Packaged up with the mystifying title of "Love Eternal," an evening of Beethoven, Schumann and Sibelius revealed the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in excellent form, with Thomas Sondergard on the podium.
Sondergard made an impressive NZSO debut four years ago, delivering Britten and Sibelius with finesse and fire.
Both were evident here in Beethoven's Coriolan overture. The Danish conductor made moments of silence just as eloquent as the musical storms around them, balancing an incisive baton in his right hand with a left that molded the sound itself with fluttering fingers and clenched fist.
Schumann's Piano Concerto brought on Russian virtuoso Denis Kozhukhin, who perfectly caught its volatile and shifting moods. Not afraid of strong dynamic contrasts, he clearly relished passages of chamber music intimacy with the orchestra's fine woodwind soloists.
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The central Intermezzo had the almost coquettish exchanges between piano and orchestra dramatically swept away, as if to an imaginary ballroom, by Sondergard's lush strings. Kozhukhin's evocative encore of Grieg's "To Spring," a track on his latest CD, hinted at a Nordic journey awaiting us after interval.
Presenting the last two Sibelius symphonies side by side was bold programming. Written just a year apart in 1923/24, these scores offer a portrait of an uncompromising composer, disillusioned with the musical world around him, refining his art down to the imposing single movement of what would be his final symphony.
It was fascinating to watch as well as listen to Sondergard maintaining the all-important textural balance in the first of the two works, especially in its finale, tapering away to an exquisite chill.
The Seventh Symphony was a compelling 21 minutes, its craggy textures and implacable scales broken up by rousing brass outbursts and a wry nostalgic scherzo. Its final C major roar reminded me of a potent image from American writer Alex Ross, likening it to the outstretched hand of a figure disappearing into light. It was indeed a revelation.
What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Love Eternal
Where: Auckland Town Hall
Reviewed by: William Dart