Magisterial performances from Siyu Sun (piano) and the Wellington Chamber Orchestra

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:
RACHMANINOV – Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor Op.18
ELGAR – Symphony No.1 in E-flat Op.55

Siyu Sun (piano)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra
Rachel Hyde (conductor)

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

Sunday, 9th April, 2016

A great programme and an equally great occasion! Particularly in the case of the Rachmaninov Concerto, there was a commonality of sorts between the work itself and the circumstances surrounding this particular performance, in each instance a sense of “coming through” against the odds. It’s well-known that the composer wrote the music as a kind of “therapy” by way of recovering from the depression which overwhelmed him after the debacle of his First Symphony’s premiere; and in fact he dedicated the work to his therapist, Dr. Nikolai Dahl, a man otherwise practically unknown to history! Of course the concerto went on to become one of the most popular and enduring of Rachmaninov’s works.

In the case of today’s performance, the pianist, Siyu Sun, was asked to play at short notice due to the indisposition through illness of the scheduled soloist, Liam Wooding. Happily, the outcome’s success mirrored that of the Concerto’s, with difficulties overcome and the results bringing their own unique rewards. I had already seen and heard Liam Wooding play, and was most disappointed at the news of his cancellation – but I was surprised and, indeed, thrilled at the quality of Siyu Sun’s playing, in fact astonished that the services of such an outstanding player could be procured at all, let alone in what seemed like a moment’s notice!

The concert had another, more sobering circumstance to address, which was the recent death of one of its most prominent regular players, the flutist, Derek Holland. His services to the Wellington Chamber Orchestra as a player, section leader and committee member were com-memorated via an illustrated note in the written programme, as well as with a brief recording of his playing, introduced with a few words from conductor Rachel Hyde just prior to the Elgar Symphony which began the concert’s second half.

But to begin proceedings, it was the concerto – and we were pleased to welcome the soloist, Siyu Sun to the platform, along with her conductor, Rachel Hyde. Currently, a pupil of Rae de Lisle in Auckland, Siyu Sun earlier this year won the joint first prize in the National Concerto Competition in Christchurch, playing this same concerto with the NZSO and conductor Hamish McKeich. Later this year she will be performing with the Auckland Philharmonia as part of their Haydn Staples Piano Scholar programme for 2017. She’s also played the French Horn as a second instrument since the age of nine, and was actually a member in 2014 of the National Youth Orchestra.

Though Siyu Sun was in effect repeating her National Concerto Competition success with this same work, there was no hint of routine or sense of anything “second-hand” about her playing on this occasion. The work’s famous opening piano chords were finely gradated, Sun shaping the configurations with a slight “roll” (the notes are practically impossible for all but the largest hands to play without some degree of arpeggiation) and building towards a thunderous sonority prior to the strings’ trenchant entry. The violins dug in strongly, letting the theme soar over the piano’s agitations with full-throated fervour – an arresting beginning! – after which soloist and orchestra melted hearts with a tenderly-phrased second subject, aided and abetted by some sensitive oboe playing.

Siyu Sun demonstrated as much command of the quicksilver filigree passage work as she did the weightier, more assertive chordings during the movement’s agitated development sequences, while conductor Rachel Hyde finely-controlled the great orchestral surges leading up to the return of the opening theme in tandem with the soloist’s great and magisterial chordal passages – tremendous stuff! Only a slightly-too-early horn solo broke the spell momentarily – the player recovered some poise towards the end of the solo as the music moved through those sequences of peculiarly Rachmaninovian melancholy, piano and winds conversing with real sympathy. The movement’s coda was taken easily, establishing the rhythm clearly before excitingly building the crescendo to its no-nonsense conclusion.

How beautifully the orchestral strings caught the music’s “colour” at the slow movement’s beginning! With delicately-wrought support from the soloist, both flute and clarinet did beautiful things with the theme (derived most adroitly by the composer from those great piano chordal passages in the first first movement), before it was the piano’s turn, winds and strings murmuring their support. Sun varied her articulation of the theme in its more rapidly-moving guise so beautifully, ably supported by the orchestra, controlling the growing excitement before finally “going with” the crescendo and taking the ensemble with her (conductor and players sticking to their soloist resolutely!). The pianist’s scherzando figurations spread out naturally and easily, and with conductor and players, bringing off the sudden sforzando cadence with absolute unanimity. A big-boned cadenza-like piano passage later, the movement’s opening theme returned, this time with the strings wringing out the emotion, and the soloist matching gesture with gesture.

No time to relax! – an attacca, or as near as one could get to one, began the final movement, the scherzo-like rhythms a bit loose at first, but then strongly pulled together. What a fantastic entry from the pianist! – as commanding and surely-focused as her unashamedly rhetorical introduction to the entry of the famous tune! – here, oboe and strings delivered the goods ably supported by the horns and echoed beautifully by Sun’s glowing tones. Those “mysterious” passages came off well, with deft percussion touches adding to the ambience, which were thereupon tossed to one side by the piano in an irruption of great energy, though not taken in too helter-skelter a fashion! The orchestra stayed with its soloist throughout the fugal passages which followed, if not always with spick-and-span unanimity, though Rachel Hyde’s control of her forces kept everything in touch. I enjoyed the “ring” of the piano’s tones just after the chattering toccata-like passages with the brasses, and the confident elan of the players throughout their syncopated tutti statements, just before the second subject’s grand return.

The strings did well with the melody, allowing the piano plenty of space in reply, playing in big, deep-breathed paragraphs which expanded fully and naturally, contrasting markedly with the winds’ reiterations of the agitated theme – none too together the first time round, but tighter with their exchanges on repetition. The piano continued the agitations, triplet figurations helping to build towards that great entry-point of the tune’s final statement with crashing orchestral chords and a ringing, scintillating cadenza from the soloist. Then, it was such a great “all together”, the horns doing so well and everybody playing fully out! With Siyu Sun’s final spectacularly vertiginous sweepings up and down the keyboard, the final payoff was achieved by all in great style! – I think we in the audience were stunned by it all for a second or two, before recovering our senses and bursting out with our appreciation of what the musicians had achieved – most gratifying!

If further proof of Sun’s abilities were needed, it came with an encore, which she announced as the “Little Red Riding Hood” Etude by Rachmaninov – actually No.6 of the composer’s Etude-Tableaux Op.39. Normally reticent about his “sources”, Rachmaninov let it slip that this exciting and disturbing piece was inspired by the famous fairy-tale; and Sun’s scintillating, razor-edged playing certainly brought out the music’s dark predatory menace set against the victim’s tremuous vulnerability, with little doubt regarding the outcome – certainly more Brothers Grimm than Charles Perrault, I would think!

Then there was the Elgar Symphony! It had, from the moment I first saw the programme, seemed to me as if it would be a difficult assignment for the orchestra – but these players were, by this time, on a kind of “high”, and were more than ready for “the beast” by the time everybody had come back for the second half. Once the very moving tribute to flutist Derek Holland had been completed, the players began the symphony without further ado, giving the opening motto plenty of gravitas first time round, then upon repetition according it the full ceremonial treatment, a truly magnificent sound. Rachel Hyde than launched the allegro with plenty of “swagger”, encouraging the players to characterise that Elgarian “stride” which for me defines the great performances of this music, and which was here given enough space and weight to really tell.

Another defining character of Elgar’s music is its vulnerability (a quality that one of the finest of this music’s conductors, Barbirolli, used to call the “hurt”), one which manifests itself in the symphony’s more lyrical passages, no more so than in the winds’-and-strings’ repeated “sighing” motif, and which Hyde, bless her, gave her players plenty of elbow room to properly articulate and resound. Though there were moments of imprecise ensemble, it mattered far less than the engagement by conductor and players with the “character” of these qualities, the “grunty” aspect of the brass as telling as the “dying fall” of strings and winds in other places. A memorable moment was towards the movement’s end, when, after the triumphant re-statement of the motto theme, (wonderful harp flourishes, here!) the strings gently cascaded downwards over the stealthily tread in the bass and the woodwinds’ rounding-off mutterings, the players fully “at one” with the sequence’s different strands of expression.

The second movement’s dark, impulsive thrustings were here kept steady, the momentum unflagging and still dangerous-sounding, with the players’ concentration giving the sounds real “attitude”, the percussion giving extra “fizz ” at the top, and underlining the swagger of the march tune. How lovely, then, the change of character for the episode the composer called “something you would hear down by the river”, with its touches of Sibelius on the clarinets! After these energies began to wane, the transition to the slow movement was beautifully controlled by Hyde, aided by spot-on playing from the winds in their off-the-beat descents, allowing things to “wind down” and gently open up into the most gorgeous of Elgarian melodies on the strings, playing with real “innigkeit”, before blossing into a warm “nobilmente’ feeling. Throughout the rest of the movement the music seemed to capture a drifting, nostalgic quality, from shadow to sunlight and back to shadow, until the strings entered with the ‘new” tune, playing with even more tenderness, before rising to realms imbued with delight – a final statement from the strings, and a haunting reply from the brasses, the timpani, and finally the clarinet.

Mutterings and dark statements evolved a sinister bass tread at the finale’s beginning, as scraps of the motto theme and a nervously fluttering figure expressed the “agitation within” – the allegro let it loose, with the violins doing well to keep the uprushing opening together, and later, the rolling theme whose “three” against the accompaniment’s “two” (or so it seemed) was managed with aplomb! The sped-up version of the movement’s “sinister” opening then built towards a terrific tutti, before everything disintegrated – I mean the music, of course, not the playing! – and then (oh, the genius of the man!) morphed into a different treatment of the melody, noble and heartfelt, which spread through the entire orchestra! From here, I thought the last few minutes of the work featured conductor and orchestra lifted onto a kind of plane of involvement and execution which did full justice to the composer’s effusive and exuberant mood, delivering the final statement of the motto with terrific conviction and excitement. Everybody could, I thought, at the very end be justly proud of such a heart-warming afternoon’s music-making.

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