On paper, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's "Enigma" programme seemed the epitome of standard romantic repertoire.

Yet this was music imbued with the energy and ambition of young composers determined to make their mark on the world; a spirit well caught in Joyce Yang's exuberant, fully-committed tackling of Brahms' First Piano Concerto.

We felt the youthful defiance of the 24-year-old Brahms in Yang's striding octaves and scorching trills; it came out in the finale, too, as she led the orchestra in a dance of bristling counterpoint and fiery Hungarian rhythms.

Edo de Waart distilled decades of experience into his consummate handling of Brahms' spacious introduction, an almost bewildering profusion of ideas and themes awaiting symphonic development.

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A Serenade by a teenage Richard Strauss was sonorously delivered by 13 wind players and principal bass Joan Perarnau Garriga. They made a strong, exquisitely nuanced case for this slight but charming score and it was a particular delight to see these fine musicians, usually out of sight to us in the stalls, brought to the front of stage.

Elgar may have been 42 when his Enigma Variations was first played, but it represented the sort of breakthrough usually experienced by a composer half his age.

The great playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw claimed that this work took his breath away and, hearing this, one could certainly understand why.

From the start, de Waart underlined a sense of thematic challenge in Elgar's opening pages, before the orchestra wafted effortlessly into the first variation depicting the composer's wife, Alice.

Inevitably, the celebrated Nimrod brought forth sighs of recognition. However, all of Elgar's character portraits were tellingly sketched, from an evanescent Dorabella, cast around Julia Joyce's elegiac viola solo, to the stormy strut of a worthy Gloucestershire squire in the few seconds of the fourth variation.

What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra - Enigma
Where: Auckland Town Hall
Reviewed by: William Dart