For this Christmas concert we were transported from the Auckland Philharmonia’s usual venue at the Auckland Town Hall to the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell. It was interesting to compare the sound of the orchestra; the cathedral has a slight echo that seemed to boost the richness of the orchestra’s sound, at times (like at the climax of Bizet’s Farandole) becoming almost shockingly loud. The orchestra treated us to a potpourri of seasonal pieces, most well-known but some unfamiliar. Though one might have wished for a few more novelties, the performances were strong throughout and the audience very appreciative.

Anna Leese © Sussie Ahlburg
Anna Leese
© Sussie Ahlburg

The programme started with a lithe performance of Manfredini’s Concerto Grosso Op. 3 no. 12. The Auckland Philharmonia (shrunk down to chamber size) brought a welcome sense of Baroque style to the piece despite their modern instruments. Great to hear historically-informed performance practice being taken into consideration by this modern-instrument orchestra. The solo violins duetted sweetly throughout. No doubt aided by the acoustics, the strings sounded rich and full in a lovingly played rendition of Vaughan Williams’ Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus. The least familiar item for me was Philip Lane’s Overture on French Carols. The sonic combination of glockenspiel and muted trumpets makes for a neat effect but on the whole the work (a sort of medley of carols) was a little trite for this listener.

Since the last time I heard Anna Leese in Messiah, her voice seems to have grown significantly. Hers was a full-blooded “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, gorgeous in tone but a little sluggish when the voice needed to move quickly. She seemed much better warmed up when she returned in the second half with the Sandman’s little solo from Hänsel und Gretel. Leese entered into the spirit of the piece beautifully and teasingly. One could believe this was a lullaby with Leese’s utterly poised vocalism. Her third and final item was the rather hackneyed Ave Maria of Gounod (after Bach), but this surprisingly proved to be my highlight of the concert. Finally here were some juicy lyric lines for Leese to sink her teeth into – higher and higher she soared, phrasing over the climactic high note with consummate ease. I only hope that next time we hear her it’s in something that gives her a little more opportunity to shine (I’m looking forward to her Donna Elvira next year).

Russia and France each provided two items for the second half. Conductor Kenneth Young hurtled through the Troika from Lieutenant Kije at an exciting pace, following this up with a delicate Sleeping Beauty Waltz, its gossamer textures making one hear the overfamiliar music as if for the first time. I heartily enjoyed Eliah Sakakushev-von Bismarck’s expressive solo turn in Massenet’s Last Sleep of the Virgin, holding back nothing emotionally. This contrasted well with a barnstorming account of the Farandole from L’Arlésienne, contrapuntal lines etched very clearly, building up to an awe-inspiring climax.

The choir’s clear rendition of his two carols could not mask the fact that Rutter’s choral settings are really too saccharine for even such an occasion as this. After the Rutter, the a cappella delivery of Silent Night from the Graduate Choir brought the concert to an end on just the right note of simplicity. They had earlier provided a most spine-tingling A Spotless Rose. Auckland is bursting with fine choirs at the moment, but for a piece such as this the Graduate Choir cannot be beaten.

While I can’t say that I responded to every work on the programme, the performances were so committed and of such high quality (in Leese’s case, touching on greatness) that it is hard to gripe. It was refreshing to see a well-filled hall for this, the second of two performances, and also to see quite a number of children in the audience. There was a wonderful festive atmosphere and I would certainly wouldn’t hesitate to attend such an event with the Auckland Philharmonia again.