Review – Schumann, Vanhal, Schubert

Auckland Town Hall, 17 September 2023

Schubert Symphony No 8 “unfinished”
Vanhal Bassoon Concerto
Schumann Requiem

Rita Paczian Conductor
Philip Sumner Bassoon
Elizabeth Mandeno Soprano
Charlotte McDonald Alto
Lachlan Craig Tenor
Joel Amosa Bass

For their 3rd concert in 2023 Bach Musica NZ and their Music and Artistic Director, conductor Rita Paczian, had courageously chosen a programme, that is seldom performed:  Johann Baptist Vanhal’s Concerto for Bassoon in C, Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony No. 8 in b-minor and – as a New Zealand premiere and major work – Robert Schumann’s Requiem Op148 in D-Flat Major.

Vanhal’s Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra proved to be an excellent choice for a concert-opener. The work’s lively and melodious profile had distinct Haydn-esc – if not Mozart-associated elements. Vanhal composed his bassoon-concerto during Haydn’s and Mozart’s lifetime. Endearing soloist Philip Sumner portrayed his art of a superb concert-interpretation and an assured mastering of severely demanding solo-parts on his 1929 Heckel bassoon with remarkable virtuosity – the bassoon being an instrument, which very seldom appreciates full concert-exposure. Whilst leaving generous space for the soloist to bring his parts to full, glorious fruition, Rita Paczian kept proceedings at a brisk and energetic pace – this to an eventually, heartfelt acknowledgement by an appreciative audience.

Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony No. 8 in b-minor had its dramatic, somewhat foreboding pianissimo-entry, provided by the orchestra’s celli-section and the solitary double-bass of Michael Steer. It quickly emerged into one of the symphony’s glorious Leitmotivs, poignantly contrasted by the beautiful play of solo clarinettist Donald Nicholls and solo oboist Alison Dunlop.

Under the established prowess of concertmaster Yanghe Yu, the   Bach Musica NZ orchestra then exceeded with a most dramatic – yet luscious rendition of Schubert’s great work. At the podium, Rita Paczian, being fully immersed in the Symphony’s score, physically expressed every nuance and mood in respect of the work’s profound drama, romanticism and structure. Here, she was ably supported by Shane Currey’s timpani. It is respectfully acknowledged, that Rita Paczian conducted the Schumann Requiem without score, therefore memorising this extensive work in every detail.

She brought the symphony to its finale with the haunting pianissimo of the orchestra’s exceptional strings, woodwind and brass, thereby delivering another example of superb, sensitive music-making.

There are only two movements to this symphony.  Initially, several attempts were made in the music-world, to create a posthumous, generic third movement – but to no avail. In the end it was decided, to leave Schubert’s symphony ‘unfinished’- as it is – a status, which was inherently endorsed by Bach Musica NZ’s powerful and gripping concert-performance.

Robert Schumann’s Requiem Op 148 in D-Flat Major was composed in 1852.  It is therefore another most significant work of the ‘Early Romantic’ era, amazingly yet never before performed in this country.  Contrary to Schubert’s Symphony, Schumann’s Requiem is predominantly the domain of Bach Musica NZ’s once again exceptional chorus.

The Requiem’s beginning, its contained, almost romantic ‘Requiem aeternam’, moves quickly into the solemn and evocative ‘Te decet’,   to be followed by a dramatic and somewhat lamenting ‘Dies irae’.   The Requiem’s ‘Liber scriptus’ introduces us to the concert’s excellent four soloists, who add another dimension.

In ‘Cum vix justus’ Elizabeth Mandeno once again excels in her remarkable, clear soprano. Her beautiful voice has seemingly no limitation. Lachlan Craig thoroughly convinces with his steely and assured tenor and Joel Amosa adds strong foundation with his sonorous, authoritarian bass. Charlotte’s McDonald alto, an outstanding component in the ensemble’s delightfully performed ‘Cum vix justus’, shines particularly with her voice’s soulful timbre in her solo-aria ‘Qui Mariam absolvisti’.

A short, delightful dialogue between the trombones and the chorus in the Requiem’s ‘Domine’ to the words of  ‘Sed signifer sanctus Michael’  deserves a special mention.

The force, romanticism and passion of this work, exceptionally and forcefully transformed by Rita Paczian into the moulding of this impressive concert-performance, initially stands as an animated reflection of the composer’s happy marriage to his devoted wife Clara Schumann. But otherwise it disguises completely the on-going, health-related vagaries and challenges of his tormented life.

Rita Paczian ends this significant and eminently insightful performance of Schumann’s Requiem with the orchestra’s pianissimo-haunting of ‘Dona eis requiem’ and the momentary, total silence by a packed Town Hall audience.

                                                                        Rainer W. Buhmann