Wellington Chamber Orchestra interprets Michael Vinten’s orchestral disinterments

Wellington Chamber Orchestra conducted by Michael Vinten with Linden Loader (mezzo soprano) and Roger Wilson (baritone)

Sibelius: Scaramouche Suite, Op 71 (re-arranged by Michael Vinten); Mahler: Nine early songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (orchestrated by Michael Vinten); Schubert: Symphony No 10, (completed and orchestrated by Michael Vinten from D 936a and 708a)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 17 April, 2.30pm

This will go down as one of the most unusual concerts of the year. An orchestral concert entirely of works completed and/or orchestrated by the conductor. Few would claim all three exercises to have been an unmitigated success, but all three had singular virtues and elements of great interest.

In terms of musical content I suppose that the Mahler songs should rank high – they should recommend themselves to singers everywhere. There are not so many Mahler songs that the addition of another group, juvenilia to be sure, would not be welcomed. In any case, most were very attractive compositions.

Then the Schubert Symphony: I was curious to discover, first of all, whether the material Vinten drew on had not already been edited, completed, orchestrated. And of course it has been, as I discovered courtesy of Wikipedia when I started to write this review. It has been orchestrated by one Brian Newbould, performed and recorded; but as a three movement work, not in the four movements that Vinten created using a Scherzo movement from another incomplete symphonic piece (D 708a). Newbould had concluded that the finale, Rondo, was marked ‘Scherzo’ because it combined the functions of a scherzo and a finale.

Vinten, on the other hand, was presumably not convinced that the word ‘Scherzo’ at the top of the first page of the Rondo pertained to that movement, and surmised perhaps that it indicated where a Scherzo would go.

The Scherzo movement from D 708a did, however, fit admirably in the sequence following the Andante movement, both in D major. On the other hand, you don’t have to look for a suitable movement in the same key. In Schubert’s time it was not the rule that each movement in a multi-movement work should be in the same key: look at any number of symphonies and concertos from the classical period on.

However, the exercise was very convincing. One could be picky about the instrumentation chosen by Vinten; sometimes textures sounded a bit too fussy, sometimes a woodwind combination sounded unSchubertian; there is any number of permutations possible. But the general result sounded like a symphony, and there was possibly some virtue in Vinten’s inclination to vary his instrumentation more than Schubert typically did, for it overcame Schubert’s tendency to repeats themes in virtually unchanged dress many times during a long movement.

The second theme of the first movement sounded like the real thing, as did the somber theme of the second movement, imaginatively developed and engagingly orchestrated.

Vinten scored for double winds (including trumpets and horns) and three trombones; one must add that some of the woodwind playing was less than lovely and the strings had moments of uncertainty, but generally the orchestra handled the work well; timpanist Alec Carlisle was well-placed (forward of the chamber organ) and his playing was admirable.

The Mahler songs, as Roger Wilson explained, contained ideas that occurred in later symphonies and songs. Des Knaben Wunderhorn was an extraordinary treasure-trove for the German Romantic movement in both literature and music. As a student, I understood there were doubts about the ‘folk’ authenticity of these songs and ballads ‘collected’ by Arnim and Brentano, but they certainly had greater integrity than McPherson’s Ossian of forty years earlier. They were the usual mixture of quasi-tragic, touches of the risqué, the impact of military service and war, death… Few composers have actually captured the irony, drollerie, cruelty, mindless carelessness of some of the behaviour illustrated in these folk poems, as well as Mahler. Roger Wilson and Linden Loader sang them with a vigour, sensitivity, insouciance that exhibited their emotion and their character vividly and often with humour. The orchestrations were very much in Mahler’s style, with piquant use of instruments such as bassoon, horn, trumpet. Characteristic was Selbstgefühl, with its use of horn and woodwinds, a portrait of a selfish, self-pitying fool: hints of the music of Baron Ochs (though the influence would of course have been in the other direction), sung by Wilson.

Less persuasive was Vinten’s arrangement of music Sibelius had written for a Danish play about the comic/nasty commedia dell’ arte figure Scaramouche. (whom you’ll be familiar with from the Milhaud suite). Quite varied in mood, it was easy to hear it as effective incidental music in the theatre, and some of it was quirky and unusual. There was a nice waltz and a slightly dry love scene, all good for twenty minutes of diversion. Vinten had succeeded in distinguishing and giving some life to the characters on the play, and we could indeed sense and smell them. 

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