Although astringent harmonies and fragmented melodies are prevalent in Igor Stravinsky's neo-classical oeuvre, it is his rhythmic invention that usually steals the show. On this new super-budget recording, we have three of Stravinsky's most adventurous pieces in neo-classical style, with all three works paying service to rhythmic vitality. The Symphonies for Wind Instruments (1920) finds its genesis at the birth of this stylistic influence, with the Symphony in C (1940) and Symphony in Three Movements (1945) composed within the turbulence of war.
This Naxos recording is a fine example of these vivid scores, performed brilliantly by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra, hitherto unknown to me, is making a name for itself in the orchestral world - these performances confirming that fine orchestral standards are being upheld in the Southern Hemisphere. On this occasion, the orchestra is guided through these minefield-like scores by the imaginative En Shao. The Chinese conductor is expert in displaying the excellence of all orchestral departments, and is especially sensitive during complex solo passages. But what really held my attention, is the way he and the orchestra emphasize the tremendous rhythmic incisiveness of the works. By way of introduction, jump straight to the last movement of the Symphony in Three Movements. The drive of this movement will have you hopping, with the propulsive energy highlighted by a spectacular performance. Absolutely splendid.
All departments of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra acquit themselves with great aplomb. The string section is full in tone - no screeching or wavering here in Stravinsky's virtuosi writing. Winds are also very fine, with the performance of the Symphonies for Wind Instruments eclipsing my previous reference - the suave Montreal Symphony Orchestra/Charles Dutoit effort. Especially brilliant in the winds are the solo trumpet, clarinets and solo flute (the wonderful Alexa Still, I presume).
The recording is detailed, yet set in a rather resonant acoustic. Power and subtlety are well-defined by the recording, with the resonance helping phrase endings especially well. As such, the harmonics of the instruments are left to hang deliciously in the air. With the NZSO's flawless intonation, this makes for a very rewarding musical experience. For the power-hungry and tweeter-sensitive among our readership, beware of the final chord of the Symphony in Three Movements. Bang!
On this recorded evidence, the standard of the NZSO is world class. Therefore, add Wellington to the list of benchmark cities (London, Montreal and Geneva) espousing excellence in recorded neo-classical style. After spending many pleasant hours in their company, I urge you to seek out other performances by this group. Their infectious music making has much to offer. Highly recommended.
Copyright©Anthony Kershaw, 1998