more substance.