Leningrad tour exquisitely executed
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra concert, 6 August 2011
Reviewer: William Dart
The New Zealand Herald, 8 August 2011
'The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's Leningrad tour came with an eye-catching poster; conductor Vasily Petrenko, with just a hint of the Nigel Kennedy enfant terrible, set in a circle of jagged constructivist beams.
On the podium, the lithe, handsome Petrenko was the perfect partner for a magisterial Michael Houstoun in Rachmaninov's Fourth Piano Concerto.
This was written in 1926 by a composer out of step with his time, ill at ease in a world of Bartoks and Schoenbergs. And the Russian had been in the celebrity audience for the premiere of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, the influence of which can be seen in this concerto.
Rachmaninov never quite comes up with tunes to match Gershwin's, but, such was the troika of Houstoun, Petrenko and NZSO, it mattered little.
The piano's very first breathtaking surge of chords became, in Houstoun's hands, an irresistible welcoming, opening up an array of glittering detail.
Houstoun pondered Rachmaninov's ingenious harmonisations of the second movement's pithy theme, taking time out to roar against an orchestral rush, ending with an explosion of colour and vitality.
After interval came the Shostakovich symphony that had given the concert its title.
So popular was the Leningrad Symphony in its time that its American premiere put Shostakovich on the cover of Time. Critic Olin Downes later dismissed the score as "excellent musical propaganda but a second-class symphony" - not a description which bore any resemblance to Vasily Petrenko's vision.
The Russian conductor launched the 70-minute symphonic saga with fervent full-power strings, working it through to something of a socialist Bolero.
Petrenko kept the pressure on, driving his musicians ever forward until release came in clearer tonal skies and exquisite solos.
Mahlerian connections were forged in the single-minded landler of the second movement, while the Finale, after pages of profound reflection, ended with a massive, thrilling shout, not so much a wartime rally, but a cry for freedom that still has relevance today.'