The NZSO “reclaims the night” for Baroque composers at St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace, Wellington

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
THE NIGHT  – music by Corelli, Telemann, Vivaldi and Fux

Bridget Douglas (flute)
Vesa-Matti Leppänen (director/violin)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

CORELLI – Concerto Grosso in D Major Op.6 No.1
TELEMANN – Overture/Suite in D Major TWV 55:D.21
VIVALDI – Flute Concerto in G Minor Op.10 No.2
FUX – Overture in D Minor E109
TELEMANN – Overture/Suite in D Major TWV55:D.22

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Saturday, 8th June, 2019

To my great relief the NZSO abandoned the idea of presenting this, the second concert of their Baroque Series, in Wellington Cathedral, the first concert there having been a mixed blessing of an affair, with the building’s cavernous acoustic the main impediment to enjoyment of the music. The strictures of the Capital’s current “earthquake-risk” regulations regarding many of its buildings has made finding a venue for concerts involving either large ensembles and/or vocal groups such as choirs, something of a near-intractable “business”. The continued unavailability of the Town Hall is the chief disruption, affecting chamber music as well as both orchestral and choral events; and the council’s spending priorities have now of course been torpedoed by the unexpected closure of the Public Library, whose restoration in whatever shape or form would almost inevitably take priority.

My apologies, at this point of my discourse, for not sufficiently “cautioning” the readership about the non-musical content of the above paragraph, which should have been earmarked with some kind of Government Health Warning regarding its sub-normal percentage of “cultural well-being” content. Anyway, I shall hereby “rescue” the remainder of this article for music, with a description of the concert whose heading “The Night” also graces this review! Most helpfully for all concerned, except for, perhaps, the hard-working players, this presentation was played twice in one evening here at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, presumably to cater for the audience numbers expected in the concert’s original, and much larger venue. I attended the evening’s later performance, and can report that the playing in no way sounded either “fatigued” or “over-cooked” through repetition, everything wrought freshly and immediately.

I enjoyed the programme hugely, featuring as it did music by composers whose work often falls into the “heard about but seldom heard” category – even Vivaldi, for all the popularity of his “The Four Seasons” concerti can be more often named than his music “sounded” for concert-goers these days. Telemann, too, though receiving a recent fillip in the NZSO’s previous “Baroque” Concert with his wonderful “Water Music”, isn’t played as often as his music warrants the attention – though as part of his spoken introduction to the items played tonight, leader Vesa-Matti Leppänen went out on a limb for the composer by confessing that Telemann’s was “his favourite” baroque music!

As for Corelli and Fux, the first-named, Arcangelo Corelli, has enjoyed some “added-value” renown with his use of the well-known Portuguese “La Folia” melody in parts of both his Violin Sonatas and his Op.6 Concerti Grossi, his borrowing “picked up” by none other than Rachmaninov who wrote a set of piano variations “after a theme by Corelli”, of course, none other than the “La Folia” theme!  Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741) achieved fame throughout his lifetime not only as a composer but as a theorist, with his treatise on counterpoint “Gradus ad Parnassum” becoming perhaps the single most influential book on Renaissance polyphony ever written, influencing practically all the important composers of the classical era. Earlier he had been Court Composer to the Austrian Emperor Leopold I, Kapellemeister at St.Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, and Music Director at the Imperial Court, the highest position of any composer in Europe. He composed operas and oratorios besides instrumental works, but then confined himself to sacred works for the final ten years of his life, after his wife’s death. It was left to Ludwig Ritter von Köchel, also Mozart’s cataloguer, to bring out a biography, and a catalogue of Fux’s work, and thus help reinstate his importance as a composer, midway through the nineteenth century – though his reputation as a dry-as-dust theorist and relatively insignificant composer still needs more pro-active campaign work!

Corelli’s first Op.6 Concerto Grosso began the concert, with rich, warmly-bowed playing throughout a graceful introduction, the voices varied and mellifluous – the first of a number of surges of allegro-energy brought out virtuoso playing from cellist Ken Ichinose, ably supported by his colleagues, the opening movement’s music switching spontaneously between a kind of poised pre-excitement, and exuberantly-released running energies, extremely theatrical and dramatic in effect. The following episodes featured beguiling exchanges between the concertino (solo instruments) and ripieno (accompanying forces), the former involving sweet, sinuous playing from solo violinists Vesa-Matti Leppänen and Janet Armstrong, the music constantly on the move, here suggesting a stillness created by the murmur of continuo instruments only, and there joyously alternating the sweetness of solo string-lines with the richness and grandeur of the full band.

The first of Telemann’s two Overtures (alternatively called “Suites”) in D Major (TWV 55:D.21) covered a lot of musical ground in its quarter-of-an-hour of glory, bringing winds and horns to the platform to diversify the range and scope of the piece’s sonic territories. After a proudly vigorous dotted-rhythm opening, with fabulous oboe and horn exchanges flavouring “civilised” strings with bracing “out-of-door” ambiences, we got a warmly relaxed  “plainte” (complaint), followed by the “madcap dance” (which Vesa-Matti warned us we were in for!) a Réjouissance like no other! Like a sane moment amid mad outbursts, the Carillon charmed our sensibilities, a liquid pizzicato setting off the pair of oboes’ graceful and delicious lines. Back to tumult we were taken with the “Tintamarre”, a piece setting out to “make a din”, the lines garrulous and unrelieved, mercifully brief! The following Loure seemed to me somewhat tipsy of gait, well-intentioned in its fulsome insistence, but making as if to wobble at speed! The concluding Menuet would have none of these foibles, marshalling the strings in the direction of “a good show” though the quirky trio brought smiles with the winds almost garrulously echoing the oboes’ phrases…..

At the other end of the concert stood, sentinel-like, another Telemann Suite, also in D Major TWV 55:D.22), and just as “characterful” a work as its concert companion, this one sporting its own subtitle – Ouverture jointe d’une suite tragi-comique – and taking further the idea of linking music of a specific character to people and situations, an idea that had become very popular in France at the time, especially in keyboard music. In this music Telemann portrayed various human ailments, proffering as well, by way of compensation, a number of quirky remedies.

A sprightly introduction was punctuated by timpani and drums, the music energised further by a jig-like figure, presumably depicting rude health. Not so the laboured, pain-ridden walking gait of “Le Podagre” (according to Vesa-Matti, depicting somebody afflicted with gout!) – two remedies followed, a mail-coach, the trumpets sounding its arrival amid measures of energetic dancing (the characterisations amusing in their brisk, unequivocal application!). Next was L’Hypochondre (Hypochondria) which  gave no rest or relaxation, the melancholy punctured by fevered anxieties. Here, the remedy, Souffrance héroïque (heroic suffering) marched in on the full ensemble (broad grins all round!). There remained the sin of Pride, sounds of overweening self-importance filling the vistas with grand contrivance in the form of resounding drum and trumpet-led cadences of ostentation! All was then blown away by fast and furious figurations from strings and winds, madhouse characterisations underpinned gloriously by brasses and timpani, the deadly sin delivered its come-uppance in grand style!

Though more overtly “serious” in intent, an Overture by the intriguing Johann Joseph Fux gave notice as to our loss with his relative neglect – a confident, bright-toned introduction strutted its stuff, the strings double by oboes bright and assertive throughout, the allegro leaping eagerly forwards, marshalling its varied lines, both concertino and ripeno, oboes to the upper strings what the bassoon was to the lower lines, giving the tones edge and colour, and contributing to the “schwung” of the music’s trajectories.

Fux’s melodies demonstrated a leaping, athletic quality in sequences like the Menuet, equally exploring a different vein of expression in the Aria, the oboes long-breathed and lyrical, singing in tandem with the strings until being moved along by the Fuga’s urgently-propelled lines, the themes tossed about most energetically, the string lines occasionally pulsating with shivers of excitement before joining in the solemn stepwise Lentenment transitions towards a warm-hearted Gigue, strings and winds echoing the dancing figures, a final Aria section restoring the occasion’s dignity, winds and strings bringing the dance to a somewhat wistful strings-only conclusion.

Captivated as I was by all these delights, the evening had already delivered its coup de grace for me immediately after the interval, with the appearance of flutist Bridget Douglas to play the concert’s most overtly spectacular item, Vivaldi’s “La Notte” Flute Concerto, one of a set of six which comprised the composer’s Op.10 – it was certainly the most visually arresting of the evening’s performances, the figure of the soloist taking on a kind of alluring sorceress-like aspect in her red dress, putting all of us in thrall with the spell cast by her playing and the evocative choreography of her movements, along with that of the other players, a scenario whose potency was enhanced by the use of imaginative backdrop lighting.

In terms of the musical language it was probably the concert’s most accessible item, owing to the music’s kinship to the well-known “The Four Seasons” set of concerti in places – in fact part of one of the slower sequences of the music seemed almost like a direct crib by the composer of his own music from  the “Autumn” concerto out of that work. The rest, however, was of a piece with the work’s title – a kind of foreboding generated at the beginning, then impulses of the most volatile and unpredictable kind, tremendous playing from the soloist herself and split-second support from her instrumental cohorts, before the opening mood returned, giving way to another quick section called “Phantasms” – then came the Largo movement reminiscent of “The Four Seasons” before a final Presto skitterishly completed the music’s nightmare, the work concluding on an extraordinarily portentous, minor-key trill.  Phantasmagorical stuff! – all part of a presentation that would have enlarged the average listener’s appreciation of the fantastic array of depth and variety to be found in Baroque music.

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