OPUS ORCHESTRA AT BAYCOURT Brahms, Opus, Irons do battle


deidre3The idea of a solo instrument competing with an ensemble arose before 1600 when craftsmen developed new instruments (like the fretless viol which they called a violin) whose sound could soar over ensembles of the period. By the time of JS Bach the older vocal style had been replaced by an instrumental one in which instruments and voices were again in stylistic sync—and in which violin concertos and concerti grossi (think Brandenburg) could lead via Bach’s sons to the Classical period of Haydn and Mozart.

The Opus Orchestra picked up this thread on Saturday at a concert in Tauranga’s Baycourt theatre with a programme that skilfully led us from a Haydn classic (Symphony No 85 in B-flat) via Brahms Variations on Haydn’s St Anthony Chorale, to finally a full-flowered Brahms Concerto No 2 for piano and orchestra, Diedre Irons soloist.

The Haydn symphony was a joy. Scored for just double winds and strings, the performance was elegantly simple, including non-vibrato strings skilfully led by concert master Amalia Hall. The repeated exposition did overbalance Haydn’s miniscule development section, but his strong counterpoint leant solidity to this and other movements.

Brahms St Anthony Variations called for more players, including four horns and a third or contra bassoon. His proclivity to thick scoring can endanger an expanded wind section, but the group impressed with solid intonation, especially in the demanding 6th variation and the closing ostinato section.

The battle was finally joined in Brahms Piano Concerto No 2. This is a fiendish work that Brahms premiered himself. Although Miss Irons has performed it many times to critical acclaim (including with the NZSO), one couldn’t help feeling tension. Gone is the orchestral introduction of the earlier D minor concerto; each movement is full-on most of the time. Gone are the grand long phrases we know Brahms can write so well; instead the piece is periodic and exhausting to listen to. Yet Opus Orchestra, Miss Irons and director Peter Walls gave a stunning performance, deserving top credit for bringing an event of this calibre to Tauranga. My thanks to Opus for enabling me to hear this magnificent concert.
Prof Barry Vercoe Mus D.


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