There are few concert-going pleasures as rewarding as hearing a great conductor performing music he is clearly passionate about and inspiring those around him to ever greater heights of involvement with the music. This is what the audience at the Auckland Town Hall was treated to with Paul McCreesh and his interpretation of Elgar's Symphony no. 2 in E flat major with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. While I had previously associated McCreesh with a much earlier repertory, here he showed himself equally at home in the English 20th century idiom. In fact, the superlative performance of the symphony frequently threatened to eclipse the Mozart of the first half of the evening.

Paul McCreesh © Ben Wright
Paul McCreesh
© Ben Wright

The programme began with the lesser known of the two Mozart works, his 1788 Adagio and Fugue, K546, for string orchestra. Baroque influences are to the fore in both sections of the work, particularly noticeable in the dotted rhythms of the Adagio. The Fugue had originally appeared in his Fugue in C minor for two pianos, K426, from five years earlier. Despite its obvious Bachian influences, this Fugue looks forward to Beethoven even more than backward to the Baroque period and is quite uncharacteristically jagged and dark for Mozart. One might have expected the pared-down orchestra used here to bring extra clarity, but in the Fugue the details of some lines were lost in the expanses of the hall. Additionally, this orchestra's trademark accuracy was somewhat lacking at times, making the piece slightly more harmonically and rhythmically complex than Mozart perhaps intended.

Opera enthusiasts may recognise the opening theme of the Violin Concerto no. 3 in G major,K216, as being derived from “Aer tranquillo e dì sereni”, an aria from Mozart's juvenile opera Il re pastore. Soloist Benjamin Schmid was always on point technically, consistently integrating the passagework as part of the melodic line. There are few pieces of Mozart that can rival the Adagio for sheer beauty and this inspired Schmid to dreamy yet expressive mellifluousness in his shaping of the melody, borne aloft gracefully by the flute's solo appearance in the work. Schmid and McCreesh created a real sense of conversation between soloist and orchestra throughout and brought wonderful swing to the dance-like Rondeau. The orchestra were on better form here also, with a very effective 'fade' to nothing at the end of the third movement. This was all very much Mozart in period performance-influenced mode, incisive but could perhaps be criticised as a little small-scale. Schmid then further showed off his all-round technical and expressive expertise in his Biber encore.

In his brief talk before the Elgar, McCreesh made much of the Shelley excerpt that heads the score: “Rarely, rarely comest thou, Spirit of Delight!” Even in the most assured, confident and noble sections of the score, there is always an undercurrent of a doubt that the ‘delight’ can last. This sense of conflict was made the centre of McCreesh's interpretation here. The massive first movement moved along urgently, at first noble and joyous before descending into darkness for the sinister development section. Elgar's frequent use of sequential configurations was put to good expressive use; there was a real sense of a journey as the movement progressed. McCreesh also maintained remarkable flexibility in tempo that made the music sound lovingly shaped but never forced or distorted.

The second movement funeral march, often misconstrued as being for King Edward VII, was equally impressive, building up to a stirring climax. Even in such a sombre movement there are elements of sunshine that were brought out convincingly here, as were interesting parallels between this movement and the opening of Mahler's great Symphony no. 5. This was followed by a rollicking account of the Scherzo, hard-driven but very effectively so. The unrelenting drumbeats of the central section were utterly terrifying; the “horrible throbbing in the head of some violent fever” as Elgar himself noted. The finale excited in its louder moments before letting us go lingeringly in the autumnal and nostalgic coda.

Admittedly they were greatly augmented in size, but the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra of the second half was truly a different beast than they were in the Mozart. There was more body to the sound than usual and the pure yet noble-sounding ‘glow’ that McCreesh coaxed from the strings in particular was beyond gorgeous. The cello section sung out gloriously in its great lyrical section and the immaculately shaped oboe playing of Bede Hanley was again praiseworthy. The tension was palpable in the hall following the final notes, the audience banishing its winter coughs for a moment to appreciate the grandeur of the performance they had just experienced.