Orchestra Wellington, Orpheus Choir, clarinet in brilliant Mozartian form

Orchestra Wellington and Orpheus Choir of Wellington, under Marc Taddei
Andrew Simon – clarinet; Emma Fraser – soprano, Elisabeth Harris – alto, Henry Choo – tenor, James Clayton – baritone

Mozart 1791
Ave Verum Corpus, K 618
Clarinet Concerto in A, K 622
Requiem in D minor, K 626

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 20 August 7:30 pm

To put together programmes celebrating periods in a composer’s life has been made pretty easy by the conscientious compilers of catalogues, either by musicologists or by the composers themselves. Some have been catalogued in more sophisticated ways, by genre of composition which leads to an elaborate system like that of Haydn by Hoboken (not the suburb of Antwerp).  But it’s not hard to list the ‘last words’ of Mozart.

There’s always a tendency to exaggerate composers’ troubles and tragedies, and Mozart’s last year is a favourite topic. But, as explained by conductor Taddei, in the months before his death Mozart was almost overwhelmed by commissions, and his prospects were looking very good.

Fruits of Mozart’s last months
The three works played at this concert were only some of the great music of his last six months. There was of course, The Magic Flute, and then the commission in July, when the Flute was well advanced, of La clemenza di Tito for the celebration of the coronation of Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia in Prague in September. The Flute was listed by Koechel as 620 and Clemenza, 621, which includes a wonderful aria with an obbligato basset clarinet part, ‘Parto, ma tu ben mio’, for the same clarinetist as was to play the concerto, Anton Stadler. So there are a couple of evenings’ music; and there’s some other bits and pieces like the last string quintet, and pieces for mechanical organ and for the ethereal glass harmonica.

The concert began with the lovely, and very short, Ave verum corpus. It was brilliantly performed, the choir disciplined so keenly that it gave the impression of a skilled chamber choir of around 30 singers that had somehow acquired huge power and depth of tone, which has to be credited to their conductor Brent Stewart.

The same characteristics were clear throughout the Requiem: remarkable pianissimi alternating with magnificent, powerful outbursts as at the Dies Irae and the Rex Tremendae; and the Sanctus, accompanied by chilling timpani, seemed to leave no room for doubting Mozart’s religious convictions.

While the soloists were individually well equipped with attractive voices, soprano Emma Fraser’s voice was more penetrating than the others, exhibiting a silvery strength, at so many points, in the Recordare and the Benedictus, so that it was hard to escape the feeling that the alto part, taken by mezzo Elisabeth Harris, which was simply not in the same decibel class. It lacked something in terms of weight in, for example, the sonorous Tuba Mirum exposed her, between tenor Henry Choo and Fraser, as a bit uncommitted. Yet there were times when Harris’s lovely voice could be heard to advantage.

Though neither of the men possessed voices that had quite the power of Fraser’s, their distinct tessiturae masked the difference. That was certainly the case in the Recordare where the bass line lies fairly low and James Clayton’s voice injected a degree of drama, to be expected from a singer who has made valuable contributions to opera since he has come here from Australia. Tenor Choo, on a return visit from Australia, after singing in Orchestra Wellington’s Choral Symphony in their first 2016 concert (there too, with Elisabeth Harris at his side), was an asset; an attractive, lightish, quintessentially lyric tenor whose voice sat comfortably in the vocal quartet.

In the Requiem, the choir wavered, not for a minute, in the brilliance, clarity and energy exhibited in the Ave Verum, which could all have contributed, if one was so minded, to religious fervor; deserving further mention of music director Brent Stewart. There was discipline which never got in the way of a sense of spontaneity; the opportunities for distinct sections of the choir demonstrated the strength of each, with no sign of any weakness from tenors which have tended to be a choral problem over the years. In the Confutatis, men were as dramatic as the women in their separate phrases. And the dynamic shifts in the Lacrymosa, inter alia, were highly arresting.

Though the choral scene is perhaps not as robust now as it was in the late 1980s and 90s, when it was energized by the revival of early music practice and the presence of Simon Ravens and the Tudor Consort, the best choirs are in excellent shape; Orpheus continues to lead in Wellington.

The orchestra, stripped back to what was probably the size of such an orchestra of 1792, normal strings running down from ten first violins, with pairs of clarinets, bassoons, horns and three trombones, plus timpani. Interestingly in the context of the clarinet concerto, Mozart’s scoring in the Requiem was for basset horns in F (the instrument’s bottom note, at the bottom of the bass stave).

Concerto for basset clarinet
Then there’s the oddball clarinet employed in the concerto, which Andrew Simon explained came and went with Anton Stadler, the work’s inspirer and first performer: the basset clarinet. Though another lower version of the clarinet, called a basset horn, had become a fairly familiar instrument and survived into the 19th century (see the entry in Wikipedia), Stadler wanted to use a new instrument called the basset clarinet instead of the basset horn. (the latter is bigger, with a curve near the mouth-piece). There is a fragment of a Mozart concerto (K 621b) for basset horn which evidently contains hints of the music for the clarinet concerto. Both the basset horn and the basset clarinet have attracted composers since the early 20th century.

But in the absence of an autograph score, there are unanswered questions. Today, the clarinet concerto is played on either the normal, A clarinet or the basset clarinet.

Interestingly, the concerto is not scored for orchestral clarinets: only for strings, plus pairs of flutes, bassoons and horns. Though it’s always partly a matter of one’s position, the orchestra created a feeling of spaciousness in the interesting MFC acoustic. If one expects to hear touches of sadness in music composed only a month or so before his death, Mozart and no pre-Beethoven composer was really an introspective, believing that music should express something of himself or reflect the troubles of his times. (That was left to the Romantics and of course is a condition that afflicts most of today’s composers). Accordingly, the first and third movements expressed positive characteristics, and the Taddei’s orchestra left no doubt about their grasp of the classical aesthetic.

And I don’t know why it came to mind during the performance, that here I was hearing the descendants of New Zealand’s first, and very fine, professional string orchestra, that Alex Lindsay had formed in 1948, just a year after the National Orchestra itself. It was reputed to be a finer ensemble of string players at the time than its big brother. It survived till 1963, after which its bones were reassembled in various reincarnations of a Wellington city orchestra, more or less continuously to the present time.

Andrew Simon proved an admirably adroit and exuberant player, master of tasteful ornaments, and in wonderful control of varied dynamics. Not least of course were the extra low notes of the basset clarinet and it was very interesting to hear the way Mozart seemed to have framed them particularly, drawing attention to them, and how Simon exploited these opportunities.

Having claimed that an 18th century composer refrained from injecting personal emotion into music, one had to hear a touch of suppressed sadness in the Adagio, though such a change of tone, rather than real emotion, is simply what is intrinsic to slow music: it’s hard to think of much music of the 19th century, depicting tragedy, that goes quicker than, say, Andante.

So this 99.9% full house heard a rather delicious concert, the third in Orchestra Wellington’s season, with the Orpheus Choir in stunning form, the orchestra in excellent condition, with a fine international soloist. In great music.

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