For their Violin Fantasy concert, The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra offered a mixed programme of "musical landscapes" featuring the works of Ross Harris, Bruch, Webern and Schumann. On the surface, there appeared to be little tying the works on this programme together and indeed there was a large disparity between the works performed and the quality of the performances therein that was never quite resolved. New Zealand composer Ross Harris’ brand new Aria for viola and string orchestra, written especially for the talents of the APO’s first violist Robert Ashworth. The result is an elegiac new work, long, aching viola lines meandering through a darkly mysterious orchestral backdrop. Ashworth’s playing was rich yet flexible and the orchestra accompanied him ably. One could hardly claim that the work offered any particular great insight but it fell easily on one’s ears and proved a diverting enough opener.

Giordano Bellincampi © Andreas Köhring
Giordano Bellincampi
© Andreas Köhring

One work for solo string instrument and orchestra followed another as we move into Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, an altogether more bravura work than the Harris. Originally dedicated to the violinist-composer Sarasate, it incorporates folk melodies of Scotland with a solo part of infamous difficulty. 2013 Michael Hill International Violin Competition winner Nikki Chooi’s reputation preceded him, but it is a pity to have to report that he largely disappointed in this evergreen standard. There were intonation issues from the very outset, which worsened whenever double-stopping was involved (and there is a lot of it in this work). The murderous passagework of the last movement came off worst; at times Chooi was stuck trying to play catch-up with the orchestra and his scale passages were somewhat mushy, without the ideal cleanness of articulation. His best work was in the Adagio section bridging the two middle movements. In this and other lyrical sections, Chooi brought a gentle beauty to the music without ever over-milking the sentiment. Orchestra-wise, the performance was proficient enough without being terribly engaging. One ideally wants more of a dialogue between soloist and orchestra but with Chooi seemingly concentrating mostly on getting through the work technically there was little chance for this. The drama inherent in the work also went for little and the crucial harp part was not as prominent as it could have been.

Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra consist of six extremely concise movements, averaging less than two minutes each, but each has a concentrated intensity and its own fascinating soundworld. Italian conductor Giordano Bellincampi led the Auckland Philharmonia in a tightly controlled and analytical rendition, the details so clear it was almost like an x-ray of the music. Webern doesn't need to be this dispassionate, but this approach did work well here - all sorts of instrumental detail and fragments of melody were made apparent. The ravishing high string timbre of the fifth piece and the last movement's final fading celesta-harp combination were particularly ear-catching. Not that the more extrovert moments were stinted on - the second piece built to its gruesome climax most effectively and the funeral march of the fourth sounding for all the world like the most distilled Mahlerian slow movement. Unfortunately, from the third movement onwards the sound of a cabaret performance in the Concert Chamber next door leaked into the hall and severely affected the intense attentiveness this music requires; the spell was broken.

Most of the Schumann Symphony no. 4 in D minor (in fact the second symphony Schumann wrote) was taken at a very brisk pace indeed, with a strong sense of forward thrust throughout. We opened with a vigorous account of the first movement that never let the tension slack, but still maintained a palpable sense of mystery. The warm lyricism of the Romanze could have been given a little more room to breathe. It felt a little hard-driven here but Concertmaster Andrew Beer's violin solo had the right light-handed touch. Schumann's slightly eccentric scherzo had fantastic rhythmic vitality which contrasted effectively with the elegance of the trio (though again, this was perhaps a little too turbulent). The finale had many of the same attributes, though here the ongoing propulsion really paid dividends; we were hurtled towards the conclusion in the most thrilling way. The orchestra rose triumphantly after the challenge set by Bellincampi's tempi. Effortlessly quicksilver playing from the strings made light of the difficulties and they summoned an uncommonly muscular heft especially for the lead-up to the final climax. The horn playing, as usual with this orchestra, was near flawless. In my mind, though, Clara Schumann's description of the work as being "a work created out of the deepest soul" seems to suggest some deeper substance to the work that was only hinted at here. Nevertheless, I daresay the sheer verve of the finale would have left most of the audience smiling as they left the hall.