The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra seemed determined to reward those who had been lured to its Transfiguration concert by one of the repertoire's most popular piano concertos.
With Wagner's Tannhauser overture closing the programme, we were immediately plunged into the full romantic drama of the celebrated Rachmaninov Second.
It can be difficult to hear this piece without being reminded of its tawdry afterlife, both on Hollywood screens and in unctuous pop ballads. However, the adrenalin dispensed in this performance dashed aside any such concerns, taking us back to what must have been a momentous 1901 premiere, with the composer as soloist.
Rachmaninov the pianist is a tough act to follow, but Louis Lortie was the supreme virtuoso from his massive tolling chords in the opening bars and dizzying surges of passagework to glittering moments in the finale, in which he might have been cracking a jewelled whip.
There was a special enjoyment too in the relationship between soloist and orchestra, which responded sensitively to Asher Fisch's incisive baton. Pliant textures, laced with rubato, created both anticipation and tension; one appreciated chamber music intimacy and finesse in the Adagio sostenuo but elsewhere, when Lortie occasionally struggled to rise above the orchestral swell, one wondered why a larger Steinway wasn't used.
The encore was a party piece, with pianist and conductor sharing the keyboard for a Dvorak Slavonic Dance that offered a sunny riposte to the Russian soul-searching that had preceded it.
After interval, Richard Strauss's Death and Transfiguration revealed Fisch's skill in illuminating one of the composer's most profound scores. It was a magnificently chartered journey, traversing quicksilver moods and a full palette of orchestral colourings, to culminate in one of the composer's most stirring themes.
Fisch's Wagnerian credentials stood him in good stead for conveying the very Teutonic nobility of Tannhauser's overture, its pilgrims marching as steadfastly and sonorously as one could wish for.
What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Transfigurations
Where: Auckland Town Hall
Reviewer: William Dart