Providence delivers the goods, courtesy of Houstoun, fireworks and Orchestra Wellington

Orchestra Wellington presents:
PROVIDENCE – Balakirev, Khachaturian,Tchaikovsky
(and, introducing the concert, the Arohanui Strings)

INTRODUCTION – The Arohanui Strings (Alison Eldridge, director)
(arrangements of Dvorak, Grieg and Beethoven)
BALAKIREV – Overture on Three Russian Themes
KHACHATURIAN – PIano Concerto (1936)
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No.5 in E Minor Op.64

Michael Houstoun (piano)
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, November 7th, 2015

What with the Arohanui Strings delighting us at the concert’s beginning, and the city’s annual Guy Fawkes’ firework display illuminating the interval in a most spectacular way, this was an event which had plenty of what economists like to call “added value” – but it’s all part of what we’ve come to expect from an Orchestra Wellington occasion! In other words there’s nothing routine about what happens, even when there are no such extras or “frills”, but always a real and vibrant sense of a concert’s uniqueness and its attendant music-making joys.

Yes, there are people (and I’m usually one of them) for whom the idea of having a “presenter” who will introduce the concert and interview the conductor is something that potentially intrudes and trivializes the music-listening experience (“You can read a lot of that stuff in the programme” grumbled a friend to me at the interval) – though, despite myself, I found myself actually warming to the “host” Nigel Collins and his charming, somewhat wry and humourful delivery, squirm-making though I often find processes such as interviews and “potted musical histories” in these situations. A light touch seems to me to work best – and while I think a concert ought to be about music and music alone, I can enjoy something of a spoken nature that’s brief, witty and “of a piece” with what the evening is about.

But a truly heart-warming aspect of the evening was conveyed by the activities of the Sistema-inspired trainee group run by Orchestra Wellington violist Allison Eldredge, whose senior members sat with the orchestra to play their introductory programme items – arrangements of parts of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, and Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, enthusiastically delivered! Then it was the turn of the group’s younger members to join in (for a while, cuteness reigned!), playing an arrangement of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” , also with great gusto and commitment. Marc Taddei rightly made a point of singling out Allison Eldredge to receive special audience acclaim for her work before she left the platform with her young charges.

So, the hall had been duly “warmed”, and our ears musically sensitized, by this time, and we were then able to plunge fully into Mily Balakirev’s absorbing take on three prominent Russian melodies, two of which I was able to recognize instantly, via Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. After a throat-clearing introduction, using a fragment of the second theme “The Silver Birch” (used by Tchaikovsky in the finale of his Fourth Symphony), the first, broadly lyrical theme was played on the winds, over an ambient string sostenuto, reminding me of the beginning of Borodin’s orchestral piece “In the Steppes of Central Asia”, the sounds romantic and truly gorgeous, especially with the horn and then the strings joining in with the melody.

The “Silver Birch” theme suddenly jumped into the picture, its snappy, three-beat rendition different to that of Tchaikovsky’s somewhat more conventional treatment, and its orchestrations enchanting in this performance. Balakirev then cleverly counterpointed the birch tree with his third theme, familiar from the Fourth Tableau of Stravinsky’s ballet “Petroushka”, a folk-song called “There was at the feast”. The two themes played with one another most inventively, the playing by turns affectionate and brilliant, until we were suddenly returned to the first theme’s long-breathed spaces, the sounds dying away into ambient distances.

The piano needed to be moved into place for the concerto, so while that was happening we got the interview, which both host and conductor did their best with – but it was then time for Michael Houstoun to make his appearance, presenting the last of the five Russian works he’d prepared for this series. This was the 1936 Khatchaturian Concerto, a work which (I was to discover) was definitely not everybody’s “glass of tea”. One reviewer of a recent London performance referred to the work as representing the composer at his “turgid worst”, as well as to the slow movement’s “boggy meanders” – which just  goes to show that it takes all sorts to make a world. At the interval my expressions of enthusiasm for the work and its performance were received with mixed reactions, including stony stares from a couple of people who obviously considered I had “lost it” as a music listener, let alone a music critic!

The early Soviet critics thought the work wonderful – “the epitome of modern lyricism…..inner harmony, vitality and folk character”….praising in particular “….the sweep and surge of the themes, and their thematic unity within the structure”. For a while (thanks also to those early recordings by Moura Lympany, who’d introduced the work to Britain in 1940 and William Kapell, who’d followed suit three years later in the United States) the work even began to rival THE Tchaikovsky concerto in popularity.

I had enjoyed what I’d heard of it on recordings, and was especially anxious to hear in concert the “flexatone”, an instrument often used by the film industry to create “spooky” ambiences and accompany supernatural happenings – Khachaturian scored it to “double” the strings in the slow movement of the concerto most affectingly, though at least one famous recording of the work (William Kapell’s) doesn’t use it. To my delight, there it was, or, to be more precise, there two of them were! – each was picked up and played in turn by one of the percussionists for the slow movement’s “big tune”, the change from one instrument to the other suggesting that one instrument was capable of higher (or lower) pitches than the other. Other people may have been slightly repelled by the eeriness of the timbre or its insistent throbbing quality, but I just loved it – and whoever the player was did a wonderful job.

First up, however, was the concerto’s opening movement, with an attention-grabbing orchestral opening seeming to prepare the way for the soloist! – Michael Houstoun managed, for me, to sufficiently command the opening without battering the recurring theme to death, bringing out its echt-Khachaturian quality (we could have equally been listening to tortured sequences of a similar ilk from “Spartacus”), music of a somewhat barbaric character, fiercely folkish, relying on ostinati for a kind of expressive and cumulative effect. The more rhapsodic passages, introduced by an oboe and carried on by a solo cello, gave the music more breathing-space, which the piano appropriately enjoyed in a rhapsodic, improvisatory way. We then enjoyed the cavortings of all kinds by both soloist and orchestra which followed, through wild, manic gallopings and an imposing return to the assertive opening theme.

But there was more – cascading tones and timbres gently tumbled us down with Ravel-like delicacy, Houstoun and Taddei taking as much care with these ambient balances as with the intersecting of the earlier, more feisty lines, until the bass clarinet nudged the piano towards centre-stage for its cadenza, a solo outpouring of comprehensive range and variety culminating in an exciting scampering passage and an upward flourish bridging in the whole orchestra for the movement’s grand summation. In complete contrast was the slow movement’s opening, strings and bass clarinet beginning a kind of slow waltz, which the piano turned to soulful purpose with its melancholy, folkish theme, one which both the strings and the eerie-sounding flexitone then took up and wrung what seemed like every possible drop of emotion from its stepwise progressions.

Khachaturian does perhaps gild the lily in places later in this movement, piling Pelion upon Ossa with a full-orchestra version of this theme, one introduced by an amazing descending chromatic passage from the pianist! The ensuing full-blooded treatment accorded the music either suggested heartfelt emotion or borderline vulgarity, depending upon the listener’s sympathies and/or antipathies. Whatever the case, it certainly wasn’t dull in this performnce, and left us wanting some resolution after having the emotions spread along a line like a number of exposed shooting-targets. And, right throughout, I found myself lost in admiration at both Michael Houstoun’s impressive command of the material throughout these “fraught’ passages, and the sustained intensity of the orchestral response under Marc Taddei.

The same went for the finale, the musicians throwing themselves at the pounding rhythms of the opening with great élan, Houstoun giving the Shostakovich-like writing of the solo part plenty of energy – here were “the athletic rhythms and luxurious orchestral textures” of the old Record Guide’s notorious 1951 put-down, which went on to sum up the composer’s overall achievement as having a “brash appeal” – rather, I liked a later critic’s description of the concerto as “a rhapsodic glitter of song and dance in kaleidoscopic confrontation”. William Kapell’s and Serge Koussevitsky’s historic 1951 recording (which I hadn’t heard) has long been considered the performance exemplar regarding this work, but on this occasion Houstoun’s and Taddei’s performance carried me along most satisfyingly throughout, right up to the conclusion’s grand apotheosis – I thought it a marvellous and resplendent way to conclude this Russian concerto series!

Then, of course, after the interval (and the fireworks!) we were plunged into the throes of a different, pre-Soviet Russian world with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Marc Taddei had promised us a “fresh listen” to this work, and certainly the first movement’s urgent, sprightly, forward-straining progress allowed no traces of the lugubrious quality that sometimes hangs about this music – I marvelled at the dexterity of the wind players whose accompanying scale passages in places had to be played as if sounding like rushing water, at this tempo! – but it was all very exciting! I did find the contrasting string melody a bit charmless, the line hustled along with unseemly haste – but it was certainly all of a piece, and there were no cobwebs left hanging about as the music’s coda strode proudly and haughtily away from us at the end.

I was enchanted with the playing of the slow movement, here, right from the beautifully-wrought depths of feeling at the opening, through to the final heart-stopping clarinet phrase at the end – and I’m willing to bet that Ed Allen’s horn solo was absolutely perfect at rehearsal, treacherous beast that the instrument can be in concert (it was just one note away from perfection, here!). The detailing was, in fact, superb from all instruments, as was the “singing” quality of the strings in places – and (small point) I was so pleased to hear the pizzicato sequence after the movement’s big central climax played “straight” instead of being pulled about unmercifully, as happens in so many performances!

More delight was to be had from the Waltz which followed, in which instruments like the bassoon took their opportunities most beguilingly as did the pair of clarinets sharing a “moment” at one point and a chuckle afterwards.  Of course, it was Tchaikovsky in a most balletic mood – and the scampering strings and winds caught the ambiences perfectly, with the brass magically chiming in at one or two points. Marc Taddei kept things simmering with an attacca into the final movement, the strings lean and focused, the brass noble and respondent, with trumpets gleaming. I was surprised, however, in the light of the first movement’s urgent treatment, to find the finale’s allegro section taken at a relatively relaxed tempo, though I noticed there were moments along the way when the music impulsively thrust forward, and kept its momentum.

The great climax of the allegro with resounding brass fanfares and roaring timpani set the scene for the music’s grand processional, the “fate” theme that had dogged the three previous movements singing gloriously out in a major key, the march swaggering and confident. And the coda here raced the music excitingly to its final, triumphal chords, delivered with all the panache and confidence that the sometimes vacillating and diffident composer would certainly have wanted, and, as we all did at the music’s conclusion, fully appreciated.

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