Wellington Youth Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich
Brahms: Variations on the Theme by Joseph Haydn (St Anthony Variations), Op 56a
Rachmaninov: Symphony No 2 in E minor, Op 27
Cathedral of the Sacred Heart
Friday 29 May, 6:30 pm
One might as well begin by quoting the information about the provenance of the theme of the Brahms variations that is offered in Wikipedia:
“In 1870, Brahms’s friend Carl Ferdinand Pohl, the librarian of the Vienna Philharmonic Society, who was working on a Haydn biography at the time, showed Brahms a transcription he had made of a piece attributed to Haydn titled Divertimento No. 1. The second movement bore the heading “St. Anthony Chorale,” and it is this movement which, in its entirety, forms the theme on which the variations are based. Brahms’s statement of the theme varies in small but significant ways from the original, principally with regard to instrumentation. Some sources state the Divertimento was probably written by Ignaz Pleyel, but this has not been definitely established. A further question is whether the composer of the divertimento actually wrote the “St. Anthony Chorale” or simply quoted an older theme taken from an unknown source. To date, no other mention of a “St. Anthony Chorale” has been found.”
Whatever its origins, Brahms rightly spotted it as a splendid basis for a set of variations, first for two pianos, which he then orchestrated. It was virtually the first full-scale set of orchestral variations, separate from those that often formed the substance of a symphonic movement.
I have often commented on the challenge presented by the Basilica’s acoustic for orchestral performances, at once very clear, likely to expose the slightest blemish, and at the same time liable to amplify bass sounds – timpani and basses in a sometimes uncomfortable way. And while I’m at it, it will not be considered unduly harsh to observe that, naturally, a youth orchestra can never be expected to produce perfection: minor imperfections were a bit conspicuous here and there.
For example there was some imbalance between woodwind instruments which occasionally made middle parts louder than the melody line.
However, the orchestra, under the vivid and energizing direction of Hamish McKeich, captured the spirit and grandeur of the work, in all the colours that Brahms used to create a set variations that maintained steady interest; the studious exposition of the big tune, set the scene splendidly. Strings, even though violas were few in number, provided a good foundation in the first variation; woodwinds were attractive in Variation II, in fact, the piece as a whole provides a great deal of rewarding activity for the winds which met the challenges very well. (It’s fair to note of course, that some of the fine wind playing was due to a bit of support from professional players).
I enjoyed the accurate staccato liveliness of the fifth variation, and then the driving dance rhythms of the sixth. In the lovely Grazioso variation, horns and strings sounded particularly happy.
However, the Rachmaninov symphony was probably the main attraction, and indeed this was a performance that, even though I am used to being surprised at the opulence and energy of performances by young orchestras, thoroughly delighted me. Right from the ominous opening on low strings, thanks to the muscular support by the five double basses, and a pretty fair evocation of the gorgeous wind chords, the music gathered itself up with the sense of ever-expanding momentum, endless variety in the handling of the various themes. Both the build-up to and the descent from the big climax in the middle was an emotional winner. Though about 20 minutes long, the first movement just doesn’t ever need to end, and this was my feeling here.
The Scherzo always seems rather a descent from the endless enchantment of the first movement, but the energy of this dynamic performance rapidly took possession. Sure, there are delicate refinements in the piece that were not perfectly caught, but the spirit was sustained. The third movement lasts about 15 minutes, capturing the audience at once with something more akin to the first movement, the gorgeous string melody followed by long and beautifully played clarinet and bassoon (in a high register) solos – then duet. McKeich again created wonderful ecstatic episodes that seemed to prepare for the close, only to bring the music back for renewed experiences.
The last movement, again, offers yet more variety of emotional explorations, and they were beautifully paced, interspersed with exclamatory passages, strongly and accurately created, finally providing the audience with a succession of phantom perorations, as the Finale weaves its long path to the end.
I assume there was a reasonable amount of publicity for this concert as the cathedral was well filled. I heard about it through an email only a day before: I’m very glad I did.