Orchestra Wellington confirms its stature in large scale late Romantic as well as Haydn, and honours Franz Paul Decker

Marc Taddei dedicates Bruckner’s 7th symphony with Orchestra Wellington to Franz-Paul Decker

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei with Deborah Humble (mezzo soprano)

Haydn: Symphony No 84 in E flat ‘In nomine Domini’
Wagner: The Wesendonck Lieder
Bruckner: Symphony No 7 in E major

Cathedral of Saint Paul, Wellington

Saturday 24 May, 7 pm

Orchestra Wellington’s concerts in the second half of last year, banished from the Town Hall, took place in the Opera House. I missed both of those. The move to the Anglican cathedral might have been partly in the nature of an experiment, now that Wellington seems to be faced with the depressing news that strengthening of the Town Hall seems to have become more expensive and the city council seems ready to sacrifice yet another feature of Wellington as a sophisticated, culturally rich city, which is about all we have left, apart from Government, after the flight of manufacturing and most corporate head offices.

Gone are both one of the best concert halls in the country, the gem of a recital hall, as well as the fine city organ, and the splendidly spacious west foyers of the previous “strengthening” in the early 1980s. (By the way, who’s to be held responsible for an inadequate job back then?).

Before the start of the concert conductor Marc Taddei spoke about a loss of another kind: the death in Montreal on Monday 21 May of Franz-Paul Decker at the age of 90.

Decker had a 40-year association as Guest Conductor, Principal Conductor and Chief Conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Decker was perhaps the most gifted conductor to have had a long relationship with the orchestra.  He was said to have had a “love affair” with the NZSO since he first conducted it in 1966, when he was “very positively surprised [by its] highly professional musicians”. He said: “It is the longest relationship I have had with any orchestra in the world”.

Perhaps Decker’s last engagement was in Barcelona in November 2010 which concluded with Strauss’s ill-omened tone poem Death and Transfiguration.

Taddei said nothing could have been more appropriate to honour the memory of a conductor so devoted to and penetrating with his Bruckner performances than his seventh symphony.

The Haydn
The Cathedral was full, and the concert opened with one of Haydn’s ‘Paris’ symphonies, Nos 82-87, written through 1785-86 on a commission from a Paris orchestra, the Concert de la (Masonic) loge Olympique.  It was a very large orchestra, of amateurs and professionals.

The seats in the cathedral had been turned around so that the orchestra was at the west end and the audience’s back were to the sanctuary, perhaps in the hope that a less reverberant acoustic would exist. That may have been effective for the two symphonies, but it offered little to the orchestra or the singer in Wagner’s Wesendonck songs.

In fact the opening Largo of the first movement of Number 84 promised both a warm and full-blooded performance and an acoustic that treated the playing kindly enough. Its slow pace left plenty of room for the echo to fade without clutter. And even in the main Allegro part of the movement, a certain amount of overlapping of sounds did not bother me. In any case I am very partial to a large space that slightly rounds the edges of symphonic performance, up to a point.

What was more significant was the sheer size of the orchestra – around 75 – which displayed impressive polish and even opulence to the point of risking the censure of the more pedantic of the ‘historically informed’ performance devotees.

But the Paris commission gave Haydn the chance to compose for a considerably larger orchestra than he had at Esterhazy and it’s clear that he jumped at the chance to use larger forces. The slow movement, in a gentle triple (6/8) rhythm, seemed to be the heart of the music, as it so often is, and I found myself wallowing in the sounds of the fine brass, the lovely legato lines, the beguiling tunes, indeed, the elegance and charm of the orchestration as a whole.

The Minuet may have been typical for its time, but who else could have written with such elan and wit. Unlike many Minuets, the Trio middle section offered only minor change of rhythm and character; might the performance, with advantage, have given it more contrast?  Nor might the Vivace finale be revolutionary, but merely of far greater interest and delight than most of the music of the time, apart from his own and Mozart’s.

A propos, it’s interesting that the young Mozart, on his visit to Paris with his mother eight years earlier, also had success with his fine Paris Symphony; apart from that, his visit was disappointing, and his mother died in Paris.

Deborah Humble with Wagner
Deborah Humble had come from Australia to sing Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. Here was where the contribution of the cathedral’s acoustic became a matter of some interest.  The very introductory notes seemed to be coming from varying and indistinct places, as if they were disconnected, without a coherent performance plan. No reflection on conductor or players at all, but simply the mischievousness of the space.

But that opening sounded different from my memory of other performances; the programme did not identify the source of the orchestration (Wagner himself only orchestrated the last song, ‘Traüme’), and the usual arrangement is by Wagner’s colleague Felix Mottl. There are also versions by Vieri Tosatti, and Hans Werner Henze. I had discounted the latter because it is described as ‘for chamber orchestra’, though with ‘unusual wind registration’.  I discovered later that what we heard and which may or may not have been helpful in the acoustic, was indeed by Henze: perhaps sparer orchestration seemed more likely to cope better with the space.

(To my chagrin, I found a performance of the Henze version sung by Mariana Lipovšek sitting on my sagging shelves).

The characteristics of the Henze orchestration were summarised for me by the orchestra’s General Manager, Adán Tijerina: ‘for low voice, and the special feature of the particular instrumentation is the use of deep instruments: alto flute, cor anglais, bass clarinet, contrabassoon’.

The voice enters quickly after the rather spare opening hints of mood, and it was obvious at once that Deborah Humble’s Wagner credentials were for real: a fine Wagner voice, large enough to cope with the orchestra surrounding her and that acoustic, though the latter did rather obscure the intelligibility of the words. (As an aside, last year I saw the last three parts of the Hamburg Ring cycle that she had sung in, but after her involvement had finished). Her most important recent engagement was in the Melbourne Ring last November/December, as Erda and Waltraute.

Those with Wagner embedded in their souls and memories were catching quotes from parts of the Ring, and especially Tristan which was emerging during the 1850s when Wagner was in exile in Zurich. Without that connection the songs are of course just as beautiful and fully expressive of the sense and emotion of the words and can even be heard as presaging the approaching expressionism of the end of the century. These were the characteristics of Humble’s performance, beautifully phrased, warm and rounded in the lower register, lustrous and spiritual as her lines went high into the soprano range, investing the songs with a dramatic quality that could be heard as the product of a totally theatrical performer.

Bruckner’s Seventh
I like to think many of us had come particularly for the rare chance to hear a big Bruckner symphony; the seventh is probably the best known and most popular, but its hour and ten minutes length no doubt deters many orchestral managements, though hardly the musicians and conductors (and besotted audience members).

What a thrill it was to be overwhelmed by the glorious opening melody, from an orchestra that might long have languished a bit in the shadow of its big sister in Wellington. Still with somewhat smaller forces than the NZSO might muster, there was simply no area that sounded in the least undernourished. The impact of the opulent strings, the lustrous woodwinds and finally the marvellous, gleaming brass given the final touch of grandeur by the presence of four Wagner tubas (strictly, they should be called ‘Wagner horns’), which Wagner had had made for the Ring cycle, to fill the sonic gap he felt existed between trombones and horns.

In fact, at least from my seat, about six rows from the front, the big space added the important element of a quasi-religious atmosphere that enhanced and enriched the sound, suggesting both a much bigger orchestra, not to mention a performance of huge authority (Taddei conducted without the score before him, always a mark of someone who has become utterly committed to the music).

It’s one of the works, like Wagner’s operas, which one rarely feels is too long; rather, there was a sense of bereavement at its eventual end, so strongly had conductor and orchestra sustained momentum, suspense, an awe that was spell-binding, wanting just another return to this or that episode. The effect was magnified by a unhurried pace of each movement lending the music even greater profundity.

This was a superb, imaginative programme, of music that was not-all-that-familiar but all of which exercises a strong pull for quite large numbers of the more musically knowledgeable and curious; not to mention the one uncontested masterpiece.

Though this orchestra, particularly at the hands of Marc Taddei, has given us a lot of very great performances in recent years, this concert, all of it, sounded to me like the most compelling, ultimate coming-of-age for Orchestra Wellington.


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