Auckland Town Hall
November 12 | Reviewed by Samuel Holloway

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 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.