Gamut of emotions – Orchestra Wellington’s second 2014 concert

Orchestra Wellington presents:

HAYDN – Symphony No.82 in C “The Bear”
MAHLER (arr.Leeuw) – Kindertotenlieder
MOZART – Symphony No.40 in G Minor K.550

Bianca Andrew (Mezzo-soprano)
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Opera House, Wellington,

Sunday, 22nd June, 2014

The phrase “What Love Tells Me” which gave its name to this concert given by Orchestra Wellington is irretrievably associated with the music of Mahler. It’s the original title the composer gave to the sixth and final movement of his Third Symphony, titles that were dropped by Mahler after the work’s first performance, but have still “hung around” the work ever since. Mahler was often to experience this initial need for programmatic titles relating to a work’s composition, followed by a Janus-faced distaste for those same titles after the work had been completed.

So, although we didn’t get the gargantuan Third Symphony (the longest of the Mahler symphonies), we had instead a song-cycle, Kindertotenlieder (“Songs on the death of children”), a work which at one point quotes a melody from the Symphony’s sixth, “What Love Tells Me” movement.

However, just to make matters more interesting, the other two works on the program inhabited somewhat different worlds again – Haydn’s wonderful Symphony No.82 in C, subtitled “The Bear” – and the most famous of all of Mozart’s Symphonies, No.40 in G Minor, for a while during the 1980s and 90s beloved of aerobics instructors and aficionados, though nevertheless a powerful and tragic work.

Conductor Marc Taddei had talked about the current orchestra concert-sequence being one of “experimentation” regarding venues, due to the present unfortunate (and hopefully temporary) closure of the Town Hall for “earthquake strengthening”. After the success of the opening concert in Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul, the orchestra found itself this time in the Wellington Opera House, which I recall was where one of the previous season’s concerts had taken place.

So far this year the combinations of venue and repertoire have worked tolerably well. Though not ideal for all the music on the program, the first concert’s Bruckner Seventh Symphony flourished and bloomed in the ample Cathedral acoustic. Conversely, the dryish and very theatrical acoustic in the Opera House suited Haydn and Mozart to a tee. The other pieces in each of the cases weren’t too disadvantaged – only the Haydn Symphony in the first concert suffered from an excess of reverberation in places like the finale.

I’m not sure whether there are other “halfway-house” venues in the capital which the orchestra could use – the truly wonderful St Mary of the Angels (with a reverberation perhaps not quite as marked as that of St.Paul’s Cathedral’s) is also out of commission at present, and other churches I know of are simply too small for orchestral forces. Which, of course, brings us back to the necessity of restoring the Town Hall – but like poet Philip Larkin’s “priest and doctor in their long coats”, mention of earthquake-strengthening procedures unfortunately brings the accountants, “running over the fields”.

Well, the show goes on, thankfully – and as with Orchestra Wellington’s opening concert it was a real cracker! There are purists who look down their noses at classical music works with nicknames, but I’m certainly not one of those. Haydn’s work in this case is “doubly-named” in that respect, being one of the six “Paris Symphonies” to begin with (itself a handy “signpost” for identifying a group of pieces within a body of over a hundred symphonies!), and then having its own descriptive label to boot – as do, of course, some of the later “London Symphonies”.

Here was a terrific performance by the orchestra, under Marc Taddei’s invigorating direction, of the work known as “The Bear”, so-called because of its rustic drolleries and drone-pipe sonorities in the finale, redolent of a circus bear’s dancing antics (a much happier animal, it must be said, than Stravinsky’s piteous, bedraggled fairground beast in his “Petroushka”). The playing here caught and delivered the tangy flavours and angularities with great gusto, the dryish sound allowing the instrument’s timbres full and direct impact, in particular those of the timpani.

Haydn actually wrote this set of works for a larger orchestra than he’d ever before encountered as a composer, the renowned Concert de la Loge Olympique, in Paris – a band which reputedly had forty violins and ten double-basses alone at its disposal. So after years of “making do” with the relatively limited ensemble numbers employed by his prince at Esterhazy, the composer could really let himself go with these works, in terms of imagining larger, weightier, more impactful sonorities.

Next came Mahler’s somewhat grisly-titled song-cycle, Kindertotenlieder (“Songs on the death of children”). Mahler chose texts written by Friedrich Rückert, who had himself lost two of his children to scarlet fever – the poet, in fact, wrote over four hundred poems concerning the deaths of children, presumably in an attempt to come to terms with his loss, as they were never intended for publication.

The composer’s choice of these texts appalled Mahler’s wife, Alma, in view of the couple having at the time of the music’s composition two young children. It’s well-known that fate did, actually seem to take a hand in things, as one of Mahler’s children did, in fact, die, also of scarlet fever, four years after the composer completed the songs.

Bianca Andrew, the mezzo-soprano, gave what I thought a somewhat inward, very sombre performance of these works, choosing not to bring out the overtly emotional angst of some of the writing, but singing the first four of them, at least, almost as if in a state of shock – and though I missed the warmth of her usual refulgent tones, they simply weren’t appropriate for this music. As well, the vocal line seemed in places somewhat low for her voice – but the singer put across the texts with her usual clarity and focus.

In the fifth song In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus (In this weather, in this storm), she responded to the more volatile orchestral sonorities, and gave us moments of properly chilling force. Interestingly, as with Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, performed at the orchestra’s last concert, a chamber version of this present cycle was here used, one by Dutch composer Reinbert de Leeuw. His reductions mostly affected this final song, doing without the more overt percussion orchestrations, as well as replacing the glockenspiel throughout with a piano.

So keen, vital and vigorous was the orchestral attack in places, readily conveying the storm-tossed ambience of that last song, I can’t say I yearned for the missing instruments. Elsewhere both the oboe- and horn-playing, vital in this work, was of a particularly high standard. Oboist Merran Cooke smartly sent what sounded like a first-note-frog packing, before giving us some beautiful playing in tandem with Ed Allen’s horn, weaving melodies and counterpoints around and in lieu of the voice with comparable feeling throughout the whole cycle.

On paper, the second half – Mozart’s G Minor Symphony K.550 – did seem light in terms of playing-time, but Marc Taddei gave the work with all the repeats, making it all seem and feel more than usually substantial. Benjamin Britten made a famous recording of the work in the 1960s which did the same – and I remember some critics complaining that the repeats made the work too long!  Well! – there’s simply no pleasing some people!

Certainly the repeats helped reinforce the work’s gravitas – but the music’s dramatic utterance, sense of great unease and depth of feeling was in the first place recreated by conductor and players with unerring focus. Right from the urgent, insistent accompanying figure that began the work, through the plaintive opening melody and the harsh rejoiners from wind and brass, there was drama and energy aplenty – not a comfortable listening experience, just as I’m sure the composer intended.

This was music that kept on fighting to the end, without resolving into any kind of resignation or acceptance. In the finale, there’s a kind of angular, part-syncopated “bridge-passage” for strings, which most conductors keep in time with the music’s pulse – Marc Taddei elongated the pauses here, distorting the pulse and keeping us guessing as to when the next chord was coming – a wonderful and unsettling gesture! As with the playing elsewhere, the music was allowed to express its character – something that conductor and players achieved most successfully throughout.

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