Wellington Chamber Orchestra rounds on Beethoven with Mozart

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents
MOZART – Ouvertüre “Die Entführung aus dem Serail”
Symphony No.38 “Prague”
BEETHOVEN – Piano Concerto No.3 in C Minor

Diedre Irons (piano)
Chris van der Zee (conductor)
Wellington Chamber Orchcestra

St Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 28th June 2015

This concert got off to one of the most thrilling beginnings of any I’ve seen this year, with a no-holds-barred explosion of percussion erupting and pinning back our ears during the first few bars of Mozart’s famous Il Seraglio Overture, also known by its German title of Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

Played with great precision and plenty of verve, the “Turkish” instruments (bass drum, triangle and cymbals) here simply saturated the airwaves with scintillating noise, as the composer intended. The opera having being set in a Turkish harem, Mozart was giving the public the exotic kinds of sounds that would have been expected from a work with such associations.

The orchestra’s more conventional sections also did their bit to enhance the music’s energy, colour, and high spirits. Conductor and orchestra brought off the contrasts between the music’s “soft and loud” sections with considerable skill throughout. The central “wistful Andante” was played with great tenderness and nicely-pointed oboe phrases, helping to make the return of the “Janissary” (the Turkish element) just as exciting and colourful as before. Altogether the performance was a great success, drawing enthusiastic and committed playing from the orchestra.

More serious business was then addressed by the musicians in the form of Beethoven’s C Minor Piano Concerto, the composer’s third such work. Very properly the programme’s notes referred to Beethoven’s admiration for one of Mozart’s piano concerti in a similar key, K.491, and how this regard was reflected by the similarities of Beethoven’s work to that of the older composer.

I was pleased to also read a reference in the programme to the recordings of these concerti made in 2003 and 2004 by the soloist, Diedre Irons, with the Christchurch Symphony conducted by Marc Taddei, for Trust Records. Available as individual discs or as a set from Trust Records, PO Box 10-143, Wellington, 6143 – or via e-mail at info@trustcds.com, the performances are well worth anybody’s investigation.

Nobody who knew the recordings would have expected anything less than what Diedre Irons gave us that afternoon – a sonorous, well-rounded realization of the solo part, as naturally “integrated” with the orchestra’s contribution as any intelligent conversation between two people, serious of purpose to begin with (first movement), then long-breathed and lyrical of expression over the middle movement’s vistas, before playfully interweaving strands of philosophic utterance with moments of rude vigour and determination throughout the finale, “comedy of a sardonic sort” as the programme-note writer so well put it.

Conductor Chris van der Zee supported his soloist with all the intent he and the orchestra could muster, holding the textures of the instrumental sections together and achieving sonorous and coherent balances – the wind soloists, in particular clarinet, bassoon and flute, had sensitive and eloquent moments of interplay with the piano, and the timpanist was a tower of rhythmic strength and support whenever called upon. The opening tutti set the scene for the grandest possible entry from the soloist, and we in the audience weren’t disappointed.

A by-product of the orchestra’s very forward placement in the church, to the front of the “chancel” area, meant that the piano was placed so far forward as to render the soloist invisible to everybody sitting upstairs in the organ gallery save those in the first row of seats. Being one of those people held up by unexpected traffic, I found myself upstairs, and without a “view” of the keyboard. Fortunately, my experience at the London “Proms”, where one often found oneself standing for the entire concert, was helpful at this point, taking as I did a vantage point to the side and remaining on my feet so I could see the pianist.

Of course I could have merely settled back in my seat and enjoyed the sound of Diedre Irons’ playing – but she’s one of those pianists who communicates such a great deal with deportment, expression and gesture at the keyboard, so that the experience of “hearing” her live seems incomplete unless these things can be observed. What comes across is a kind of totality, which in a broadcast or recording of music is left to the imagination to supply – the expressions, the gesturings, the physical means used to create the musical sounds. Here, from my somewhat “birds-eye” view I saw the performance’s world and was drawn into its absorbing plethora of attitudes, moods and feelings.

After the interval I could resume my seat (a few leanings-forward in places notwithstanding) and enjoy the rather more contained aspect of a well-known classical symphony, in this case Mozart’s work known as the “Prague”, Symphony No.38 in D major K.504. In the space of three movements only, Mozart treats us to one of the happiest and most festive of his large-scale symphonic works, the nickname “Prague” referring to the success the symphony experienced when performed in that city. The orchestra, here, though seemingly reluctant in places throughout the opening to really “attack” the opening notes of their phrases and thus establish a strong rhythm, seemed to move up a notch in the first movement’s development section, hitting their stride with confidence, getting sonorous support from the horns, and making sure the “payoff” points of the work came across well (the timpani again strong and reliable at such times).

Better-focused overall was the slow movement, kept moving nicely and lightly by the conductor, and registering the often markedly-detailed dynamics – the winds as an ensemble did particularly well, here, I thought, the oboes especially doing a lovely “middle textures” job of it. The music generated oceans of warmth and poise by turns, thanks to the sensitivity and style of the playing.

Just as enjoyable was the finale, the opening eager and bustling, the players seemingly “onto it” – a lovely, chattering aspect from the winds brought theatrical characters to our minds and accompanying smiles to our faces as the different personalities came and went. The music’s sometimes abrupt dynamic shifts were exuberantly sounded, all the sections dovetailing their parts then “breaking out” with great élan. I thought the strings played with much more confidence, here, adroitly crisscrossing their lines and building the lines towards places where the horns could underline the music’s festive aspect with plenty of spirit.

So, the concert ended as it had begun – with Mozart’s music completing the circle, the playing rounding the afternoon’s music-making off with a good deal of panache and some well-deserved accompanying audience enjoyment.

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