Imaginative programme of too rarely played masterpieces from Orchestra Wellington

Orchestra Wellington: Marc Taddei (conductor) and Jian Liu (piano)

Haydn: Symphony No. 83 in G minor, The Hen
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G
Stravinsky: Song of the Nightingale
Rimsky-Korsakov: The Golden Cockerel

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 9 August 2014, 7:30 pm

This imaginative programme by Orchestra Wellington was an opportunity to enjoy a selection of colourful works heard all too infrequently on concert stages here. Haydn’s The Hen Symphony was performed with appropriately modest orchestral forces for which Orchestra Wellington is admirably suited. The opening Allegro Spiritoso sparkled with clean vigorous playing of exemplary precision that allowed inner voices to speak through beautifully clearly. The contrasting central episode was beautifully judged by Taddei, as were the dynamic contrasts and pauses of the following Andante, where his tempo shaped and enhanced the transparent artistry of the melodic lines.

The Minuet was undertaken at a tempo that would have been well beyond even the sprightliest pupils of any Baroque dancing master, but it bounced along with appealing grace providing one ignored its origins in the dance (a somewhat questionable approach in my view). The Finale bears the designation Vivace which is best interpreted as lively or sprightly, but the hectic tempo imposed by Taddei was such that the wonderful, brisk triplet rhythms simply could not be enunciated cleanly and effectively. It was disappointing to have such an invigorating reading of this symphony somewhat clouded in this way.

Soloist Jian Liu gave a riveting performance of Ravel’s delightful Piano Concerto in G major, and he was supported by some spectacular playing from the orchestra. In the opening movement Ravel has crafted some exquisitely balanced conversations between the pianist and various instrumentalists. The Allegramente designation means simply cheerfully, merrily, but hectic tempi in the fast sections often obscured Ravel’s remarkable skill and artistry as an orchestrator. By contrast, those episodes that call up the world of Louisiana blues were wonderfully languid and seductive, particularly in the hands of the brass and woodwind (with imaginative use of the French bassoon by Preman Tilsen.)

The soulful simplicity of the opening piano melody in the following Adagio was beautifully expressed by Liu, and was deliciously savoured by the winds as they picked it up one by one. Full breadth of tempo allowed the wandering tonalities and modal overtones of the orchestration to be genuinely explored. But sadly the signature cor anglais melody of this movement sounded strangled by nerves, whereas it deserves to ooze out with rich seductive warmth over the lacework of the piano part.

The Finale is certainly marked Presto, but as in the first movement, Taddei’s frenetic tempo unjustly obscured Ravel’s spectacular mastery of complex orchestral resources. However, no player appeared to flinch at Taddei’s demands, and Liu’s technical mastery was quite spectacular, with mind-blowing solo work from first bassoon Tilsen deserving particular mention. But in fact Ravel’s extraordinary skills were robbed of their true exposure by such a tempo, whereas he, and the audience, most surely deserved better.

Stravinsky’s symphonic poem Song of the Nightingale is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s oriental fairytale of the same name. Right from the first notes of the spectacular opening outburst the players were clearly revelling in the extraordinary colour and complexity of the writing. But the initial tempo was just too hectic to allow Stravinsky’s amazingly intricate colour palette to be properly appreciated, degenerating rather into a frantic muddied melange .

Things improved markedly in the following episodes where Taddei gave the instrumentalists a chance to show off both the vigorous and poetic qualities of the work. The somnolent and subdued sections were sensitively crafted to create a  truly evocative air of mystery and oriental fantasy, and the final retreat of Death’s threatening presence from the striken Emperor’s bed chamber left a breathless hush over the hall.

Six months before he died in 1908, Rimsky-Korsakov completed his opera score for Golden Cockerel based on Pushkin’s 1834 fairytale. It was immediately banned by the Tsar’s political censors for its satirical political overtones, and this orchestral suite was only later was compiled from his work by Glazunov and Steinberg (the composer’s son-in-law). It is an outstanding showcase for the amazing skill, colour and complexity of orchestration that Rimsky-Korsakov had exactingly honed over his lifetime.

The opening scene depicts Tsar Dodon at home in his opulent palace, followed next by his unsuccessful venture onto eastern battlefields to defeat imagined threats from a neighbouring potentate. These two movements were given a most evocative reading that did full justice to the rich colours lavished on the orchestral canvas. The potentate was in fact the Tsaritsa Shemakhan, whose seductive powers overcame Tsar Dodon in the third movement, where dancing melodic lines were artfully shaped in contrast to the energetic central section. The brass had a marvellous field day with all the pomp and ceremony of the ensuing wedding ceremonies which they tackled with great drama and intensity. And the orchestra readily transformed  the mood into the dark, sombre foreboding that presaged the Tsar’s  unfortunate demise at the hands of the triumphant magical cockerel.

The whole work gave a wonderful opportunity to appreciate not only Rimsky-Korsakov’s extraordinary powers, but the technical mastery and musicianship of Orchestra Wellington’s musicians. Full marks too to conductor and management for offering a most imaginative programme of lesser known works. Those Wellington concert goers who opted for a cosy evening at home on an inhospitable winter’s night missed out on a  real treat.


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