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Spellbound by NZSO and the organ of Olivier Latry

By , 01/06/2012

Spellbound: magic and mystery

Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Poulenc: Organ Concerto
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Op.35 (1. The sea and Sinbad’s Ship; 2. The Kalender Prince; 3. The young prince and the young princess; 4. Festival at Baghdad – the sea)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra with Olivier Latry, organ, conducted by Rossen Milanov

Wellington Town Hall

Friday, 1 June 2012, 6.30pm

This was a spectacle of aural colour, the entire concert being made up of works that threatened to bleed the aural palette dry.  To those of us who play the organ, it was a thrill to see the Wellington Town Hall almost full of people who had come to hear our instrument.

According to Olivier Latry, in his entertaining, informative and well-attended question and answer session with the conductor prior to the concert, Paul Dukas did not compose more music because he was so heavily involved in teaching at the Paris Conservatoire, where he was eventually followed by the rather similarly-named Jean Roger-Ducasse.  That he had the ability to be a more eminent composer is amply demonstrated by his well-known Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

The pre-concert session focused on the Organ Concerto of Poulenc, and some humorous exchanges took place.  Milanov likened the organ to a large truck – the ‘driver’ could only see him by means of his rear-vision mirror.  He said he dared not overtake such a large vehicle!  Olivier, in answer to a question from the floor, said he thought the nature of the piece was ambiguous: was it religious, secular, or a bit of both?  He related how in Paris a performance of the organ concerto at Notre Dame had rated a higher decibel level than the Concorde!

Before returning to Dukas, I want to air (again!) one of my pet gripes.  Why are we not allowed to read the programme during the concert?  I could just make out the words, but the lady next to me obviously had poor vision, and had brought a magnifying glass with her, but had to give up.  In the United Kingdom, the Arts Council pays for large-font printed programmes at plays, opera and concerts.

A concert that was book-ended by Dukas’s work and Rimsky-Korsakov’s made for a certain symmetry: they were a good match.  The French composer’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was inspired by a ballad by a German (Goethe), based on a second century story by a Greek.  Certainly it included a huge variety of colours.  The music was perhaps some of the most inventive ever written for orchestra.  There were shades of Stravinsky, whom he influenced, and Messiaen, whom he taught.

The eerie opening was carefully conducted by Bulgarian conductor Milanov, an elegant and precise but poetic conductor to watch.  He conducted both this work and the Rimsky-Korsakov without use of the score.  The bassoons’ announcement of the theme was accompanied by wonderful sorties on the strings and horns.  A spooky rise in the drama follows.  The composer’s cataclysmic orchestrations and development leave one gob-smacked.  Drums and cymbals with full brass precede a quiet introduction to the romantic ending.  This features a viola solo being the apologetic apprentice who has wrought so much havoc, plaintively performed by Julia Joyce with harp interjections, before the closing bar spurts at us, double forte, to despatch the apprentice.

After quotations from  J.S. Bach at the opening of Poulenc’s organ concerto, I fancied I could hear some thematic links with Dukas in the more lyrical passages from the organ.  The orchestra followed at a respectful distance.  When some of the tonal qualities surprised me, I was reminded of Latry’s remark in the pre-concert session, when asked about the Town Hall organ, that ‘This organ speaks English!’.

The seven movements were played without any breaks.  The opening andante proceeded in a very restrained fashion after the initial outburst; gorgeous quiet tone from both strings and organ.  However, a crashing volume from the organ interrupted the reverie: we were into the allegro giocoso, and then the familiar theme of the concerto arrived.  Some of this music seemed to foreshadow minimalism.

The next andante was very beautiful and even languid.  Bird sounds from violins and violas played against solid cello and organ tones.  Its lustrous ending made its mark, mesmerising, but with growing intensity, before the music moved on to the molto agitato fourth movement.  All is suddenly amplified and accelerated.  There is great excitement as the organ rushes through rapid paces, increasingly loud, then the quietude returns with mellow sounds on the organ followed by a solo on a reed stop.  This is the slow fifth movement: “Très calme. Lent.”

The return of the familiar quick theme was there suddenly, on the organ, accompanied by the orchestra in this sixth movement: “Tempo de l’Allegro initial”.  Chords many layers thick are played before Bach returns.  Then all is stilled in silvery tones, followed by another viola solo, accompanied by pizzicato from all except the first violins; the solo is repeated on the principal cello as pizzicato, with slow chords on the organ to herald the final (seventh) movement: “Tempo introduction. Largo.”  A huge unison for organ and orchestra ends the work.

The concerto is not only for organ and string orchestra: there is a large and challenging role for the timpanist.  It is sometimes known as the concerto for organ, timpani, and strings.  Certainly here (and also in the Rimsky-Korsakov work) Laurence Reese had more than enough to do.  When moving down from the organ to take his bow, Latry shook hands with Reese.

Latry played with great accomplishment and immaculate technique and musicianship.  As well as immense appreciative applause from the audience for the soloist and for the modest conductor, Julia Joyce and Andrew Joyce, principal viola and cello were  singled out.  A return curtain call for Olivier Latry was thoroughly deserved; he in turn showed his pleasure at the reception.

After the interval we were treated to a marvellous performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s very virtuosic Scheherazade (or more usually Sheherazade).   Among many outstanding features were the violin solos of Sultana Scheherazade’s theme, played by Vesa-Matti Leppänen and Ingrid Bauer’s wonderful harp accompaniment to that theme: the combination was simply stunning, as indeed were the strings, especially in their pianissimos, throughout the work.

The exotic themes are now familiar to many (and the movements have been played on radio, on separate days recently), but must have been remarkable at the first performance (it was written in 1888).  The  work could be considered a symphony by its length and its four movements, but in no way is it a standard symphony.  In the pre-concert talk, conductor Milanov described it as the first concerto for orchestra; it was easy to see why.

A little ‘fluff’ from the horn early on did little to detract from the fine playing of the entire orchestra throughout the work.  An enchanting oboe solo accompanied by solo cello, another violin solo, and then all the colours were thrown at us, while the timpanist was flat out.  Sinbad certainly struck some storms!  But then things calmed down, and the waves sparkled by, before the next outburst.  There was a magical ending to the first movement, with a return to the music played at the beginning: violin solo and harp.

Bassoon and oboe were splendid in music that evoked the exotic – markets, harems, silken draperies – as we meet the prince in his fabulous setting, in which spices and strange odours abound.  How is it that the oboe seems exotic, yet in another context it seems the epitome of English pastoral landscapes?  Of course, it is all in the writing of skilled composers.

Brass now had the opportunity to come to the fore, followed by thrumming pizzicato with the lone clarinet theme.  Cor anglais, flute and piccolo get their turns at solos against the thrumming – marvellous.  Layer upon layer of sound emerged – or perhaps rather, the intricate woven design of a Persian carpet.  The orchestra was splendid, here declaiming, there speaking sotto voce.

In the fourth movement we hear the familiar themes, but now the Scheherazade theme played by Vesa-Matti Leppänen was double-stopped, with oriental-sounding harmonies.  While there was a lot of repetition of themes in the Rimsky-Korsakov work, there was huge variety of treatment.  All comes together in a mammoth explosion of exuberance, followed by the final repetition of Scheherazade’s theme, joined by the deep theme of the Sultan.  As Milanov explained prior to the concert, this is a catharsis – adding significantly ‘We change at the end’.  As the violin solo was played for the last time, the conductor looked at Leppänen with obvious appreciation.  (Indeed, he told us before the concert that this was a world-class orchestra.  Certainly, it excelled itself in this concert.)

The final pizzicato was not together, but this could hardly detract from such a massive and wonderful performance, full of fabulous settings.  Solos from violin, viola, cello, horn, clarinet and other woodwinds, not to mention the prominence of the fabulous harp, enlivened this gorgeous work.

What a thoroughly exotic and colourful evening we had!  French music based on a German poem based on a Greek story, a rare organ concerto from the twentieth century, and now a Russian writing oriental music.  It was a lively and engrossing programme; there was so much going on, visually as well as aurally.  The percussion had a field day.

A feature of the printed programme was the very full and well-written notes.  Each work commanded much more detail than we have become accustomed to.

The nearly full hall, and the very enthusiastic reception to the concert, and to Olivier Latry in particular, perhaps proves what I heard Paul Rosoman say in an interview on radio regarding the Queen’s Birthday Weekend’s Wellington 2012 Organ Congress, that interest in the organ has rekindled recently, compared with the situation over the last couple of decades.  This was demonstrated by 11 entries in the Congress’s performance competition, compared with 3 or 4 in previous years.

Let’s hope that Latry’s sensitive and brilliant performance will have inspired more to take up the ‘King of Instruments’.

 

 

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