Further excellent exploratory concert into delightful quasi-juvenile symphonies

Camerata – chamber orchestra led by Anna Loeser with soloists Michael Kirgan and Mark Carter (trumpets)

Mendelssohn: String Symphony No 10 in B minor
Vivaldi: Concerto for two trumpets in C, RV 537
Haydn: Symphony No 4 in D

St Peter’s church, Willis Street

Friday 28 April, 6 pm

My colleagues, Rosemary Collier and Peter Mechen, have reviewed earlier concerts by Camerata – in May 2015 and November 2016. I’m sorry to have missed them. They included Haydn’s first and third symphonies; I wondered whether we’d missed a concert that had included the second symphony.

It also made me wonder, with considerable anticipation, whether they plan to survive long enough to get through all 104 (or is it 108?) of his symphonies. At the rate of, say, two or three concerts a year, I’ll need to live till at least 2050…

Youthful masterpieces were a feature of this concert, as this one began with one of Mendelssohn’s youthful string symphonies, written around the age of 12 to 14. It’s interesting that they remained unknown till the 1960s when they were first published. I remember the first book I encountered on Mendelssohn, by Stephen Stratton in the Master Musician series (I dated my purchase of it as 1954), which merely referred to these early works in about four words, suggesting that they were certainly not worth attention; but then, the author had probably not had access to the manuscripts.

This ironically had been the fate of some music by a comparably gifted composer – Schubert – whose ‘Great’ symphony was first performed by Mendelssohn 15 years or so after it was written.

The thirteen symphonies vary in length and number of movements. This, No 10, is in one movement, beginning with an Adagio introduction and moving to Allegro. (The first six and number 12, have three movements while the rest have either four or five, apart from this, the tenth, and number 13 which is also in a single movement – perhaps it was unfinished.)

I had not remembered the reviews by my colleagues as I began to listen to this concert, and thus had the delightful experience of being immediately and unexpectedly enchanted and filled with admiration for both the prodigious Mendelssohn and the performances as a whole under the enterprising Anna Loeser and her fellow musicians from the NZSO, Orchestra Wellington, other ensembles as well as students. One of the immediate impressions of this, one of the symphonies less familiar to me, was of music of singular accomplishment and maturity, interestingly chromatic in places and formally sophisticated. It was not just the liveliness and boldness of the playing that Loeser achieved, but the intrinsic strength of the music itself. The ear caught characterful emphasis on the first note of each short phrase, and the careful dynamic contrasts between phrases, as if there were shifts from minor to major tonality. In a small orchestra more of the character of individual instruments is audible (though there was no evident cost in that) and as well as the leading violins, I was particularly arrested by a long, rich phrase from the Victoria Jaenecke’s viola, and the featherweight quality of fleeting accelerations by the full string body as the end approached.

The Vivaldi concerto played was one of the most familiar, and therefore strongest in melodic character. I wasn’t sure that the two solo instruments were not actually soprano trumpets as the pitch was unusually high, keen and penetrating. But I settled for the view that this was simply the impact of two fairly brilliant trumpeters, in a high register. Their duetting was impeccable, and their subtle alternating dynamics from phrase to phase a delight. Vivaldi still attracts a number of sceptics wedded to the notion (which also sustains elements of the contemporary avant-garde school of composers) that anyone who writes memorable tunes or immediately attractive music is either a charlatan or without talent, or both.

Both these outer movements are dominated by plain C major triads, in the finale, going alternately in both directions. Just plain fun. So this was a performance that was filled with rhythmic energy, of well-fitted ornamentation and adroit accompanying strings that simply supported the trumpets in the most buoyant and sympathetic manner.

The fourth Haydn symphony is believed to have been written between 1757 and 1761; that is, before his appointment to the Esterhazy court, which was in 1761. How refreshing and bold to refrain from treading the too-frequented path of playing just the Morning Noon and Night Symphonies – Nos 6, 7 and 8.

Here pairs of oboes and horns joined the strings and the impact of the scoring made the piece sound much more accomplished and genuinely Haydnesque than one might believe as a result of the almost total neglect of most of the early symphonies. (In recent years of course, there have been many recordings of the complete Haydn symphonies).

At the beginning the handling of the strings together with the four wind instruments suggest a sort of concerto grosso, but eventually, all became a homogeneous unity. The orchestra’s comprehensive command allowed no sense that one was hearing any kind of journeyman exercise. The slow movement was characterised by a beguiling separation of strings: the violins weaving a beautiful limpid melody over ostinato figures from the cellos and basses. The third and last movement was a Minuet whose lively melody demonstrated Haydn’s already distinctive melodic and compositional gifts, plenty clear enough to commend him to Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy as his Vice-Kapellmeister (in a few years, full Kapellmeister).

It was really good to be able to share the experience and the opinion of the Prince whose decision to hire Haydn might well have been based on his hearing this and other very early, pre-Esterhaza symphonies.

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