Sunday 1st March

Lamb & Hayward Masterworks: Symphonic Dances - Review in The Press

First published on Press.co.nz on 1st March.

Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd.

Lamb & Hayward Masterworks: Symphonic Dances, 29th February 2020, Christchurch Town Hall

Fanfare for BertJack Body
Violin Concerto in D Minor - Jean Sibelius
Symphonic DancesSergei Rachmaninov

Benjamin Northey - Chief Conductor
Benjamin Baker - Violin

 

We've heard the Sibelius Violin Concerto a number of times in recent years and Benjamin Baker's performance would rank as one of the best, truly capturing the spirit of the work. Baker understood the nature of the Scandinavian romantic ideal, seamlessly blending the Scandinavian ascetism with deep sensitivity and the relentless questioning that pervades the work.

The translucency of the opening gradually broadened to an intense, focused cadenza, the emotional fulcrum of the first movement, Baker captivating throughout. Sibelius often uses the solo violin as an extra colour weaving in and out of the orchestral texture and Baker did this beautifully. He managed to project through even the loudest passages, but I must say that Ben Northey did a fantastic job of reigning in the orchestra so that sparsity was ensured.

The slow movement was outstanding, the upward scale always questioning and reaching a serene conclusion and I loved the way Baker dealt with the melody in a warm but restrained way. The final movement was crisp, with plenty of rhythmic bite, after which Baker returned to the stage for an encore. It both delights and confounds me when a soloist, having just delivered a demanding work such as this, then comes back out and pulls out further brilliance with all the bells and whistles. I guess that's why he's out on stage and not me.

The difference between the reserve of Finnish romanticism and its Russian counterpart was amply demonstrated with Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances. I don't know what it is about Rachmaninov, but the CSO seems to have an affinity with his music and always gets it bang on. The extended woodwind solos in the first movement were exceptionally well done, passing from one combination to another. Reuben Chin's alto sax work is worth special mention, blending perfectly with the other sonorities.

I also enjoyed the additional flavours created by the other "extras", the contrabassoon, bass clarinet, piano and harp. Of course, the CSO strings can always be relied upon to do the heavy lifting and, when required, they did just that, working well together in unison in the first dance and intensifying the drama in the third. Some delightful moments in the waltz with an excellent violin solo, neat oboe and cor anglais solos and subtle scales rippling through the woodwind.

Jack Body's Fanfare for Bert exemplified Northey's knack of picking a quirky piece to grab the audience's attention. A toe-tapping deconstruction of tunes by Bert Kaempfert (he of A Swingin' Safari fame), this was intriguing, with sufficient remnants of the original to make this academic exercise eminently listenable. Some nice stylistic touches here from the percussion section, especially vibes, and full marks to woodwind and brass for the tricky offbeat syncopation, so hard to do en masse when you don't get to play the main beat.