Classical review: Macdonald's pairing with APO on Bach proves happy mix indeed

By William Dart

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The players were clustered around the dramatic presence of Sarah Watkins' Steinway piano.
The players were clustered around the dramatic presence of Sarah Watkins' Steinway piano.

Over time, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra has shown a real nous for matching conductor and concert and having Rory Macdonald steer Bach to the Future at the Town Hall proved one of its happiest pairings.

One might have expected a Scotsman to add that extra dash of tartan to Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony, but the real bonus came in the opening work. Macdonald's two years in Hungary, working with Ivan Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra, were a definite asset for Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. It seems extraordinary Auckland has not heard this piece live since 1968. Bartok, at his most approachable, pushes former astringencies aside for the piquant palette one might expect from this orchestral combination.

The players, clustered around the dramatic presence of Sarah Watkins' Steinway, evoked a Slavic world of muted melancholy, uproarious folk spirits and, in the third movement, Bartok's mysterious night music.

Particularly impressive were the inexorable tread of the opening fugue and the uproarious fun of the Finale.

The Bach was the E major Violin Concerto, elegantly delivered by Kristian Winther. The fluency of the outer movement was effortless, as the Australian soloist blended in with a semicircle of just 17 players, graced by Donald Nicholson's continuo. The central Adagio was breathtaking, as much for its hushed dynamics as for Winther's sometimes daring rubato.

For an encore, Winther stayed with Bach; a thoughtful Allemande from the First Cello Suite suggested that this young man should find time in the near future to revisit this composer's solo repertoire.

I have yet to be totally convinced by Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony.

Rory Macdonald and the orchestra swept away any reservations in the first two movements. So fine was the playing of its rather homely Andante that one wished Mendelssohn had come up with material worthy of such musicianship.


What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
Where: Auckland Town Hall

- NZ Herald

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