Stunning clarinet playing and a “Great” symphony courtesy of the WCO

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:
MOZART – Overture “The Magic Flute”
WEBER – Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra – No.2 in E-flat Op.74
SCHUBERT – Symphony No.9 in C Major D.944 “The Great”

Wellington Chamber Orchestra
Vincent Hardaker (conductor)
David McGregor (clarinet)

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 3rd July 2016

Mozart’s Overture to his opera/pantomime “The Magic Flute” began the Wellington Chamber Orchestra’s latest Sunday concert at St.Andrews in grand and ceremonial fashion, though it wasn’t long before the music slyly stepped out of its ritualistic garb and started to dance. Conductor Vince Hardaker kept the players up-to-speed throughout the introduction with a flowing tempo that moved easily into the allegro. Though there was obviously a “warming up” aspect to the playing, with the wind tuning taking time to settle, the ensemble eventually “found” itself, with some solid work from the individual sections, including adept solos from flute and oboe.

The brass acquitted themselves well with their noble chording in places (the three stately fanfares midway – the flute “helping out” here as well – were played “straight”, without any distancings or echo effects, as is sometimes done in performances in the opera house).  Those tricky subsequent strings-and-wind dovetailings, though occasionally loose-limbed in effect, were generally handled confidently, and conductor and players built up the music to a resplendent final tutti – great brass with rasping trombones, and imposing timpani-playing brought it all to a satisfying conclusion.

We were then introduced to the afternoon’s concerto soloist, clarinettist David McGregor, a former NZSO National Youth Orchestra principal, and a winner of the NYO Alex Lindsay memorial Award two years in succession. His studies included working at Victoria University in Wellington with one of the NZSO’s co-principals, Philip Green, and more recently at the University of Tasmania in Hobart with Sydney Symphony associate principal clarinet, Francesco Celata.

Carl Maria von Weber’s concertino works are de rigueur for capable clarinettists, though perhaps because of their extreme difficulties they seem not to appear too often in concert. I had never heard the second of Weber’s two clarinet concerti performed “live”, so was looking forward to this with some eagerness. I certainly wasn’t disappointed, as, right from the beginning the orchestral playing had a surety and sharpness of focus, and David McGregor’s solo playing was simply breathtaking, right from his first two-octave “leap into space” entrance!

Throughout the first movement, soloist and players seemed to enjoy their interactions, tossing their phrases back-and-forth with great aplomb, the clarinet-playing exhibiting a winning range of dynamic and colouristic responses to the music, capping everything off with a terrific ascent to the high E-flat just before the recapitulation. Another feature of McGregor’s playing was his breath-control – such long, liquid runs with nary a pause in which to gasp for even a skerrick of air to replenish the resources – a remarkable display!

The slow movement brought us romantically murmuring strings supporting long lines for the soloist, again, demonstrating amazing breath control – the programme-note talked about the lyrical lines having ‘the benefit of being unbroken by the breaths that a singer would usually require…” – all very well, except that wind players have to breathe sometime, too! (I did, however, look up some information about something called “circular breathing” which may well be an integral part of most wind players’ technical resource these days…). Conductor Hardaker got very settled playing from his ensemble throughout, making the theatricality of the movement’s “recitative” section all the more striking, the soloist playing as if improvising, and the orchestra following.

Came the jolly “Polacca” finale, which the players were encouraged to take at a real “lick”, in fact faster than the soloist’s fingers wanted briefly to go at one point where a flourish went slightly off the rails. The excitement, though, was palpable at that speed, and soloist and players risked all with their rapid-fire dialogues. Eventually, an exciting orchestral crescendo led to a series of “sextuplet flurries” from the clarinet, the soloist really demonstrating his mettle throughout the work’s final pages. Deserved accolades rang through St.Andrew’s at the piece’s conclusion for David McGregor’s spectacular playing and the support from orchestra and conductor.

After the interval came a differently-flavoured kind of business, a performance of one of the most remarkable of nineteenth-century symphonies. This was Schubert’s Ninth, in the key of C Major, and known also as “The Great” (the composer had written an earlier C Major Symphony, one which posterity has since conveniently nicknamed “The Little”). The music’s had a checquered history, unperformed during Schubert’s lifetime, and then rediscovered by Robert Schumann in the late 1830s, who, upon looking through the work coined the immortal phrase “heavenly length”. It received its first performance in Leipzig in the hands of Felix Mendelssohn, who appparently had more success with the work on this occasion than later on in London in 1844 where the players appparently refused to perform the symphony on account of its length and repetitive figurations.

No such strictures inhibit the work’s performance in this day and age, though along with much of the instrumental repertoire of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the symphony has been “authenticised”, or, in other words,“cleansed” of over a century of romantic “overlay” by many of today’s performers. Consequently, it simply isn’t fashionable to play the work in the manner I first got to know it, via recordings by Furtwangler, Barbirolli, Klemperer, Krips, Bohm and Boult, the great Schubert conductors of the post-war era – taking Robers Schumann’s phrase “heavenly length” at its word, those performances drew out the tempi of sequences such as the work’s introduction, and adopted a free, almost improvisatory attitude to the music’s trajectories, especially in the first and second movements.

Vincent Hardaker’s interpretation of the work reflected these revisionist trends – from the outset we heard sprightly, smartly-paced tempi, which imparted a jauntiness to the music, removing the “poetry of awakening” which romantic sensibilities invested in the opening horn-call and the answering woodwinds. There was still grandeur in the big unison statement of the opening theme, but no longer did we experience the thrill of the accelerando from a stately opening tempo to the urgency of the first movement allegro. To my ears, there were gains and losses – the music certainly took on a fresh overall urgency, but lost some of the grandeur and poetry I’d always associated it with. There was some engaging swagger once the allegro got under way, the playing a bit raucous-sounding in places (partly the fault of the confined St.Andrew’s acoustic, which doesn’t take kindly to a fair-sized orchestral tutti), but with plenty of spirit.

One or two of the transition passages sounded awkward for the players, particularly the change from the first subject’s dotted rhythm into the second subject, though a similar passage leading into the development section was negotiated far more tidily. Here the brass came into their own, the trombones lovely and noble-sounding, while the winds “ensembled” nicely with their triplets leading into the recapitulation, and the horns contributed some telling detail. Energies were gathered up most effectively as the coda was approached, with the brass again resplendent and exciting, and though the tempo was pushed hard right through the sequence conductor and players held it all together, with only the slight rallentando before the final chord catching the ensemble out.

A somewhat Charles Ives-like element was added to the music at the slow movement’s beginning, with a fire alarm sounding from an adjacent building. To their credit conductor and players continued, undaunted by the ensuing cross-rhythms, catching the music’s gait with angular but expressive playing from the winds, though clarinet and oboe seemed to have slightly different ideas as to the tuning at this juncture of the music. Brass and timpani coloured the ambiences strongly and securely at this point, as they did right throughout the movement. The oboist did a splendid job with his extended solos, as did the strings in the movement’s trio-like second subject group, violins singing and cellos counterpointing most fetchingly.

I found it difficult to really “get into” the scherzo, as it seemed the players were feeling the pulse of the music at a slightly slower rate than their conductor wanted – the music’s gait was, I thought, a fraction too rigidly applied. Thus, the second, “swinging” melody on the strings was phrased by the players at a more naturally expansive pulse than the accompaniments, which kept on getting ahead.  The trio was more “together”, if still a bit breathless (usually one of music’s most charming and lovable sequences), with the strings steadfast and the winds and brass dovetailing their rhythmic patternings patiently and accurately – a lovely horn counterpoint at one point added to our pleasure.

Amends were made in the finale by Vince Hardaker’s steady, well-controlled tempi at the opening, allowing the orchestral shouts and the answering rhythmic patternings enough space to properly tell, and, later bring out the “spin” of those repeated sequences which incensed those London players in 1844 to the point of mutiny. The winds did well with the “Beethoven Ninth quotation” episode, and the brass then took to the music with a will, followed by the strings in canonic repy, again directed with plenty of controlled energy by the conductor. And the coda’s growing excitement was unerringly detailed by the winds and coloured by the brass towards those great surges of tone which broke over the soundscape at the end so splendidly and energetically. Hard-won, but exhilarating to achieve, and a sterling effort from all concerned.

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