The overriding theme of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra’s season finale concert appeared to be night, teaming Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain with the raging force and violence of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. While the first two pieces had their issues with execution, in the Stravinsky the orchestra and music director Eckehard Stier demonstrated why they are renowned as interpreters of this composer’s music.

Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra © Oliver Rosser
Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
© Oliver Rosser

Those usually frightened by the twelve-tone Schoenberg were in for a surprise with his Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”). This unabashedly lush score from 1899, based on Richard Dehmel’s poem of two lovers in a moonlit forest, was arguably one of the last gasps for the Romantic movement in music. Originally for string sextet, it was performed here in Schoenberg’s own arrangement for string orchestra, and the Auckland Philharmonia strings were in magnificent form, soaring ecstatically through the Tristan-inspired chromatic phrases. While the quality of the playing was mesmerising, Stier’s direction didn’t quite have the overarching sense of momentum that is ideal in this piece. The result was a somewhat overly torpid languor of mood that may have been annihilatingly beautiful of sound but seemed to be meandering on a path to nowhere in particular.

Falla’s take on nights in the gardens of his native Andalusia was originally a set of nocturnes for solo piano, but was eventually re-worked for piano and orchestra. The piano part is not as dominant as in most concertos – it instead has a more obbligato role in the texture, though it is not without its virtuoso moments. Having loved Steven Osborne’s performances in CD for years (Debussy and Messiaen in particular), it was a thrill to finally hear him for the first time in the flesh. Given his experience with Debussy and Ravel, Osborne was ideally suited to this, one of Falla’s most impressionistic scores. The gypsy-like figures in the last movement were exquisitely teased out and the sense of dialogue between piano and orchestra was noticeable throughout. Stier had a much tighter hold on the reins here than in the Schoenberg, though there was still admirable flexibility in his interpretation. The piquant wind parts superbly evoked the Moorish influences in the piece. More attention could have been paid to the balance, however; there were times (particularly in the climaxes) when Osborne was simply overwhelmed by the orchestra – despite the relative integration of the piano part in this piece I cannot think this would have been Falla’s intention. However, the final moments as the music dies away were beautifully wistful.

The second half was perhaps the finest performance the Auckland Philharmonia has given this year. Even with the interval to buffer one’s senses, it was still a shock to turn from the perfumed lightness of the Falla to the sudden violence of The Rite of Spring. Famous for the riot it caused at its balletic première a hundred years ago this year, it is nowadays more often encountered as an orchestral showpiece and still sounds unfailingly modern in its rhythmic intensity and dissonance. The bassoonist plaintively called out her mysterious opening melody (derived from a Lithuanian folk tune), shaping it touchingly with the attention to detail that was characteristic of the performance as a whole. Stier ripped through many sections at speeds quicker than the norm; given the phenomenal accuracy of the playing, this was a real edge-of-the-seat performance. This was noticeable early on in the “Augurs of Spring” section with the horn’s slashing chords – each was confidently attacked perfectly in time even as the accents shifted across and off the different beats of the bar. The orchestra in The Rite of Spring is very large, but here they moved with a common sense of purpose, like a single instrument.

What came across most under Stier’s direction were the sheer violence of the score and his command of the narrative flow. Particularly notable was the “Dance of the Earth” that concluded Part 1. The playing here was devastating brutal but the rhythmic point and precision ensured even the smallest detail was heard and the sweep to the climax was breathtaking. The quieter moments were not short-changed, with the flute and clarinet parts expressively realised amongst the greater textures. Even through these more sedate moments, the playing never gave in to the temptation to relax; underlying was always the febrile energy propelling the young girl towards her sacrifice. The build-up of tension to the massive fortissimo in the “Spring Rounds” was but one example of this. The tightness of the percussion section also deserves praise. Following the crashing chord that concluded the work, the audience scarcely seemed to breathe for a number of moments. What a way to celebrate the centenary of what Leonard Bernstein called “the most important piece of music of the 20th century”.

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