Worlds within worlds brought to us by the Wellington Chamber Orchestra, with The Tasman Trio and Kenneth Young

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:
MOZART – Overture to “Don Giovanni”
BEETHOVEN – Triple Concerto for Violin, ‘Cello and Piano Op.56
DELIUS – The Walk to the Paradise Garden
SCHUBERT – Symphony No. 8 in B Minor “Unfinished” D.759

The Tasman Trio:
Laura Barton (violin) / Daniel Smith (cello) / Liam Wooding (piano)

Wellington Chamber Orchestra
Kenneth Young (conductor)

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace Church,

Sunday 30th June, 2019

On paper, a programme for the prospective listener to savour – and this was an expectation I would guess was largely fulfilled, judging from the reception accorded the musicians’ efforts by the audience, and the feelings of satisfaction gleaned from the performers’ general aspect at the end! There was certainly a variety of colour, texture, mood and emotion to be had, with the pieces offering sufficient challenges to ensure the playing  maintained an ‘edge-of seat” quality, often something that can give amateur performance a “head-start” in terms of excitement and surprise for listeners’ edification. While too much tension can of course mar the ambience of some music, here only the Delius work seemed “vulnerable” in that respect – and it was in this music that the players created sounds of a beauty and sensitivity that for me captured the piece’s essence in a way that I’d not heard previously surpassed by this orchestra in any repertoire.

First things first, however; and this was Mozart’s Overture to his “dramma giocoso” Don Giovanni (“dramma giocoso” means, literally, “drama with jokes”). This was perfectly expressed by the music we heard, the opening taken from the work’s final act, featuring the entrance of the famous and unearthly “Stone Guest”, come to dinner ostensibly at the Don’s own invitation, but determined to secure Giovanni’s repentance for his iniquitous behaviour. The music’s “nightmarish” aspect at the Overture’s outset must have galvanised the sensibilities of those first audiences, who were plunged without warning into a “preview” of the events leading to the hero’s downfall and removal to the infernal regions, but were then whisked suddenly into the world of the work’s more comic sequences and situations. While no actual melodies from the opera itself were used, the dramatic opening chords, and eerie scale passages do recur in the final scene, accompanying the “Stone Guest’s” entrance.

Ken Young got a splendidly incisive opening to the work from his players, including some portentously “held” lower notes, supported by baleful brass – a few tuning discrepancies amongst the winds at the outset were properly sorted by the time the “infernal scales” of the opening were sounded. Then, the allegro mischievously activated the rhythms, the strings stirred, and the winds and timpani properly banished the gloom-laden textures with their sparking, forthright replies. Mozart kept hinting at the underlying darkness with the leading note of each phrase of the allegro – a heavily accented chord – but with each of these followed by impish, fleet-footed downward scamperings, and light-as-feather string phrases (a bit “squishy” at first, until the string players’ fingers warmed up!). Basically, there was great work from all concerned, throughout, even with the “cobbled-on” concert ending to the piece – in the theatre, the music slows down and goes straight into the stage action, but here, it was the conventional bang, crash and wallop, so as to make the music seem “rounded off”! (I prefer the music to just stop where the opera’s action begins, the imagination doing the rest……..)

It was then time to welcome the Tasman Trio, an Australasian ensemble formed just last year by two New Zealanders (Laura Barton and Liam Wooding) and an Australian (Daniel Smith), all of whom had been studying at ANAM (the Australian National Academy of Music) in Melbourne. Having heard, in living memory, a performance of this delicious work in St.Andrew’s from Te Koki Trio and the NZSM Orchestra (also with Kenneth Young conducting), I was anxious to re-enjoy the work at similarly close quarters, and interested in hearing a different group playing it – the soloists entered, there was a bit of “folkish-sounding” tuning, and then we were off!

The first low orchestral sounds filled us with expectation, the strings and horns doing well in their first sforzando-like entry, Young keeping the tempi steady, and allowing the triplet rhythms plenty of room. The first solo ‘cello entry was lyrical, poetic and inviting, joined by the other soloists just as sweetly, the piano adding a perkiness to the rhythm, taken up by the others in reply. The work’s frequent “running” passages were excitingly managed by all the players, and the orchestra responded with equal dexterity – the only problems (just one-or-two instances) were soloist-and-orchestra ensemble ones, the occasional rhythm either too hastily or too slowly ‘taken up” – but within a few bars all had come together again. As an ensemble the soloists dovetailed their passages perfectly, the occasional single-line moment of strain made up for with a correspondingly beautiful piece of phrasing from the same player. And I loved the beautiful “turn” by the players towards that moment of lyricism just before the first movement’s coda.

Songful rapture at the slow movement’s beginning! – lovely soft playing from ‘cello and then violin, though with the piano just a tad too heavy in response at first, I thought. Some nice support came from the horns as the soloists began their expectant arpeggiated figures leading to the finale. Having so well created a “mood”, the soloists then seemed to take a while to comfortably “settle” into the finale’s polonaise rhythm, but they grasped their concerted scampering lines firmly (tremendous triplet- playing by the trio) and set the scene for the orchestral tutti, which conductor and players seemed to relish wholeheartedly. Again the running canonic triplet passages were thrown off most excitingly – a real, visceral thrill to experience!

The characterful minor-key “dance” passages that followed wanted, I thought, just a shade more “schwung”, more naughtiness and suggestiveness from all concerned, here sounding to my ears expertly played, but a bit too regimented (I love it when in performances of this people seem to let their hair down, and really “savour” those polonaise rhythms) – still the players brought our beautifully that subsequent “Appassionata” moment (begun by the piano with portentous trills over which the others “reassembled” the main theme with growing excitement), and “dissolved” the subsequent canonic triplet rushings so teasingly, that all was forgiven in the ensuing excitements – the “running water” flow of the coda’s beginning, the more ritualised triplet lines, and the final “stately dance” of the music’s last paragraph. So – while perhaps not as majestically realised as with last year’s Te Koki Trio/NZSM performance of the work, the performance here put its own, equally spontaneous mark on the presentation, giving much pleasure and receiving well-deserved acclaim.

After the interval came a work I desperately wanted to hear “live” – Delius’s orchestral interlude “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” from his opera “A Village Romeo and Juliet”, one I’d previously only heard on record. And at the outset I should say that, even given my pleasure at being “treated” to Beethoven’s adorable Triple Concerto so expertly during the first half, this item was the concert’s highlight for me, with conducting and playing from Young and the orchestra members that utterly captivated me with its beauty and sensitivity. Every phrase, every solo, every surge of emotion, every hushed realisation of beauty was given its due, if not perhaps with quite the tonal splendour and individual  sheen commanded by professional players, certainly with sufficient loveliness of tone, confidence of phrasing and surety of ensemble so as to make Delius’s evocation of beauty laced with tragedy a truly heart-rending concert experience.

From the opening phrases, shared by bassoons, horns and cor anglais, we were immediately taken to a sound-word of enchantment, furthered by oboe, clarinet, flute and tenderly-phrased strings, each sound, whether solo or concerted, imbued with a real sense of the music’s power of evocation, a lovely overall sense of “drifting stillness” informing the quieter reflective moments, and a thrilling pulsation of feeling given full rein at the music’s climactic moments of bitter-sweet irruption. I thought it very, very powerful conducting by Ken Young and suitably no-holds-barred responses from his players, whether full-throated or finely-honed, the harp adding its singularly romantic voice to the plethora of instrumental response, everything superbly shaped and graded in aid of the music’s dying fall at the end. Delius’s first real champion, the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, once remarked on the need for the performer to interpret music such as this with “the maximum virility allied to the maximum sensitivity” – which is what sounded like was happening here (local syntax!).

No let-up in intensity was allowed us at this juncture, with what was to follow – Schubert’s much-loved “Unfinished” Symphony, two movements’ worth of pure drama and poetry, whether by accident or design wrought within two perfectly-tailored and -complementary episodes by its composer! Many have been the attempts to “finish” the work, ignoring the fact that Schubert himself completed a further symphony instead of going back and “dealing to it” himself. Might something have told him that what he’d done was enough?

The contrast with Delius’s music was profound in effect, those exquisitely-tailored lines and subtle textures of the former here replaced by sinister bass mutterings, fraught woodwind strains, and weighty, oppressive blocks of string or brass sounds. It was music which seemed haunted by its own substance; and the performance certainly conveyed a threatening, baleful quality in the first of the two movements, almost to the point of rawness from the brass in places, Young encouraging his forces, it seemed, to pull no punches! The exposition repeat sounded a shade less raw, and more rounded in those same territories, as if the players were hearing more acutely the “pitch of the hall” (as comedian Michael Flanders used to say in his and Donald Swann’s “At the Drop of a Hat” revue).

Whatever solace the music had managed to give its listeners thus far seemed then to be put to the sword by the development and its black-as-night scenarios, haunted by wraith-like figures, consoling winds beaten back by shattering brass chords, not dissimilar in effect to those in a similar place in Tchaikovsky’s ”Pathetique” Symphony– remorseless and unforgiving! The return to the opening brought some relief, but the movement’s coda again provided little consolation! Throughout this performance we got from Young and his brave players the full force of this music’s astounding emotional journey!

The second movement was, thankfully, less harrowing, its tones sunnier, and its melodic shapes more song-like, the players beautifully-dovetailing the exchanges between the strings’ striding steps and the winds’ lyrical replies. We heard some lovely wind solos, clarinet, oboe, and flute, contrasted with some sterling, black-browed sounds from trombones and timpani, but then a heart-easing “playing-out” of the tensions towards the end, lullabic phrases from strings and winds alike (including the horns) assuring us that the sounds had brought us, finally, to a safe haven…..


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