Can one have too much of a good thing? This concert, the sixth and last of the Auckland Chamber Orchestra’s 2015 season, suggests that one can if that thing is slow, languorous cello music. Musical Director Peter Scholes announced that the scheduled Haydn Cello Concerto no. 1 had been replaced, on the soloist’s “whim”, by three shorter concertante works by Bruch, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák. Though the intention was to make something of a “concerto” from these three works and though Bulgarian-born cellist Eliah Sakakushev-von Bismarck’s playing was technically infallible and moving in expression and the orchestral accompaniment warm and supportive, the similarity of mood and tempo across the three pieces made for a distinct lack of contrast. Then when the encore was another languid tune, it was simply too much.

Folk influences were strongly felt in the pieces before the interval. The concert opened with a refreshing take on Holst’s melodic St Paul’s Suite, named for the St Paul’s Girls School where the composer served as music director for nearly three decades. The work is for string orchestra only and Scholes maintained an ideal balance between the parts, the violin section never over-dominating despite its size and space always being made for solo instruments and combinations thereof to be heard. The vigorous introductory jig movement was played with confident panache. Small lapses of second violin ensemble in the second movement ostinato opening didn’t detract too much from the deliciously vivacious playing and Dimitri Atanassov’s graceful solo violin introduced the Intermezzo’s theme with aplomb. The orchestra dug into the Dargason and Greensleeves folksongs of the last movement with great enthusiasm, generating genuinely visceral excitement. Throughout, the lushness of the strings belied the size of the ensemble and Scholes direction was memorable in its exuberance.

Based on folk melodies from James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum, Bruch’s Adagio on Celtic Themes has a melodic charm not too dissimilar from his Scottish Fantasy. Sakakushev-von Bismarck teased out each memorable melody with a tender magic. This was followed by Tchaikovsky's Andante cantabile,  an arrangement of the second movement from his String Quartet no. 1 and again based on a folk tune. The soloist gently lingered over this theme without succumbing to oversentimentality. Another arrangement of an originally smaller-scaled work, Dvořák’s Silent Woods, was transcribed from its piano duet origins to a piece for a cello and piano and finally to this cello and orchestra setting. There was superlative loveliness to  Sakakushev-von Bismarck's breadth of phrasing in the reflective main theme (one almost imagined oneself in a blissful sojourn in a Bohemian woodland) although the final moments were rather spoiled by an unanticipated fluffed note from the horns. The Glazunov encore is a sweet, pathos-filled piece which again Sakakuchev-von Bismarck played most appealingly, though by this stage the sameness of mood was having a somewhat soporific effect. One longed for an Allegro or even Allegretto to break through the ceaseless Adagio.

With the larger ensemble required for Beethoven's Symphony no. 5 in C minor after the interval, the limitations of the venue were brought more to one’s attention. The Raye Freedman Arts Centre has a certain dryness that leaves the instrumental sound vulnerable, particular in the pauses in the first movement; resonance is lost and the pause sounds more awkward than anticipatory. Thankfully, the performance was on a high level, Scholes coaxing a crisp attack on the famous opening four-note motif. There was fine clarity of texture, and one could hear as well as see the imitations of this motif bouncing around the orchestra. This movement was kept moving with a string sense of forward propulsion.

The Andante con moto too was always flowing, a very coherent set of variations with a relaxed pastoral air as perfect counterpoint to the rest of the work. Some faulty ensemble reappeared in the cellos and double basses in their opening phrases of the third movement, but they were better coordinated at each repetition. Scholes rocketed through the great transition into the last movement and then launched into the finalewith a further accelerando. One couldn't doubt the feeling of triumph in this movement's resounding C major outpourings with the reprise of the scherzo’s mellow horn theme serving as a last wistful reminder of what came before. Woodwind had their chances to shine throughout, from the beautiful, improvisory oboe of the first movement to the extremely spirited piccolo playing of the last. Finally, the chords of the drawn-out climax thundered spectacularly, leading, in ETA Hoffmann's words, "the listener imperiously forward into the spirit world of the infinite!” and quite effacing the beautifully played but repetitive concertante works of the first half.

***11