This Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra concert was titled simply "Degenerate" and designed to showcase works that were – or would have been – banned for their so-called "degeneracy" during the Third Reich, either for the perceived "radical" nature of the music or for the simple fact the composer was Jewish. The inclusion of Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Mendelssohn, three composers almost as different as can be, revealed both the sheer variety of music that was banned as well as the great versatility of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, with a particular revelation in the form of Michael Barenboim's spellbinding rendition of Schoenberg's Violin Concerto.

Johannes Fritzsch © Patrick Togher Artists Management
Johannes Fritzsch
© Patrick Togher Artists Management
Originally written for jazz band before being rearranged for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, it is hard to discern any jazz elements to Stravinsky's Scherzo à la russe. It is more reminiscent of the highly rhythmic ballets he wrote for Diaghilev. Some uncharacteristic muddiness of ensemble clouded the opening statement but this was thankfully only a momentary issue; crispness of rhythm returned in time for the restatement of the first theme. Conductor Johannes Fritzsch brought welcome vitality to this theme, contrasting well with the delicate canon for piano and harp of the first Trio section.

Schoenberg, both radical and Jewish, was doubly offensive to the Third Reich and like the preceding Stravinsky work, his Violin Concerto was composed in the United States, to where he had fled from Hitler's regime. Though the work is characterised by Schoenberg's twelve-tone compositional technique, Fritzsch's sensitive conception was never academic, consistently shaped with true intensity and with vital attention given to rhythm. The orchestra proved to be totally immersed in Schoenberg's sound-world with many touching individual colorations, particularly in the sparsely orchestrated central movement.

Michael Barenboim was more than equal to the fiendish demands of the solo part, rock-solid enough in every technical aspect to be able to concentrate on giving fine attention to the detail of every phrase. There was a full range of tone colour on offer, Barenboim's violin whispering eerie high pianissimi one moment and unleashing passionate double-stopping the next. Particularly in the second and third movements, he really brought out a yearning quality in Schoenberg's twelve-tone melodic lines, which emerged as almost shockingly beautiful musical statements despite their angularity. The way Barenboim shaped his phrases often brought something close to a Mahlerian pathos and all of this was achieved with a consistently clear and alluring tone. Schoenberg's concerto is an unfairly neglected work and this was truly as fine a rendition as one could imagine.

After this astonishing display of concentrated intensity, it is hardly surprising that the tension dropped somewhat for the second half, consisting of Mendelssohn's Fifth Symphony. Mendelssohn's music was banned by the Nazis solely for his Jewish heritage, never mind that his whole family had converted to Lutheranism. This symphony is actually celebratory of Lutheran Christianity (originally intended for the 200th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession) and begins with a slow introduction with ethereal quotations of the "Dresden Amen" theme that Wagner was to include so effectively in Parsifal. The faster main part of the movement was superbly crisp in its attack and taken relatively quickly, though with a nice flexibility which meant it never felt hard-driven.

Fritzsch's take on this symphony felt generally sunny throughout and one missed a little sense of danger in this opening movement, though the build-up to the stirring coda was certainly exciting. The Scherzo was light and perky with a nice snap to the frequent dotted figurations, duetting oboes making the most of their contribution to the genial Trio section. A poised stillness permeated the sweetly lyrical slow movement, given plenty of space to unfold naturally under Fritzsch's baton with nicely singing string tone. This led straight into the rollicking final movement, based on the Lutheran chorale “Ein feste Burg”. Mendelssohn's little touches of counterpoint were well pointed by Fritzsch and the strings in particular were thrillingly high-spirited and rhythmically alert throughout. There was a well-structured sense of logical narrative here, through the majestic restatement of the first movement introduction to final glorious restatement of the chorale theme by full orchestra. Overall, one couldn't have faulted the execution at all, but there was something a little unvaried about this performance; this may have been partly the fault Mendelssohn's generally positive writing but there are more possible contrasts of mood than we were presented with here.

Nevertheless, on the whole the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra offered superlative renditions of three very different works that, despite the "degeneracy" they share, didn't really gel as a cohesive programme. It is the dazzling advocacy of the neglected Schoenberg that was the absolute highlight; a musical epiphany such that is rarely encountered.