Of the two major orchestras performing in Auckland, the Auckland Philharmonia consistently has the more interesting programming (in recent reviews I’ve praised them in everything from Messiaen to Bach). It was interesting, then, to hear them in the bread-and-butter symphonic repertoire of Bruch and Brahms. French-born conductor Lionel Bringuier (who at age 27 is already the Chief Conductor designate of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra) led the orchestra with great elegance but also great fire, in one of the most memorable concerts in Auckland this year.

Lionel Bringuier © Jonathan Grimbert-Barré
Lionel Bringuier
© Jonathan Grimbert-Barré

Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn are nowadays also known as the Saint Anthony Variations, since the “Chorale Saint Antoni” theme is no longer considered to have been composed by Haydn, only used by him in his Feldpartita in B flat. The orchestra were slightly hesitant (particularly the brass) in the beginning but were on firmer ground from the first variation onwards. Despite the quite dazzling variety of moods, Bringuier made sure there was great cohesion between the variations. Partly this was achieved by never losing the basic structure of the opening theme, its irregular five-bar phrases clearly underlying each variation. Clarity of line meant that Brahms's oft-overlooked mastery of counterpoint was on full display. Particularly commendable was the light energy of the scherzo-like fifth variation with exhilarating playing from the orchestra (ebullient triangle included) as the theme burst forth again in a climactic moment in the coda.

Natalia Lomeiko, winner of the 2003 Michael Hill International Violin Competition in Auckland, has previously been known to me as a superb interpreter of the Berg Violin Concerto. On this occasion, she returned to give us what was, all in all, the greatest performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto no. 2 I have ever heard. Lomeiko’s tone is warm and sweet and projects over the orchestra with passionate intensity. She knows how to use vibrato to create the maximum emotional effect. Everything about her performance was confidently effortless; the exuberant double stopping in the last movement held no fears for her. Lomeiko’s technical brilliance is not rooted in showiness, but in a genuine emotional involvement with the music. There was no hint of ‘schmaltz’ as she worked her way through Bruch’s unabashedly romantic score; her sensitivity to his melodic contours in the sumptuous slow movement was breathtaking. The orchestra relinquished the spotlight happily, playing perfect accompanist and in moments of the slow movement supporting Lomeiko with a gorgeously plush cushion of sound.

Brahms mischievously wrote to his publisher that his Symphony no. 2 “is so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it,” but in reality it is the most genial and joyful of his four works in the genre. This doesn’t mean that it is completely without darkness, however, and it was refreshing to hear Bringuier and the orchestra bringing out the full emotional compass of the work. The great first movement started off more acerbically than usual, with quite a bite to the string tone. The second movement was weighty without being ponderous; the clarity found in the Haydn Variations was also evident here. The pastoral third movement smiled and shone, with a nimble ‘presto ma non assai’ section. I initially wondered if the last movement wasn’t a little rushed, but it was impossible not to get swept up in the propulsive forward momentum, the orchestra sounding just on the edge of desperation in the most exciting way. The final climax left me breathless in exhilaration.

Bringuier was able to convince the Auckland Philharmonia to produce a depth of tone I’ve rarely heard from them, viola and cello sections in particular singing expressively in their sweeping slow movement tune. The brass were much more confident here than in the Haydn Variations, playing with solemn gravity in the slow movement and great swagger and power elsewhere. As always, the oboe playing of Bede Hanley stood out with a perfectly shaped triple-time melody in the third movement. The combination of this orchestra and conductor in Brahms was so potent that I couldn't help fantasising about introducing Lomeiko into the combo in the form of Brahms's majestic Violin Concerto. Could this be a concert for the future, perhaps?