NZSO’s Telemann/Handel presentation at Wellington Cathedral – spectacle before music?

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
TELEMANN – Water Music
HANDEL – Water Music

Vesa-Matti Leppänen (conductor and leader)
Members of The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul,
Molesworth St, Wellington

Friday, 1st February 2019

This was one of those concerts better described by the word “occasion” – yes, there was music, yes there were musicians, and yes, the music was played; but at every step of the way the emphasis of the event’s publicity, presentation and performance seemed to be more on the “occasional” nature of the pieces and their sounds rather than their actual substance.

Historically, this wasn’t at all inappropriate considering the performance origins of both Telemann’s and Handel’s work, each coming down to us with the title “Water Music” as a result of their indelible associations with and proximity to the stuff! Telemann’s work was written in 1723 for a banquet marking the centennial anniversary of the Hamburg Admiralty, celebrating Hamburg’s importance and success as a port on the River Elbe; while Handel’s music was composed for a “Water Party” given by King George I on the River Thames in London during July of 1717.

While Telemann’s work was played riverside but on dry land, Handel’s was actually performed “on the water” by 50 musicians on a barge for the pleasure of the King and his courtiers on another barge, accompanied by “a number of boats beyond counting” filled with people who wanted to listen! And in Hamburg it was reported that, during the playing of Telemann’s music, “….ships lying offshore did not fail to add to the festivities, some by the firing of cannon, and all by flying pennants and flags…”

It can be gleaned from all of this that spectacle and sensation were integral to both occasions – the music was praised in each instance by various reports, Telemann’s described as “admirable” and “beautiful” and “uncommonly well-suited to the occasion”, and Handel’s reported as finding such favour with the Monarch that “he caused it to be played three times in all, twice before and once after supper, even though each performance lasted an hour.”

Still, in each of these performance contexts the music seemed to have been merely part of a larger purpose, that of honouring an anniversary or celebrating a state of sovereignty. One couldn’t imagine conditions on either of these occasions being ideal for listening, purely and simply – but “listening” wasn’t the only thing on the agenda.

For myself, I would love to have been at each of these happenings, though not just for the music – I would relish the spectacle, the occasion and the sense of something out of the ordinary being enacted, as I’m sure those present both in Hamburg and in London those many years ago did. And it’s in that kind of spirit that I would go as far as saying that what the NZSO did in organising this concert worked on a certain level – it was certainly no “ordinary” affair, in a number of ways.

Orchestra Concertmaster, Vesa-Matti Leppanen, who also directed the players, was quoted in the publicity as saying, “The venues for 2019 (re baroque music) were chosen for their intimate settings, atmosphere and acoustics”……..well, I think everybody would have agreed the church had atmosphere aplenty – and it soon became obvious that there was, as well, a whale of an acoustic, however inappropriate! What was the first of the criteria again? – ah, yes! – well, the accompanying blurb stated that numerous baroque works were first performed in churches – which is true, except that many Baroque churches were in fact “intimate” venues and rarely if ever matched the dimensions of St.Paul’s in Wellington.

None of this seemed to deter what seemed a goodly crowd of spectators on Friday evening (despite the event clashing with the opening of the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson) – it was difficult to assess whether the church was actually full-to-bursting, but it appeared pleasingly well-attended. I thought the absence of any printed programme further underlined the overall “spectacle” concept, though Vesa-Matti did give us an outline of the content and order of the works after the musicians had taken the platform – which would have been particularly valuable in the case of the lesser-known Telemann.

I didn’t attend the orchestra’s “Back-to-Bach” Concert in 2018 at the same venue, but my colleague Rosemary Collier reviewed the concert, commenting favourably on the clarity of the sound from her particular vantage-point, a seat in the very front row. To my ears it seemed I wasn’t so lucky, this time round, arriving too late to get a place towards the front, and having to take one ten or so rows back.

I was well aware of the phenomenon (mentioned by my colleague) of experiencing greater sound-clarity when sitting as close as possible to the performers in such an acoustic – and, alas! – it seemed that I was too far back! –  while the slower music sounded grander and richer-toned than I’ve ever previously heard, and the quieter music was able to maintain some of its transparency, anything that was quick-moving over a certain dynamic level seemed to me to turn into confusion, the details repeatedly blurred by their own resonances.

Still, in several places the acoustic effect did work to some advantage, particularly in the Telemann suite of pieces, which employed characterisations of mythological deities and sequences of tone-painting evoking the actions of water in nature – two movements, the Sarabande (The sleeping sea-goddess Thetis) and the Menuet (The pleasant wind, Zephyr) – made a particularly ravishing effect, especially with the recorder-tones – and two others in particular ( No.7 The stormy Aeolus, and the Gigue – No.9 Ebb und Fluth, The Tides of Hamburg) created considerable physical excitement, both having crescendi that the acoustic seemed to “take charge of” and imbue the figurations with tempestuous versions of gleeful abandonment, the jumbled sounds creating even more of an impression of nature at work!

I must make mention, too, of the work’s final movement (The Jolly Sailors), the accented rhythms augmented here by timpani and then by what sounded like stamping feet, as a whole company of sea-farers seemingly joined in with the dance for the last few riotous bars! It should be emphasised that the orchestral playing under Vesa-Matti Leppänen’s direction throughout these vividly-characterised sequences was, by turns, sensitive, colourful, sharply-etched and full-blooded – one could HEAR something of the playing’s quality, even with the reverberation activated and cross-firing on all cylinders!

Much the same effect of quietly-augmented beauties alternating with rumbustiously jumbled energies marked, for me, the performance of the Handel Suites, far better-known, of course, than the Telemann work – unfortunately Telemann, unlike Handel, didn’t have a “Hamilton Harty” to further his music’s cause (Harty, a prominent early twentieth-century conductor/ composer, made popular arrangements for modern orchestra of both the “Water Music” and the “Royal Fireworks Music”, which held sway in concert halls until recent times, but are now largely ignored in favour of more “authentic” performances of Handel’s music).

For me, knowing the pieces well increased my frustration with the acoustic, as I’d never before heard such a lot of this music in such a muddle! Add to this the modern “authentic practice” penchant for choosing what seem fast-as-possible allegros as “what the composer probably wanted”, and the result was, in much of the quick music, a jolly-sounding but thoroughly confused noise! Again, for me what worked well were the more stately pieces and the quieter moments – the former acquired impressive resonance and body and sounded magnificent, while the latter engendered a “glow”, a kind of halo of ambience around the sounds which was pleasing to the ear – I thought in the former, the horns and trumpets made splendid ceremonial noises, and in the latter, the softer instruments (especially the recorders!) charmed and beguiled with their sometimes celestial, sometimes pastoral (and, one could imagine, “across-the-water”) tones.

Some brief notes about the playing, which, as in the Telemann, could hardly be faulted in terms of sheer elan in the quick music and tonal beauty and depth of feeling in the slower pieces – great work from the strings in the Overture, and beautiful playing from the oboe in both in the lead-up to the horn-dominated Allegro and the Andante interlude before he return of the Allegro, with the horns! I loved the sprightly Minuet (thrills and spills from the horns once again, and lovely minor-key wistfulness from the strings in the central section. The acoustic was also kinder to both the “jogtrot” Air (beautifully “held” notes from the horns in places) and to the quieter parts of the second Minuet, introduced by lovely horn fanfares. I feared at first for the scampering Bouree, but the acoustic imparted an almost “theatrical”air to the instruments’ rapid peregrinations, points crossed and curves negotiated with hair-raising skill!

The second group of pieces prominently featured the flute, the opening gentle and pastoral – Elgar’s remark “Something heard down by the river” could well apply here also….the “helter-skelter” aspect of the dance which followed made for too much confusion to my ears, but the “Heigh-ho, Anthony Rowley” character of the following Gigue had an infectious swing, and had sufficient light-and-shade between its sections to allow the rhythms to “tell”.

And so to the final, trumpet-led group of pieces, during which the cathedral spaces were made to rock and thunder with joy in certain places, never with enough clarity for the music’s sake, but undoubtedly rousing and properly blood-stirring in effect! As well as could be judged, the playing sounded terrific! – trumpets and horns had a fine time with their call-and-answer phrases in the well-known Hornpipe (introduced by a nifty piece of virtuoso violin-playing from the concertmaster), and the timpani made its presence felt with an arresting introductory drum-roll and some cataclysmic support for the music’s “grand processional” concluding sounds.

Wellington is struggling to find suitable places for music-making at present, with at least three major venues closed for “earthquake-strengthening” work. I’m not confident that the Cathedral is the “answer to a prayer” that some organisers seem to imagine it to be. For me, this was, as I’ve said, more an “occasion” than a satisfying concert experience, something to be truly marvelled at but not for purely musical reasons – too much of the music came out as a right, royal jumble! I’ve no wish to be a voice crying in the ambient wilderness – but there’s plenty of repertoire, and ensembles to perform it, that would, in my view, bring out the building’s marvellous qualities far more appropriately and mellifluously than what I heard here.

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