The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra chose to open its 2014 season with a varied programme of Wagner, Corigliano and Stravinsky – not the most obvious of bedfellows! While the rendition of Petrushka was far and away the highlight of the evening, it was interesting to hear the orchestra’s take on an attractive, if uneven, recent violin concerto.

Eckehard Stier © Dieter Wuschanski
Eckehard Stier
© Dieter Wuschanski

The Act I Prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg opened the programme. Music Director Eckehard Stier paced it on the swift side, but not so fast that the majesty of the C major opening didn’t tell. The counterpoint was clear throughout and he expertly guided the orchestra in such a way that each successive climax seemed just another step on a journey through to the great final peroration. A few opening concert nerves could be detected here and there in the orchestra; ensemble wasn't quite perfect, with some sections of the orchestra sounding ever so slightly ahead of others at times. Even the usual exemplary brass section sounded a little out of sorts, the occasional bubble marring their attack on some occasions.

Corigliano’s concerto makes use of themes from the film The Red Violin, a subject he has revisited many times since the original score was written. The first movement starts with a Baroque-style Chaconne that reoccurs at the end of the piece to tie everything together. This first appearance morphs into a series of virtuoso exercises invoking the journey of the title violin across the centuries and around the world. In a pre-performance introduction to the work, Stier noted the angst and pain of the first movement depicting the death of the violin-maker's wife and child. To me, however, this performance came across as more gently nostalgic than particularly pain-wracked.

The soft, swirling lines of the second movement showed off the orchestra’s command of dynamics, the nervous passagework never simply skimmed over even at such low volume. Corigliano’s orchestration in the third movement is curious, particularly his use of alto flute in combination with the solo violin. It has a slow, rocking, berceuse-like mood, quite beautiful but sometimes falling into “neo-Romanticism”. Stier referred to the last movement as the “Chinese” movement with the solo violin giving off twanging sounds reminiscent of Chinese traditional instruments. The orchestral string players press down hard on the strings of their instruments, creating an interesting unpitched scratching sound. All in all, Corigliano’s music may not be the most distinctive, but he certainly offers enough of an interesting sound-world to reward repeated hearings.

British violinist Chloë Hanslip certainly made the most of the opportunities offered by the score; she is clearly very familiar with the music having commercially recorded the first movement separately in its original form as The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra. She remained unfazed by even the most strenuous of technical challenges, keeping a firm and even line at all dynamic levels. Her command of the double harmonics of the second movement was particularly impressive – managing such an ethereal sound in such circumstances is admirable indeed. However, I cannot help but feel that as a whole it is a bit of an ungrateful solo part, consisting of a lot of fast passagework that was sometimes drowned out by the orchestra and only a few chances for genuine lyrical outpouring or showstopping virtuosity.

Under Stier, the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra has made something of a specialty of Stravinsky over the last few seasons, offering stunning performances of both The Rite of Spring and The Rake’s Progress last year alone. It is satisfying to report that they were again on top form in the 1947 version of Petrushka. It would be easy for a piece as diffuse as this to descend into the disorientated and episodic, but under Stier’s firm but flexible direction the transitions between the sections were expertly managed, creating an overall sense of cohesiveness. From the outset, the orchestra created a bewildering array of colour, making the fairground setting spring to life. They are at their best in works that demand rhythmic vitality and they certainly brought ideal clarity and punch to the slashing chords that interrupt the fairground antics. Despite their exactitude, there was never anything remotely mechanical about the performance, maintaining elasticity as the music lurched from section to section. The woodwind principals deserve special praise for their supple delivery of their solo moments and trumpeter Norman McFarlane did his best in the fiendishly difficult tune in the third tableau. Bar the odd flub from the brass, this was a well-nigh perfect performance of Stravinsky’s work and it was a privilege to experience it. May I suggest Oedipus Rex for next season?