The Auckland Philharmonia and conductor Jun Märkl presented “Last Songs”, a programme of late works by Schubert, Richard Strauss and Zemlinsky. We opened with Zemlinsky’s Sinfonietta, a work much admired by Schoenberg and Berg. There is a spiky quality to the music that is reminiscent of Hindemith and Stravinsky, though notably less acerbic than either. One can perceive the influences of both Neoclassicism and jazz and the romantic lushness that is a characteristic of Zemlinsky’s earlier work emerges only briefly here. This was the orchestra’s weakest performance of the night – first entries seemed hesitant, the brass and woodwind underpowered and it took time for them to hit their stride. They didn’t seem truly at ease until the end of the first movement, but the final two movements were given the best advocacy one could reasonably expect from this somewhat uneven work.

This concert was originally scheduled to feature American dramatic soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet in the Four Last Songs; however, she unfortunately cancelled due to injury and the Auckland Philharmonia landed on their feet by engaging Canadian rising star Measha Brueggergosman. She comes with an impressive résumé but, perhaps unsurprisingly given her substitute status, she never seemed to be fully inside Strauss’ valedictory masterpiece. For these works, the voice should soar unfettered (like the soul in Hesse’s poem) through Strauss’ vocal lines and Brueggergosman’s voice seemed unable to do so (in particular, her pitch fell somewhat short of the climactic note in “Beim Schlafengehen”). There is an intriguing fast vibrato inherent in the voice, but it is far less suitable here than in other works; there was a tendency for faster divisions to sound muddled and the pitch uncertain. Some beautiful hushed singing in “Im Abendrot” wasn’t quite enough to save the performance.

In all honesty, most of the glory in the Strauss came from the orchestra. I’m not sure I’ve heard the horn solo at the end of “September” so lovingly shaped, and concertmaster Dimitri Atanassov played the great violin solo in “Beim Schlafengehen” as though he was trying for all his worth to make up for the lyricism that the vocalism mostly lacked. The hesitation noticeable in the Zemlinsky was all gone and the orchestral coordination was beyond reproach. Märkl opted for fairly fleet speeds here, resisting the urge to wallow oversentimentally.

Luckily, the feeling of disappointment from the first half of the concert didn’t last long into the opening movement of Schubert’s Symphony no. 9. The Auckland Philharmonia has a generally lean string sound but in this work they sounded positively incandescent as they headed towards the climax of the first movement. Schumann remarked on this symphony’s “heavenly length”, and so it seemed here; Märkl seamlessly and organically derived each new section from the last and the piece never seemed to drag. He placed Schubert squarely at the end of the Classical period rather than the beginning of the Romantic with this performance. If anything, Märkl’s conducting erred on the side of being too sensible – he kept things taut throughout and the only thing lacking was a real sense of spontaneity. Again, speeds were mostly moderately fast with a nice briskness in the Andante which never threatened to drag. There was a firm differentiation between scherzo and trio in the third movement. Camille Wells’ gorgeous oboe playing made the most of the solos in this movement. Final word must go to the brass section, magnificent in the symphony, negotiating the piece with barely a glimmer of uncertainty, trombones in particular shining in their big moments. All in all, it was an enjoyable show but overall didn’t quite match the quality of the orchestra’s best this year.