High drama, pastoral beauty and symphonic grandeur from the WCO with Michael Vinten

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:

MOZART – Overture “Don Giovanni” K.527
MAHLER – Seven Early Songs / Symphonic Movement “Blumine”
BEETHOVEN – Symphony No.3 “Eroica” Op.55

Maaike Christie-Beekman (soprano)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra
Michael Vinten (conductor)

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace Church, Wellington

Sunday, 25th September, 2016

It’s always fascinating to encounter the efforts of musicians who aren’t full-time professional players literally throwing themselves wholeheartedly at music that’s challenging and difficult, however well-known it might seem. I can claim to having had some limited but nevertheless exhilarating experience as such a player in an amateur orchestra, in another life! – what a pleasure it was, that of being able to listen “from the inside” to various pieces which I thought I knew well until the chance of actually taking part in performances of them came my way. As far as my own appreciation of music and music-listening went, these opportunities were revelatory, and at times challenging – I found myself more and more concerned with looking for answers to the question a friend once posed to me in regard to the quality of a music performance I’d attended: – “What do you mean, “It was good”?”

The above paragraph seemed to type itself, to my surprise, as soon as I began thinking about the recent WCO concert I’d gone to, drawn by the prospect of hearing a “live Eroica”! Wondering whether there would be anybody the least bit interested in my somewhat “small dreams of a scorpion” orchestral-playing experiences, I was sorely tempted at first to draw a veil over my musings and begin again. However, as I’d recently struggled with a couple of my reviewing assignations regarding how to even begin various articles, I thought I wouldn’t on this occasion spurn a spontaneous outpouring – something obviously deep and even perhaps Freudian or Jungian may well have been behind it all, which may well further reveal itself as the review continues…….so, be warned, Middle C reader!

The Mahler Songs offered on the programme had different attractions, not the least of which was the pleasure of listening to Maaike Christie-Beekman’s singing, which I’ve very much enjoyed in the past. Another significant aspect was that the accompaniments for all seven songs were orchestrations by the concert’s conductor, Michael Vinten –  I would imagine that they had been performed previously, else we would have been told that these were “world premiere performances”. While not having a comprehensive knowledge of the composer’s vocal output I recall being delighted by encountering at some stage a recording of a Mahler recital by Janet Baker (with piano accompaniment), and was hoping that some of the songs I enjoyed on that occasion might be served up once again in their newly-minted orchestral guise. What a remarkable phenomenon the late twentieth-century rise of the music of Mahler has been! – and in the process, the once-frequently-cited and off-putting “heaviness” of the composer’s musical language, in terms of both texture and duration, has gradually become less and less of a difficulty for concert-goers as his work becomes more frequently performed.

Apropos to these versions of the songs was the presence on the podium of the man responsible for the orchestrations, Michael Vinten.  I’ve greatly admired his conducting at various times, as I have  his work over the years as Wellingon Chorus Master for the New Zealand Opera. He’s taken a number of productions for the company on national tours, and I remember with particular pleasure his direction of a “Cosi fan tutti” in the Wellington Opera House a number of years ago, a  work I was delighted to hear him conduct again in 2013 for Days Bay Opera in Wellington. Purely by chance I happened to be speaking to a WCO orchestra player a couple of days before this present concert,  whose response to my enquiry as to how things were going was that “we were being really pushed hard by the conductor!” So with this in mind, I rolled up to St.Andrew’s church on Wellington’s The Terrace, expecting plenty of fireworks of the “thrills -and-spills” variety, but hoping that the “pushed hard” result wouldn’t crowd out the musicality this ensemble had often shown they were capable of.

The concert began with Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” Overture – right from the beginning Michael Vinten directed the players how he meant to go on, insisting on sharply-accentuated, abrupt chordings, swift, impulsive accompaniments and swirling, agitated lines which, ensemble-wise, spun in and out of control. The musicians bent their backs to the task of getting their fingers around the notes, while the strings tried valiantly to listen to one another to integrate their ensemble and establish the “gait” of the music, with the winds occasionally shining through like beacons throwing out guiding light in the midst of a storm. At the reprise of the opening allegro, things had settled in together more consistently, though the agitated sequences, with their tricky syncopations, meant that the players couldn’t relax for a moment. The unfamiliar “concert ending” involved a return to these energetic gestures, which, given the music’s subject matter, gave rise to the thought that there simply seemed no rest here for the wicked and virtuous alike!

But there was relief at hand, in the shape and form of a number of songs of great and distinctive beauty. The young Mahler wrote several of them as a planned cycle as early as 1880, while in thrall to the charms of a local girl, but as the romance waned so did the composer’s inspiration, so that the cycle was never finished. Others were written for a performance of Tirso de Molina’s play “Don Juan” and another, “Hans und Grete”, found its way into the Ländler movement of the composer’s First Symphony. Eventually five of them became Book One of his collection “Lieder und Gesang”, published in 1892, the remaining two being recycled by the composer in his cantata “Das Klagende Lied” – in fact, throughout much of Mahler’s output there exist these kinds of thematic connections between his songs and larger works which greatly enriched his creativity.

Soprano Maaike Christie-Beekman, who I’d heard, incidentally, in that aforemetioned Days Bay performance of “Cosi” conducted by Vinten, brought a rich and variegated tonal palette and a gift for characterisation to these songs which vividly brought out their qualities in every instance. As for the orchestrations, I thought they were miraculously-wrought, readily persuading us that it was the composer’s own voice we were hearing. Mahler’s ready identification with the theme of despair over lost love redolently coloured both “Im Lenz” (In Spring) and “Winterlied” (Winter Song), each of which contained beautiful and atmospheric evocations of nature; while in contrast “Hans und Grete” captured a very Germanic fairy-tale feeling, with some energetic and abandoned whoops of joy fron the singer at each verse’s end. The players did ample justice throughout to their conductor’s orchestral re-imaginings and to his direction of them – the final song, “Frühlingsmorgen” (Spring Morning) featured a rolling, lyrical carpet of orchestral sound on which the voice was able to sail, supported by atmospheric wind interjections, enjoining the sleeper to “….get up!  The sun has risen!”, and giving tongue to naturalistic ambiences such as birdsong at the end. It was, I thought, all a great success, and received by the audience with all due appreciation.

As a kind of adjunct to the songs, we heard the orchestral movement “Blumine”, a piece Mahler composed originally for his First Symphony, before deciding to take it out (it’s every so often re-instated in performances of the Symphony as a kind of “completist” exercise by orchestras and conductors, even though it’s generally agreed that Mahler’s decision to dispense with it was the appropriate one). Here it was given a securely-voiced, beautifully-focused and nicely-played performance, featuring several exposed orchestral solos, not the least of them being the trumpet solo (accurately and atmospherically played by Donald Holborow), with the oboe occasionally prominent as well, to haunting effect.

After the interval came the “Eroica” – and we were instantly galvanised by Michael Vinten’s opening relentlessly driving beat, which immediately brought to my mind that famous quote often attributed to conductor Arturo Toscanini, who, when asked whether he thought of Napoleon Bonaparte when conducting the symphony’s opening movement, retorted impatiently, “Is not-a Napoleon! Is not-a Eroica! Is allegro con brio!”. Here, it sounded to me more like “allegro con furioso!”, an effect which was admittedly exacerbated by the strings’ difficulties in keeping their ensemble sufficiently together whenever the music splintered into separate running figurations. It struck me that Vinten had possibly made things more difficult for his players by dividing his first and second violins to left and right of the orchestra, in aid of their lines’ antiphonal effect. The sections themselves held together, but at that speed and across those vistas, things often came unstuck between them, ensemble-wise.

No such difficulties were experienced by the winds who often steadied the ensemble, as it were, after certain sequences, especially those calling for syncopated dovetailings among the string bodies. While admiring Vinten’s attitude that Beethoven’s published metronome markings were “more-or-less viable”, I felt that he was trying to impose a performance ethic onto an ensemble which simply couldn’t deal with his demands, and therefore required some compromise so as to produce a more musical result. I’d felt something of the same about aspects of Vince Hardaker’s conducting of the WCO in the ensemble’s performance, earlier in the year, of Schubert’s “Great” C Major Symphony.

I realise there’s been something of a fresh, authentic-spirited breeze blowing through all aspects of traditional performance practices in classical music over the last forty years or so. It’s revamped and rehabilitated what we’ve come to call “period performance” styles, and has often involved some none-too-gentle “cleansing” of what are considered by the purists to be inauthentic traditions tacked on by succeeding generations. But it’s sometimes seemed to me that some of the more extreme attempts to “recreate the original” and cast aside all spurious accumulations have resulted in something that’s simply too literal-sounding to be real and properly “alive”, to the point where the actual baby seems to have been thrown out with the bath water.

This review isn’t really an appropriate forum to further expound my own feelings on the topic (the above paragraph just “slipped out” – sorry!), as I merely wanted to pose the question regarding what conductor and orchestra did in order to try and realise in concert both the Mozart and Beethoven items on the programme – how musical was the result? Regarding the first movement of the “Eroica” I thought the conductor put the ensemble (especially the strings) under too much pressure, however laudable in principle were his ideas. Certain passages in the music rang out splendidly, and the instrumental detailing in places was most effective,  the appearance of the “theme from nowhere” on strings and wind straight after those big, tromping chords mid-movement, the famous “false horn” solo (“Damn that horn! – he’s come in too early!” a listener at the first performance supposedly exclaimed!), and the trumpet-led climax (which, very properly, was broken off halfway through, as Beethoven intended – a number of my “older” recordings of the symphony have the trumpet continuing right through!). But the music’s grandeur, for me, was in places compromised by the players’ struggles to keep the ensemble together at the conductor’s extreme, Toscanini-like “allegro con brio”!

The famous “Funeral March” movement fared better, the oboe solo near the beginning striking a proper lament-like quality, supported later by the chorus of winds and strings with more breathing-space in which to phrase the music – though the fugal section gave the strings more ensemble problems (again, I think they found it difficult to actually hear one another when trying to keep together). However, the winds sounded resplendent in places, with the clarinet really singing out! And the concluding, halting and grief-stricken sequences towards the movement’s end were realised with great feeling. Likewise, the Scherzo conveyed, in places, plenty of energetic character, the oboe solo alert, and the “tutti” sequences working well, as did the quick-fire strings-and-winds exchanges, even if the quieter, strings-only passages again had some precarious moments. However, if anything about the performance was truly “heroic” it was the playing of the three horns in the trio – the somewhat crude expression “they nailed it!” was nevertheless truly apposite on this occasion!

Beethoven gives his musicians mountain after mountain to climb in this work, the finale being no exception. There’s an arresting initial flourish, a teasing bass-figure, and a triplet variation (again, I thought Vinten’s tempi just that bit too urgent for his strings to be able to keep it together) leading to that heart-warming “Prometheus” theme on the oboe, taken at a fair old lick, but effectively keeping up the music’s momentum. The minor-key, Hungarian-like dance variation had colour and bite, and the ensemble pulled the strands of the fugue together at the end with gusto, allowing the oboe-led winds to lead the way into the great poco andante section, giving the horns another chance to shine with their judiciously-placed detailing.

Most interestingly, Michael Vinten took the movement’s  coda, marked presto, at a pace that allowed the players to get around their phrasings and fill out their tones – he had outlined in a programme note his investigations of the tempo markings, and considered that the music was well-nigh unplayable if the score’s metronome indications were followed. Believing that a misprint had occurred, he took the passage at a speed which sounded to me eminently musical, not the helter-skelter that we sometimes get from performances which sound as though the players are trying to make sure they catch the last bus home.

Such exacting beasts, these symphonies! But wonderful to hear them played, and experience both thrills and spills in their realisation. I can’t recall who it was who said Beethoven’s music always seemed greater than it could be played (for me that idea could apply to all great music), but hearing it “live” is always, as was the case here, an occasion for plenty of excitement and enjoyment!

One thought on “High drama, pastoral beauty and symphonic grandeur from the WCO with Michael Vinten

  1. Michael Vinten says:

    It was, in fact, a ‘world premiere’ performance of the orchestration of the Mahler songs.

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