The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra has a proven track record in Bruch, given their magnificent performance of the amazing performance of his Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor with Natalia Lomeiko two years ago. Here, for their concert titled “Virtuoso Violin”, they chose once again to offer the same work, this time with Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud as a late replacement for Viviane Hagner. Thankfully, it was a performance every bit as impressive as its predecessor with some sterling Schoenberg and Mahler either side creating a most riveting concert experience.

Henning Kraggerud © Robert Romik
Henning Kraggerud
© Robert Romik

Dating from the same time as masterpieces such as Moses und Aron and the Variations for Orchestra, Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a cinematographic scene was commissioned by the Heinrichshofen Verlag in Magdeburg though never actually used for any film. Schoenberg is said to have been interested in the idea of film music, but unable to submit his creative genius was insufficiently flexible in the way necessary to accommodate his music to an actual film. So this “accompaniment” remains one for a non-existent film, though in 1973 three films were made by Jean-Marie Straub, Jan W. Morthenson and Luc Ferrari to complement the score. Music Director-to-be Giordano Bellincampi’s interpretation was essentially lyrical in conception, the three moods set out by the composer (“Threatening Danger”, “Fear” and “Catastrophe”) brought out thoughtfully but not exaggeratedly. The orchestra was superb, veering between violence and introspection with consummate ease.

Bruch’s treasured Violin Concerto no. 1 is a work that rarely fails to delight despite its relative ubiquity. Kraggerud obviously agrees as was evident in his consistently dynamic and exciting account of the solo part. This was a relatively muscular reading of the outer movements, double-stopping thrilling in both its accuracy and sheer amplitude. There was a consistent sense of fun in the solo part, matched by the ebullient conducting of Bellincampi. A very natural transition was achieved between the first movement and the exquisite lyrical lines of the second. Kraggerud has a light and silky pianissimo in his arsenal that was somehow as well-projected as his forte in the Auckland Town Hall acoustic. He took the long-lines at quite a relazed speed but always with a feel for the overall shape of the phrasing. Vigour and dash permeated a dancing rendition of the third movement, Kraggerud tossing off the passagework with panache, the odd bit of uncertain intonation aside. As with Lomeiko two year ago, the orchestral support was first-class. 

Mahler only used the subtitle “Titan” for two of the earliest performances of the First Symphony (the name taken from the title of a novel by Jean Paul) but it has evidently stuck, duly printed in the programme. What was most impressive about this performance was the flexibility of tempo and mood displayed by the orchestra and Bellincampi at the helm. This symphony is notable for its thematic links with the same composer's Songs of a Wayfarer cycle and Bellincampi brought these Lied influences out without skimping on full-blooded thrills. He lingered over the eerie and otherworldly introduction with its offstage trumpets and slow horn melody (beautifully played) before unfurling the first Wayfarer theme with rustic charm, the clarinet's cuckoo sounds emerging perkily from the texture. This charm was well-contrasted with the raw power and energy summoned for a truly exhilarating last pages. Relatively unusually, Mahler places the Scherzo before the slow movement, here a Ländler country dance. Bellincampi had the measure of this movement's spirit superbly, suitably vulgar right up to its hectic finish. The contrasting Trio was supremely lyrical in conception.

The third movement's Funeral march based on the children’s tune Frére Jacques transferred into a minor key, here introduced by the double bass section in unison (as in Sander Wilkins’s edition of the core) as opposed to a solo instrument (as in the established performance tradition). The section played with an impressive amount of coordination but one missed the extra expression a solo can bring at this crucial point. Schmaltz was the appropriate order of the day in the klezmer-inspired second subject, phrased with extreme rubato which the orchestra had no trouble in following. Strong and virtuoso playing from the orchestra lifted the violent opening of the long final movement though Bellincampi didn’t quite reconcile the fragmentary nature of this movement, the contemplative section a little too self-absorbed and thus losing valuable momentum. Orchestral playing remained superb however, with forceful wind playing and horns magnificently triumphant in their standing moments. That Bellincampi was able to inspire such magnificent playing for this orchestra bodes well for his upcoming tenure as Musical Director and I'm intrigued to hear what he brings to the Auckland Philharmonia in the next few years.