Wellington Chamber Orchestra justifies attention to neglected Schumann symphonies, among some less triumphant performances

Wellington Chamber Orchestra conducted by Luka Venter 

Schütz: Symphonia from ‘Die sieben Worte Jesu Christi am Kreuz’
Haydn: Symphony No. 104 in D, “London”
Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a (St Anthony Variations)
Schumann: Symphony No 2 in C, Op 61

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 20 September, 3 pm

This was the first concert by the Wellington Chamber Orchestra that Middle C has attended this year. And I think this was the first time that Luka Venter has been the conductor. He studied at the New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University, in singing, composition and conducting. Since then he has had grants from the opera foundation and other trusts, has studied in Florence, London and Berlin, with conductors like Simone Young, Simon Rattle and Esa-Pekka Salonen; and he has been appointed assistant conductor of Orchestra Wellington as well as a conductor of the “inaugural conducting intake” of the NZSO’s Fellowship Programme.

Heinrich Schütz
The opening piece was curious: a two minute instrumental Symphonia from Heinrich Schütz’s cantata, ‘Die sieben Worte Jesu Christi am Kreuz’. (Schütz was born exactly a hundred years before J S Bach and lived through the dreadful Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648), curiously contemporary with Johann Schein and Samuel Scheidt). It’s scored in five parts, here played by three trombones (descendants of sackbuts) and two violins.  Quite what its relationship was with the rest of the programme wasn’t clear to me, apart from drawing attention to the antiquity of serious music in the German world, illustrated by the rest of the programme. It was restrained and calm, perhaps intended to call attention to the church’s challenging and onerous acoustic.

Haydn’s London Symphony 
In any case, its relationship with Haydn’s last symphony was hardly evident. The virtues of the symphony’s performance were evident more in the quieter passages than in the essentially arresting and witty, or dramatic episodes. Though the opening was somewhat untidy, and string passages didn’t enjoy much feeling of ensemble, energy and understanding of Haydn’s creative instinct were there.

Happily the neat, slower pace of the Andante movement was much more successful, with more accurate and enjoyable playing. Though the surprising interruptions by boisterous strings timpani-dominated passages, suggesting a revival of the style of the Military Symphony, didn’t succeed so well. The Minuet and Trio opened with rather blurred playing but oboes and strings rescued the witty Trio part of the movement that moves to a minor key. And there was plenty of energy in the quite demanding last movement, thought to derive from a Croatian folk song. It shifts back and forth from calm to military-style, from quiet to loud, boisterous passages, quite demanding, that the orchestra handled well.

Brahms’s orchestral variations 
Brahms first major orchestral work was another ambitious work for the orchestra. The theme, not by Haydn, was long thought to have perhaps been by Pleyel (who was born the year after Mozart), but there is no proof. More brass and woodwind instruments, strikingly including a contra-bassoon, took their seats and the performance opened calmly, delivering and elaborating the full melody, with proper respect for whoever might have composed it.

Each of the eight variations has a particular character which the orchestra handled with individuality. The 3rd variation, Con moto, for example was carefully played, ‘fluidly’ in the words of the notes, and successive sections maintained charm and variety. The 7th variation was congenial with no excessive bluster, and while there were minor shortcomings in both the 8th and the Finale, it’s hard to find fault with a performance that’s generally committed and seriously tackled.

Schumann Symphony in C 
For a long time it has seemed to me that Schumann’s symphonies have been undeservedly overlooked, and less performed than those of other leading orchestral composers. Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák have remained well-attended, while in the last fifty or so years, Bruckner, Mahler, Sibelius, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and for me at least, Nielsen, have become leading symphonic figures; not to mention various French symphonies.

Perhaps those have been at the expense of Schumann and Mendelssohn, though for me, Mendelssohn is marked only by the Scottish symphony, while I rate all four of Schumann’s.

Schumann’s second symphony is actually his third, as the second was the D minor symphony written but not published in 1841, just after the first symphony; revised in 1851 and published as No 4.

The slight fumble at the Sostenuto assai start was absolutely untypical of what was very soon to become a splendid performance of the 40 minute-long work. Instruments whose playing had earlier been a bit insecure became confident and energetic as the tempo increased; as Un poco più vivace became the Allegro ma non troppo, revealing a pulse and clear articulation that suggested an orchestra that was not entirely amateur. The first movement was not far advanced before there was clear proof of Schumann’s inspiration and orchestral flair (discrediting the tendency many years ago to draw attention to his ‘crime’ of doubling some wind parts allegedly because Düsseldorf wind players tended to show their poor opinion of Schumann’s conducting by staying home).

The playing of the Scherzo second movement gave clear signs of both the composer’s spirited composition, with the confident contrast between the Scherzo and the two pensive Trios, and his flair for orchestration; the string ensemble was admirable. As for the charming, beautiful Adagio espressivo in C minor, opened by strings and oboes, and later even the horns (which had not been entirely blemish-free in the Haydn and Brahms), were here arresting, rewarding Schumann as they should have.

And the horns behaved notably well in the last movement, meeting the Allegro molto vivace demands with confidence, as did the woodwinds. My notes, sometimes hard to understand, remarked how admirable it was that some of the orchestra’s shortcomings in the first half had disappeared. The balance and sense of purpose that the young Venter drew from the orchestra was impressive in Schumann, and I was more than delighted to hear a the composer decently treated, and played so spiritedly by Wellington’s long-established amateur orchestra. (Marc Taddei and Orchestra Wellington should devote a year to them, fleshed out with the cello and piano concertos).

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