ORCHESTRA WELLINGTON – The Rite of Spring
BEETHOVEN – Symphony No.3 Op.55 “Eroica”
STRAVINSKY – The Rite Of Spring (Ballet – 1913)
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Saturday, 2nd December, 2017
This concert began with two of the most famous chords in all nineteenth-century music, those which opened a thrilling performance by Orchestra Wellington of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, the work by which the composer allegedly intended to celebrate the achievements of Napoleon Bonaparte, but changed his mind, and, according to an eye-witness account, scratched out the original dedication, and reinscribed it as “composed in memory of a great man”.
Napoleon or no, the work was definitely a revolutionary statement, one which of itself proclaimed a “new era” of musical expression. Beethoven himself was obviously less concerned with the selfconscious idea of being at the forefront of any such new age, than with his own development as a creative artist. He had said to a friend at around this time – “I am by no means satisfied with my work up to now, and I intend to make a fresh start from now on”. That “fresh start” embodied the Third Symphony, the “Eroica”.
What made it revolutionary was its length – the first movement alone was longer than many whole classical symphonies. Other notable aspects were the second movement being styled as a funeral march, and the third movement being a new-ish concept which gradually overtook the idea of the Minuet, replacing it with something called a Scherzo (in Italian, a “joke”). Finally, the symphony’s finale seemed more serious than usual – a theme-and-variations movement based on some music Beethoven had already written.
Again, the composer wanted something different, not being content with the usual “light entertainment” of symphonic finales. To this end, he used music from an earlier work of his own, a ballet about Prometheus, the Titan who breathed life into a pair of statues, making them humans, before being slain for his impudence, and then brought to life again by Apollo. The theme follows the general pattern of the symphony – heroism triumphing over death and returning to life.
The thrust and dynamism of Orchestra Wellington’s playing and Marc Taddei’s conducting made the symphony’s first movement a force to be reckoned with, and the second movement a heartfelt, almost confessional piece of music, laying bare the basic emotions – joy, sorrow, exultation, disappointment, resignation – everything was characterized so strongly and directly in the playing and the overall direction of the piece.
Over the years I’ve collected a number of recordings of the work, my first purchases reflecting what used to be the “norm”when it came to playing Beethoven, very much tending towards a romantic mode of expression, with large orchestral numbers and in some cases monumental tempi – conductors such as Furtwangler, Klemperer and Knappertsbusch seemed to stress the sheer physical amplitude of the music’s range and scope, and developed what seemed like a Beethoven for the ages. Other conductors preferred to bring more dynamism to the music, notably Toscanini, Erich Kleiber (as did his son Carlos), and Karajan, while continuing to use nineteenth-century orchestra numbers. And so interpreters of the music came and went, evoking the composer’s spirit in their different ways, which nevertheless seemed virtually indestructible throughout.
However, of late, there’s been a revolution in the matter of performing music from different historical periods, with musicians wanting to realize a more “authentic” sound by means of examining earlier playing techniques and practices, included among which was a more “purist” approach to the score itself, especially in the matter of metronome markings. Whole articles have been written by different researchers into questions such as the viability of Beethoven’s own markings and tempi directions in general, not to mention the use of “authentic” instruments and playing practices different to those we had become accustomed to.
Even if conductors and orchestras don’t go as far as employing either “genuine” older instruments or copies of the same when they play eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century music, there’s now a far greater awareness in mainstream concert performance of “period” practices, resulting generally in smaller ensembles playing music at faster tempi and with phrasing and tonal production which produce a “purer”, less romantically-laden sound and texture in the music. This was certainly evident in Marc Taddei’s conducting of Orchestra Wellington on this occasion, especially in the symphony’s first two movements, both of which were given urgent, dynamic tempi, and crisply articulate phrasing, with sharply-etched, largely vibrato-less texturings. There’s a roistering spirit of adventure about this combination’s music-making which invariably carries the day, and which on this occasion, for me, resulted in a performance which crackled and sizzled with blood-stirring energies throughout.
The musicians having breasted the epic traversals of the symphony’s opening two movements (the work already lengthier than any other symphony completed up to that time), they then tackled the next “revolutionary” aspect of the work, the substitution by the composer of a “scherzo” movement for the traditional minuet, a more exciting and dynamic development. Particularly striking was the playing by the horns of the “trio” section of the music, given with tremendous panache by the players. Afterwards, one might have expected a finale of more fun and games and relaxation, but the composer had other ideas, infusing the movement with references to an earlier work of his , a ballet about Prometheus, the Titan who breathed life into a pair of statues, making them humans, before being condemned to die for his impudence, and then brought to life again by Apollo.
The theme follows the general pattern of the symphony – heroism triumphing over death and returning to life. The performance here had some lovely aspects including a “solo string” treatment of a variation on the Promethean theme, one which is usually given to a larger complement of strings – here, less was made deliciously more as the solo string textures “personalized” the lines more sharply and characterfully as well as providing a telling contrast with the rest of the movement’s sounds.
A little more than a hundred years later an audience heard another very revolutionary piece of music for the first time, one from a young composer, Igor Stravinsky, the Rite of Spring, whose first performance in Paris in 1913 had occasioned one of the most famous riots in musical history. Though nothing like Stravinsky’s music had been heard before, it seems that the troubles in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées at that first performance were equally provoked by the choreography devised by the principal dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, and that certain members of the audience took vociferous and even violent objection to what they saw on the stage. Stravinsky himself later described what he saw on stage as “a group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down”, though later still he pronounced himself satisfied with the outcome of the production as a whole, scandal or no scandal.
Despite being over a hundred years old itself, by now, I think parts of “Le Sacre” still have an incredibly “here-and-now” feel about them, a kind of innate power to sound in places modern, totally unique and original. The introductions to each of the work’s two parts are both remarkably evocative, an aspect of the work which the players brought off here to great effect, right from the plaintive bassoon note which sets the work in motion through to the ever-burgeoning sense of something from long ago coming into being. The second part begins rather more claustrophobically, chord-clusters bringing oppressive weight to the textures and underlining the thrall in which primitive peoples were held by the passage of the seasons. Everywhere, the conductor and players gave these evocations the space and weight needed to underline these powerful resonances and let them do their work.
The other aspect of “Le Sacre” which helps define its unique character is its rhythmic variety and complexity, which seems to my untrained ear to reach some kind of apogee in the final Sacrificial Dance of the Chosen One – the trajectories are so irregular, so angular, so unpredictable! For the uninitiated listener it might seem like complete mayhem, nothing but desperate irruptions of movement by a chosen victim sacrificing herself to the spring. Of course it OUGHT to sound desperate and out of control, and Marc Taddei and the players delivered it all with a remarkable amalgam of assurance and spontaneity, so that the awe of the music was maintained right up to the point of its dissolution. All were heroes, and we in the audience treated the players and their conductor as such, after we’d recovered from the final onslaught of the music’s implaccable energies.
So, from a brilliantly successful season of Diaghilev-inspired works this year we’ll be taken by Marc Taddei and the orchestra through Antonin Dvorak’s mature symphonies in 2018 – a journey which was announced this evening, and whose delights we’ll meantime savour in anticipation and without a doubt relish in their performance next year.