Wellington Chamber Orchestra in interesting Alfred Hill exploratory mode

Wellington Chamber Orchestra conducted by Donald Maurice, with Jian Liu (piano)

Brahms: Tragic Overture, Op.81
Alfred Hill: Piano Concerto in A (New Zealand première)
Richard Strauss: Symphony no.2 in F minor

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 8 April 2018, 2.30pm

An adventurous and stimulating programme was chosen by the Wellington Chamber Orchestra for this first concert of 2018.  The works demanded, and received, almost a full symphony orchestra.  Whether the bright acoustic of St. Andrew’s can cope with this number of players, including brass (mercifully this time not in the sanctuary – it was occupied by the piano, and the percussion) is another matter.  A number of rows of seating had been removed front of the church to accommodate the 64 players.

The programme was planned around the linkages between the composer.  The young Alfred Hill, fresh from Wellington, studied in Leipzig from 1887 to 1891, saw Brahms conduct, and heard this early symphony of Richard Strauss.  Hill’s own work was composed when he was 72.  The excellent programme notes not only made these linkages, but also provided other interesting information.  ‘This programme, while having much stylistic similarity, clearly highlights the unique language of each of these three composers…’.  Neither Strauss nor Hill, despite living in a time of much change in musical language, departed much from the Romantic style of their youth.

Brahms’s overture was written in 1880.  Wikipedia calls it ‘…in essence a free-standing symphonic movement…’.  It has much more complexity and variety than most overtures.  There was plenty of life and feeling in this performance.  There were a few shaky notes, but in the main the playing was strong.  Winds were very good, for the most part.  Brahms’s luscious orchestration was given full expression.  The work’s serious themes, at times grand, were given full weight .

Alfred Hill, is a composer claimed by both New Zealand and Australia (he lived in both countries).  A review of Piers Lane’s recording of this concerto in 2016 (Hyperion) says: ‘Alfred Hill’s 1941 concerto has a breezy, sunny disposition, with hardly a dark cloud in the sky…’.  It was written when Hill was in his 70s, and had been largely lost sight of.  Donald Maurice, today’s conductor, has been a champion of Hill’s music, and has recorded (as violist in the Dominion Quartet) many of the composer’s string quartets, which feature the same cheerfulness as the concerto.

Hill named the movements thus: 1. The Question: adagio, allegro moderato; 2. Intermezzo (Fancies): presto; 3. Nocturne (Homage to Chopin): adagio con moto; 4. Finale (Contrasts): allegro.

After a short introductory adagio, the animated allegro arrived.  The questions were between the piano and the orchestra.  The movement became romantic; there were echoes of Rachmaninov.  A lovely oboe melody featured, beautifully played.  A brilliant piano part was expertly performed by Jian Liu.  Although the work must have been new to him, his assurance and subtlety in rendering it were impressive.  The orchestral writing, however, was sometimes rather pedestrian, though for the most part elsewehere, Hill’s orchestration was skilled and appealing.

The second movement’s Fancies were most imaginative.  The music of this short movement was imitative between piano and orchestra.  The third had a romantic, lyrical main theme.  There was piquant writing for percussion and woodwinds.  The gentle piano writing was indeed reminiscent of Chopin in places.

The finale was agitated, yet assured.  A fine bassoon solo was followed by a dramatic, extended piano solo, which I thought included touches of Mendelssohn.  Then we were into a grandiose tutti to end.  The audience gave the players, and particularly the soloist, a great reception.

In contrast with Hill’s age when writing his concerto, Strauss was only 19-20 years old when he wrote his second symphony, which Hill heard performed in Leipzig a few years after its composition.  Its first movement, allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso.  After its intriguing opening, great use was made of  the four horns (perhaps naturally, since the composer’s father was a professional horn player).

This was complex music in places, and it showed in rather more out-of-tune playing in the strings than had been apparent in the earlier works.  Some of the music revealed the presence of Wagner.  The maestoso passages had me expecting to see Siegfried pop out at any moment.  The brass in full flight were somewhat overwhelming, as they played a majestic melody with strong underpinning orchestration; their sound completely covered whatever it was that the woodwinds were playing.  The music was highly rhythmic.

The scherzo: presto movement began on violas; its sprightly character featured gorgeous flutes floating above the strings.  I thought I detected Mendelssohn here, in the characterful figurations.  The lighter mood was overtaken by more ponderous passages, then a repeat of the lighter section arrived; the movement ended with pizzicato.

Marked andante cantabile, the third movement was initially calm and serious, with an oboe solo over broad harmonies, later joined by the other woodwind instruments.  The music was rhapsodic in a solemn manner.  Horns intone, and all instruments develop the theme.  Perhaps it would have sounded more cantabile in a different acoustic from  St. Andrew’s.  It was certainly quite different in character from Tchaikovsky’s famous movement.  There was some choice clarinet and flute playing.  Some of the writing seemed excessive; brevity could have sustained the interest more.

The final movement (allegro assai, molto appassionato) seemed to be rushing somewhere, with its grand march-like theme and chromatic figures.  A lightening of the mood with pizzicato passages was followed by portentous chords, with timpani.  Again, Wagner seemed to raise his head.  This was surely the molto appassionato; it was fast and furious.  Calls from the horns introduced the final bars of the symphony, with some interesting discords among the pomposity and final flourishes.

I would not be rushing to hear this work again, but it is amazing for a 19-20-year-old!.  This was a demanding concert of contrasting but linked works, in the main well played.


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