Ode to Joy

ARTS, Music

For much of its recent history, Vienna has been something of a musical incubator, a fact celebrated in the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra’s current concert series Splendour of Vienna. The focus of the series is, understandably, the Classical and Romantic mainstays of Mozart, Beethoven and Mahler, though it is a pity that a substantial work from the Second Viennese School (of pioneering atonal and serial composers) or a contemporary composer (such as the brilliant Beat Furrer) does not feature. That said, Musical Director Eckehard Stier’s surprising placement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 alongside significantly lesser-known pieces by Wolf and Schoenberg in the first concert of the series (Auckland Town Hall, July 15) made for an strong, intelligent programme that still drew a full house.

The concert opened with Wolf’s Three Lieder for voice and orchestra, featuring soloist Joshua Bloom. Wolf was born in 1860, the same year as Mahler, but his life followed a different and depressing trajectory, ending eventually with syphilis in an asylum. His output focuses on work for voices, and the three works presented by the Auckland Philharmonia were orchestrations of pieces originally for voice and piano. Bloom, a young Australian bass, was a magnificent soloist in these three songs, particularly in the opening Denk’ es, o Seele, in spite of some orchestral instability at both the opening and close. The choral contributions of the evening were provided by Auckland Choral, first appearing in the third Wolf song Der Feuerreiter (‘The Fire-Rider’) and supplying sufficient power for the overblown work.

The centrepiece of the concert was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1824), a momentous work in every sense. At the time of its composition, the size of the orchestra, length of the piece (up to 80 minutes in turgid performances), and the inclusion of singers were unprecedented, and the Symphony retains much of its tremendous force today, despite its familiarity. In this performance, conductor Eckehard Stier led a strong effort from the choir and orchestra, particularly the hard-working string section led by Dimitri Atanassov. Of the work’s four vocal soloists, Aivale Cole (winner of the 2009 Lexus Song Quest) gave the most enjoyable performance, while Anna Pierard was a little overwhelmed. The orchestra was at its best in the first movement Allegro, and the Finale—with its Ode to Joy—was inevitably memorable, though the choir seemed a little too raw in higher registers and seemingly lacking in male voices throughout.

The highlight of the concert was Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw (1947). The short, dramatic work is scored for orchestra and men’s chorus, with a solo speaker whose descriptions of an imagined scene from the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising are mirrored in the darkly colourful orchestral writing. Schoenberg himself wrote the text of the work, calling it ‘a warning to all Jews never to forget what has been done to us’. With its unusual orchestration, A Survivor from Warsaw is rarely performed, but the Auckland Philharmonia’s performance demonstrated the power of the composer’s unique soundworld. Actor Stuart Devenie never strayed into melodramatic territory in a moving, well-judged performance, while the orchestra captured well the nuances of Schoenberg’s brilliant writing.

The two remaining concerts in the series (July 22 and 29), which include music by Strauss, Webern, Mozart, Schubert and Mahler, are highly recommended.