Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:
BEETHOVEN – Overture to the Opera “Fidelio” Op.72b
MAHLER (orch.Vinten) – Piano Quartet in A Minor (1876) (first public performance)
BRUCKNER – Symphony No. 3 in D Minor “Wagner Symphony” (1874 version)
Michael Vinten (conductor)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra
Sunday, 22nd September, 2019
As Michael Vinten told Radio NZ Concert’s “Upbeat” interviewer David Morriss during the week preceding the concert, none of the three works presented by the orchestra were original versions of the pieces. The closest we came to hearing a work representing its composer’s first thoughts was in the Third Symphony of Anton Bruckner – and this was the second of no less than six (or was it eight?) documented versions of the same composition by name. It could thus have been called a concert of music whose composers couldn’t make their minds up!
Each of the pieces thus carried a uniquely remarkable tale of composing and rewriting – Beethoven’s overture to his opera “Fidelio” was a completely rewritten piece compared with the original and two other revised versions of the work that the composer had previously produced, all with the name “Leonore” (the opera’s original title). Unlike each of the “Leonore” Overtures, the “Fidelio” overture was a “stand-alone” item, making no reference to the plot or the opera’s themes, thereby keeping intact for the listener the events of the opera until their actual exposition in the work! Michael Vinten’s own programme notes explained all of this and the situation regarding the concert’s two other items most absorbingly!
As an assemblage the three works made the concert an enticing prospect for the listener, an adventurous and stimulating amalgam of the familiar and the new. And if the orchestra players themselves felt at all daunted at the prospect of taking on the longest in duration of all the symphonies written by Anton Bruckner, it didn’t show beforehand, except, perhaps for some less-than-unanimous ensemble in parts of the concert’s opening item, the “Fidelio” Overture, which could have just as easily been put down to the piece being rehearsed less assiduously than was the remainder of the programme, due to the latter’s well-nigh obvious demands (pure conjecture on this reviewer’s part, of course!)
After a couple of uncertain entries and chordings during the piece’s slow introduction, Beethoven’s work was negotiated with ever-increasing confidence by the players, solos from the oboe, clarinet and horn steadily and reliably keeping with the conductor’s vigorous lead through thorny thickets of rhythmic syncopation, the performance reaching a transfiguring moment at the opening’s reprise, with the horns’ beautiful playing casting a “glow” over the music that resulted in everything coming together and producing a fizzing, sizzling ending!
The orchestra having “played itself in”, and the conventionalities of an “overture” having been observed, it was time for everybody to get down to business, firstly, with that most tantalising of rarities, a premiere performance! I was surprised that no mention of any such circumstance had been made, either in the programme or on the aforementioned radio interview – but there it was, the first scheduled performance of Michael Vinten’s orchestrated version of Gustav Mahler’s single-movement Piano Quartet in A Minor (besides the first movement left more-or-less completed, there are a few fragments of an intended scherzo extant). I can only attribute the lack of publicity regarding this event’s “first-time” occasion to Vinten’s own avoidance of self-promotion, putting the composer and his music first, instead! As well, the Quartet was linked to the Bruckner Symphony played after the interval by dint of Mahler himself having made a piano duet version of the Symphony, one published in 1880 (a not uncommon occurrence with orchestral music in the nineteenth century before the invention of the gramophone)…………
The Quartet music itself began darkly and purposefully, filled with romantic, atmospheric feeling. The brass produced lovely, dark-hued sounds, the effect somewhat Schumannesque to my ears as the winds answered the serious, sombre statements, the oboe lines in particular shaped strongly and pliably. I thought the brass’s splendid restatement of the opening theme reminiscent of Mendelssohn in a “Ruy Blas” mood, with the strings and winds helping to build up to a terrific climax – a great unison shout by the orchestra stimulated some trenchant, exciting music-making, with a repeated dotted-rhythm phrase storing up energy and momentum, again capped off by well-rounded brass statements.
Solo violin and ‘cello together with the oboe took us back to the dark, brooding opening, before the wind and brasses “martialized” the music beneath the string lines, building once more to the “grand manner”. A short solo violin cadenza later we were into epilogue country, with the brasses nobly sounding the end, leaving two pizzicato chords to finish the piece. At a good fifteen minutes‘ worth, this intensely poetic, romantically wrought music seemed to me a strong and significant addition to the orchestral concert repertoire, thanks to Vinten’s and his players’ sterling efforts, and the conductor’s expertise and zeal on behalf of Gustav Mahler.
More epic questings awaited both musicians and audience following the concert’s interval, with a performance of Bruckner’s Third Symphony more-or-less as originally written in 1873, with a few “touching-ups” on the part of the composer made the following year. Unlike the version of the work I first got to know (one which the composer made in 1889 some time after the disastrous premiere of the work, in an edition by Leopold Nowak) this was how Bruckner originally intended the work to “sound”, with a whopping twenty minutes’ additional music to that contained on my first LP (DGG) of the Symphony! We were obviously in for something of a re-appraisal, with the original version giving the D Minor work the distinction of being the longest of the composer’s works in that genre.
The famous trumpet tune which Wagner had so admired here (and which gave the symphony its nickname) opened the work over the strings’ forward-thrusting rhythms, the player here beautifully “onto it” (as was the reply of the horns), and the orchestra building the crescendo steadily and surely towards the great shouts that led to a modulated repeat of the thrusting rhythms and resounding orchestral declamations! Never has a symphony “announced” its arrival more gloriously than here – and as sequence followed sequence the players bent their backs to the task with both enthusiasm and detemination. Apart from the occasional entry and ensemble stumble amid the music’s torturous, cross-rhythmed course, conductor and players steered a remarkably sure-footed and true-toned passage through the movement’s many changes of mood, pace and tone, holding enough power and energy in reserve for the coda to make its properly overwhelming effect.
The Adagio alternated between tender utterance and forthright declamation, full, rich tones from the strings being succeeded with steady support from the winds and then the brass. Exchanges between the winds and horns generated a kind of rapt, sacred ritual aspect to the figures in places, and the strings generated plenty of fervour in their soaring lines. We also enjoyed the rousing “Tannhauser” quote played by the brass, who proceeded to take the music by the scruff of the neck and deliver spadefuls of its glory and majesty. And that moment towards the movement’s end which always reminds me of Dvorak’s famous “Largo” melody from his “New World” Symphony was here balm for the soul, the horns holding their supporting notes magnificently.
Sinuous, writhing violins launched the scherzo, building the crescendo towards the great strings-and-brass-and-timpani shouts of purpose and resolve, beside which the second subject sounded a tad anaemic here, the strings happier with the opening than with the peregrinations of the discursive second subject – the Trio, however, was charmingly done, the violas relishing their exchanges with the violins, the latter a tad dry and insect-like in effect. The finale’s opening, eerie, whirling string-ostinati had an almost space-age effect, with the brass entry terrific and the strings resolutely keeping their whirling rhythms – great work from all concerned. The players got a lovely lift from the dance rhythms of the second subject, and brought out the tenderness of the brief moment before the dance started up again. The great syncopated fanfares dovetailed their figurations to great and outlandish effect – a most stirring sound! – and the brasses heroically soared over the top of the rest of the band with their resounding lines.
Everybody bent their backs to the task splendidly during a middle sequence where the composer seemed to frenetically reprise the opening, the dance melody and the syncopated fanfare, at which point we heard the horns nobly suggesting that a “promised land” was imminent – after brief reminiscences of the first three movements, the orchestra opened the tonal floodgates and, in the grandest possible way, ascended the final slopes to the music’s hard-won, but golden-toned summit of achievement – a brief, breathless hiatus of “are we really there?” after the final chord was followed by oceans of applause from all of us who had made the journey with these intrepid musicians! – surely one of the orchestra’s finest achievements, thrills and spills included, and a tribute in itself to the vision and unfailing skills and energies of conductor Michael Vinten.