Wellington Orchestra’s unfinished business

UNFINISHED SYMPHONIES – Schubert, Mozart, Berio

SCHUBERT – Symphony No.8 in B Minor D.759 “Unfinished”

MOZART – Piano Concerto No.24 in C Minor K.491

MOZART – Concert Aria “Ch’io mi scordi di te….Non temer, amato bene” K.505

BERIO – Rendering (1989)

Vector Wellington Orchestra / Marc Taddei (conductor)

with: Diedre Irons (piano) and Margaret Medlyn (soprano)

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 23rd July 2011

This concert both played the game and bended the rules in the most interesting possible way – we had what’s become a common orchestral concert format of introductory work, concerto and symphony, but most interestingly constituted and creatively “placed”, so that the feeling of “the same old formula” was nicely avoided.

Basically, it was a Schubert/Mozart evening, but with a major contribution from a more-or-less contemporary voice. This was the Italian composer Luciano Berio, who in 1989 produced an orchestral work, Rendering, one which took the fragments of Schubert’s uncompleted work on a Tenth Symphony as the basis for a three-movement work. “Not a completion or a reconstruction” of the Symphony, declared Berio, but a “restoration” – and the work gave an uncanny feeling of two intensely creative impulses separated by two hundred years coming together for a kind of reawakening.

Instead of an overture beginning the concert we had an intensely dramatic performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, which, together with Mozart’s C Minor Piano Concerto K.491, suggested a preponderance of seriousness throughout the concert’s first half, a state of things which didn’t eventuate to the expected degree, I thought, more of which anon. The second half was similarly innovative, beginning with Mozart’s best-known Concert Aria for soprano, Ch’io mi scordi di te…Non temer, amato bene K.505, and concluding with Berio’s Rendering.

So, our expectations were nicely-tempered by these prospects; and the concert got off to the best possible beginning with a performance of the eponymous “Unfinished” Symphony which seemed akin to giving an old masterpiece a restoration job of its own – Marc Taddei encouraged his orchestra to play out in all departments, less of a rounded “Germanic” sound and more a thrustful, characterfully Viennese texture, lean and detailed, the brass occasionally risking obtrusiveness but generally making their presence refreshingly felt. With several on-the-spot contributions from timpanist Stephen Bremner, and wonderfully soulful playing from the winds (magnificent individually and as a group throughout the concert), the work here “spoke” with a directness and candour which too many routine performances over the years in concert and on record have sadly blunted. I ought to mention the strings, too, characteristically playing well above their weight (those “slashing” off-beat chords just before the second subject had such ear-catching focus and determination), pulsating the first movement with energy and life throughout. And I’ve never experienced a sense of the abyss opening up so ominously at the beginning of the development section as in this performance – those lower strings evoked such darkly disturbing realms as to bring home in no uncertain terms the tragic subtext beneath the music’s surface energies.

Those energies enabled the musicians to make more of the contrasts between the movements, with the opening of the Andante measured, mellow and easeful. Apart from a slight hiccup with the final note of her “big tune”, Moira Hurst’s clarinet playing sounded as beautifully heartfelt as we’d come to expect, the phrases echoed as memorably by the other winds, before being savagely pirated by baleful brass,whose forceful chordings over the string figurations were a striking feature of this performance. Near the end of the movement Taddei conjured from his players some gorgeously-coloured modulations (what Schumann called “other realms”) before the music resignedly returned to its destiny. If a couple of pairs of applauding hands in the auditorium broke the spell at the work’s end somewhat abruptly, the impulses were sound and their intrusion forgivable – I thought this was, through-and-through, a magnificent performance.

Mozart’s C Minor Concerto K.491 promised more storms and stresses, though it was largely the orchestra that agitated the musical argument, Diedre Irons’ piano playing taking a more stoic, in places relatively circumspect manner and aspect. Though the tensions weren’t repeatedly screwed to their utmost by such an approach, there were compensations in Irons’ detailed and rhapsodic exposition of the music, alive to every nuance of sensitive expression, apart from a measure or two towards the end of the movement where a brief moment of piano-and-orchestra hesitancy seemed to slightly blur the lines of the argument for a couple of seconds. In certain places, Irons, Taddei and the players superbly realized the music’s power, those dark coruscations of interchange at the heart of the development dug into with a will, while elsewhere, such as in the orchestral lead-up to the first movement cadenza, there was drama and thrust aplenty, soloist and orchestra each taking it in turns to galvanize the other.

Pianist and conductor played each of the concerto’s movements more-or-less attacca, which worked well, and emphasized the symphonic character of the work’s overall mood. The slow movement stole upon us almost out of nowhere, Irons’s playing allowing the melody to speak directly and simply to the heart, adding the occasional decoration to phrase-ends when the melody is repeated. The orchestral winds really showed their mettle in this movement, Taddei encouraging plenty of urgency and dynamic variation from the players to contrast with the piano’s simplicity, making for some glorious, chamber-music-like moments of lyrical interaction. After this, the “coiled spring” opening of the finale was like an awakening from a dream, the urgencies taking different shapes and forms, until the winds adroitly turned the argument towards open spaces and festive activity for a few measures, valiantly but vainly attempting to elude the demons that continued to stalk the music right to the end, through the piano’s chromatic scamperings and the orchestra’s desperate concluding flourish. I could have imagined sterner, bigger-boned piano playing in this work, but Irons’ approach brought a degree of vulnerability to the musical discourse, one that could be readily applied to human experience.

After the interval more Mozart, but with a difference – the adorable Concert Aria written for one of the composer’s favorite singers, Nancy Storace (there’s conjecture as to whether she and Mozart were lovers for a brief period, though the supposition is based on conjecture rather than proof – Mozart wrote in his dedication of the work, “…for Mme Storace and me…”). The Aria, Ch’io mi scordi di te…Non temer, amato bene K.505 is notable not only for its intense operatic expression, but for its beautiful piano obbligato, which, in a real sense, is a “second voice”. Margaret Medlyn told us in a program note of her early involvement with the work, an experience which she says has never left her. There was no doubt as to her intense involvement with the emotional range and depth of the aria – Medlyn is always extremely satisfying as a performer on that score – and if the tessitura at the very end sounded a bit of an ungainly stretch (rather like an ocean liner trying to negotiate a treacherous piece of water) the visceral effect of the singer’s total involvement was thrilling. Diedre Irons, Marc Taddei and the players gave Medlyn all the support she needed, making for an uncommonly involving vignette of intense listening and feeling.

And so to Luciano Berio’s Rendering, which would, I think, have been an intriguing prospect for most listeners, myself included. I liked the concept (explained by Marc Taddei before the work began, using the analogy of paint that had fallen off an original work) of a “restoration” of Schubert’s original sketches for an unfinished – yes, ANOTHER one! – symphony (there are also piano sonatas…..but we won’t go into that). Berio himself explained that his work was like modern restorations of medieval paintings, such as frescoes, which aim at reviving the old colours within, but without trying to disguise the wear-and-tear of time – meaning that gaps would inevitably be left in the original (as with the famous Giotto frescoes in Assisi). Berio, however, interpolated other material into these gaps (bits of “other” Schubert and bits of Berio himself), colouring the sounds with that of a celeste (of the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” fame), the delicate, rather disembodied effect imparting a somewhat “other-worldly” ambience to these passages, as if the composer’s shade was sifting through the assembled material, muttering his thoughts to himself.

The original material is very recognizably Schubert – the composer left a considerable amount of material (which was, for whatever reason, made public as recently as 1978 in Vienna, the date being the 150th anniversary of Schubert’s death). I scribbled down many impressions of the music, noting the reminiscences of works I knew – after the fanfare-like opening, near the beginning, there’s a lovely clarinet solo, reminiscent of the Third Symphony, for example – a bit later, the ‘cellos have a melody like that in the “other” Unfinished, to quote another example. But interspersed with these things, and the ghostly, celeste-led interludes, the music was quite forthright, even swashbuckling in places, and hardly, one would think, the utterances of somebody preparing for an early death.

The second movement, Andante, made a more sober impression, the oboe and bassoon playing adding plangent tones to the argument, the mood ennobled by a theme on the full orchestra, then suddenly taken to that “other world”, in this movement the sequences seeming to me in places to combine Schubert’s actual melodies with a counterpoint of Berio’s “renderings”, more so than in other parts of the work. A pizzicato chord sparking off furious activity suggested the finale’s beginning, featuring a tune with what sounded like a Scottish snap, and orchestral energies building up to the kind of joyous rhythmic repetition found in the finale of the Ninth Symphony. The “ghost music” and the composer’s more forthright original material vie for attention throughout, before the work ends with a big, muscular forte orchestral statement – emotional health in the midst of worldly privation!

What can one say to all of this, except Bravo! to Marc Taddei and the Vector Wellington Orchestra!

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