Des Knaben Wunderhorn (selection)
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43
Jonathan Lemalu (bass-baritone)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Chris Caspell
Reviewed: 18 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
New Zealand, as a nation, has always punched well above its weight. The population of just four million people, a little over half that of London, has produced world leaders in various sports and in recent years has become a magnet for film producers after the phenomenal success of New Zealand director Peter Jackson in his film trilogy “Lord of the Rings”.
Musically the country has not been quite so successful – Kiri Te Kanawa is the name that immediately springs to mind and, probably now, Hayley Westernra, too.
The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra arrived with a favourable reputation and brought a renowned work from home, Douglas Lilburn’s tightly argued, 15-minute Third Symphony, written in 1961. Though the orchestra took a little time to settle into the opening Moderato, the following Vivace demonstrated the real understanding that this orchestra has for the best-known Kiwi composer. James Judd and his orchestra have recorded Lilburn’s three symphonies for Naxos.
New Zealand-born Samoan Jonathan Lemalu then sung a selection from Mahler’s “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”, ending with “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt”, which Mahler reworked into the third movement of his ‘Resurrection’ Symphony. In the second song of the set, “Der Tamboursg’sell”, Lemalu lacked the baleful tone needed to portray the drummer-boy who has been sentenced to death. On the whole the orchestra accompanied well; and the musicians were clearly enjoying themselves so much in the fourth song, “Das irdische Leben”, that they drowned-out Lemalu.
The New Zealand Symphony puts on about one hundred concerts a year. James Judd, who has been with the Orchestra since 1999, and is its first music director, is encouraging rather than dictatorial – and the orchestra just seems to get better and better.
Douglas Lilburn’s music is often compared in style to that of Sibelius. Both composers’ music is influenced by the natural landscape of their respective countries and though there are indeed similarities, Lilburn has a clearly identifiable sound distinct from the Finn. Lilburn once commented that “when I first heard Sibelius’s No.2, the slow movement, I felt I’d come home to something”. Given that it’s marked Andante, Judd’s view of that same movement started as more a canter than a walk. The timpanist, raised high above the rest of the orchestra, became over-excited at the movement’s close, though this was one of very few balance problems. The third movement was taken at a breakneck speed that did not faze the fingers of the string-players; technically adept, the violins moved with ease from technical fireworks to lush and warm tones.
The finale, with the finishing post in sight, produced the sloppiest playing of the evening, and the recapitulation of the main theme found the timpani ahead of the beat for at least twenty bars. The orchestra redeemed itself with, as an encore, a sprightly rendition of ‘The Wild Bears’ from Elgar’s Wand of Youth Suite No.2. The New Zealand SO used to be described as the country’s best-kept secret; I think that secret is now out.