Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Orchestra Wellington succeeds with an odd programme of important, challenging and beautiful works

By , 21/09/2019

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei with Dierde Irons, piano
Transfigured Night

Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht
J S Bach: Keyboard Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052
Beethoven: String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 (Orchestrated by Dimitri. Mitropoulos)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 21 September, 7:30 pm

For a subscription concert series labelled ‘Epic’, that included Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantasique, Bruckner’s 8th Symphony, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a concert by a string orchestra, with no major symphonic work was odd programming. It is not that Verklärte Nacht, or Beethoven’s C sharp minor quartet were not worth hearing, but they were arrangements of works not written for orchestra. But let me not quibble, they are all beautiful and significant pieces of music seldom heard in these arrangements.

Arnold Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht
Schoenberg, a student of Zemlinsky, was 25 years old, and he earned his living at the time orchestrating operettas, when he wrote Verklärte Nacht for a string sextet. Under the influence of both Brahms and Wagner, he attempted to combine the structural logic of the former with the harmonic language of the latter. This is his first successful major composition.

Verklärte Nacht was inspired by the poem of that title by the Austrian romantic poet Richard Dehmel. The poem describes a man and a woman walking through a dark forest on a moonlit night. The woman shares a dark secret with her new lover, she bears the child of another man. She fears that her new lover would condemn and abandon her. Yet the beauty of the night and the intensity of their love overcome their difficulties and their lives are transfigured.

The music is in one continuous movement of five parts corresponding to the story of the poem. The stages of Dehmel’s poems are mirrored in the composition, beginning with the sadness of the woman’s confession followed by an interlude in which the man reflects upon the woman’s confession and a finale implying the man’s acceptance (and forgiveness) of the woman. It is rich sensuous romantic music. Schoenberg was at the time in love with Mathilde Zemlinsky, the sister of his teacher and friend. This almost 30 minute long work foreshadows the new era of Schoenberg’s music and the break down of traditional harmonies. It is a landmark in the history of modern music.

The original piece is written for a string sextet. Fifteen years after its first performance Schoenberg rearranged it for a string orchestra. To create the rich sonorous string sound required is a challenge for the string section of an orchestra and the players of the Orchestra Wellington stood up well to this challenge.

Bach: Concerto in D minor
This concerto is one of a number believed to be arrangements of an earlier work written by Bach in Cöthen and is the one most often performed now, perhaps because of its dramatic qualities. It is one of eight concertos that Bach transcribed for harpsichord. The large string orchestra of almost 50 players was reduced to a small group of four each of first and second violins, viola, cello and a double bass.

It is a substantial work in three movements. The first movement, Allegro, is full of contrast with sudden switches of key and dramatic effects.  The lyrical slow movement, Adagio, is built on a ground bass, played in unison by the whole orchestra over which the solo keyboard spins a florid and ornamented melodic line. In the third movement, Allegro, the keyboard plays a free flowing virtuoso passage over the repeated orchestral passage. Brahms’s cadenzas enhanced the grandeur of the concerto.

Diedre Irons played with a translucent fluid style with no exaggerated mannerism. There was a lovely interplay between orchestra and soloist. It was a performance of sheer beauty. The great ovation at the end reflected the love and respect for of this wonderful, modest, self-effacing artist.

Beethoven: String Quartet, Op. 131
Beethoven’s C sharp minor quartet is one of the most difficult and challenging of his works. The epigraph set against one copy of the music describes it as ‘Composed out of scattered fragments and snatches of movements’.  It is in seven continuous but fragmented, contrasting movements, starting with the very slow introductory Adagio, ‘the most melancholy sentiment expressed in music’ according to Wagner, through a fugal passage, a set of variations of contrasting moods to the fierce gaiety of the Presto and the mad dance of an indomitable fiddler. Some, including Mahler felt that the weight of the music was too much for a string quartet to bear and rearranged it for a full string orchestra. The version played by Orchestra Wellington is the arrangement by the great Greek conductor, Dimitri Mitropoulos.

The orchestral version of the quartet added a certain depth of sound and gravity to the work. The eight double basses enhanced the rich deep notes of the music. Reworking a string quartet into an orchestral piece changed the tone of the original. Passages that sounded like intimate meditations by the violin and the viola in the quartet came through as anthems and chorales by a large choir, altering the character of the piece. To appreciate this quartet played by a whole large string orchestra one had to leave behind the quartet version and think of the piece as an entirely different composition, a culmination of Beethoven’s grand vision.

All credit to Orchestra Wellington for tackling this work and introducing it to its large number of followers, some of whom were probably more familiar with the orchestral than the chamber music repertoire. It was a challenge for the string section of the orchestra to tackle this very difficult work and was a salutary experience for all the players who participated in this performance. This was a concert different from other Orchestra Wellington subscription concerts, but not less moving and enjoyable.

 

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