New Zealand Symphony Orchestra at Auckland Town Hall

By William Dart

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra brought us the glow of youth over the weekend, with a 27-year-old Pietari Inkinen on the podium and 29-year-old pianist Freddy Kempf as soloist.

Impetuosity and urgency were the orders of Friday evening's all-Beethoven concert, from the opening bars of the Fidelio Overture to the powerfully driven account of the Fifth Symphony.

Kempf has already given us two highly individual recordings of Beethoven Sonatas on CD. After the slightest hint of nervousness in the opening chords of the composer's Fourth Concerto, the pianist dispensed the work with elan.

His response to Inkinen's stern orchestral utterances in the second movement was to stress the transparent simplicity of his chordal passages; in the final movement he was ringleader in a breathless chase.

Inkinen, whose appointment as the orchestra's music director had been announced earlier that day, painted the Fifth Symphony in bold colours.

The sheer drive of the first movement was reflected in huge sweeps of the arms, yet he was also attuned to the smaller world of the Andante con moto, with immaculate phrasing and dynamics.

The Scherzo strode around the stage, complete with gruff fugato, while the Finale was the last moments of a Supernova, Ludwig-style.

Saturday night opened with the latest of the orchestra's commissions. Lyell Cresswell's Alas! How Swift, a score inspired by a world-weary inscription on a Scottish sundial, but, in effect, a dazzling sparkler of a Scherzo.

The exemplary trumpet soloist, Michael Kirgan, spun his obsessive riffs while orchestral lines twirled and curled around him.

Cresswell's craft is second to none, reminding one of his own musical past with a recurring pizzicato passage and providing emotional ballast with a reflective string theme.

Prokofiev's Second Concerto is one of the most challenging in the pianist's repertoire. It had a controversial premiere, with its final chord struggling against an audience which was creating, in the words of one commentator, an indescribable hubbub.

Saturday night's audience - sadly much smaller than that which had come out for Beethoven - reacted with vociferous applause.

Kempf may not have been without blemish in the almost impossible cadenzas, but he had the gleam and style of a virtuoso, catching the crystalline textures of the first movement and storming his way through the final movement.

The great Diaghilev had considered conscripting this concerto for the ballet stage: Kempf and Inkinen made you realise why.

You felt that Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony was going to be a mighty performance from the implacable tread of its opening bars, and Inkinen was not afraid to pile on the decibels later in the movement when Shostakovich lashes out.

If the Scherzo laid emphasis on the satiric, then the Largo reaffirmed itself as one of the greatest of the composer's slow movements, thanks to the single-minded focus and ensemble of the players. No opportunity for barnstorming in the Finale was turned down.

This was a top-notch weekend of music-making that whets the appetite for Inkinen's return in July, when he will tackle Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, working alongside the even younger Canadian violinist Leila Josefowicz.

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