Around the world in 80 minutes, or slightly longer, proves to be invigorating journey.

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra promised us a trip around the world in 80 minutes on Friday night.

In fact, the journey ran a few minutes over, and the itinerary was perhaps a mite selective to warrant such a description. However, only the most cussed of curmudgeons could deny that this was one of the most exhilarating concerts of the year.

We set off in Russia, with Anthony Ritchie's curiously titled Diary of a Madman: Dedication to Shostakovich.

Few of our composers could compete with the sheer brilliance of this shortish piece, both in terms of orchestral ingenuity and Ritchie's mustering of a range of Shostakovich themes into his score.


Although it seemed at one point that there was a little too much of the Polka from The Golden Age, the momentum of the writing inspired conductor Andrew Litton and his musicians to thrilling heights.

Stephen Hough is not your standard Beethoven and Brahms pianist and, on this occasion, he brought us Saint-Saens' Egyptian Concerto.

There may be a Nubian song lurking in its slow movement, but Hough also seemed to evoke Iberian mysteries here, as well as cooking up some finger-numbing boogie in the Finale.

And what could be more quintessentially French than Saint-Saens' opening Allegro moderato?

Hough's encore was perfectly chosen, Mompou's Jeunes Filles au Jardin, pert and languid by turns.

After the interval, it was back to Russia and the flamboyant Litton had the orchestra to himself for Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony.

The players knew what the American conductor wanted, from the very first pages of the work, where long snaking violin lines moved inexorably from a whisper to full-throated cry of anguish.

The second movement was almost brutally sardonic, with some wicked wit in waltz-time; the mighty Largo that followed, echoing some of the darker hints in Anthony Ritchie's tribute, laid out sorrows of such magnitude and import that the music was almost invested with a cathartic power.

Classical music:
What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Where: Auckland Town Hall