This Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra concert was dedicated to those composers who pushed the boundaries of classical music and, in doing so, opened up new paths for the art form. In this, the orchestra had a strong ally in conductor Rumon Gamba, their collaboration pushing the boundaries of the concert experience, forcing the audience to hear anew these works as they might have been perceived at the times of their composition.

Rumon Gamba © Andreas Nilsson
Rumon Gamba
© Andreas Nilsson

We opened with Mahler, whose later works can be fairly said to represent a key bridging point between Romanticism and 20th-century modernism. Of the Symphony no. 10, only the first movement was extant in more-or-less complete form at the time of the composer’s death and this is what the Auckland Philharmonia presented. In his pre-concert commentary, Gamba painted a picture of Mahler’s emotional turmoil as he dealt with the infidelity of his wife and this kind of passionate volatility was inherent in his handling of the score. He handled the hushed opening Andante figure in the violas and its wide intervals with probing intensity. The Adagio proper was taken slowly but with a continuous sense of tension and forward momentum, Gamba leaning into the crunchy dissonances with intense power and anguish, making the huge brass-backed climax terrifying in its raw musical and emotional discord. Certainly here, one felt an evocation of the spirits of later composers, most especially Berg. The playing, though not as full-bodied as one might expect, was pretty faultless. Based on this performance, it would be desirable to hear these forces take on one of the completions of the entire symphony.

We perhaps do not think of Haydn as much of a pusher of boundaries these days but in his time he was a great innovator, fathering the string quartet form and creating the prototype of the modern symphony. Another of Haydn's innovations was the decision to treat the cello, hitherto limited to bass accompaniment, as a potential solo instrument. The Cello Concerto no. 2 in D major was composed for the principal cellist of the Esterházy orchestra he directed, a musician who must have been the possessor of great technical proficiency. Swedish cellist Torleif Thedéen shares this proficiency, giving off a sense of complete relaxation and control even as he tackled the most difficult passagework. After some fleeting pitch problems, the sheer beauty of the sound Thedéen was able to coax from his instrument was stunning, from the lowest depths to the extreme high harmonics required in the swift first movement. This paid further dividends in the aria-like central movement which was phrased with an almost vocal sense of line and the playful figures of the last movement were dispatched with panache. Orchestrally, the forces were greatly reduced from the preceding Mahler. Gamba certainly gave Thedéen a lot of musical space – though establishing flowing tempi at the outset, his direction elsewhere seemed subservient to the cellist. This made the piece feel meandering whenever Thedéen wasn’t taking centre stage.

The story of the riotous première of The Rite of Spring in 1913 is well-known, the ballet being received “with a storm of hissing”. Though there are disagreements as to whether this scandal was due to the music or the choreography, the score retains its power to shock, especially in such a dynamic performance as the one presented. The combination of polytonality, irregular rhythmic patterns, discordant harmonies and percussion-heavy orchestration was a watershed in Western music and Gamba brought these primal elements to the fore. There was certainly no attempt to prettify the score, the stamping figures in “The Augurs of Spring” given dangerous savagery and “Dances of the Young Girls” featuring an almost painfully huge crescendo. Similar to the earlier Mahler, Gamba impressively maintained the tension through this episodic score, never letting the quieter scenes like “The Adoration of the Earth” seem like mere interludes.

Though this music was once thought to be nigh-on unplayable, the Auckland Philharmonia had everything well in hand, even if they sometimes sacrificed precision to achieve the expressive effects Gamba was encouraging from them. The musicians threw themselves into the brutality, the shrieking woodwinds in Part One and the final thrilling perorations of the percussion in the final Sacrifical Dance just the most obvious examples. Quieter moments were also well-handled; again notably the woodwind in the frequent trilling figures that create a lot of the work’s creepy feelings of tension. Overall, barring the limp accompaniment in parts of the Haydn, this was a most impressive showing from the orchestra and conductor in which the works of three influential composers given emotionally engrossing treatment.

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