I signed on for The Firebird but before she landed at the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington, I was already on a high, occasioned by the subtle beauty of a Mozart piano concerto, delightfully performed by Dierdre Irons and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's strings and winds. The outstanding combination of these two works, separated in their composition by the whole of the 19th century (plus a decade on either side), epitomised the descriptive power of music in both thematic and narrative illustrations.

Hamish McKeich conducts the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

The Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major was one of two that Mozart wrote in March 1786, part of his fertile period in Vienna, where he had settled in 1782, which included fifteen (from his total output of 27 concertos) composed in less than five years. It follows the traditional three-movement (fast-slow-fast) concerto form, but there is also a quasi-operatic structure. Mozart wrote it at much the same time as The Marriage of Figaro and the solo piano interludes feel like “arias” within the orchestral envelope, leading to earnest conversations between piano and woodwind or horns.

The Allegro assai finale is crammed with intersecting ideas and melodies, developing and expanding before giving way to the next theme in a continual flow of dialogue between pianist and orchestra. Irons’ piano takes a dramatic lead in arpeggios that skip up and down the octaves, to be calmed by the gentler imperative of the woodwind. The earlier movements are defined by a beguiling and elegant simplicity and seem far less technically demanding than the finale. With its rich and lyrical harmonies, the brief Adagio is the softly-beating and exquisite heart of the work, combining funereal anguish with the piano’s haunting central melody reflected by the violins, led by Vesa-Matti Leppänen, and the cellos' pizzicato.

I rarely mention age in a review but I think it is pertinent here to remark that Irons was performing just a few weeks after her 76th birthday and she gave a natural, unshowy masterclass of expressive delicacy. Born in Canada, Irons has been one of New Zealand’s finest musicians since emigrating back in 1977. She has recorded all of Beethoven’s piano concertos and here was undoubtedly the case of her wealth of experience paying dividends in this mature interpretation, particularly in the more challenging final movement.

The two performances were introduced by brief informal interviews – from his garden room -– with the NZSO’s principal conductor-in-residence, Hamish McKeich, who began his career as a bassoonist, talking about the galvanising role of the conductor as the fulcrum of the orchestra. The digital stream was very professionally produced with an opening colourful explosion of psychedelic graphics reminiscent of Sgt Pepper. Unobtrusive cameras and slick editing (respectively by Nate Ormsby and Alastair McKenzie) focused on every soloist in a clearly well-rehearsed film, which was expertly directed by Brent Stewart. 

It was especially uplifting to see the outcome of New Zealand’s effective Covid management in an orchestra that did not need to be socially distanced; a long hug of genuine respect and affection between conductor and pianist after the concerto; and to hear and see a standing ovation from a real, live audience.

The performance of The Firebird met all my expectations to allow the mental imagery of Fokine’s choreography for the Tsarevich, Firebird, the thirteen enchanted princesses and their game of golden apples, plus the evil Kastchei and his grotesque retinue. But, Stravinsky’s ballet score tells this story in such descriptive and dramatic detail that it needs no visual prompt.

Even in Jonathan McPhee’s reduced orchestration, which expanded Stravinsky’s own reduction for his 1919 suite to include the missing parts, the players of the NZSO grew to 80-plus with the addition of brass, percussion and a full strings section. To be frank, I had listened to recordings of the full orchestration prior to this performance and I was hard-pressed to notice any difference. Inevitably that is because The Firebird is characterised by the many, frequent and various solo instrumental voices, all superbly performed here from the expressive horn lead of Samuel Jacobs, the melodic warmth of flautist Bridget Douglas, ably supported by guest principal Johanna Gruskin on piccolo, and the bassoon and contra-bassoon of Robert Weeks and David Angus. I was particularly taken by the impressive and charismatic performance of another guest principal, Alexander McFarlane on viola, particularly in the Firebird’s Lullaby.

This was the latest in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s season of digital programmes and if you missed it do not fear since it is available all year long. Given the exhilarating and optimistic finale to both works it was a wonderful entrée to Spring (well, at least, that is, up here in this hemisphere)!

This performance was reviewed from IDAGIO's video stream

Note from the editor: We previously had Alastair McKenzie wrongly listed as Alastair Johnston, which has now been corrected.