Tchaikovsky concerto hits the spot, but Britten's overture a little long in evening of Fireworks & Fantasy

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's final concert for 2013 was touted as an evening of Fireworks & Fantasy. However, running well over 2.5 hours, the celebration did go on a little too long.

Were the 17 minutes of Britten's A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra really needed as an overture?

Conductor Julian Kuerti drew a predictably brilliant response from the players, but, despite the score's wit and bravado, this is Britten as pasticheur, making it a lightweight tribute in the composer's centenary year.

It is easy to see why Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto hits the spot with audiences, thanks to its combination of great tunes and orchestral glitter, a surefire recipe that almost sustains a meandering first movement.


Bulgarian pianist Plamena Mangova may have had an unassuming stage manner but her take on the venerable warhorse was electrifying.

A few bumps in an early cadenza were soon forgotten and, alongside this and other powerhouse solos, the score's delicate moments, easily overlooked by the brutally inclined, were beautifully acknowledged.

The Andantino semplice had the simplicity that Tchaikovsky requests, with the pianist adding a few ironic piquancies when the tempo breaks loose. The Finale, buoyed by gladiatorial rhythmic sparring, provided the contest that concertos are all about.

Mangova took us down Argentine way at encore time with two dances by Ginastera; the first was soulful and slinky, the second an unbridled toccata, with Zorro-like slashes of glissando.

After interval, Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique dispensed the fireworks promised in the poster, especially when Kuerti ventured into the unapologetically raucous during the last two movements.

The youthful exuberance of the first movement took advantage of the string players exceeding Berlioz' suggested minimum. The richness of sound, along with Kuerti's attention to the smallest detail, fuelled the almost cinematic narrative that the composer lays out.

Only in the central movement, showing the desolate poet alone in the countryside, did Kuerti linger a little too generously over minutiae, although even here there were decided benefits when Michael Austin's cor anglais piped its plaintive song over a quartet of sinister timpani.

What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Where: Auckland Town Hall
When: Friday