Enthusiasm for Orchestra Wellington, with Anna Leese, in war-time masterpieces by Strauss

Last Words: Capriccio

Richard Strauss: Festmusik der Stadt Wien for brass and timpani (arr. Maunder)
Metamorphosen: Study for 23 solo strings
Capriccio Op.85: Prelude and Final Scene

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei, with Anna Leese (soprano)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 16 July 2016, 7.30pm

The latest in Orchestra Wellington’s innovative ‘Last Words’ series of subscription concerts featured a variety of music, despite being all from one composer.  The works were all written late in the composer’s life.  Marc Taddei made it apparent in his pre-concert talk (with young composer Tabea Squire) that he held Strauss in high regard.  The composer had considered the opera Capriccio to be his last work.  However, the other two works on the programme were written later, as were the well-loved Four Last Songs (programmed for performance later this year by the NZSO with soloist German soprano Christiane Libor).

Doing things a little differently, Orchestra Wellington had the announcements to the audience before the players came on.  Then the brass only (plus timpani) came onto the platform, where they stood at the rear, on low tiers.  This looked very effective.  Only the tuba-player and the timpanist sat. Festmusik der Stadt Wien, “composed in 1943 as thanks for having been awarded the Beethoven Prize – and also as thanks to the city of Vienna…[for] personal protection from Nazi harassment…”, featured characterful themes.  One would not have imagined, hearing this music, that a war was raging and that people were being killed.

The music became more military with a joyful fanfare towards the end, and then a slower, more lyrical passage intervened.  A final militaristic outburst ended the work.  It must have suited its occasion well, but has not been standard symphony orchestra fare.

Now the string players came on, for Metamorphosen.  They also stood to play (though not, of course, the cellos and double basses).  Concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen was borrowed from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and a fine job he made of his role.  As a friend remarked in the interval, there’s a difference between the NZSO and this orchestra.  Nevertheless they play well, and it was good to hear them with an inspiring concertmaster and their usual energetic and talented conductor.

The magical opening on cellos alone wove a spell that typified the entire work.  Taddei had alluded in his talk to the ambiguity around the keys employed in the piece.  He said that it is ostensibly in C major, but metmorphoses into other keys, but eventually arriving at C minor passing through E flat on the way.  Indeed, one could not have said what the key was in these opening passages.  Leppänen led the violins in their gradual entry into the music; finally they take over.

The piece’s slowly shifting, writhing tonality seems to express sorrow and mourning.  By 1944-45 when it was composed, the situation in Germany and Austria had changed for the worse.  Taddei, in his introduction to the audience, called it one of the most profound works ever written.  It was written with a Goethe poem in mind, a choral setting of which Strauss rejected in favour of the setting for strings.  It could not help but be a commentary on Germany’s position at the time.

The violin of Vesa-Matti Leppänen struggled to rise in hope above the deeper-toned instruments and their despondent contortions.  There was splendid playing from all, but especially from their leader.   However, there was no let-up in the course the music was taking.  Towards the end, a section of minor chords and solemn homophonic music took over, and there were echoes of the composer’s much earlier Death and Transfiguration (1899).

Taddei’s conducting both works in the first half without the score before him was impressively conspicuous.

For the final work a full orchestra was employed, conventionally seated.  Marc Taddei again introduced the work; there was no separate presenter/interviewer this time, as at some of last year’s concerts.

Enchanting strings opened the Prelude to Capriccio, followed by more solo work for Leppänen.  The winding path of the music through chromatic byways was reminiscent of Metamorphosen, and much Strauss music.  Eventually the horn enters – and so does the soloist.  Sensibly, no break was made between the Prelude and the Final Scene, thus maintaining the mood, unbroken by applause.

The other horns join in, introducing the romantic music to accompany the countess’s thoughts on whether that music by one of her suitors is more important to the opera-within-an-opera than are the words of her other suitor, the poet.  Percussion and woodwind join in the delightful soundscape, then Anna Leese sings, varying her voice beautifully.  The harp adds to the romantic atmosphere; the music absolutely matches the meaning of the words.  Soaring phrases and high notes from Anna Leese were glorious, and appeared effortless.  She fitted the part beautifully.

The large body of strings were given lush orchestration, accompanied by intriguing woodwind flourishes.  Rising and falling cadences reminded me of the wonderful settings of words in the composer’s Four Last Songs, written a few years later and published posthumously.

The ending comes when, the countess having not made up her mind about music v. words, the majordomo (Roger Wilson) comes on to utter one line telling her ladyship that supper is served.  He goes off, and so does she, and a horn ends proceedings, just as it began them.  For his brief effort, Roger was rewarded with a bouquet, as of course was Anna Leese.

The hall was well filled, though not full.  The audience responded enthusiastically to a concert chiefly remarkable for the stunning singing of Anna Leese.  Someone remarked to me afterwards “This was Renée Fleming territory.”


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