For the third concert of their 2015 Premier Series, the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra under Musical Director Eckehard Stier presented "Out of this World", a varied programme of Bach, Dutilleux and Shostakovich. Unfortunately, while the Dutilleux concerto did indeed deserve the title in both its inherent nature and in its performance here, the Bach and Shostakovich offerings remained regrettably earthbound.

Nicolas Altstaedt © Marco Borggreve
Nicolas Altstaedt
© Marco Borggreve

The opening of the Bach Overture (from his third Orchestral Suite, BWV 1068) was grand indeed, trumpets and timpani suitably raucous and the rhythmic verve of the orchestra in the dotted rhythms that followed was a joy to behold. The central fugal section was markedly less successful, some of the individual lines lost in the miasma of sound, particularly in the middle strings. When the opening music returned, there was a hint of shrillness in the trumpets and the sound was just unvaried enough to keep the conclusion from being as invigorating as it could be.

Following this rather lukewarm start, we had one of the most important and individual concertante works of the 20th century, Dutilleux's Tout un monde lointain ("a faraway, distant world"), proving quite the tour de force for young German/French cellist Nicolas Altstaedt. Written originally for Mstislav Rostropovich, its title and the title of each movement bear a quote from French poet Charles Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal. Dutilleux's sound-world is absolutely unique, combining influences of the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel and a dash of Messiaen with his own mysterious, meditative style. In five movements played without break, Tout un monde lointain was ravishingly dreamlike in this superlative performance. Beginning with a quiet percussion roll, the first movement displays huge registral contrasts for Altstaedt as he laid out a set of variations on a twelve-tone theme which are referenced again in later movements. Here and elsewhere once could sense a truly concentrated conversation between soloist and orchestra. Altstaedt displayed a consistently gorgeous tone and warmth of phrasing, particularly effective in the ghostly high line in the second movement.

He was also more than equal to the huge technical demands of the scherzo-like third movement. After another beautifully rendered slow movement, Altstaedt showed utmost vivaviousness in the faster last movement, leaving the audience in stunned silence at the sudden spine-tingling finish. The orchestra too was suddenly in magnificent form, tracing some exquisitely delicate orchestral soundscapes as well as filling out the loudest of percussion-filled climaxes. Dutilleux’s luminous scoring came off with the greatest clarity under Stier's leadership, the wind recalling Messiaen in particular.

Shostakovich's Symphony no. 5 in D minor is couched in a more conservative musical language than his earlier symphonies – this was "the creative reply of a Soviet artist to justified criticism" after Shostakovich had been threatened and insulted in an article in Pravda over his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. He set aside his previously thorny style and set about submissively toeing the party line with the more readily accessible and brash language of this symphony. According to Testimony, the controversial memoirs compiled by Solomon Volkov, the triumphal sections of the work are intended to be parodical, being purposefully forced, the triumph empty. The Auckland Philharmonia issued the initial canon theme in an appropriately gutsy and spiky manner before launching into the rest of the movement at quite the breakneck pace. With maximum contrast they maintained a haunting hush in the coda. Stier’s interpretation of the second movement brought out more of Mahler’s influence than usual  this distorted dance in waltz time seemed to conjure the spirit of Ländler, if entirely more garish in spirit. In this performance, the long, mournful melodies of the third movement dragged slightly. Though the strings played affectionately there is more to be had from this movement – it requires more intensity to remain totally compelling.

As we launched into the gaudy fourth movement, one preferably wants to hear something of Shostakovich's internal turmoil but I missed that here. Instead, we were treated to a series of spectacular, if rather superficial, orchestral fireworks. And indeed, as in the Dutilleux, the technical skill of the orchestra in this work was mesmerising. Shostakovich's orchestration in this work is particularly heavy on strings and that section was on glorious form, arching phrases soaring aloft through the hall. If anything the playing was even too poised in places; a bit of rawness wouldn't have gone amiss. Wind solos were fantastically alive, most especially the solo horn of Nicola Baker. All in all, though, there was a lack of either turmoil or pathos in the interpretation, which wasn't able to either involve itself completely with either the deeper feelings or to embrace unashamedly the more tawdry elements of the work. The final notes left one marvelling at the prowess and precision of the orchestra, but equally unconvinced that much more than the surface of the work had been scratched. After the concentrated intensity of the Dutilleux, this was a less than elating conclusion to the evening.