The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s "Evening with Simon O'Neill" featured two uneven halves, with the local Heldentenor taking on Wagner’s short cycle of Wesendonck-Lieder in the first half and the orchestra following that up with Bruckner’s monumental Symphony no. 4 in the second. Considering this, it was a bit rich to name it thus when he only appeared for twenty minutes in the first half.

Simon O'Neill
© Askonas Holt

Wagner’s settings of five of Mathilde Wesendonck's rather torpid poems are usually associated with the female voice but were on this occasion performed with tenor soloist. While the texts may not be of the greatest genius, the music is glorious, Wagner's intoxication with Mathilde and their brief love affair leading to compositions full of heady eroticism and tension. They were also influential on the composer’s later work, with two of them being referred to by Wagner as "studies" for Tristan und Isolde, with particularly echoes in the third and fifth songs (Träume and Im Treibhaus).

I’ve yet to hear a tenor voice that can match the sensuousness of the best female singers in these songs, but O’Neill brought different strengths to his performance. His long association with Wagner’s music (frequent performances of Siegmund, Parsifal and Lohengrin among other roles) yielded dividends in a keen understanding of the idiom and attention to the text, as well as a true Heldentenor voice that has no difficulty with maintaining a smooth legato. His voice itself opened up more freely in the higher register than in other recent performances in Auckland. He also took real care the differentiate the feeling of each song, from the bluster of Schmerzen to the yearning in Im Treibhaus. O’Neill brought strong vocal energy to Stehe still! while still lavishing it with typical vocal refulgence, and was equally adept in his attention to softer dynamic with some pure, floated high notes, particularly in Im Treibhaus against a particularly succulent orchestral backdrop.

The Wesendonck-Lieder were performed in the orchestrations by great Wagner conductor Felix Mottl, and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra responded with great gusto. O’Neill’s attention to differentiation of the songs’ moods was echoed in the conducting of Lawrence Renes and the orchestra sounded intriguingly Mendelssohnian in the opening flourishes of Der Engel in its light and flowing tempo. This was contrasted well with the lush, hothouse atmosphere in the later songs.

Unfortunately, the ensuing Bruckner couldn't quite match the excitement of the first half. One of the more popular of Bruckner's symphonies, the Fourth was first penned in 1874 but underwent  a number of revisions between that year and 1888, though there was no word in the programme notes as to exactly which edition was used on this occasion. It made for a natural coupling to the Wagner, though the sensuality of the latter was replaced by a more earth-bound atmosphere. The performance certainly started engagingly, with the clarion horn call emerging from the almost mist-like string tremolos, but the overall conception lacked cohesive grasp of structure, particularly in the first two movements. The first movement has any number of contrasting episodes that did not always have a natural flow between them. Some parts dragged, not necessarily because of slow tempi but more a sense of being disconnected from their surroundings. The second movement too, while often gorgeously played, often felt a little too relaxed. Nevertheless, in both first and second movement Renes managed the climaxes well, and they really pinned one to the back of one’s seat through ratcheted-up tension and sometimes through the sheer force of the orchestra’s volume.

Luckily the second half of the symphony fared better, the Scherzo coming almost as a jolt as one felt oneself right in the centre of the hunt. Renes gave a lovely swing to the contrasted bucolic trio section. The finale threatened to fragment on occasions but mostly held together with the final few minutes radiating a compelling sense of power and spirituality. Orchestrally, little about this performance could be bettered. In particular, the horns were almost unbelievably secure throughout, starting from the ethereal first entrance and with not even a blemish in the hunting calls of the third movement. The players presented a consistent nobility, even if a little bit more rasp to the tone might have been welcome at times. Other sections of the orchestra also did themselves proud, cellos swooning through the second movement's opening melody most pleasingly and as always, gorgeous solo flute and oboe moments from Bridget Douglas and Robert Orr respectively. A firmer hand on the conductor’s tiller would have made this an even more memorable occasion.