A suite by New Zealand composer John Ritchie was the first welcoming vista in Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's Landscapes concert.

Pastoral in style and conservative in idiom for 1956, it did reveal the consummate craftsmanship of this central figure in the musical life of Christchurch. From the sinewy heft of its opening movement to the flowing fugato of the third, a bracing momentum seemed to spring from an inexhaustible source of energy.

Daniel Blendulf, conducting the strings of the orchestra, caught this well and the players themselves seemed to physically enjoy Ritchie's rhythmic vitality.

The Swedish conductor, a last-minute replacement for Tadaaki Otaka, proved extremely simpatico to the Nordic expanses of Sibelius' Fifth Symphony. We were immediately immersed in a stark, brooding landscape with ominous brass and the thunder of timpani never too far away. Dramatic strings and woodwind traceries added their potent voices and the flutes introduced a spirit of dance into the second movement's scherzo.

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Blenduff also gave full and glorious weight to one of the most stirring of all symphonic finales.

It's not surprising that the impressive credentials of soloist Alessio Bax, including major competition successes and highly regarded CDs, also saw him opening Auckland Museum's Fazioli Piano Recital series while he is in the country.

With the APO, the Grieg concerto gave the Italian pianist the opportunity to combine crispness with poetry, effortlessly moving from impeccably chiselled minor to yearning major, in response to eloquently pleading cellos.

The cadenza journeyed from rapturous nocturne to leonine roars and after, the adagio allowed Bax further exquisite dialogue with orchestral colleagues; the finale had the unbridled swing of a folk dance in which all were merry participants.

A seat in the circle was an advantage at encore time, watching Bax play a Scriabin prelude using just one hand, with a richness of tone that you might have thought was coming from two.

What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra - Landscapes
Where: Auckland Town Hall
Reviewed by: William Dart