Review: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra at Auckland Town Hall

By William Dart

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Eckehard Stier, the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's new music director, launched its new season on Thursday with the panache and dynamism that we have come to expect from him.

In a programming coup, the German conductor eschewed any hint of fanfare or spectacular to set the evening off. Instead, the Prelude to Mussorgsky's opera Khovanshchina, a little like the composer's Boris experienced through gauze, delivered atmospheric lyricism.

Young English violinist Jennifer Pike opted for two shorter works in place of the customary concerto.

Chausson's Poeme was admired by Debussy for the freedom of its form. However, this seeming freedom brings a special challenge to interpreters, and there were bumpy moments in its unfolding. Subtleties of nuance were sometimes bypassed, particularly in strenuous solo passages.

Ravel's Tzigane was more successful. Pike attacked this arrant showpiece in true gypsy style. Stier and his musicians clearly relished being a Ravelian Romany band, especially when the orchestra seems to morph into a giant cimbalon.

After the interval, Stier put his own stamp on Rachmaninov's Symphony No 2 in a blazing performance that was sustained through every second of its 55 minutes.

He caught the work's emotional inevitability at every turn, assisted perhaps by his occasional disregard for the composer's tempo nudges.

The lulling allegro moderato theme in the first movement had the very breath of life in it; the Scherzo defined perfectly a middle ground between Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev while the Adagio saw the Philharmonia strings at their most luscious.

Special plaudits for the brass with their Slavic bolstering of the work's dark intent.

The Finale was upon us after a momentary pause for spontaneous applause, and it was a virtuoso turn. So much so that I would have been happy to have not had any cuts. The loss of crucial pages in the Recapitulation, where the first theme slips more deviously into the second, was regrettable.

- NZ Herald

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