“Round the Horn” – Wellington Chamber Orchestra and Samuel Jacobs

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:

Beethoven: Fidelio Overture

Richard Strauss: Horn Concerto no.1

Brahms: Symphony no.4 in E minor

Wellington Chamber Orchestra conducted by Rachel Hyde; Samuel Jacobs (horn)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 14 April 2013, 2.30pm

It was unfortunate that probably many in the audience beside myself had attended the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s concert in the Michael Fowler Centre the previous night: a close juxtaposition of the playing of a professional orchestra with that of an amateur orchestra is not good for the latter.

Nevertheless, there were high points in this ambitious programme.  It was good to see (and hear) the brass out of the sanctuary this time, so that the instruments could be heard clearly, without undue reverberation.

A splendid opening to Beethoven’s overture was rather soon marred by the horns muffing notes.  There were four horn players, and Beethoven gave them a lot to do, some of which they performed very well – but too often their contribution was less than perfect.  By contrast, the trumpets were excellent – of course, the trumpet is not nearly such a difficult instrument to play.  As a whole, the performance of the overture was a good effort.

It was a sad shock to learn earlier in the week that the English leader of the NZSO horns will be returning to Britain at the end of the year, after less than two years here.  Samuel Jacobs played the Strauss concerto in great style – and some of his professional colleagues were there to hear him play only the second concerto he has performed in this country.

Strauss gave parts to only two horns in the orchestra, so the other horn players could enjoy hearing the solo –  one did it with a smile on his face most of the time.

Jacobs’s playing was true and vital with fine tone and lovely phrasing.  His high notes were refined and controlled.  His playing echoed the programme note description of Strauss’s horn-playing father’s efforts: ‘…almost universally admired in German music circles or his flawless technique and impeccable artistry.’  The solo playing here was always lovely, with a variety of tonal colours.

The first movement of the concerto was extremely lyrical, even Romantic in style.  String intonation wavered at times, but was mainly good.  The orchestra rose to most occasions.  There was a charming episode featuring horn solo with woodwind; the flutes particularly did a great job.

In fact, the whole work, described in the programme note as ‘…a very conservative work… [with] melodic ardour and profligacy’ was superbly played, and was greeted with tumultuous applause such as one doesn’t usually hear at an amateur concert.

The Brahms fourth symphony was a big work to tackle for a chamber orchestra.  While it was given a creditable performance, maybe it was a little beyond these musicians.  As the programme note said, here ‘…Brahms explores a range of emotions as well as sheer orchestral colour beyond anything he had attempted in his earlier symphonies…’ and so the demands on the players were huge.  It is a complex composition – but I do find that towards the end of the finale it becomes somewhat dull and predictable – Brahms was famous for making the most of every scrap of material.

The first movement (allegro non troppo) opens with a slightly sad, lyrical passage – this was played well.  Surging lower strings and strong brass were later features, the thick textures demonstrating the great strength of Brahms’s writing, but also providing difficulties for the orchestra in obtaining clarity.

The andante moderato second movement is characterised by beautiful lyrical phrases and themes, but some of them suffered from a lack of precision in the strings, though the winds continued to be effective.  Richard Strauss apparently told Brahms that the music suggest ‘a funeral procession moving in silence across moonlit heights’; this seemed apt, but the orchestration was quite grand following a most nostalgic section for horn.

The third movement, allegro giocoso, was more jovial, not least for the introduction of the triangle and the piccolo.  Trumpets and horns both played well here.  A long flute solo with two horns intoning repeated notes was very well executed.

In the large-scale finale (allegro energico e passionato) the trombones finally got a chance to play, and they did it with skill and character.  By the end the music, and playing, became a little tedious.  After such a demanding programme I should not be surprised if the players had become tired.

Overall, the orchestra made a good sound, but inevitably in an amateur orchestra there is a range of skills and levels of competency.  The Strauss horn concerto was the outstanding part of the programme, and the excellence of the solo playing made it all the more regrettable that Samuel Jacobs is not staying around.

Rachel Hyde had the flutes stand first after the general applause at the end of the concert, marking their considerable and skilled contribution to the performance.

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