As the title “On The Danube” suggests, this Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra concert put its focus on the music of a city through which the great Danube flows, Vienna, with a specific focus on music composed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Viennese connection was furthered by the participation of guest soloist Benjamin Morrison, violinist and the only New Zealander member of the Vienna Philharmonic.

Giordano Bellincampi
© Andreas Köhring

One of the most famous Viennese pieces of all is undoubtedly An der schönen, blauen Donau by Johann Strauss II. Aside from an overly mannered lead-in to the initial appearance of the first waltz theme, this was a highly engaging performance of this evergreen piece, controlled but suitably flexible in conductor Giordano Bellincampi’s teasing out of the waltz rhythms. Though Korngold’s Violin Concerto was a product of his later American sojourn, the composer had an incredibly successful career as a young prodigy in Vienna and this concerto is rooted in a late-Romantic Viennese idiom. Although it contains quotes from his successful film scores, it remains cohesive as a standalone work. Korngold expressed that it needed “a Caruso of the violin rather than a Paganini” and Morrison’s performance here was highly expressive and passionate, making the most of the juicy opening theme. The orchestra was right with him throughout, with strings lush and full-toned but never at the expense of clarity. The slow movement is gorgeous in an unashamedly romantic fashion and apart from some moments of uncertain intonation aside, Morrison gave a poetic rendition, at times refining his sound down to the most exquisite filigree. The orchestra responded with an equally light and translucent accompaniment. Notwithstanding the “Paganini” comment, the mischievous third movement does offers many opportunities for incredible virtuosity on the part of the soloist and these were never stinted by Morrison, fiendish staccato figures included. His encore was a lovely arrangement of Māori folksong Pokarekare ana.

Opening the second half was a lyrical rendition of Mahler’s Blumine. Originally conceived as the second movement of his First Symphony, it was later replaced with an entirely new movement and only rediscovered in 1966. Utilising a smaller body of instruments, it’s a rather soft-grained work; nevertheless, it was performed well. Bellincampi coaxed a warm sound from the orchestra and created a sense of nuance in the phrasing of Mahler’s long lines. The prominent trumpet solo was winningly shaped, matched by an equally rapturous performance from the solo oboe.

After a piano run-through by the composer prior to its 1883 Vienna premiere, Dvořák remarked that Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 “surpasses his first two symphonies; if not, perhaps, in grandeur and powerful conception—then certainly in beauty.” Bellincampi’s interpretation certainly emphasised the beauty in Brahms’s work, though it didn’t lack for extroversion where required. Powerful opening chords (said by some to represent Brahms’s personal motto, frei aber froh (free but happy)) surged thrillingly into the first theme, contrasting well with the clarinet’s calm and lyrical introduction of the second theme. The solo horn also impressed with its warm, liquid phrasing in the return of the frei aber froh motif. Bellincampi commanded the back-and-forth of this musical discussion superbly. As the second movement opened, the clarinet got another chance to shine and overall Bellincampi played up the pastoral elements of this movement, while also giving due emphasis to the chromatic harmonies Brahms employed in transitional passages. The cello section brought an intriguing bittersweet quality to the nostalgic opening melody of the slow movement and Bellincampi’s interpretation was deeply felt, if not as intensely probing as this movement can be. A previously unseen darkness underpinned the final movement’s opening bars and the playing here was thrilling, as effective in the movement’s powerful climax as in its hushed close.