Committed and successful concert of Russian classics from Wellington Chamber Orchestra

Wellington Chamber Orchestra conducted by Rachel Hyde with Helene Pohl (violin)

Khachaturian: Adagio from the ballet, Spartacus
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No 2 in G minor, Opus 63
Borodin: Symphony No 2 in B minor

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 10 April, 2:30 pm

I was prevented from getting to the first half of this concert, which, with the tough though splendid Prokofiev concerto with Helene Pohl, would obviously have been the highlight.

But Borodin is no stroll through the birch forest either.

The Prokofiev concerto had an interesting provenance, as the composer later recounted: “The number of places in which I wrote the concerto shows the kind of nomadic concert-tour life I led then. The main theme of the 1st movement was written in Paris, the first theme of the 2nd movement at Voronezh, the orchestration was finished in Baku and the premiere was given in Madrid.”

The second concerto is more attractive and lyrical than the first but there is much that is complex and difficult and it is brave and ambitious for an amateur orchestra to tackle; and no easy matter even for a soloist such as Helene Pohl, one of New Zealand’s most polished and cultivated violinists. It’s a fine, strong work, calling for a fastidious and brilliant violinist and I very much regret having missed it, especially in what I gather was such an emotionally committed performance.

Spies told me that, although there were inevitable glitches in the concerto – in the orchestral playing, it was considered a great success, very well received by the audience and certainly an achievement and rewarding experience for orchestra and conductor.

The concert had opened with the famous (‘Onedin Line’) Adagio from Khachaturian’s Spartacus which was well within the capacities of the orchestra; as someone said, it just played itself.

I was impressed at once by the richness of the string ensemble that opens Borodin’s best-known symphony; quickly followed by carefully articulated horns – four, as scored, and then more general wind entries. I gather that the four horn players are using new instruments, and their work, for an amateur orchestra, was surprisingly accomplished.

Rachel Hyde achieved a really characteristic Russian sound that lay somewhere between Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov; perhaps it occasionally lost its grip after the development phase got under way, but there was a clear feeling for the music’s shape. The second movement is a Scherzo of intriguing irregularity with a strikingly different Allegretto in the middle, and that was exploited satisfyingly.

The orchestra stopped to retune between second and third movements, breaking the flow a bit; but the reward was an Andante movement of considerable charm, opening with nice playing by clarinet and harp and soon a fine horn solo; and other wind players also had rewarding solo opportunities. The strings led the long, warm melody that rather dominates the movement which, at the end, merges curiously into the last movement without a break. The Allegro finale had striking energy, characterized by repeated short motifs of a pentatonic character that chased each other from one section to another.

Although Borodin thinned out the brass parts when he revised the symphony two years after its 1877 premiere, a performance like this in a limited acoustic, does not produce sounds from brass and percussion that are exactly refined or subtle. Nevertheless, listening between the notes, so to speak, the playing emerged as well-rehearsed, committed and energetic.

Though I had not heard what I guess was really the most interesting, even exciting, music in the concert, what I heard was admirable, and what I heard about, even more so.

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