The all-Brahms concert conducted by the energetic and dynamic David Kay was challenging but extremely rewarding, for both the audience and players. Opening with the Academic Festival Overture, Kay quickly stamped his authority on the performance. It was marvellous to have more brass and bass wind for the concert – tuba, trombones, and contrabassoon, adding a rich warmth. The themes were tossed between instruments and sections like questions and answers. Composed during a period of political unrest typically involving university students, its joyous mood and themes based on student drinking songs was cheerfully provocative rather than conveying the gravitas expected by the academic leaders who had presented Brahms with an honorary doctorate.
The Variations on a theme of Haydn, Op 56, often called the St Anthony Chorale, allowed all the sections to share the honours in the eight creative variations. The ensemble playing was exact and polished.
The Hungarian Dances are sometimes played individually as an encore but in this performance we had four played as a group. What fun they were, with gypsy rhythms, rapid changes in tempo, syncopation, unexpected pauses, jumps from dreamy melodies in the strings to sudden outbursts in the brass and percussion. Brahms at his brightest and sunniest.
After the rollicking good fun of the dances, the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor was a truly ‘meaty’ work played with great distinctions by Amalia Hall and Ashley Brown, the two string members of the NZ Trio. St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra is very fortunate in its soloists and conductors, and never more so than with Kay, Hall and Brown. The double concerto is one of music’s crowning achievements and requires soloists, orchestra and conductor to have rapport and unity of purpose. The solo cello entered after a brief orchestral introduction and introduced the first theme. The beauty of his cello line floated above the orchestra. In the second theme the two soloists, with equally sweet tone, sometimes seemed like obligato players allowing the larger orchestral voices to dominate. The soloists were often playing together but in alternating voices. We were treated to impeccable playing from the soloists and a lot of upper register work from the first violins, giving rather an ethereal atmosphere.
The Andante was a waltz-like movement where horns, woodwinds and soloists and orchestra melded their tones into a very pleasing ensemble. It was both contemplative and serene. The orchestral players were equal to the challenging accompaniment, allowing the solo lines to rise above them.
The Vivace began with a cheeky theme from the solo cello, with the violin soloist joining in the broad chords from the cello, and both returning to the opening theme from the first movement. The orchestral forces provided a rich ensemble with plenty of intricate interplay between the instruments. Amalia Hall and Ashley Brown were on top of their game and richly deserved the long and enthusiastic applause.
It is very hard to compare concerts but this might well be seen as the greatest of many very good concerts from St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra.
Review by Rogan Falla