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Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra at Auckland Town Hall
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There was a real sense of anticipation before the first concert of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's APN News & Media series. The Town Hall was just a few seats off a full house; the Steinway already centrestage.
The opening pages of Chopin's E minor Piano Concerto can be worryingly stolid, but not on this occasion, with the tonal finesse that conductor Christian Knapp brought to them.
The themes having been given out, pianist Muza Rubackyte proved the ideal muse to realise their poetry. Totally at one with Knapp's orchestral blend, the Lithuanian came up with matchless octaves, glittering passagework and, above all, the most soulful of rubato.
Chopin himself described the work's second movement as "a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening". Tonight, there were no clouds in the sky as Rubackyte made it a Nocturne to end all Nocturnes, above all in her duets with bassoonist Yang Rachel Guan.
While the third movement didn't quite continue on from the second as Chopin stipulates, there was enough buoyancy and spirit in its polka to make one overlook the music's occasional triteness and strange harmonic turns.
Chopin provided the encore when Rubackyte stormed through his Revolutionary Etude, making one realise just how aptly named it is.
Ravel's Valses Nobles et Sentimentales were fragrant and intriguing under Knapp's baton. At times one felt the curve of every line; in the penultimate number, one was swept away in a climax worthy of La Valse. Particularly winning was the Satie-like second waltz, with mysterious, sliding woodwind chords, harmonies that would eventually be appropriated by Bernard Herrmann.
Stravinsky's Firebird Suite was a popular closer, rewarding us with bursts and blooms of colour.
Knapp caught the virtuoso dances of the Firebird and Kashchei with fire and clarity, and impressed with the muted beauties of the Lullaby, particularly when banks of tremolo strings shimmered into the great Finale.
The Finale was exhilarating, whetting appetites for the conductor's second appearance this Thursday.