From Brandenburg to Bartók

ARTS, Music

Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
Town Hall, Auckland | July 7

With few exceptions, the major orchestras have up offered up little beyond predictable combinations of standard fare for their 2011 seasons. Of course, it’s much the same every year: Beethoven, Mahler, Tchaikovsky et al. with a smattering of American Minimalism and a piece by Gareth Farr (although the APO are mixing it up for the Rugby World Cup with a performance of the Nazi display piece Carmina Burana).

So kudos is due to the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, whose three-concert Splendour Series, which began last Thursday, features the kind of sophisticated programming that we seldom see here. The Series is focused both on the work of JS Bach and that of composers ‘inspired’ by him (though some of the links are tenuous), and the first concert featured two concerti by Bach and one each from twentieth century composers Schnittke and Bartók. Conducted by the young American Jayce Ogren, the concert opened with Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto (c.1721), for three groups of three string players with continuo. The work is in three movements, although the second movement consists of only a single cadence, and here was passed through in seconds (in some performances this is extrapolated or exchanged for something more substantial). Despite an untidy opening, with distracting intonation errors, the performance gained in momentum and the concluding Allegro was compelling, given particular force from the cellos and continuo.

Bach’s Sixth Brandenburg Concerto provided an enjoyable contrast, with the relative transparency offered by the smaller ensemble (with no violins) generally making the counterpoint more clear than in the earlier concerto. Though the first movement suffered a little from indistinctness, the contributions of Robert Ashworth and Benjamin Geller were excellent throughout, making a strong case for the viola as soloist.

Sandwiched between the two Brandenburg concerti was Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No.6 (1993), scored for piano, violin and strings. It’s an intriguing piece, displaying structural novelty with the violinist sitting out the first movement, the strings sitting out the second, and all the players only coming together in the Allegro Vivace finale. But like much of Schnittke’s oeuvre, the Concerto Grosso is not particularly likeable. The work includes the composer’s usual stylistic juxtapositions—the first movement contains elements reminiscent of jazz alongside bleak piano clusters—and it is both awkward and austere. For all that, this was a superb performance, due both to the careful interpretation of the score by the conductor and the playing of the two soloists (Concertmaster Dimitri Atanassov and ex-pat pianist John Chen), particularly in the spare second movement that provides a welcome contrast from that which precedes and follows.

The second half of the concert was solely comprised of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943), a work the exposes every player within its five movements. As in the Schnittke, Ogren’s attention to detail revealed new textures and colours. While there were a few quibbles—a lack of clarity in the solos of the second movement, and overly luxurious tempi in the fourth—it was a fine performance, especially from the brass, whose contributions ranged from a solemn chorale to trombone glissando smart-aleckry.

The second concert in the Splendour Series (14 July) features music by Bach, Beethoven, Webern & Pärt; the final concert (21 July) features Berg’s Violin Concerto alongside two Bach Cantatas.