Orchestra Wellington concert triumphs despite first-half technical glitch

Michael Houstoun plays Rachmaninov

RACHMANINOV – Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor Op.30
TCHAIKOVSKY – “Manfred” Symphony in B Minor Op.58

Michael Houstoun (piano)
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 25th July 2020

Saturday evening’s concert by Orchestra Wellington, the first of the ensemble’s somewhat rearranged 2020 season, promised to be something of a blockbuster occasion, with two justly famous (for vastly different reasons) works from the Russian  repertoire together making for an evening’s spectacular music-making. Long regarded as one of the most difficult and demanding of romantic piano concertos, Rachmaninov’s legendary D minor work has proven an irresistible challenge for many of the greatest pianists over the years, and on this occasion was given a beautifully persuasive rendition by Michael Houstoun, supported both flowingly and meticulously by conductor and orchestra. An unexpected hiatus during the work’s second movement caused by a technical problem was quickly and securely dealt with, and the music safely gotten on the rails again by the musicians in an entirely admirable fashion.

Tchaikovsky’s programmatic B Minor Symphony “Manfred” has achieved a different kind of fame over the years, one based on its relative neglect by default, having as many detractors as champions, and being generally regarded until recently by both musicians and commentators as the weakest in a structural sense of the composer’s seven works in this form. Marc Taddei and his musicians ignored all such preconceptions by approaching the symphony very much on its own terms, fully embracing its programmatic nature and thus setting free all of the music’s dramatic and poetic possibilities, with truly spectacular results!

Added to the attraction of the programme was a real sense of occasion generated by the musicians involved brought about by the post-lockdown recommencement of Orchestra Wellington’s original programming for the season – achieved with a couple of time readjustments,  this was possibly a “first” for any orchestral body in the world for 2020. Music director Marc Taddei paid tribute in a short speech to the leadership and purpose demonstrated in high places which had enabled concerts here in New Zealand to be recommenced in such a manner. The orchestra had, of course, already made a highly-acclaimed reappearance on the concert platform for a Mozart series during the previous month, one featuring concertmaster Amalia Hall as both soloist and music director.

Another musician whose plans (sadly for us all, for retirement) had been “put on hold” through his generous response to a need created by the Covid-19 pandemic for his services was the evening’s soloist, Michael Houstoun. Having on previous occasions amply demonstrated his mastery of all aspects of Rachmaninov’s piano writing in this concerto, Houstoun seemed here to take a less virtuosic, more-than-usually organic view of the music this time round, with little untoward irruption or attention-drawing point-making allowed to disturb the flow of ideas, instead expressing everything as integral to the whole, and certainly never allowing the piano to dominate . The orchestral voices were given full rein, making for a fascinatingly-voiced dialogue of phrases and longer lines, with the wind-writing in particular making its presence felt. Rachmaninov has never, I feel,  been given sufficient credit for the more “intellectual” aspects of his writing, his detractors in particular quick to overemphasise his emotionalism and his “outdated” romantic gesturings, ignoring felicitations such as the skill with which he inter-relates the various motifs throughout this work. And those moments of “glorious expansion”, particularly those given tongue by the strings in places, here grew out of the material so naturally, for me further underlining a sense of being caught up in the first movement’s incredible flow of impulse and colour.

Just as beguiling here was the second movement’s richly-wrought sense of undulation, those various outpourings of feeling building and breaking over the waves’ edges so gloriously, led variously by the piano and then the orchestra – such a pity that one of these oceanic burgeonings was unexpectedly interrupted by the pianist’s electronic page-turner malfunctioning or inadvertedly losing its way, bringing the music to a halt – a brief re-alignment from soloist, conductor and orchestra, and we were off again, climbing towards that same ecstatic fulfilment of expression with even more determined energies – by contrast, the movement’s “scherzo-waltz”  section was here deliciously, almost lazily realised, giving the notes a chance to scintillate rather than merely “blur at speed” – the nocturne-like mood returned impassionedly, the strings allowing another surge of feeling before being silenced by the piano’s sudden call to action, heralding the finale.

Again, Houstoun chose not to assail the music with flailing figurations, but kept the momentums at a steady surge, holding the tempo in accord with an overall flow and imparting by turns a delicacy and an impish quality in places. Noble brass tones resonated the textures before hushed winds and strings introduced the haunting contrast afforded by a delicate scherzando sequence – lovely, crystalline playing from Houstoun, here, leading to the magical reiteration of the latter part of the first movement’s second subject, perhaps the concerto’s most “lump-in-the-throat” moment. Afterwards came the return of the “galloping horse” motiv that began the finale, and the almost combatative exchanges between piano and orchestra leading to the work’s apotheosis (Rachmaninov’s own “Cossack Cavalry” moment during this section rivals Chopin’s “Polish Cavalry” surgings in the latter’s Op.53 Polonaise). The orchestral strings sang the “big” concluding D Major melody like crazy, so it was a pity that the dovetailing right at the end of the work between piano and orchestra seemed suddenly fraught and uncertain, and the ending somewhat roughly-wrought! – so uncharacteristic of the performance as a whole!

Unfortunately, these relatively momentary “glitches” saw the pianist depart from the performing platform after acknowledging the orchestra and the audience, and not return, despite our enthusiastic applause, All of us most assuredly wanted to (a) let Houstoun know that the mishaps were of little consequence compared with the magnificence of the whole and (b) salute him and his fellow musicians for responding to these happenings with such efficiency and professionalism – one would hope that something like these same sentiments would have been conveyed to him as a matter of course afterwards.

Whether or not this somewhat “damp squib” ending of the first half made conductor and players all the more determined to bring off what followed in the concert with something wholly memorable is probably academic conjecture – the fact was that, from those first haunting wind chords of the opening “Lento lugubre” movement of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, the playing exerted a vice-like grip on our attentions, the remainder of the orchestra amassing its forces in the most full-blooded manner imaginable – such trenchant string tones and baleful brass, recalling like passages in the same composer’s “Francesca da Rimini” – there was tenderness, too as the strings savoured the theme Tchaikovsky wrought to characterise his hero Manfred’s memory of a lost love, followed by wild desperation as the memory became an obsession and a torment, culminating in a full-orchestra reiteration of Manfred’s own despairing motif.

Respite from the gloom was provided by the work’s inner movements – firstly by the whimsical charms of the watery abode of the Witch of the Alps, and a charmingly graceful Trio section which could have come from one of the great ballets, Tchaikovsky adroitly working the “Manfred” theme into the music’s blandishments – both the feathery scherzo-like textures and the silken grace of the trio were brought off here with great orchestral panache. The Berlioz-like third movement at first evoked pastoral scenes with a beguiling oboe solo carried on by flutes and counterpointed by a horn with the strings, a rustic dance bursting delightfully on the scene, but just as quickly swept away by an almost martial sequence – the volatility of the music amazed and entertained as the sounds swirled into a kind of passionate frenzy, brought to a halt by distant church bells and begun again by the winds, the music’s volatility leaving one bemused as to what next to expect!

The finale was an “Allegro con fuoco”, a bacchanalian-like riot of colour and energy with a distinct Russian flavour, delivered with tremendous elan – as the excitement died down, the brass sounded a kind of ‘knell”, returning us to the mood of the symphony’s opening, the hero having failed to elude his doom, one cruelly “mocked” by a driving fugue, which quickly turned into a kind of danse macabre, hurling itself to no avail against the “iron gates” of fate. What anguished strings and pitiless harp cascadings! –  all leading inevitably to desolate lamentations and a final reiteration of Manfred’s fateful theme, given the full, apocalyptic (perhaps that should read apoplectic?) treatment, an organ thrown in for good measure at the end, to bring some spiritual peace to the hero with death’s release. Conductor Marc Taddei would have at the end, I think, been justly proud of his own and his players’ efforts in bringing this “symphonic monster” to such overwhelmingly visceral life!

Surely RNZ Concert ought to have recorded this, an historic occasion for so many different reasons? Wouldn’t one have expected this to have been an occasion worth preserving? I would have thought so!……however, as I saw no microphones, it seems as if memory alone might have to suffice when we hearken back and remember what we can of this remarkable feast of music-making, in the midst of remarkable times!

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