Orchestra Wellington – Fundamental Forces
Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH – Symphony in E Minor
Igor STRAVINSKY – Violin Concerto in D
Josef HAYDN – Symphony No 39 in G Minor, ‘Tempesta di Mare’
Sergei PROKOFIEV – Scythian Suite
Natalia Lomeiko, Violin
Marc Taddei, Music Director
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Saturday 15th April, 2023
The concert was billed as ‘Fundamental Forces’, but the disparate collection of works confused me. What could a symphony by CPE Bach possibly have to do with an early work based on a ballet by Prokofiev?
Having missed the pre-concert talk, I was none the wiser by the time the small orchestra (2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 horns, plus strings, with Jonathan Berkahn on harpsichord) took the stage. The stage had already been set for a much larger work, with percussion stations at the back of the orchestra for 8 percussionists, and three sets of cymbals at the front of the choir stalls. The little orchestra was surrounded by many empty chairs. That kindled a feeling of anticipation.
My companion (who had attended the talk) helpfully whispered in my ear that the programme was ‘all about the beginning of emotionalism in music’.
The CPE Bach symphony was a delightful work, stylishly played. On the basis of his work with Wellington Youth Orchestra (2002-2007), I had always considered Marc Taddei a late Romantic specialist, preferring Mahler to pretty much everyone else. His work with Orchestra Wellington has made me review that opinion.
Although the orchestra used modern instruments at concert pitch, Taddei had his head in the period, the last days of the Baroque, when new ideas were exerting their influence. Taddei’s programme notes quoted Mozart: ‘Bach is the father; we are the children’, and explained that Mozart was not referring to the great JS Bach, but his second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-1788). The symphony was written in 1759, nearly a decade after the death of Bach père, and already you could hear ideas and approaches that the three-year old Mozart would later make his own. The symphony is in three movements, lasting 12 minutes, which simply made me wish it had been longer. According to Taddei’s notes, Bach fils used to say, ‘Play and compose from the soul!’ His aesthetic approach came to be known as the ‘Sensitive Style’. This symphony has plenty of musical ideas and is full of terrific effects, such as abrupt changes of dynamic within a big dynamic range, and the most alluring hesitations, when everyone stops playing, then suddenly resumes with the next set of brilliant notions.
The second work in the first half was Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D of 1931, with a big orchestra and the Russian violinist Natalia Lomeiko as soloist. Born in Novosibirsk, Lomeiko made her debut with the Novosibirsk Philharmonic Orchestra at the age of seven, and was appointed Professor of Violin at the Royal College of Music in London in 2010 (surely whilst still a child, as she looks about 25). She won the Michael Hill International Violin Competition in 2003 and the Premio Paganini in 2000. The Paganini is one of the most important violin competitions in the world. My high expectations climbed higher when my violinist companion whispered that Stravinsky was not a violinist, and didn’t realise that the opening chords of the concerto were unplayable. ‘Watch her left hand!’ he said.
I watched her left hand, but even knowing that Stravinsky had created a remarkably tricky chord, stretching two and a half octaves, from D4 to E5 and (yikes) up to A6 did not detract from its effect. Stravinsky had been commissioned to write the concerto for the Polish violinist Samuel Dushkin. Dushkin, so the story goes, recoiled in horror at the sight of the chord when Stravinsky wrote it on a napkin over lunch but found, once he tried it at home, that it wasn’t quite as hard as he thought. Just as well: Stravinsky called the chord the ‘passport to the concerto’, and used it to start each of the four movements.
The concerto is scored for full wind (piccolo, 2 flutes, 3 clarinets, 2 oboes, cor anglais) and brass sections (3 bassoons plus contrabassoon; 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, and tuba), as well as timpani and bass drum. Not surprisingly, it was noisy at times, and the gorgeous sound of the solo violin was a bit overwhelmed. (Indeed, I overheard a confident remark on the stairs on my way out that it was ‘under-powered and unimpressive’.) I disagree – the orchestral texture was at times as lush as you’d expect from that line-up, but was mostly kept thin so that the violin’s presence was heard. That thinness, together with the rhythms, gave it a wonderful vitality. There was some stunning bassoon playing from principal Jessica Goldbaum and colleagues, and lovely clarinet solos from Nick Walshe and team on B flat, A, and E flat clarinets. The work is full of surprises: rhythmic; harmonic; textural. I especially enjoyed the audience’s reaction of surprise at the end of the second movement: a collective, involuntary ‘Oh!’ Once again, at 22 minutes, it was all too short. I could have listened to it all over again. But no. Instead the soloist played a movement from a Bach partita as an encore, as emotionally rich a reading as anyone could wish. What a player!
After the interval, a second pair of works. This time, an early Prokofiev work was paired with (or introduced by) Haydn’s Symphony 39, ‘Tempesta di Mare’. The Esterhazy orchestra, for whom it was written in 1765 (a couple of years after the CPE Bach symphony), was big enough to run to two oboes and four horns, which made the tempestuous first and fourth movements lots of fun. This was one of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang (‘storm and stress’) symphonies, a precursor of Romanticism. Again, interesting and unexpected harmonies, clean rhythms, and a wide dynamic range. The opening movement was busy and energetic, but with odd silences – as though the wind was building, but with sudden lulls. The Andante second movement, E flat minor and in 3/8, was delightful. No horns or oboes, but full of expressive pauses. The Menuet and Trio were in contrasting minor and major keys, with gorgeous accents from the horns and lower strings. and charming duets in the Trio between horns and oboes. Back to a 4/4 allegro molto for the Finale – fun and fast and all too short at 16 minutes.
Finally, the moment the percussionists had been waiting for: the Prokofiev Scythian Suite. The work was commissioned in 1914 as a ballet ‘on prehistoric Russian themes’ by the impresario Diaghilev from the 23-year-old Prokofiev, fresh out of the St Petersburg Conservatory. Prokofiev was then known for his dissonant works for piano, impossible to play by anyone but him. But Diaghilev didn’t like what Prokofiev wrote, so he turned it into a suite instead, retaining the blood lust, demonism, and ritual sacrifice.
The scoring for this work included 8 horns, as well as the aforementioned 8 percussionists, contrabassoon, bass trombone, tuba, lots of trombones and trumpets, and two harps. It must cost a fortune in extra players which accounts, perhaps, for its not being performed very often. That is a huge pity. I’d rather hear the Scythian Suite again than another Rite of Spring or even another Firebird.
The work opens at an electrifying fff (it has to be said that Taddei literally ran to the podium, as though he needed to catch the orchestra before they took off, which added to the drama), and doesn’t let up until all the cymbals and every other bit of percussion kit have been played, very loudly. That’s not to say it lacks beauty. The third movement, ‘Night’, featured shimmering muted strings, tuned percussion, and ravishing harp chords. But if (as I do) you like loud, rhythmically exciting music with lots of unexpected effects, then this work is for you. It’s only 20 minutes long, which meant that it stopped all too soon.
So there you have it. A fantastic concert made up of unusual works tied together by an interesting idea. The audience applauded with gusto. The subscribers do love Taddei and his extraordinary programming. I walked out into the night with a big grin on my face , as did – I noticed – most of the performers.