Wellington Chamber Orchestra
Caitlin Morris (‘cello)
Andrew Aitkins (conductor)
KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978) – Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia from the Ballet “Spartacus”
DVORAK )1841-1904) – Vodnik (The Water Goblin) Op.107
TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) – Capriccio Italien Op.45
ELGAR (1857-1934) – ‘Cello Concerto in E Minor Op.85
St.Andrew’s 0n-The-Terrace, Wellington
Saturday, 24th September, 2022
This attractive assemblage of pieces which made up the Wellington Chamber Orchestra’s latest concert presented a colourful, spirited and enterprising programme, combining what one might describe as a clutch of “popular” classics with one piece definitely off the beaten track.
The popular pieces have somewhat different claims to fame, the Khachaturian piece featuring as the theme music for a popular television series within living memory, “The Onedin Line”, the music’s soaring, swooping theme tune evoking sailing ships and their transcontinental voyages – in the composer’s original ballet, set in Roman times, this same music depicted the love between Spartacus and his wife Phrygia, a pair of Thracian slaves captured by Roman forces.
Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, sketched out during its composer’s stay in Rome during 1880, uses a combination of music he heard in the streets and various folk songs. After completing his sketches he confidently remarked in a letter to a friend that “a good fortune may be predicted” for the piece, an assertion which has, over the years triumphantly proved correct, which opinion wasn’t always his feeling about many a far greater work he’d written and over which he often had serious doubts.
Finally on the concert’s “well-known front” came the Elgar ‘Cello Concerto, a piece whose popularity has been hard-won over earlier years, right from its first performances both in Britain in 1919 and the USA in 1922. The premiere of the work was practically sabotaged by the conductor’s neglect of the piece in rehearsal, to the point where a contemporary critic wrote in a review of the performance “Never has so great an orchestra (the London Symphony Orchestra!) made so lamentable an exhibition of itself!”. To make matters worse, after the American premiere two years later a critic wrote “It is a long work (!) and it ambles on and on, utterly without distinction, utterly without inspiration”…..
It really wasn’t until ‘cellist Jacqueline du Pre took up the work firstly at the BBC Proms with Sir Malcolm Sargent in 1963, and then via a classic recording with Sir John Barbirolli in 1965 (which became, in the lingo of the times, a “best-seller”), that the work began to convey its true quality and status in more widespread terms, which of course continues today with a new generation of ‘cellists.
The “odd one out” in this concert was definitely the Dvorak tone-poem Vodnik (The Water Goblin), one of several tone-poems completed by the composer AFTER he had written his Ninth and most famous symphony, the “New World”. Unlike with the symphonies, which he’d composed along the lines of the classical masters, Dvorak turned to the example of Franz Liszt who had first developed this new form of composition, and was from the beginning harshly criticised by conservative musicians and critics who, despite Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, disapproved of “programme” music. Dvorak obviously wanted to explore and celebrate a native Czech spirit more freely with these works, which still today lag far behind his symphonies and overtures in popularity, though they are now receiving more notice, as in this present concert with “Vodnik” (The Water Goblin), the earliest of the composer’s ventures into this new territory.
Flanking the Dvorak in the first half were, firstly, the Khachaturian Adagio, and then Tchaikovsky’s rumbustious Italian picture-postcards, each a perfect foil for what followed. The Khachaturian was gloriously played here, the opening dominated by a splendidly-phrased oboe solo from Rod Ford, thereafter handing the theme over to the strings for further lyrical expansion, conductor Andrew Atkins getting his players to vary their phrasings and intensities most beguilingly. Sterner brass and intensely-wrought wind solos took the music through irruptions of excitement and expectation before the entire orchestra gave the music unashamed Hollywood treatment, building to a most impressive climax that was thrilling in its cumulative impact. And how gracefully did the winds, the horns and the harp bring about the piece’s dying fall, with Paula Carryer’s solo violin having the last eloquent word – most satisfyingly done.
At the half’s other end was the ceremonial splendour and contrasting rumbustiousness of a piece once popular but seldom played in concert these days – Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, a work I first encountered on 78rpm acetate discs (a precious memory) and which I still love to bits! Those brass calls at the start had here a proper spine-tingling effect, to which the different timbres of horns and heavy brasses added thrilling weight, though a couple of the accompanying “ra-ta-ta-plan” figures accompanying the strings’ sombre, but expressively shaped melody were too eagerly raced by the players. I thought the oboe-led winds took the music back most excitingly to the reiteration of the opening brass calls, if rather more tentative this time round. Some more “ra-ta-ta-plans” then led to a melody that’s one of the world’s charmers, played winningly by the winds, then the strings, and building up to a most satisfying irruption of festive sounds. Away from this sprang the next section, lively, if none too tidily at first but with the performance recovering its poise sufficiently to make a scintillating impression with the concluding tarantella, everything breathlessly exciting!
In between these pieces was the Dvorak tone-poem, its relatively unfamiliar strains most strikingly and impressively brought into being at the outset, with the orchestral winds’ mischievous, spiky rhythms gradually becoming more macabre and frenzied as the eponymous Water Goblin danced along the lakeside in anticipation of capturing a human girl for a bride. Throughout, Atkins and his players vividly and tellingly contrasted Dvorak’s colourful depictions of the story’s grotesqueries with the simple natural beauty of the countryside and of the young girl, whose piteous abduction by the Goblin here occasioned particularly affecting playing from strings (violas) and winds as she lamented her fate. I thought conductor and players did terrific work making sense of Dvorak’s sometimes in places obsessive detailings, particularly throughout the sequences representing the girl’s captivity, the birth of her child, her pleading with her Goblin-husband to be allowed to visit her mother again (he will not let her take the child) and their reunitement. The final scene in which the spirit-husband impatiently comes to fetch his wife home again is fraught with all the tension, cruelty and ultimate horror characteristic of these Czech stories, which the composer knew as verse ballades written by the nationalistic poet Karel Jaromir Ereben. Atkins and his players again gave their all, demonstrating astonishing commitment to making the composer’s somewhat unwieldy structure work its full dramatic and colourful effect!
After the interval came, for me, the concert’s second piece de resistance, a performance by Caitlin Morris of the much-loved Elgar ‘Cello Concerto. Being of the generation which had listened open-mouthed to Jacqueline du Pre’s “revival” of the work in the 1960s, and thus still having her interpretation well-nigh “imprinted” on my consciousness, I was delighted to witness a younger player’s performance that seemed to take what she needed from du Pre’s intensely poetic vision of the work but bring to it very much her own brand of intensity and poetry, and a technique capable of realising those goals with real verve and brilliance. Right from the opening recitative, Morris commanded our attention, making the music very much her own and “drawing in” her fellow-players and listeners alike to a world opened up by the music’s unashamedly heart-on-sleeve outpourings.
Atkins and his players seemed at one with her throughout, matching her expressiveness at all points, with only a couple of orchestral interjections in the finale that seemed to me too wilfully brusque, and which caught the players off balance – elsewhere, all flowed as one, the effect being of hearing the music speak as poetry might be delivered by a great actor. What particularly caught my ear in the opening movement was the music’s Elgarian “stride”, that purposeful gait which evokes the composer walking over his beloved Malvern Hills, and which seems to characterise so much of his “Elgar the countryman” personality, with its dogged determination to succeed against all odds. By the time of the ‘Cello Concerto he HAD of course “succeeded” as a composer and a national figure, and the music of the rest of the work takes us beyond such successes and into expressive realms which suggest the sadness of things beyond recall in a rapidly-changing world.
A nimble-fingered account of the playful scherzo featured great teamwork between soloist, conductor and the orchestral winds, Morris’s diaphanously-voiced ascents during the exchanges a delight, as was the “wind-blown” aspect of the accompaniments – though the double-stopped passages weren’t always perfect, there was generated a proper sense of carefree abandonment in the music’s voicings and phrasings that for me captured its spirit.
Perhaps the highlight of the performance was the slow movement, my notes containing repeated references to the playing of soloist and orchestra “as one”, with tones and phrasings literally playing into each others’ hands, time almost seeming to stand still – the finale’s opening is, of course, intended to “break the spell”, though I thought the interjection here overly brusque – significantly, the concerted passages of the rest of the movement didn’t attempt to match the opening’s vehemence, yet were still forceful enough.
In fact the quixotic mood was well caught, especially the “things that go bump in the night” sequence with its sforzandi-like irruptions; and, together with the soloist, the massed ‘cellos rose splendidly to the occasion with their “all together” recitative. And the final section, where the music has always seemed to me to unashamedly weep, was here given full emotional rein, with its lump-in-the-throat return to the slow movement’s theme. How dramatic, always, is the ‘cello’s return to the opening recitative, as was the case, here – though, right at the work’s conclusion, while I can appreciate how the composer wanted a brusque, “well, let’s get on!” kind of ending, it seemed to me on this occasion over-projected, and ill-timed, out of kilter with the performance’s overall character.
Composure was somewhat restored with Morris and Atkins (the latter on the piano) giving us a “return-to-our-lives” performance of Saint-Saens’ ubiquitous “The Swan” which rounded off the concert in a suitably thoughtful way. Very great credit to these WCO musicians on a number of counts, not least in the enterprise of the programming, and the enthusiasm and commitment with which they undertook the task of making it all work so well.