What an inspired idea it was for the Auckland Philharmonia to present a programme of works based on birdsong! Given the paucity of truly innovative programming in New Zealand, it was refreshing to encounter a concert encompassing not only Messiaen’s ornithological masterpiece Oiseaux exotiques but also, preceding it, a miniature piano recital of bird-related works featuring acclaimed British pianist Joanna MacGregor. It was unfortunate that the highly intense and ravishing contributions of MacGregor were let down by the tepid performances of the warhorses on either side.

Joanna MacGregor © Ingpen & Williams
Joanna MacGregor
© Ingpen & Williams

I cannot help but feel that Respighi’s transcription of largely rather banal Baroque works needs all the help it can get in terms of the conductor’s intervention. Conductor John Nelson held the orchestra to a high standard of musicianship, including some piquant wind solos, but the overall effect was still pretty insipid. A little more contrast between movements would have alleviated this.

Matters changed dramatically with the appearance of the pianist, Joanna MacGregor. She played her short solo programme completely without breaks with Ravel melding into Daquin, Daquin melding into Gubaidulina and so forth, with seamless transitions. Her moving back and forth between the styles of different centuries was effortless, if a little disorienting (but pleasantly so). She opened with the most intensely concentrated rendition of Ravel’s “Oiseaux tristes” from Miroirs imaginable, radiating a deep melancholy. She achieved an amazing amount of storytelling from such a short piece; this was one of the more remarkable pianistic wonders I've experienced. Daquin’s Le Coucou, taken at quite a clip, brought the eponymous bird twittering into the hall. Following this, Gubaidulina’s “The Little Tit” was a fidgety little bird indeed. The ever-present elaborate ornamentation in the Couperin “Le rossignol en amour” was incredibly crisp; this is a nightingale that announces itself in quite a forthright fashion, here given very pianistic treatment to great effect. The set was completed by Birtwistle’s Oockooing Bird, the spare lines of which were the perfect palate cleanser after the intricate movements of Couperin’s nightingale. Being more familiar with Birtwistle’s large-scale works, it was a surprise to hear quite such a gentle, lyrical sound world in this short piece.

No composer is more intimately identified with birdsong than Messiaen – he once described birds as being “closer to God than angels”. His Oiseaux exotiques for piano solo, wind ensemble and percussion is one of his great works in this ornithological vein. The calls of over 40 different birds from around the world are featured, although not all ring out obviously, being often hidden amongst the instrumental textures. However, even if they are not immediately perceivable, they greatly contribute to the richly exotic sound world. The work predominantly consists of long solo piano cadenzas alternating with sections from the orchestral ensemble and here MacGregor and Nelson created a magical sense of dialogue. She continued the kind of rapt concentration she had exhibited in her mini-recital, each solo section a cascade of notes without any sign of the music's fiendish difficulty. The repeated block chords near the conclusion were unflinchingly delivered with a rhythmic vitality that was painfully intense. Nelson's handling of the tricky balances between the instruments was masterful and the ensemble was totally confident throughout. It would be remiss not to mention the stunning virtuoso performance from xylophone and glockenspiel.

Beethoven's “Pastoral” Symphony has something of an unfair reputation as his most genial, relaxed of symphonic works, ignoring the originality of Beethoven's five movement scheme and its great influence on the development of 19th century programme music. The famous opening figure here was gorgeous, at once delicate and warm but the following, more rambunctious, moments lacked some measure of drive and excitement. This proved largely to be the formula for the whole performance; when slow and beautiful were required, one has scarcely ever heard more ravishing tones and phrasing, but more fire was wanting elsewhere. This was most keenly felt in the fourth movement, more drizzle than a discernible storm. The orchestral playing was mostly fine without major incident, though at some points in the Scherzo the brass and wind threatened to come off the rails (perhaps they were tired out from the Messiaen?). As a whole, despite its lovely movements, this “Pastoral” just failed to be truly involving.

Nevertheless, this concert will stay in this reviewer's memory due to the spectacular Messiaen and the preceding solo works. One hopes that this venture will encourage the Auckland Philharmonia and other ensembles in Auckland to attempt such adventurous planning more in the future.