Rarities and a classic of Russian music from Orchestra Wellington

MUSORGSKY (arr. Rimsky-Korsakov) – Night on a Bare Mountain
SCRIABIN – Piano Concerto
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No.3 in D Major “Polish” Op.29

Michael Houstoun (piano)
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 8th August 2015

This concert presented the third in Orchestra Wellington’s inspirational series featuring the numbered Tchaikovsky Symphonies in tandem with well-known Russian piano concertos. I was unlucky to miss the second one, in which both the gorgeous “Little Russian” Symphony and the epic Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto were played – what a “buzz” that presentation must have been!

But amends were handsomely made by this latest concert, even though two of the three works, by Scriabin and Tchaikovsky respectively, couldn’t by any imagination’s stretch be called “popular”. It didn’t matter a whit, as each of the pieces got a performance that brought everything to life, the kind of response we’ve come to expect from this particular ensemble in recent times.

By way of righting the popularity balance, the concert actually began with one of the most famous pieces of Russian music ever to be written – Musorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain, an orchestral description of a Witches’ Sabbath. It would perhaps have caused bemusement had the orchestra’s assistant conductor Vincent Hardaker chosen to present the composer’s seldom-performed “original” version of this score, instead of the usually-heard Rimsky-Korsakov “edition”. In fact Musorgsky himself never heard his work played, partly the result of his composing colleagues’ reactions to what they considered “flaws” in the composer’s work, and their desire to “correct” their comrade’s creative miscalculations.

Despite the moderating influence of Rimsky’s editorial hand, the piece still comes across with plenty of power and atmosphere, and especially if, as here, it’s played full-bloodedly and with sharply-focused attention to detail. So, the percussion made its presence felt in the opening paragraph, the various irruptions underlining the spookiness and grotesquerie of the scenario. I liked Vincent Hardaker’s shaping of the whole, with the various crescendi nicely judged and their pay-offs expertly delivered. And the players’ ability to “point” and colour their individual phrases was exemplary, emphasizing rhythmic detailing rather than merely speed to generate excitement (for which, full marks to the conductor!).

I wondered whether the Scriabin Piano Concerto which followed would be “right” for Michael Houstoun, whose strong, focused playing might seem on the face of things perhaps too abrupt or sharply-etched for this composer’s inimitable mix of mystical hues  and diaphanous textures. In the event, both Houstoun’s playing and the composer’s music confounded my expectations, the pianist at his most responsive, tempering his strength with sequences of yielding grace and romantic feeling, going “with” the music’s freshly and directly-expressed turns of manner and mood.

This wasn’t the Scriabin of the Poem of Ecstasy, all flickering, shimmering hues and laden with intensely-pulsating mystical impulses – it was, instead a relatively uncomplicated, beautifully-crafted, in places somewhat Chopinesque work, but with something of its own free-wheeling spirit, less “structural” than improvisatory and in places impulsive in its unfoldings. Some harsh things have been written about the work over the years, but I found it a delight to listen to in concert, and particularly in this instance. Michael Houstoun’s playing seemed to me very much “from the inside out”, following the music’s contourings and filling out the composer’s sound world with romantic tones and pliant rhythmic gestures, delighting in the work’s wide-eyed innocence.

The work’s slow movement made a particularly lovely impression, the strings alone setting the scene with gorgeously rapt tones, to which piano and winds then added their distinctive touches. Then, how we so enjoyed, by way of contrast, the piano’s exuberant dancings throughout the next section, with the high-jinks abetted by shrieks of mock alarm from the winds! – perhaps these squawks of alarm were meant to alert our sensibilities to an abrupt submergence into a few “dark moments of the soul”, before our spirits re-emerging, glittering and sparking on the music’s surface to the piece’s end. It would take a hard heart indeed to resist such blandishments and mutter things about “faded romanticism” – I loved it, but, as the saying goes, to each one’s own………

The main interest of the evening for me, however, was the rarely-heard “Polish” Symphony of Tchaikovsky, numbered as the Third, and dating from 1875. In a number of ways it’s an unusual work for the composer , the only one firstly, in a major key, and secondly, in five movements. On most recordings I’ve encountered, I’ve thought the principal melody of the first movement rather tiresome in places because of its rhythmic squareness, the dotted note at the end of each phrase seeming to “nail the music down” rather than give it some much-needed “bounce”. Conductors seem mostly to get their players to “sit” on the dotted-note phrase heavily, instead of encouraging them to touch the figuration lightly and swiftly in passing, keeping the music pulsating and alive.

On an elderly Decca mono LP I had recently picked up from somewhere, the remarkable maestro Sir Adrian Boult and his London Philharmonic players do the latter, and the music thus takes on more of an irresistible forward surge. I’m happy to report that this is just what Marc Taddei and his musicians did, with brilliant results, creating a frisson of excitement with each ascending progression towards the final pair of notes – incidentally, this effect anticipates both the “polonaise” rhythm in the work’s finale and THAT melody’s even more exciting series of surging “ascents”, which Taddei and the orchestra literally sent into orbit with some spectacular playing.

The middle movements of the work are a complete contrast to all of this, as they are to one another – and in each case the “character” of the music was vividly conveyed. The excitement and sheer noise of the first movement’s coda done with, the second movement here seemed to gracefully float into the soundscape, as if quietly singing “Après le déluge, moi!” – with delicious counterpoints between the winds and soaring romantic feeling from the strings. More folk-like was the following, bassoon-led movement, the mournful, quintessentially Russian melody beautifully delivered by the winds and the solo horn, the strings then taking us to the world of the young girl Tatyana in Eugen Onegin, at her window composing a letter to her lover – gorgeously but also sensitively delivered.

Then, completing the trio of movements, came the elfin, Ariel-like Scherzo, the sounds mischievous and magical, but kept nicely grounded by the “Volga Boatmen-like” melody which eventually answers the alluring call of faery. We enjoyed superb, diaphanously-wrought playing from all concerned, and great control from the horns maintaining their ambient “held” note throughout the trio right up to the brief reminiscence by the composer of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy before the reprise of the scherzo.

After this, the finale’s dance whirled our sensibilities through both exhilarations and refurbishments to the work’s exuberant conclusion. Marc Taddei kept the contrasting sequences nicely on their toes, the first one’s syncopations dancing rather than dogged, as was also the case here with the fugue (Tchaikovsky so much more assured of touch than in the First Symphony’s finale). The return of those snowballing dance-reprise episodes finally led up to an astonishing peroration (such a great, air-piercing moment for a piccolo player!) with real abandonment and visceral excitement in the work’s coda.

Afterwards, all I could think of to say to friends was, “What a performance!”

Orchestra Wellington’s policy of using a presenter to introduce the concert continued with the charming and bubbly Clarissa Dunn of RNZ Concert firstly welcoming us to the event and then talking with conductor Marc Taddei – as with Nigel Collins’ completely different but equally personable approach to the task at the first of the orchestra’s 2015 concerts, the idea’s effect brings forth Tennyson-like responses from this reviewer-cum-ordinary-concert-goer, which will be discussed at greater length at the season’s end. Meanwhile, one is left waiting eagerly and impatiently for the next in the series, the “fateful” concert number four!





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