Orchestra Wellington with scintillating programme: Grieg piano concerto midst spectacular orchestral waltzes

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei
Pianist: Jian Liu

Ravel: Valses nobles et sentimentales
Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor
Weber: Invitation to the Dance (orchestrated by Berlioz)
Ravel: La valse

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 9 September, 7:30 pm

Orchestra Wellington’s 2017 series has followed the theme of music inspired or commissioned by the great impresario Serge Diaghilev. The two pieces with Diaghilev connections at this concert were Weber’s Invitation to the Dance and Ravel’s La valse, though there was also a ballet connection with the first Ravel music in the programme which was originally a set of waltzes for piano which Ravel orchestrated at the request, not of Diaghilev, but of ballerina Natasha Trouhanova.

Ravel based his set of eight waltzes on the many that Schubert had written for the piano: a set of 34 dances entitled Valses sentimentales, in 1823 and a set of 12 entitled Valses nobles, in 1826. Ravel originally called his orchestrated waltzes Adélaïde, ou le langage des fleurs.

A programme note by pianist Richard Dowling describes the original ballet performance: “It was orchestrated in two weeks in March 1912 and the ballet was performed in April 22, 1912 at the Théatre du Chatelet with Ravel conducting the Lamoreux Orchestra. Mme. Trouhanova danced the part of Adelaide. The premiere was an outstanding event, as four ballets were conducted by their respective composers, Vincent d’Indy, Florent Schmitt, Paul Dukas, and Ravel.”

Ravel composed, not just a set of individual dances, but a sensitively composed, unified work. That’s not to say it has a formal structure like a sonata movement, but a sequence that finds unity in melodic, rhythmic, emotional contrast in a way similar to the pattern of a suite or set of character pieces such as Schumann composed for the piano. The variety ensures that the listener is constantly stimulated by something fresh, but a creatively composed suite also creates a coherent, integrated group, each supporting or offering a connection with the next.

The problem with music that has been first conceived for a certain instrument or instruments, and later arranged for others, is the feeling, hard to dislodge, that the second version is something of a compromise or trade-off with the original. Here the big orchestra dramatized the waltzes, perhaps burdening the piano score with unnecessary colour and tonal variety; Taddei was careful to invest them with appropriate charm, energy, calm, delicacy, a touch of mystery or melancholy, the unexpected or enigmatic.

Grieg’s piano concerto is allegedly one of the most popular, but I’m mystified as to how it gains familiarity these days when there are so few live performances (that I have recent memory of); nor does it get played by RNZ Concert (which is surprising in light of their obsession with certain categories of the very popular classics). So what emerged as a lovely performance of a, to me, thoroughly familiar and well-loved concerto might not have been that for many of the audience. In addition, it used commonly to be belittled as a youthful, immature work, and evidence that Grieg was merely a miniaturist and couldn’t handle big forms. I’ve never agreed at all.

I used to love the Schumann concerto (which we heard played by Stephen de Pledge a month ago) more than Grieg’s, but the effect of this performance re-awoke my affection for Grieg, with Jian Liu’s luminous, calm, deeply felt performance and demeanour, and with very similar characteristics emerging from the orchestra.

New-comers to it could scarcely have had a more persuasive introduction. All its important features were in place: the big opening timpani statement preceding the arresting piano double octaves that at once subsides as the orchestra quietly runs through the opening themes long before the piano re-enters to elaborate on what we’ve heard. Jian Liu at once established his tone of poetic graciousness that really characterised the whole piece, even in the more flamboyant parts of the last movement, though I note that it’s marked ‘Allegro moderato molto e marcato’ rather that ‘molto vivace’ or ‘presto’, or ‘con fuoco’, etc. Though the long cadenza is a poetic rather than a virtuoso exercise, which Liu made no attempt to impose, all the brilliance necessary was there, and he seemed always driven by the view of the cadenza as an integral part of movement. Each phrase was given charming breathing space, and such things as slightly prolonged gaps between certain big chords at its climax were beautifully judged.

The second movement expresses a gentle calm that Liu approached almost diffidently, though the deft keyboard flutterings, at one point duetting with Ed Allen’s perfectly sympathetic solo horn and with Mark Cookson’s clarinet also distinctive. But the charms of the slow-movement don’t end, as the last movement too, passes through contrasting meditative and calm episodes between its excitable and challenging bravura passages.

Weber’s Invitation
I was ready to consider the Grieg the concert’s highlight (and really, it was), but to get a rare live hearing of Berlioz’s sensitive and felicitous orchestration of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance was a treat, and attention was rightly focused on Brenton Veitch’s beautiful cello ‘invitation’ and courteous ‘escorting of his partner back to her seat’ after the waltz ends. Marc Taddei’s own introduction, discreetly reminding those unfamiliar with it not to clap at the end of the waltz itself, did the trick. It was a lovely way to awaken those who had not already discovered it, to Berlioz’s genius in finding extraordinarily sensitive orchestral interpretations of tales, moods and visual scenes.

La valse
If I’d felt that the Ravellian orchestra weighed a bit heavily on the Valses nobles…,  La valse itself was rather different, conceived and designed by Ravel as an orchestral tour-de-force. This performance, employing very large wind and percussion sections, and two harps, emphasised the traditional character of ‘the waltz’ and for about two-thirds of its length it may have been formally modelled on the concert waltzes of Johann or Richard Strauss. But it becomes increasingly clear that the composer wanted to dramatise the potentially frenzied and chaotic characteristics that he felt impacted 19th century society, and the orchestra successfully navigated its path to the almost stupefying climax with increasing intensity, yet there was little loss of detail in the performance that was truly a credit to Taddei and the orchestra.


2 thoughts on “Orchestra Wellington with scintillating programme: Grieg piano concerto midst spectacular orchestral waltzes

  1. jennifer shennan says:

    Lindis — I appreciate your very well chosen words to describe Jian Liu’s luminous playing of the Grieg concerto …


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