Orchestra Wellington confirms its vital role in city’s musical life with wonderful Haydn and Mahler

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei with Kieran Rayner (baritone)

Haydn: Symphonies No 85 in B flat and 86 in D
Mahler: Songs of a Wayfarer (Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen) arr. Schoenberg
Schnittke: Moz-Art à la Haydn

Opera House, Wellington

Sunday 7 September, 4 pm

In the lobby before the concert a friend asked whether I’d been to Marc Taddei’s pre-concert talk and I confessed I had not. She, with a wide knowledge of music, though from another artistic perspective, had been delighted with it, had gained rewarding insights in what was about to be played.

Some pre-concert talks are more fascinating than others; Taddei’s are among the best: he has a gift that reaches both young people and those who might think they know it all, and serious assistants (in the French sense; to avoid the obnoxious word attendees) should make time for them.

Haydn’s Paris Symphonies
One of the topics he would have covered would have been the Paris symphonies of Haydn which have provided the backbone of all the orchestra’s subscription concerts this year. This concert was special, with one each at the beginning and the end.

They are probably among the symphonies that even the moderately well-versed might recognise but be unable to ascribe a number to. That is certainly my case. Though the symphonies were commissioned by a Paris orchestra, Haydn did not conduct them in Paris, as Mozart had his a few years earlier.

No 85
No 85, reputedly a favourite of Queen Marie-Antoinette, opens with stately, perhaps ponderous Adagio, rather un-Haydn-like, with a deceptive dotted rhythm; its move into the substantive first movement, is as serious as the opening of an early Beethoven symphony, and seemed indeed to call for a bigger orchestra than we had. Though the programme notes recorded how Haydn had taken advantage of what he knew to be the great size of the Paris orchestra, we were limited to the scale of an Esterhazy ensemble. There were six each of both violin sections, down to just one double bass.

However, Taddei, through his brisk triple-time speeds and a sense of resolve, soon succeeded in creating the impression of a big band, acknowledging a work of major significance, as Haydn displays his assurance in adroit modulations and his unfailing wit in the varied treatment of his themes. The second movement, scarcely a ‘slow’ movement, either as written or as played, with its solid emphasis on every other crotchet, in common time, handles a French folk tune said to have been one the Queen played in her prison cell a few years later awaiting her 1793 fate under the guillotine. Indeed, memorable, with its charming flute obbligato weaving through it.

The Minuet and Trio had an unusual quality, with its asides and solo excursions for violin and woodwinds; but notably the little diversions and the discursiveness, especially in the shy Trio, almost a Schubertian Laendler, a sort-of mirror image of the Minuet itself, which avoided any risk of the predictable, all of which were charmingly captured. The finale had a more orthodox feel: brisk and bright, though there’s the characteristic Haydn diminuendo and the music’s near disappearance before the recapitulation. All performed with a splendid feeling of affection and an authentic feel for the gallant/classical period.

No 86
I might as well mention here the other symphony – No 86 in D major – played at the concert’s end. Though played with the same forces, and even though I had found No 85 thoroughly delightful, this was even more imposing right from the more than a minute-long introduction – Adagio, with an illusion of greater weight, such as Haydn would have imagined in the orchestra for which he was writing. And perhaps, though I don’t have perfect pitch, a reflection of the way composers felt about the D major key.

After that fine rhetorical Adagio, the Allegro spiritoso came like a moment of sheer delight, and it brought me to what I’m sure has driven Taddei to programme all six of these works this year – the realisation that, given Haydn’s remarkable sense of the differences in culture and style between London and Paris (then and now), these symphonies are every bit the masterpieces that the dozen London Symphonies are.

Compared with No 85, the slow movement here really is that, though oddly labelled ‘Capriccio largo’.
Though the programme note observed that the melody was not especially memorable, in fact the whole movement IS memorable, for the spirit of poignant seriousness, of profondeur and throughtfulness
that invested its performance.

The Minuet and Trio were no less engaging, with the Trio again offering charming episodes for solo violin against, woodwind solos, its tune undecorated in comparison to the Minuet itself in which almost every note is embellished. And it ends with an imposing, finale, quite the equal in grandeur and zest of any Salomon-symphony: timpani, brass and all. Which was a splendidly-judged ending to a splendid concert.

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen by Mahler
But the second work in the concert was Mahler’s Wayfarer songs sung by young Wellington baritone Kieran Rayner. I’ve been hearing him over many years since he was getting parts as an undergraduate in the School of Music operas and other performances; and since then in the wonderful Candide, done by the Orpheus Choir and Days Bay’s Così, Alcina and Viaggio a Reims.

This youthful cycle (Mahler was about 25) is a fine exercise for a singer at Rayner’s stage, and accepting the very occasional technical blemishes, he invested each song with its individual character and emotion: full of opportunity for rich and extreme late Romantic passion and grief. His discreet hand gestures and facial expressions were all that was needed to support the words, which emerged clearly.

The orchestra may have felt that the Schoenberg arrangement of the score better suited the small orchestra that had been decided on for the Haydn. Many would have found the score perfectly satisfactory, but with Mahler’s own orchestral sounds in my head, the orchestra’s size: small string bodies and the limited range of wind instruments, seemed a little dry.

Others have found in Schoenberg’s arrangements their own intensity and colour, which is felt to match what Mahler himself set on paper. Rayner captured the moving expression of pain in ‘Die zwei blauen Augen…’, though I found something inauthentic in the sound of strings against single clarinet and flute: ‘Quelque chose manquait’. Yet there were many aspects that I enjoyed, the contributions of both piano and the digital (I suppose) harmonium, in ‘Ging heut’ Morgen…’ and the agitated feel of ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’, for example. And above all the final words, ‘Unter dem Lindenbaum … War alles, alles wieder gut/Alles! Alles, Lieb und Leid/Und Welt und Traum!’: defeated and lost, accompanied by small, thin flute and clarinet notes.

Ideally, one would have liked both German and English texts to have been offered in the programme; after the synopsis of each song, the English translation of each was a bit redundant: better to have printed the German.

Finally, and to my mind a bit oddly, Schnittke’s manipulation of his notion of the style and sense of Haydn and Mozart.

When we returned after the interval, the stage was in darkness; slowly, figures could be discerned entering, a violin began to play a jaunty, fractured tune, then another violin and eventually the stage lit up to reveal the full orchestra and conductor, standing. The music, in detached scraps, came from unfamiliar music Mozart wrote for a commedia dell’ arte; they had no impact of themselves, and it was hard (for me) to derive much entertainment or enlightenment from Schnittke’s efforts.  After a few minutes, the stage started to dim and players left one by one, as in the Farewell Symphony, and it ended with the double bass playing alone with Taddei tapping his baton on the music stand. I was left wondering what it was that I’d missed, that had gained it the sort of standing it has in avant-garde circles. (Does Schnittke actually love Haydn and Mozart? Does he love music? For all his difficult life and the sadness of his last years, I have never warmed to his music).

However, the Haydn and Mahler were the real thing, deeply touching both the mind and the emotions, and the orchestra’s performances offered another demonstration of the value of a city based orchestra which tackles music that is less played by the NZSO, but which is revealed as of major importance.


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