This Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra concert presented us with varied works tied together by the city of Vienna; all four composers featured here lived, worked or studied in the city. We had 150 years of Viennese musical history, ranging from the classicism of Mozart through to the proto-modern of the Adagio from Mahler’s Symphony no. 10 and the lush post-Romanticism of Josef Marx. It was also a welcome return for dramatic soprano Christine Brewer and the New Zealand debut of exciting young British conductor Leo Hussain.

Christine Brewer © Christian Steiner
Christine Brewer
© Christian Steiner

Three years ago, Brewer impressed Auckland audiences in Strauss and Wagner with a radiant Liebestod being particularly memorable. Sadly, her Beethoven on this occasion, in the form of concert aria Ah, perfido! (“Barbarous traitor”) was less satisfactory. In the middle and low parts of her voice, the warm, glowing tone is still present. This meant that the slow aria section of was lovely, as were the repeating “Dite voi” interjections in the cabaletta. But when it came to the histrionics of the opening recitative many of the high notes, while steady, took on an unpleasantly harsh edge. Similarly, Brewer seemed to struggle in the fast second section, some of the isolated high notes flying wild and command of the cruel coloratura elusive at times. Her temperament was well-suited to the task, but couldn’t quite make up for the vocal frailties. Hussain (who has had a lot of experience in opera) and the orchestra made this work seem even more Mozartian than usual, supplying more than adequate support to their soloist.

Thankfully, things improved greatly after the break in her set of six songs by Josef Marx, one of the chief composers operating in Vienna in the mid-20th century. He wrote in an orchestrally lush, conservative idiom but with an individual harmonic voice that seems to live in a world halfway-between Richard Strauss and Lehár. Brewer has recorded these songs and here seemed much more confident and secure, bringing a keen engagement with both music and text and most of the ascents above the stave were thrilling (perhaps she felt less exposed by Marx’s supportive orchestration). She showed us that she can still float her voice most ecstatically in the exalted heights of Selige Nacht, and that it can be fined down most charmingly for the operetta-like Und gestern hat er mich Rosen gebracht. Particularly impressive was the massive climax of Hat dich die liebe berurht – here the Straussian opulence of the orchestra was thunderous but Brewer’s voice managed to penetrate through stunningly.

The vocal works were flanked by an opening Mozart work and a closing Mahler piece. Versatile is the conductor who can make an effect in both and Hussain managed well, if noticeably better in the Mahler. The first impression of Hussain’s Mozart in the Symphony no. 41 “Jupiter” was cool and relaxed, the initial tutti outburst relatively genial and laid-back and the second subject most elegantly rendered. Elements of conflict were rather downplayed. The Andante cantabile again found the orchestra and conductor in an amiable mood, but some slightly scrambled wind playing and anaemic strings made it seem a little earthbound. This was a pity, for Hussain’s interpretation of the last two movements was thrilling indeed. Just the right dash and spirit infused the scherzo, the players alternately luminous and stirringly virtuosic. In the finale, the orchestra played with utmost clarity with the various parts in the fugato section well-delineated. Hussain maintained ideal flexibility of phrase in the movement yet there was an undeniable continuous propulsion forwards, the proceedings blazing away towards the final electrifying climax.

The first movement of Mahler’s incomplete Symphony no. 10 was the only movement the composer completed and scored fully. We began with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra’s viola section yearningly shaping the haunting introductory phrases. Hussain achieved full cohesion of the movement’s disparate elements without any smoothing over of the transitions. The cataclysmic crunching chords near the end were almost unbearably intense and these gave way to the most gorgeously rapt conclusion. I’ve rarely heard this orchestra’s strings as full and rich as here and in the preceding Marx. The first violin section dealt wonderfully with the more stratospheric demands and the solos from concertmaster Andrew Beer were exquisitely handled. Brass playing was largely impeccable, with the trumpeter’s contribution to the aforementioned terrifying climax particularly notable. This Adagio worked beautifully on its own here in Hussain’s sensitive hands but next time perhaps we could have him back for Deryck Cooke’s completion of the full work?

Overall, the wide variety of music Vienna has provided over the last couple of centuries was effectively on display here, though the Romantic period came off better than the Classical in these performances. Christine Brewer was well worth hearing again even if the Beethoven was a missed opportunity, as she introduced many in the audience to a crowd-pleasing composer in the form of Josef Marx. It was Hussain’s Mahler that proved the highlight however and it is to be hoped that he will grace our shores once again in the near future.

***11