Britten, Milhaud and Tchaikovsky from the NZSM Orchestra

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:

NZSM Orchestra – “Pathetique”

BRITTEN – Suite on English Folksongs

MILHAUD – Viola Concerto No.2 Op.340

TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No.6 “Pathetique”

Irina Andreeva (viola)

Kenneth Young (conductor)

New Zealand School of Music Orchestra

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill St., Wellington

Tuesday 9th April, 2013

This was a whale of a concert from the NZSM Orchestra and conductor Kenneth Young, performing with Auckland-based viola soloist Irina Andreeva. Much of the enjoyment was in our anticipation of the programme, which featured a not too-well-known Folksong Suite by Benjamin Britten, and an even more rarely performed concerto for viola by Darius Milhaud, coupled with one of the best-loved of the Tchaikovsky Symphonies, the “Pathetique”. If not quite “something for everybody” the concert certainly ranged over an impressive and satisfying stretch of stylistic and emotional terrain.

The concert’s centerpiece was the Milhaud Viola Concerto, the composer’s second for the instrument and reputedly one of the most difficult works for viola in the repertoire. Milhaud wrote it during 1954 and 1955 as a dedication to the eminent virtuoso William Primrose, who apparently found it difficult and ungrateful to perform. Upon complaining to the composer, Primrose recalled that Milhaud replied, disarmingly, “Mon Cher, all concertos should be difficult”.

To date there has been no commercial recording made of the concerto, though there are rumours that a tape of Primrose playing the work does exist. The violist was quoted as saying it (the concerto) was “the most outrageously difficult work I ever tackled, and for all the immense labour I devoted to it never appealed to the public”.

For myself, on a first hearing, I thought it lacked the charm and variety and energy of Walton’s only concerto for viola, the first rival twentieth-century work which comes to mind. Though they’re not exactly thick on the ground, other concerti for the instrument by Bartok, Hindemith, Schnittke, Penderecki and Piston do turn up in adventurous orchestral programmes – and one mustn’t forget things like Anthony Ritchie’s 1994 concerto, of which there’s an Atoll recording featuring violist Timothy Deighton. (There are also viola concerti by Alfred Hill and Nigel Keay, further off the beaten home-grown track…..).

But Milhaud it was on this occasion, and the soloist Irina Andreeva bent her back to the task with a will, meeting head-on William Primrose’s assertion regarding the music’s difficulty, and emerging triumphant at the end, though not without playing her way through some nail-biting moments. The first movement is marked “Avec Entrain” which my on-line translator rendered as “with spirit” – and as the solo instrument virtually never stopped playing throughout, spirit was certainly required on the part of the soloist!  The music consisted of a running figure for the viola which sometimes relaxed into a more lyrical mode, accompanied in a disconcertingly pointillistic way by the orchestra, with abrupt squawks in places and lovely squealings in others. And I did enjoy the frequent insouciance of the wind-playing, in marked contrast to the nervous and keeping-on intensities of the violist’s undulating figurations.

Movement 2 was “Avec Charm” which I guess didn’t need translation, though the music’s ambience was, I thought, “small-hours dance-floor” with only a few couples left. The soloist’s lovely tone amply filled out the lyrical figurations, one or two intonation sags aside, especially when under pressure from what seemed like awkward stretches – the “difficult and ungrateful to perform” ghost here hovering about the music. But there were some gorgeous low-lying passages which brought forth plenty of juice from Andreeva’s instrument, accompanied by nostalgic winds and some “last dance” harp phrases, leading up to the crack-of-doom gong-stroke which then sent the phantoms of the small-hours packing into the gloom.

My schoolboy French wasn’t up to “Avec esprit”, and I was put right in conversation afterwards by a friend who explained it was literally “with mind” [it also means ‘wit’: L.T.] – which made more sense of music that seemed extremely controlled in its expression, a tight rhythmic regime which came across like a waltz in a straitjacket – the soloist’s recurring “theme” alternated with orchestra comment whose textures supported the argument with occasional punctuations and deft cross-rhythms. And there was no let-up for anybody in the concluding “Avec gaîtè”, a slowly-lolloping jig, whose stride gathered up the soloist’s strenuous double-stopping and the marvellously detailed orchestra textures, and proceeded to generate a well-nigh unstoppable momentum towards a “fin triomphant”! Accolades all round was the richly-deserved response to a fine performance.

To begin the concert, we had another work rarely encountered in the concert-hall, Benjamin Britten’s Suite on English Folksongs, music which took a somewhat different approach to that accorded traditional airs by composers such as Holst and Vaughan Williams. Britten had written a work for inclusion in the celebrations surrounding the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1966, an arrangement for winds of the folk song Hankin Booby, and so, eight years later, included the work in his new suite. The whole work was given the subtitle “A time there was…..”, which was a quotation from a poem by Thomas Hardy, reflecting upon an age of innocence, and its subsequent corruption, something of a recurring theme in Britten’s own work.

Unlike other folksong treatments, Britten took the traditional folk-themes and developed them in pairs, subjecting the combinations to concise, but nevertheless intense explorations, finding worlds within worlds from these melodies. I noted in the very first one, Cakes and Ale, the rhythmic thrust of the writing from the very first chord – superbly delivered, here! – and the great work by the brass in carrying this forward. Interwoven with the themes were tortured, obsessive figurations, heightening tensions between both tunes and underlying accompaniments.

The second piece, The Bitter Withy, inspired beautiful string playing and support from the harp, the instrumental tones nicely gradated and the intensities well terraced, bringing sharply into relief the rustic angularities of the following Hankin Booby, the work’s “godfather” piece. What wonderful sonorities, and how pungently and wholeheartedly the orchestral winds put across their characteristic tinbres – riveting!

Hunt the Squirrel suggests as a title a quintessential English activity set to music, and the open-sounding strings brought out the essential earthiness of the fun, with some great playing from the orchestral leader, Salina Fisher. The ensemble wasn’t absolutely note-perfect, but put across a corporate verve and energy which underpinned the music’s excitement.

Again, Britten set one piece’s mood against its previous opposite, with the suite’s finale, Lord Melbourne. A tragic note hung around the music’s beginning, with its deep-throated percussion and “wandering” string and wind lines – this continued until the cor anglais solo, when conductor Ken Young suddenly stopped the orchestra and indicated to the players to start again – it had transpired (I was afterwards told) that one of the wind soloists had been ill before the concert, and had at that point gotten somewhat out of time and wasn’t “knitting” with the rest of the ensemble.

The repeat that followed seemed to present a tauter aspect to the music, if less spontaneous-sounding and “dangerous”. The piece built to a climax with the help of some intensely-focused string entries, then ebbed the tension away with birdsong-like winds and all-pervading feelings of nostalgic longing, the music expressing a touching loss and sorrow at the end. Altogether, the music was a discovery for me, and the performance presented it memorably, in an entirely sympathetic light.

I haven’t left much time or space to talk about the performance of the “Pathetique” which took up the second half of the concert, mainly because I thought the orchestra had presented the concert’s first-half items with such distinction, along with the soloist in the Milhaud Concerto. But the Tchaikovsky Symphony was also played magnificently, with a palpable sense of commitment and concentration from the very first gloom-laden notes, the bassoon and violas empowering the basses to “focus” their initial phrases a bit more securely the second time round after what I thought were a somewhat nervous first couple of notes.

Tchaikovsky’s adoration of Mozart was apparent with the violins’ opening phrases, here, the poise and clarity of the playing growing in intensity towards the brass fanfares, then erupting in agitation but called back to a state of relative calm by the lower strings – and how beautifully the violins stole in with the “big tune”, the playing expressive and plaintive-toned, with proper heart-on-sleeve emotion here, from winds as well as strings.

Conductor Young didn’t spare the players with the sudden onset of the allegro, and encouraged a terrific noise at the heart of the conflicting hubbub, timpani especially “charged” and well-focused throughout. With the big tune’s reprise at the end of the tumult, the sound wasn’t especially pure from the violins, but had great character, which I much preferred to a kind of bland homogeneity, the emotion expressed in great waves. Lovely winds and noble brass at the end, with every pizzicato note sounding as though it really meant something.

If I describe the remainder of the symphony’s performance like this I shall be here all night – so suffice to say that the 5/4 Second Movement was expressed by Young and his players with great urgency, or “a fair old lick” as they say in the classics, with the pizzicato passages a forest of plucking noises at that speed! No respite from the Trio, either, the music’s anxiety level kept near the red throughout, and the playing matching the music’s mood in point and focus. Then, the third-movement March was all urgency and angst – music of flight as much as nervous energy – with the antiphonal exchanges between the instruments thrilling. Every now and then an instrumental detail would arrest one’s sensibilities, such as a piccolo-led wind flourish, and a keenly-focused timpani crescendo.

Young gave his strings enough room to really “point” the main theme, and also deal with the syncopated exchanges between instrumental groups. The build-up to the first percussion onslaught was fabulous, even if the bass drum slightly anticipated one of its entries. And the coda was all the more effective through being kept rock-steady, allowing the winds a terrific texture-piercing flourish before the final crunching chords. How the audience restrained itself from breaking into spontaneous applause (a common occurrence with this work in concert) I’ll never know!

Sweet, regretful strings there were at the finale’s beginning, the emotion dignified at this initial stage, the phrasings given plenty of breath, wind and brass steady, apart from the occasional tiny horn burble. As the music slipped into the major, the mood took on a more hopeful aspect, the plea becoming increasingly eloquent – only to flounder against a brass rebuttal and crash to a halt in disarray. I enjoyed the subsequent ghoulish brass raspings and Wagnerian string intensities “sung out” by the players just before the second and final irruption, giving the moment of death-convulsion a truly fatalistic feeling and colour. The trombones intoned their lament superbly, as did the strings, with great, weeping swells of emotion, leading to dark, drained silences at the end.

I confess to being spellbound, throughout, by the playing’s energy and commitment – in short, I thoroughly enjoyed the concert’s two earlier (and less familiar) items, but thought the whole of the symphony was well-and-truly “nailed” by these youngsters and their inspirational conductor. Bravo!

























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