Orchestra Wellington presents:
GOLDEN CITY – Music by Mozart, Bartok and Dvorak
MOZART – Symphony No. 38 in D major K.504 “Prague”
BARTOK – Violin Concerto No. 2 (1938)
DVORAK – Symphony No. 5 in F Major B.54
Amalia Hall (violin)
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Saturday 9th June, 2018
Orchestra Wellington and Marc Taddei got their 2018 season off to an arresting start with a concert of three resplendent-sounding works, one whose effect simply got more and more celebratory and engaging as the evening went on. Aiding and abetting this state of things was the welcome presence of guest Concertmaster Wilma Smith, and a goodly-numbered audience whose support for the orchestra was richly rewarded. First came what I thought an exciting and vital, if in places a tad frenetic, reading of the Mozart “Prague” Symphony, followed by two absolutely stellar performances, firstly, of Bela Bartok’s Second Violin Concerto, and then of a concert rarity, the Fifth Symphony of Antonin Dvorak.
The inclusion of this latter work is, of course, part of a series featuring the “great” Dvorak symphonies, beginning with this F Major work which Dvorak had written in 1875. It was first performed in 1879 as Op.24, but the publisher, Simrock, wanting to invest the work with increased status to boost sales, brought out the work in 1888 as Op.76, despite Dvorak’s protests. After Dvorak’s death no less than four earlier unpublished symphonies were discovered, necessitating a complete renumbering of the canon – up to that time, and for a long while afterwards, for example, the “New World” Symphony, which we know as No.9, was called No.5. Though worthy of the occasional hearing, the earlier symphonies each have fewer “moments per minute” than do the final five, though there have been many recordings made of the complete set.
Getting the evening off to a vigorous start was a performance of Mozart’s bright and energetic “Prague” Symphony, so-called because of the composer’s happy association with the city over the years, beginning in 1787, when a concert organised for his benefit included this newly-composed Symphony. Prague was, at that time, known as the “Golden City” – Zlatá Praha (Golden Prague in Czech) – due to its many towers and spires, some of which were reputedly covered in gold – hence the concert’s title. Also, Bohemian wind players were regarded as Europe’s best, and Mozart’s exemplary writing for winds in this work was very probably with such players in mind. Another unusual feature of the work for its composer is its three-movement structure, Mozart having always written a Minuet for his Viennese audiences. The likely explanation is that Prague’s musical public were accustomed to the three-movement form, as evidenced by the work of other symphonists whose music was performed there at around that time.
Looking back over my previous impressions of Marc Taddei’s Mozart conducting, I note great enthusiasm regarding a 2014 performance of the late G Minor Symphony, one which brought out the music’s strength and darkness through trenchant and insistent orchestral playing. I was therefore looking forward to his interpretation of the “Prague”, an expectation which was straightaway galvanised by the symphony’s opening, with forceful timpani, winds and brass (foreshadowing the opera “Don Giovanni”) tellingly contrasted with an attractive plaintive quality in the string phrases. The syncopated rhythms of the allegro’s opening swiftly and directly thrust the music forward, the playing having a dynamic character whose nicely-judged balances allowed each section a “voice”. Taddei swept the music’s momentum along through the development section, again beautifully dovetailing the elements of discourse – only a lack of real girth to the string tone in places (too few players for this venue!) prevented the performance from really taking wing.
Mozart cleverly combined slow movement and minuet-like impulse in the middle movement, probably conscious of the Prague audience’s usual fare of three-movement symphonies! Here there was sinuous sweetness in the strings’ chromatic figurations at the opening, answered by strong, purposeful winds, the playing both graceful and forthright. The composer’s awareness of the quality of Prague’s wind players was also reflected in the prominence allowed the winds throughout, a character here readily given sonorous and well-rounded purpose by the Orchestra Wellington players and their conductor.
As for the finale, the deftly-sounded introduction led to a virtual explosion of energies whose exhilaration and excitement, while befitting the presto marking, seemed to me to almost rush the music off its feet in places. The players coped magnificently, but I thought Taddei’s speeds allowed less humour than breathlessness in certain passages (the “cat-and-mouse” passages of the development, for example), and tended to turn the music’s chuckles to excitable babble, which, of course, still made the music “work”, though in a more extreme way to that which I preferred. In fact the big outburst mid-movement here sounded to my ears more angry and terse than I’ve ever previously heard it, though it did make more sense of a remark I encountered made by one commentator, who said that Mozart sounds in places in this movement more like Beethoven than anywhere else in his music. While not convinced wholly, I still took my metaphorical hat off to Taddei and his musicians for their bravery and daring at tackling the music so fearlessly!
Leaping forwards over a whole century, the concert then took us to the world of Bartok, in the shape and form of his Second Violin Concerto. The soloist was Amalia Hall, normally the Orchestra’s Concertmaster, which was why Orchestra Wellington had procured the services of Wilma Smith in the role on this occasion, a most distinguished substitute! It was of course Wilma Smith who brought another of the twentieth century’s most significant violin concerti to Orchestra Wellington audiences two years ago (goodness – how time flies!) – which was Alban Berg’s “To the Memory of an Angel” Violin Concerto. Now, courtesy of Amalia Hall (and presided over by Wilma!), it was the turn of Bartok, with a work that was regarded by the composer as his “only” violin concerto, an earlier work (1908) having never been published by the time of the composer’s death.
From the concerto’s richly evocative beginning Amalia Hall seemed to “inhabit” the music’s wide-ranging moods, seeming equally at home with both the work’s evocative beauties and rapid-fire volatilities – she addressed the atmospheric warmth of the opening folk-tune with full-bodied tones, along with plenty of energy and “snap” to her phrasings. Throughout she seemed to encompass whatever parameters of feeling the music sought to express, in complete accord with conductor and players. And the music was extraordinary in its variety, by turns lyrical, quixotic and whimsical, and grotesque bordering on the savage – the composer’s seemingly endless invention meant that we as listeners were in a constant state of anticipation, ready to “go” with the soloist’s lyrical inwardness, sudden whimsicalities or flashes of brilliance as required. The orchestra, too had plenty of surprises for us, Taddei and his players evocative in their lyrical support of the soloist and brilliant and biting in their more combatative exchanges – some gloriously raucous sounds were produced by the winds and brass at appointed moments!
The slow movement was launched by the solo violin over magically-realised string textures, a beautiful melody eventually taken up briefly but wholeheartedly by the strings in Kodaly-like fashion. Again, the soloist made the themes and their variants throughout the movement her own, rhapsodising over pizzicato strings throughout one sequence, then joining with the winds and the harp to create a stunningly lovely fairyland ambience within another. The more quixotic variations also came off well, also, firstly a slithering theme played by the soloist over uneasily shifting orchestral chords, and then a playful march drawing delicately pointillistic exchanges between violin and orchestra, Hall’s playing throughout beautifully combining poise with real and constant presence.
The orchestra impatiently plunged into the finale’s opening bars, to which assertiveness the soloist replied with a sprightly folk-dance-like figure, the subsequent cross-exchanges leading the orchestra into almost “road music” for a few glorious measures. Though the music refused to settle on any one mode for too long, Hall and the players rode the wave-crest of its restless spirit, tenderly realising the gentler, soulful evocations while eagerly tackling the more physical interchanges. Some of the orchestral tutti passages seemed to anticipate the “Concerto for Orchestra”, such as a toccata-like passage mid-movement capped off by the brass with infectious enthusiasm. Though not possessing the world’s heftiest tones, Hall addressed the more trenchant passages of her interactions with what seemed like remarkable strength and dexterity, enough to be hailed as a worthy hero by the orchestral brasses, before her final flourishes swept upwards to join the work’s final brass shouts! What an ending, and what a performance!
What would have been, a relatively short while ago, something of a musical curiosity was the final work on the evening’s programme, Dvorak’s Fifth Symphony, now widely accepted as the first of the composer’s nine completed examples of the genre to display his genius consistently throughout. I can recall reading about the work in “Gramophone”, encountering an ecstatic review of conductor Istvan Kertesz’s 1965 recording with the London Symphony, one which contained the words “….the expression of joy so intense it brings tears…..” All these years later, I still share that reaction whenever I get the chance to hear this work, and listening to Orchestra Wellington’s performance with Marc Taddei was certainly no exception.
Right from the beginning we were beguiled by the music’s mellifluous tones, wrought by the work of the orchestra’s clarinettists, whose welcoming calls established the symphony’s breathless beauty and ineffable charm, a quality which was maintained throughout the work by the obvious care and affection bestowed on the music by the conductor and players. Vigorous and dramatic gestures abound throughout the music, though the whole was bound by the captivating strains of that clarinet-led opening. Incidentally, this was clarinettist Moira Hurst’s final concert as section leader in the orchestra, the work a fitting vehicle for demonstrating something of the beauty of her playing – fortunately for us she will continue working with the orchestra as an Emeritus player.
As well as enlarging the work’s range of expression with its sombre opening theme on the lower strings, the slow movement also demonstrated the composer’s growing instrumental and structural mastery – here was evidenced a transparency in the scoring, which, despite the playing’s intensity, maintained a luminous clarity throughout. And hand-in-glove was a rhythmic fluency between the music’s different sections, a graceful dance-like trio lightening the seriousness of the movement’s opening. Taddei and his players brought the two sections together easefully and coherently, adding to our pleasure.
Another transition involved the second and third movements, the former’s initial phrase “summoned” by wind chords and then redeployed as a statement of growth and change, taking us away from seriousness to a prospect of something more positive and engaging – suddenly the scherzo had grabbed us by the hand and was running with us down the hill, through grassy paddocks of pastoral delight, amid laughter and sunshine! As expected, there was also a trio section here, one which the winds led us towards with smiles and enjoinings to “let ourselves go!”, if only for brief moments, until we were back with the boisterous scamperings of the opening, whose bright dream came to an end all too soon.
In a sense the finale lacks some of the spontaneity of the preceding movements, though its structuring “grounds” the work as a symphonic statement, the agitated opening idea developed at length by the composer, before being contrasted by a “sighing” counter-subject. Taddei didn’t leave any room for uncertainty, pushing his players along, while giving ample space for the more lyrical episodes to develop their own character. Dvorak modulates his material amply, before returning to his opening music, but quells the agitations momentarily with a gorgeous oboe solo, as well as allowing strings and winds to reintroduce poignant echoes of the symphony’s very opening. These felicities, so tenderly given voice with some sensitive playing, were then lost to the whirlwind of excitement of the work’s coda, Taddei and his most excellent company “giving it all they had” for a properly grandstand finish! After this we were left in no doubt as to the prospective delights of the Orchestra’s remaining 2018 concerts – roll on, the rest of the Dvorak symphonies!