The pathway to James Ehnes' superlative Elgar Violin Concerto was a beguiling one. Under the unswerving baton of Scottish conductor Garry Walker, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra opened with more recent English fare - Thomas Ades' 2006 Three Studies from Couperin.
Ades' music can be wild and impulsive but he treads gently here, ruminating on 18th-century harpsichord pieces with a smaller but no less potent orchestra.
After the concert, Walker described the work in terms of reflections in a broken mirror, and the players had caught its enchanting elusiveness well.
The first movement created the illusion of phased sound with syncopations, elastic ornamentation and mysterious marimba. The second decoyed us with rhythmic ploys, and the third allowed the strings, under guest concertmaster Wilma Smith, to catch the poignant harmonies of Couperin's "soul in pain".
A lively performance of early Beethoven always makes one wish he had written more before the Eroica changed the symphonic template forever. Walker's First Symphony did this. The Allegro con brio had glorious light and shade, the lilting Andantino cantabile con moto was all Beethoven asked for, while the last two movements were boisterous with hints of menace.
From the very beginning of Elgar's Violin Concerto, there was symphonic engagement. Walker took the orchestra in massive strides, not overlooking Elgar's more delicate roadside blooms. James Ehnes has a restrained style but the Canadian searched out the music in every note, even during tortuous passagework.
Elgar's friend and violinist W.H. Reed commented on the constant rise and fall of this music, and the restless fluctuations in the Andante led to a heart-stopping shift to G flat major. It was here that Ehnes was able to break forth with Elgar's brand of heavenly lark song.
The surge of the final Allegro con molto culminated in the cadenza, with its celebrated strummed orchestral strings. Ehnes, energy undimmed, offered mercurial virtuosity as well as a short unaccompanied Lento which, with its yearning sobs and sighs, caught the very soul of this score.
What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
Where: Auckland Town Hall