For this Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra Premier Series concert, Musical Director Giordano Bellincampi programmed two great masterworks of the Austro-Germanic tradition: Beethoven's Triple Concerto and Bruckner's Symphony no. 7 in E major. It was something of a study of contrasts, with the convivial Beethoven being followed by the monumental, deeply passionate and affecting Bruckner. Regrettably, the performances themselves were also similarly contrasting, a disjointed and uninvolved concerto performance detracting from a sincerely felt take on Bruckner’s tribute to Wagner.

Giordano Bellincampi
© Andreas Köhring

The most genial of Beethoven's concertos and the only one featuring more than one solo instrument, the Triple Concerto is relatively rarely encountered when compared to many of the same composer's other concertos, presumably because of the difficulty of assembling three top-notch soloists. On this occasion, Tianwa Yang, Gabriel Schwabe and Nicholas Rimmer joined the orchestra on violin, cello and piano respectively. This, in many respects, is a strange piece, generally lacking the dialogue between soloists and orchestra that one expects from a concerto. The orchestra does little more than offer fairly generic accompaniment and unfortunately the Auckland players sounded concomitantly uninspired, the orchestral playing lacking focus and energy from the outset. The relative dullness of rhythm of the opening orchestral figures was but one example.

Neither were the soloists necessarily ideal. Expressively, Schwabe on cello was the standout of the three. In this work, the same melodic ideas are often passed between the three soloists and with each it was Schwabe who wrung the most expressive potential from the music. The particularly lovely second movement melody was delectably rendered. He also combined beautifully with Yang’s leaner violin sounds in their frequent passages together: there was certainly no faulting their tightness of ensemble. But the polonaise third movement revealed some sections of insecure intonation.

This was certainly not a problem for Yang, who was rock-solid in both intonation and general technique. The quick figurations in the third movement were tossed off with no little panache. However, there was a sense of impatience and a slight tendency to race ahead of the beat, as though Bellincampi’s speed was not quite quick enough for her liking. Rumoured to have been penned for Beethoven’s student Archduke Rudolph, the piano part often seems unchallenging and subsidiary to the other two, and Rimmer did little to make the part stand out. In some ways, it seemed like the three soloists were talking past each other rather than having a musical conversation. With the cellist focused on pulling every emotion from the music, the violinist on demonstrating her technical chops and the pianist content to note-spin, there was an unsatisfying lack of coherence overall.

Following the interval, from the very opening, the Bruckner Symphony no. 7 presented the orchestra and conductor in a much more favourable light than the Beethoven had. As the upper strings produced an ethereal halo, the Auckland Philharmonia's cello section, in full and warm tones, gripped the audience immediately with their initial soaring theme. Bellincampi’s way with this symphony was impressive: he knitted the composer’s sometimes diffuse structural cells into something cohesive, with no loss of tension in the various silences and odd transitional moments. Under him, the orchestra outdid themselves in breadth of tone that admirably filled out Bruckner’s buildups of sound. Each successive transition brought more fervour and the movement ended in blazing fashion, with pitch-perfect brass and glowing strings.

Wagner proclaimed that he knew only one symphonist “who measures up to Beethoven, and that is Bruckner”, and the second movement Adagio was Bruckner’s elegy for Wagner who died during the work’s composition. It is among the most moving of Bruckner’s slow movements and was played here with suitable solemn passion. The four Wagner tubas made their pensive presence known. My preference would have been for a slower tempo – or at least a little bit more room to breathe – for those monumental repeated figures to achieve their full emotional impact. The playing was powerful but at this quicker speed the shattering climax not as transcendent as it could have been.

Bellincampi's approach suited the Scherzo better and this movement was given an unusually amiable reading, though convincingly so. The jaunty trumpet opening had an engaging swing and all throughout there was a fetching bounce to the rhythms that had been so lacking in the preceding Beethoven. One couldn’t help but admire the delicacy of the playing in the incredibly graceful Trio. Bellincampi summoned an almost Schubertian sense of dance here. Finally, the relatively concise final movement was splendidly lyrical, capping off a most impressive rendition of this symphony that more than made up for the lacklustre concerto before it.