The Saxon city of Leipzig provided the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra with an intriguing theme for this concert, featuring two works that were originally premiered by the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, approximately 40 years apart: Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor from 1845 and Bruckner’s Symphony no. 7 in E major from 1884. The programming also served to honour the space in which it was performed; the Auckland Town Hall was specifically modelled on the 1885 Leipzig Gewandhaus that was destroyed during the Second World War. Due to last-minute injury, scheduled conductor Lionel Bringuier unfortunately cancelled and was replaced by Austrian maestro Günter Neuhold, who was luckily able to continue with the planned programme. Even more luckily, Neuhold clearly had an instant rapport with both soloist and orchestra, with none of the teething problems one might expect with a last-minute cancellation.

Isabelle Faust © Felix Broede
Isabelle Faust
© Felix Broede

Mendelssohn’s popular Violin Concerto was rendered completely fresh by magnificent German violinist Isabelle Faust (not from Leipzig) in one of the most compelling violin concerto performances of my experience. From the very beginning, as Faust teased out the twisting opening theme, one could tell this was to be no ordinary Mendelssohn performance. What was consistently striking was the inward nature of her performance; where many violinists flaunt their big shining tones and technical prowess, Faust dared to draw us in with her to a world in which every phrase was of musical importance, in which she was never afraid to make a less-than-beautiful sound to make a musical point. The first movement was a combination of urgency and poise that was breathtaking and she dug into the amazing first movement cadenza with gritty passion. Even with all the evident thought behind each note, the music never felt overanalysed; the slow movement was remarkable for its sweet simplicity of utterance, rejecting any hint of sentimentality. Light and bright, the third movement summoned something of the elfin nature of the same composer’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written at the other end of his career, but there was a frenetic roughness in some phrases that was most effective. Virtuoso elements were never short-changed, arpeggios perfectly in place and played with a secure idea of their part in the musical fabric. The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra provided ideal support, keeping a very clean, chamber-like texture that illuminated many previously unnoticed orchestral details. This was followed by an ineffably moving encore in the form of the Largo from Bach's Violin Sonata no. 3 in C major, taken slowly and with great rhythmic openness, each phrase more heart-wrenching than the last.

Bruckner's monumental Seventh Symphony was dedicated to Ludwig II of Bavaria but it has the spirit of Wagner running through it, most obviously typified by the inclusion of four Wagner tubas. The spirit of Wagner's Nuremberg was summoned in Neuhold's genial take on the first movement, the conductor keeping things at quite an even keel tempo-wise and so achieving a very organic sense of ebb and flow. Bruckner relies on being giving a certain sense of space in order to achieve maximum effect and here this was not only perfectly judged, but was balanced with an ever-pressing forward momentum. As each section builds and is then cut off to be replaced by the next, transitions were handled expertly without any jarring loss of momentum before finally resolving in a way that seemed to tellingly reference all that had come before. The slow movement is one of Bruckner's most glorious inspirations (it has been said that he penned it with the knowledge that Wagner was near death) and Neuhold had it fully in hand, taking his time and allowing the architectural building blocks to take shape. It moved inexorably towards the repeated motif of the great climax (with the controversial cymbal on this occasion), though this moment was one of the few where a greater opulence of sound would have been welcome.

The last half was less effective. If anything, the Scherzo and Trio were maybe not quite differentiated enough – one ideally wants more elemental excitement in the former. Similarly, while much of the geniality of the first movement returned in the last, it was just missing that last bit of tension. The orchestra was mostly superb throughout, cellos pouring out their hearts in the first movement's gorgeous melody and woodwinds suitably melancholy in that movement's lovely second theme. The strings also summoned an appreciable nobility for the finale's utterrances. Much attention in any Bruckner piece will be on the sizeable brass section but it was mixed on this occasion, pages and pages of patrician warmth marred by a few too many split notes. All in all, a memorable account of the Bruckner in less than ideal circumstances, but it is the truly extraordinary contribution of Isabelle Faust in Mendelssohn that will remain in the memory.

****1