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Review: Auckland Philharmonia

Last updated 11:30 03/05/2013

LATE REPLACEMENT: Canadian Soprano Measha Brueggergosman.

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Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra: Last Songs

Auckland Town Hall

Thursday May 2

Some interesting programming by the Auckland Philharmonia and the prospect of some magic from a highly-regarded soprano ensured a good turnout at the Auckland Town Hall on Thursday evening.

Alexander von Zemlinsky's Sinfonietta opened the evening. This three movement work belongs firmly in the Second Viennese School. Not surprisingly, it is hard going unless you are a fan of the music of Schoenberg or Webern. Perhaps the difficult structure and challenging nature of the piece caused things not to gel in the opening movement despite seemingly clear direction from German conductor Jun Markl. Things did settle down to coherence in the second movement Ballade and the final Rondo was colourful and energetic.

The contrast between that and Strauss' Four Last Songs could not have been clearer. From the very first few notes, the orchestra was clearly happy to be back in more familiar territory.

The evening's soloist was Canadian Soprano Measha Brueggergosman. She was a late replacement for Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet who had withdrawn due to a back injury. NZSO subscribers will doubtless recall that Brueggergosman herself had to withdraw from the opening concerts of the 2012 season due to pregnancy.

Brueggergosman is nothing if not determined - a survivor of open-heart surgery three times and other personal challenges besides, she has carved out a reputation as a versatile artist, comfortable in the classical and popular spheres.

But in this work too, something seemed out of place. There was a lack of tonal and dynamic balance between soloist and orchestra and Brueggergosman was sometimes overwhelmed. She definitely has a powerful voice and we heard glimpses of that in September and Beim Schlafengehen.

But maybe I was simply expecting too much - these powerful songs have magical, soaring melodies that seem to float on high clouds. It just seemed that we didn't get far off the ground. Nevertheless, the Town Hall audience seemed happy enough with very warm and sustained applause for Brueggergosman, who also seemed pleased with her performance.

It is hard to believe now that Schubert's Ninth Symphony lay undiscovered for a time and was first performed well after the composer's death. Nicknamed the "Great", it was deemed unplayable initially by some of the orchestras who were asked to perform it. No such issues for the Auckland Philharmonia.

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Thankfully, there was no lack of dynamic contrast as there seemed to be in the first half. Maestro Markl, conducting from memory, set a barnstorming pace from the Allegro in the first movement and really pushed the orchestra to the limit.

There were times where you did wonder whether the wheels were going to come off the cart, especially in the third movement Scherzo. The fact that everything held together and resulted in a compelling performance is testament to both orchestra and conductor. For me, this was the highlight of the evening.

Overall, a decent concert, if a little disappointing.

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