Schubert’s “Great”, and Mahler-Berg connections explored brilliantly by Wilma Smith and Orchestra Wellington

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei, with Wilma Smith (violin)
“Last Words: To the Memory of an Angel”

Mahler: Adagio, from Symphony no.10 (Deryck Cooke performing version)
Berg: Violin Concerto “In Memory of an Angel”
Schubert: Symphony no.9 in C

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 10 September 2016, 7;30 pm

In his introductory remarks about each work to be played, Marc Taddei referred to the poignant use of the Bach chorale ‘Ich habe genug’, by Alban Berg in the latter part of his violin concerto, the second item on the programme.  He said ‘Wouldn’t it be good if there was a way to let you hear that’.  He turned away from the audience, and up popped a choir from the left side of the gallery seating (not the choir stalls), and without further ado, sang the requisite chorale!  A coup de théâtre perhaps.  A close examination of the printed programme revealed the name ‘Wellington Youth Choir’.

The Mahler symphony I have known and had recordings of for years, in the Deryck Cooke performing version of the uncompleted work.  In fact, I was present at the first full performance, at the Festival Hall in London in October 1972.  Not only that, but as I queued for a juice in the interval, I heard two men next to me conversing.  “What are you working on now?” said one.  The other replied to the effect that he was working on Wagner.  I thought ‘I’ll bet that is Deryck Cooke’.  I snatched a look at the man in question, and sure enough, at the end of the performance of Mahler’s unfinished work, the conductor asked the gentleman responsible for the completion to rise; it was the man I had identified.  The programme notes are by Deryck Cooke (as are the English translations of the Rückert lieder sung earlier in the concert), and there is an advertisement from Faber Music for the forthcoming publication of the score of the symphony.  The orchestra was the New Philharmonia, conductor, Wyn Morris.

This first movement contains much solemnity, even anguish.  Some say that Mahler was here entering a new phase in his composing, which promised much that was cut short by his untimely death in 1911. The brass intoned the melody splendidly, then strong strings took it up.  Impressive motifs were sounded by the woodwinds, lifting the mood even to light-hearted frolicking.  The violas had important contributions, and there was much effective pizzicato, especially from the cellos, before the brass intoned portentously turning off the gaiety, before the main themes returned.  The music became very quiet, then an organ-like brass discord disrupted the scene.  Cellos and double-basses, followed by violins create variations on the theme, with some delicious harp thrown in.  The whole of this lengthy movement was moving and emotional in its impact, and magnificently played.

Berg Violin Concerto  
Marc Taddei described this as ‘Possibly the most profound violin concerto ever written’.  (In the year’s programme booklet he says ‘undoubtedly one of the most popular of the 20th century’, a rather unfortunate statement).  The problem is that many (most? judging from those I spoke to at interval and after the concert) do not regard the music of the second Viennese school highly, so do not listen to it.  I am not aware of ever having heard anything except excerpts before.  Therefore we do not know it well enough to penetrate its character.  Grove says that it follows a classical framework, and that it is both tonal and serial in some episodes, in some tonal but not serial, in others serial but not tonal, and in still others, neither. Thus it is beyond the aural experience of most concert-goers.

What cannot be disputed is the quality of Wilma Smith’s playing.  While the orchestral part, though following 12-tone method, often sounded somewhat random, the violin part throughout was both mellifluous and superbly played, though much of it, too, was based on a 12-note tone-row.  It was a treat to hear from one of our foremost musicians again, and also, in a world now peopled by a plethora of young women violinists, to hear an older woman violinist playing a concerto.  She needed to use the score in this complex music.

There was more than one important link: Berg wrote his concerto ‘In memory of an angel’ to mourn the death of Manon Gropius, at only 18 years of age.  Manon was the daughter of  Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler, the widow of Gustav Mahler to whom Mahler wrote messages of love in the score of his Tenth Symphony, although she was already having an affair.

The other link was a reason for Wilma Smith to accept the invitation to perform the Berg concerto, as she outlined in an interview on Radio New Zealand (“RNZ”, sorry!) Concert ‘s Upbeat programme: in the United States she was a student of Louis Krasner, probably 40 years after the latter commissioned this concerto from Berg.

The concerto opens with solo violin plus harp and a few woodwinds.  The remembered warm tone of the soloist was ever-present.  Hers is not a big sound, but very expressive.  There was a lot of double-stopping, also glissandi and harmonics; all  played with the assured manner and technique of an experienced professional.

Each of the two parts of the concerto consists of two movements, but the only break is between the two parts.  The second part began with big brass noises: the horror of approaching death.  Then there is bravura from the violinist, who is playing almost all the time in this concerto.  Again, there is much double-stopping.  Quiet, slower passages in the adagio second section include, left-hand pizzicato for the soloist.  With the orchestra, she utters melancholy tones and lyrical phrases until brass and percussion burst in again.  Agitation breaks out for all, including the soloist.

The slow Bach chorale, with spare harmonisation, is backed up by the woodwind, to be most sonorous and expressive.  The solo violin produces ethereal sounds, befitting an angel.  Louder sounds take over from the calm, and intone powerfully, meantime the violin is still soaring.  This is an extraordinary work, and fabulously well played.

Schubert Symphony no.9
A complete change of period and mood was made in the second half of the concert, and a smaller orchestra took to the stage. The symphony’s dramatic opening was followed by the orchestra taking up the great melody.  Winds were very precise, and solos were beautifully played. There was a strong feeling of the work developing and moving forward.  While we know Schubert for his wonderful melodies, he can introduce fine harmonies and orchestrations too, particularly in this symphony.

Following the andante introduction, the first movement went at a good pace.  Some phrases seemed to anticipate (or echo?) Mendelssohn; the latter conducted the premiere of Schubert’s symphony in 1839.

Tremendous climaxes were reached at the close, while the second movement (andante con moto) provided a good contrast, especially the lovely, jaunty oboe solo.  While the music sometimes seemed square compared with the earlier Mahler and Berg, it is certainly more cheerful, and has strong rhythmic drive.  I found some of the instruments shrill at times; this would have been less so on instruments of Schubert’s time.  There were marvellous contrasts brought out by the playing.

The dynamic Scherzo drove on, through a good deal of repetition which can become  little tedious despite the wonderful tunes.  This is true of the finale also, though it ends with plenty of punch.

Comparisons may be odious, but it was interesting to note how little coughing there was at this concert compared with some NZSO performances I have attended.  And that Orchestra Wellington and its conductor wear dark business suits and normal ties, not ‘penguin suits’.  The Michael Fowler Centre was well-filled, though not full.  The highlight for me was the Mahler movement, though I do not wish in any way to denigrate Wilma Smith’s marvellous playing in the Berg.  The brass, too, were outstanding, and had lots to do.  A fine concert, with orchestra and soloist in excellent form.


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