Wellington Orchestra and Houstoun in Beethoven 4

Tangazo (Piazzolla); Piano Concerto No 4 in G (Beethoven); Symphony No 104 in D ‘London’ (Haydn)

Vector Wellington Orchestra conducted by Marc Taddei with Michael Houstoun (piano); dancers from Footnote Dance

Wellington Town Hall, Saturday 12 September 2009

The fourth in the Wellington Orchestra’s subscription series continued the orchestra’s theme of combining the symphony with dance and movement. An imaginative enterprise but it presents quite surprising aesthetic problems.

The concert opened with an interesting dance piece by Astor Piazzolla, perhaps the only Argentine composer many classical music followers have heard of. His fame rests on taking tango music into the concert hall, taking its essence and subjecting tango rhythms and melodic motifs to classical techniques.

The piece began with basses and cellos playing slow, sonorous, elegiac ideas, soon picked up by violas and violins in quasi-fugal fashion: it might have been Tchaikovsky or Mahler. As it proceeded dancers came up the aisles and sat on chairs on stage.

When tango music emerged, one of the dancers rose, the female in scarlet, making arching, long-legged, tango-style gestures as she stalked across the stage. Unfortunately, neither the male nor the other female quite matched her command of the idiom; and one kept hoping that some arresting, authentic tango would develop; it didn’t quite happen.

I did not envy the dancers, called on to perform on a bare stage, without scenery or props, dancing to music that had really been gentrified, turned into polite concert music, stripped of most of its essential sensuality. Theatricality was missing.

What followed was an entirely different matter.

Michael Houstoun’s presence throughout this series of Beethoven piano concertos has certainly been the key to their success. His playing, again, was immaculate, finely shaped and with discreet dynamics and rhythmic flexibility. It was perhaps too discreet for the orchestra to pick up for after the piano’s famous opening, the orchestra didn’t quite prolong and develop the musical features that were implicit in those phrases, but when the piano re-entered the temperature rose subtly. The first movement cadenza thus proved a particularly engrossing phase.

The slow movement could well be called merely an Intermezzo, but it is of singular beauty and the orchestra judged its character and scale with great sensitivity. This was an excellent collaboration between piano and orchestra, creating a wonderful stillness, a stylish sense of occasion.

The size of the orchestra will be defended on ‘classical’ grounds; this is so, but the smaller the band, the more testing are matters of balance, absolute unanimity in the string playing and in blending of winds and strings. While it may have been better to defy ‘classical’ strictures a little and risk a few more strings, the whole performance, embroidered by very fine wind playing, again reinforced how important it is that this orchestra be maintained at good strength and in good morale. .

Usually the London Symphony seems one of the weightiest of the 12 that Haydn wrote for his two London visits. If this performance didn’t present it as of quite the grandeur of Mozart’s last three, for example, that too may have been a question of orchestral size.

Conductor Taddei changed the orchestra’s string seating for the symphony: from the left, first violins, violas, cellos, second violins, and it offered a subtly better sound picture.

After the somewhat less than monumental Adagio introduction, the Allegro itself gained stature as it got into its stride; there was energy and vivacity. The Surprise-Symphony-like fortissimi in the varied Andante were effective, as was the woodwind quartet that adorns it and Taddei knew how to dramatise the quirkiness of this typically off-beat Minuet and Trio and to keep interest alive throughout the novelties of the last movement.

There was a pretty full house, if one ignored the scattering of empty seats in the stalls. It’s a pity that the quality of the seats in the stalls – too close together – encourages the audience to sit in remote parts of the gallery.

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