“Timeless” classics with a twist – latest in the NZSO’s “Podium” Series

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents “Timeless”

Music by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven

MOZART –  Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550
HAYDN – Symphony No. 64 in A Major, Hob 1:64 Tempora Mutantur
BEETHOVEN (orch. Weingartner) Grosse Fuge, Op. 133

Hamish McKeich (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 24th October, 2020

This was the last concert of a tour of five centres. It was a programme of safe music by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, nothing to intimidate a conservative audience, though Beethoven laid down major challenges that audiences have grappled with since the work was first performed by the Schuppanzigh Quartet in 1825. The orchestra was reduced to strings two horns, oboes, clarinets bassoons and a flute. There were no celebrated soloists, but the concert provided an opportunity for section leaders to step back while their places were taken by their associates. The marketing people called the concert Timeless, a title neither meaningful nor particularly appropriate, but it was certainly an evening of fine enjoyable music.

The concert began with Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, one of three he wrote in 1738 to raise some urgently needed cash. It is the work of a consummate craftsman, who could knock out three substantial, enduring major works in a few weeks. It is the acme of the classical symphonic style. There are musical questions and answers and then contrasting themes, at times played by strings then answered by the winds. Balance is the hallmark of this music. Written in G Minor, this symphony has a dark melancholy undertone, combined with grace and courtly manners. If there is drama, it is understated, but there are echoes of dramatic orchestral passages from the operas. The orchestra gave the work a crisp, restrained reading, with well judged, unhurried tempi. The large string section produced a beautiful full-bodied rich sound. No flourishes, nor exaggerations, no lingering on the lovely themes. It was an honest, straightforward reading.

The Haydn Symphony No.64, Tempora Mutantur is a less well known work, and even among Haydn’s symphonies it is overshadowed by the later symphonies, and even by No. 45, the ‘Farewell’ Symphony. Haydn was in his early forties when he wrote this symphony. Much of his energy at the time was devoted to operas. During his 30 years of employment at the court of Prince Esterházy he was required to deliver at least two operas a week as well as instrumental works, some of which were recycled from his copious earlier works. The title Tempora Mutantur was written on the manuscript of this work. It is a part of a phrase that means “The times change and we change with them”. It is not clear whether this sentiment is reflected in the music. It is certainly has unexpected breaks, themes cut off by contrasting responses. The focal part of the symphony is the beautiful largo, but the entire work is full of Haydn’s surprises, phrases that are interrupted, quiet passages broken by sudden forte. It is, however, very delightful gentle music. Like the Mozart symphony, this was clearly articulated and well played. Though not a popular major concert piece, it was an opportunity to hear a seldom performed work by a much loved composer.

Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue was written as the final movement of Sting Quartet No. 13 in B flat Major, Op. 130, to follow the ethereally beautiful Cavatina movement. It is an immense double fugue. At the time audiences found it incomprehensible, confusing, and Beethoven was persuaded to write an alternative final movement for the quartet The fugue was published separately as Op. 133. Musicians found it fiendishly difficult to play and audiences were puzzled and bewildered by it. It was like nothing written before. Beethoven, the ultimate master of the sonata form found by then the form constraining. To complete a vast quartet of six movements he wrote a double fugue of over 700 bars of rhythmic violence and often ruthless density of thought1. There are alternate passages of loud, interweaving harsh fugal parts and quiet meditative passages recalling the introduction to the final choral section of the last movement of the 9th symphony. The piece gives the impression that Beethoven, an old man as he thought of himself, was exploring the limits of music. It was music inside the head of a profoundly deaf composer unbound by convention and the boundaries of form. Some felt that there is too much in the music to be contained within the limits of a string quartet, and orchestrated it for a larger ensemble. It was the arrangement by the renowned conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, Felix Weingartner, that we heard in this concert. He added basses to the violins violas and cellos, underlining the harmonic base of the fugue. Played by a large body of strings, Beethoven’s original piece for a string quartet appeared to be a completely different work, very powerful, very dramatic and quite overwhelming. Hearing this arrangement recently, I thought that much of the subtlety of the piece written for a string quartet was lost when amplified for a whole string orchestra, but in this performance I appreciated the merit of a chorus of strings emphasizing and underlining Beethoven’s quest.

The Grosse Fuge is a challenging and difficult work for both players and listeners, but at the end of this outstanding performance we felt that we had had a deep, moving and rewarding experience. Yet again, Hamish McKeich proved himself to be a thoroughly reliable steady hand at the helm.

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