Wellington Orchestra with Houstoun and Aivale Cole

Vector Wellington Orchestra conducted by Marc Taddei with Michael Houstoun (piano) and Aivale Cole (soprano).

Brandenburg Concerto No 3 (Bach), Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat (Beethoven), Death and Transfiguration and Four Last Songs (Strauss)

Town Hall, Saturday 13 June

Fortune is at last smiling on Wellington’s Orchestra. First, there’s the happy appointment of Marc Taddei as music director, whose instinct for attractive and rewarding programming is combined with a ready skill in communicating with an audience and sound conducting talents.

Next, there was the astute decision to include the winner of the Lexus Song Contest in one of their concerts, and the winner turning out to be a Wellington singer of Samoan descent who captured the public imagination.

And since Aivale Cole had won such great admiration, there and in her subsequent Wellington recital, for her singing an aria from Strauss’ opera Ariadne auf Naxos, the obvious choice for her was Strauss’s best loved group of songs. At least 2000 Wellingtonians were captivated by the attractiveness of the package.

However, the concert did not get off to an altogether brilliant start. Baroque orchestral music has rather become the preserve of specialist ensembles who have implanted in our heads the sounds of baroque instruments with gut strings and warm tone, little vibrato yet a particular bite in string playing and a certain rhythmic elasticity; and speeds are often faster too.

The orchestras that play these works are typically small, often one instrument to a part, giving a chamber music quality.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 3 opened the evening with, properly, three each of violins, violas and cellos, plus a double bass and a harpsichord. Fine: but the opening Allegro moderato was not very moderato – not such a fault per se, but I missed certain things. Bite in the strings, more pronounced accents on the strong beats and a bit of breathing space, occasional rallentandos, a little more variety of tone and articulation to generate interest in repeated phrases and motifs. There could have been more attention to these things, but occasional untidy playing was of little matter.

It was only the first movement that suffered however; for the speed of the last, a straight Allegro, seemed fitting as its spirit is headlong, impetuous. I hadn’t heard Penderecki’s Adagio meditative cadenza linking the two quick movements before and was impressed by its compatibility and particularly by its wonderful performance by violist Victoria Jaenecke.

Michael Houstoun is playing all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos in this orchestral series: on Saturday it was No 2, actually the first he wrote, and very clearly in the shadow of Mozart, though Mozart at his most imaginative; the orchestra here was of classical size – 8, 6, 5, 4, 3, as far as I could see. There were no real faults in the performance and Houstoun’s playing was stylishly tasteful; in spite of that, the concerto did not really take flight, lacking intensity and delight, at least until the ear was captured by the spirit of the slow movement and particularly the delicacy of the short second movement cadenza. But on the whole it remained a conscientious, well-considered affair that just missed the chance to win over the record audience attracted to this otherwise splendid concert.

‘Splendid’ related to the second half, when the strengths of conductor and orchestra emerged vividly. Tod und Verklärung – Death and Transfiguration – is one of Strauss’s less often played tone poems, though I have always found its dark, anguished emotion strangely compelling. The dread-filled, macabre opening by brass and timpani created a chilling atmosphere, even more by flute and harp; I was rapidly persuaded that this was to be a thrilling performance and it surprised me that Taddei inspired his round 70-strong orchestra to such dramatic power and such highly charged playing.

There was evidence from all departments of real professional quality, from the solo violin of Matthew Ross, through horns, flutes, and indeed from the larger body of strings, naturally far more opulent than was there for the Beethoven. It allowed the final Transfiguration pages of the score to be uttered with a blazing power and intensity, some sort of victory over the dying man’s death agonies.

Though the scenario of the piece is all too evident, it is really of only curiosity value, for the music must stand as music without external help. Many composers have created works that originated with some kind of story or theme, but have had the sense to refrain from explaining, knowing that it can create the false idea that music is capable of ‘understanding’ in the same way as a piece of writing does.

Taddei reversed the order of the two Strauss pieces, ending with Aivale Cole’s singing of The Four Last Songs, in line with chronology and making better sense of the related themes of the two works.

Again, Cole vindicated herself in Strauss; not overwhelmingly in the more simple utterance of Frühling, but certainly in the undulating beauties of September (what beautiful horn playing!), and later where she expressed subtle and nostalgic sadness in a voice that rose and fell, changed colour with the meaning of the words.

And here in Beim Schlafengehen we had Ross’s gorgeous violin solo that pre-echoes the soaring voice that resumes with the words ‘Und die Seele, unbewacht, wie in freien Flügen schweben…’ I could almost forgive the burst of applause at its end, though it was indeed a sore disturbance of the mood. It happened after each song in spite of the clear signals from conductor and singer to desist.

The end of Im Abendrot, with its slow sequence of unresolved chords, left the audience deeply moved, many damp-eyed, though not so overwhelmed as to actually get a shy Wellington audience to its feet, which it should have.

I have remarked before that I am mystified as to what the world could have been like, when I was only about 12, when these songs did not exist.

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