Music of magical flight – Palmer, Mozart and Stravinsky from the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents

Juliet Palmer – Buzzard
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 23 in A K.488
Igor Stravinsky (ed. Jonathan McPhee) – The Firebird Ballet

Diedre Irons (piano)
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday 8th April, 2021

Throughout the first half of Canadian-based New Zealand-born composer Juliet Palmer’s work Buzzard, I was enraptured,  totally enthralled by Palmer’s self-proclaimed “digestion” of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird. I was bowled over as much by the former’s mastery of orchestral techniques we all readily ascribe to the latter’s music, the brilliance of the orchestrations, the motoric rhythms, and, by turns, the fluency and the angularity of the changing time-signatures, as by the curious phenomenon of the music having been “masticated” by Palmer into resembling in many places something more like Petrouchka! I confess that for some time I couldn’t extricate myself from imagining fairground ambiences, even complete with a slow-motion thematic “quote” at one point in the music! Still, the essence of Stravinsky was all there, the rumbustious rhythmic trajectories, the dynamic punctuations, the angularity of the different cheek-by-jowl time signatures, and the ear-catching variety of orchestral texture, feathery and diaphanous soundscapes co-existing with explosive irruptions and roistering rhythms.

This was “transmorgrified” Stravinsky, wondrous and strange in its “familiar-but-new” guise, and even possibly emerging (as the composer put it) somewhat “damaged” and “disfigured” as a by-product of the process. Gradually, it seemed to me that the ambience of the piece was shifting to something more sombre, though Palmer chose to indulge mid-way in some Ibert-like sequences involving sounds evoking whistles, shouts and extraneous noises, before introducing an almost “worry to death” motif, one which created what sounded almost like an impasse in the work’s unfolding. An oboe-led sequence which finally suggested something of the atmospheres of Palmer’s “other” subject for “dismemberment”, one relating to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, with its mystery of Odette and her enchanted cygnets under the sway of an enchanter, was given but a brief moment to develop, before being overtaken by a skitterish section of sounds that for me reflected only the helplessness and vacuity of the swan’s and her cygnets’ peregrinations, with few “echoings” of the would-be-lovers’ predicament – in general, on one hearing I felt a far more resounding sense of identification with Stravinsky’s work than of Tchaikovsky’s, on Palmer’s part when the piece had finished. (I note that microphones were present, suggesting the concert was recorded, and presenting the possibility of my hearing the work again)….

Moving on to the concert’s second item, Mozart’s adorable A Major Piano Concerto K.488, I instantly warmed to the work’s opening, played here by the orchestra with what sounded like a certain expectation, something of a “wait and see” exposition. Hamish McKeich and players gave the full tutti in the opening its due, but elsewhere brought out a dynamic differentiation that nicely suggested things held in reserve. Diedre Irons, whose playing I’ve always greatly admired, appeared also to hold the music “up for inspection” at first, her passagework having a delicacy that seemed to me to resemble a flower about to open, but with a certain tremulousness, bent on a kind of journey which I felt began to “flow” more freely as the first-movement cadenza approached – the orchestra then proclaimed and the pianist responded, the display exhibiting a marvellous gathering of flowering energy, the confident flourishes conveying to us that the Mozartean “oil” had begun to flow.  In the slow movement which followed, every piano note resounded and shone, with both clarinet and then flute in response to the piano so eloquent, and the bassoon so steadfast in support. The playing’s rapt togetherness created an intensity from which the winds gave us some relief, some gorgeous quintessential Le Nozze di Figaro-like moments enabling us to breathe more freely before immersing ourselves once again in the music’s deeper waters, with the piano and then the winds leaving us spellbound once more, right to the movement’s end.

Played almost attacca, here, Irons set the finale on its course with supreme poise, the effect playful rather than breathless or thrusting, the phrases and rhythms having real girth – some listeners may have wanted a touch more rumbustion in the galumphing, two-note descending figures, but I enjoyed the “spin” of the rhythms, and the “delighted” interaction between the soloist and various sections of the orchestra. Irons’ occasional impishly energised impulses brough such life to places such as her perky interchange with the winds just before the final recapitulation of the opening – both the relish with which she then launched this concluding paragraph of the music, and the enthusiasm with which McKeich and the players responded, underlined for us the pleasure of its overall presentation, the musicians’ efforts warmly received at the work’s conclusion.

I had previously heard (and reviewed) a performance of Jonathan McPhee’s “reduced orchestra” version of Firebird before, presented by Orchestra Wellington in May 2017, one which on that occasion presented an orchestra seemingly at the top of its game, a “spectacularly-realised performance” (to quote the Middle C writer!). I’ve not been able to ascertain whether, amidst these somewhat astringent times, that concert was actually recorded by RNZ technicians, as I believe this present one was – if not, a pity that posterity has denied local music-lovers the chance to compare performances of the same work from Wellington’s two foremost orchestras.

As with the Orchestra Wellington performance (and I shan’t mention the latter again), the great glory of this evening’s realisation was that the work was given complete, allowing people familiar with only the “suites” assembled by the composer from the work, to place such excerpts in the context of a glorious performance of the whole ballet. This gave the composer’s idea of using folk-inspired diatonic music to portray his human characters and octatonic and chromatic music for the story’s supernatural characters far greater focus and dramatic ebb-and flow than in a performance of either of the suites. Of course this “great glory” here became like a word made flesh over the course of the work’s unfolding, with conductor and players realising, by turns, every subtlety and shade of atmosphere and detailing while, at the other end of the dynamic range conjuring up the weight and brilliance of the music’s more forthright sequences with incredibly sustained focus and
unflagging energy.

At the beginning the evocation of dark, mysterious space was palpable, the playing enabling the scene’s ambivalent interplay of wonderment and menace to register, preparing the way for the Firebird’s brilliance and her interaction with Prince Ivan, who was able to capture her, before securing a magic feather from her as the price of her freedom – all characterised with a beautiful violin solo from the concertmaster, Vesa-Matti Leppänen, and taken up tenderly by other instruments. Both irrepressible gaiety and youthful grace marked the accompaniments for the Twelve Princesses, whose Round Dance was accompanied by the fresh folksiness of the Borodin-like oboe melody, courtesy of Robert Orr. The strings’ taking up of the melody was superb, at the same time liquid and focused – how adroitly McKeich and his players were able to  move between diaphanous delicacy and full-throated feeling, as Ivan and one of the princesses fell in love! Similarly, the trumpet warning set in play a superb transition from these scenes to those depicting the arrival of Koshchey, the ogre, and his followers. As mentioned before, the famous Dance of Koshchey’s Cohorts brilliantly burst from the agitated build-up and wrought appropriate havoc (I loved the trombone glissandi, “rescued” from one of the composer’s “retouched” suites by Jonathan McPhee to great effect here!). And what coruscating playing from the orchestra as the Firebird reappeared! – the music dashing and crashing the dance to its scintillating conclusion.

None of the suites depict the actual destruction of Koshchey’s magic egg and the death of the monster, a sequence whose vivid sequencing here brought about a true sense of cathartic release from oppression, the music burgeoning from its subterranean beginnings to a tumult whose seismic force couldn’t help but move mountains. Then came the famous Berceuse, from out of which, via the golden horn-tones of Sam Jacobs, grew various manifestations of rebirth from the once-besieged land – fabulously and grandly epic phrasings at the first climax, whereupon the music burst forth excitedly and festively as Ivan and his Princess were farewelled by the Firebird and the garden’s rejuvenated inhabitants.

All of this received a properly enraptured reception from a thrilled audience, who were pleased to respond to conductor McKeich’s acknowledgement of his players both individually and collectively with the acclaim they deserved. Somebody said to me as we walked out of the hall, “Well! – if the orchestra can do that so wonderfully, isn’t it about time we had a complete Daphnis et Chloe, with a chorus? What an occasion THAT would be, with playing like this!” I couldn’t have agreed more!

Orchestra Wellington out-performs the fireworks with a stunning “Petrouchka”

Orchestra Wellington presents:

TABEA SQUIRE – Colour Lines (commission from Orchestra Wellington)*
CARL NIELSEN – Violin Concerto Op.33
IGOR STRAVINSKY – Petrouchka (Ballet – Revised 1947 Edition)

Arohanui Strings – Sistema Hutt Valley (Alison Eldredge – director)*

Andrew Atkins (conductor)*
Suyeon Kang (violin)
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington,

Saturday 4th November, 2017

Audiences can be curiously unpredictable, on occasions exhilarating and galvanizing masses of energy to be part of, caught up in the excitement of either enthusiastic or rapt responses to some performances, (especially those involving soloists) and then for no apparent reason, every once in a while, strangely under-responsive. Why this sudden out-of-the-blue observation, going a little against the grain of my normally unrelieved positivism as a music reviewer?

It was Saturday’s Orchestra Wellington concert that left me feeling a little bemused, after I’d experienced warmth and enthusiasm aplenty on the part of the audience in response to the efforts, firstly, of the youthful Sistema Strings, playing both a group of demonstration pieces and taking a vital role in composer Tabea Squire’s newly-commissioned work “Colour Lines”, and secondly, violinist Suyeon Kang, in giving us a rapturously beautiful performance of that concert-hall rarity, the Nielsen Violin Concerto, with plenty of tensile strength and winning gossamer-woven lines.

In each of these cases the performers’ energies were accorded the kind of reaction from the listeners that reflected the music-making’s outstanding and warm-hearted qualities. However, I thought that, on the same performance “Richter-scale”, the audience’s reaction to the concert’s second half, a breathtakingly brilliant realisation by orchestra and conductor of Stravinsky’s music for his ballet “Petrouchka”, by rights ought to have been something along the lines of a twenty-minute standing ovation!

That such a stunning realization of the work didn’t seem to me as forthcoming as it fully deserved could have been because (1) there had already been a lot of applause in the concert already, due to the presence of the Sistema students, (2) the remarkable violinist Suyeon Kang had already taken the lion’s share, with her gorgeously elfin-like performance of Nielsen’s Violin Concerto (including a round of spontaneous applause at the first movement’s conclusion) and (3) Petrouchka of course ends not with a Firebird-like bang, but with a subdued whimper, from which listeners have to then re-activate those glowing embers of enthusiasm and get them bursting into flame once more. So the audience response conveyed what I thought W.S.Gilbert might have described as “modified rapture”, instead of conveying (as I and a colleague afterwards were both feeling) a sense of “Did we really hear that? It was mind-blowing!”

Overall, the concert’s trajectory lent itself to a kind of “from seeds to forest giant” progression, with tremulously awakened beginnings demonstrated by the cutest brigade of junior string-players one could imagine, all under the sway of their director, Alison Eldredge. All of these were introduced by Orchestra Wellington Music Director, Marc Taddei, and included OW’s assistant conductor Andrew Atkins (unfortunately not credited in the programme for his efforts with both the Arohanui Strings, in their introductory items, and in directing the combined ensemble in the commissioned piece “Colour Lines” by Tabea Squire).

This was a work whose composer conceived as involving both the student players and the orchestra proper, by using ‘”free-time” notation in places to allow the younger players the means of continuously contributing to the music’s texture. A chorale which appears in various guises during the piece eventually blends with the younger musicians’ efforts. I was struck by the confident orchestrations throughout, a definite character emerging with each of the sequences, making for strongly-etched contrasts (scintillating upper strings are then “cooled’ by the winds near the opening, before a lovely dancing interaction develops between strings and winds beneath warm horn tones, the latter then assuming a ”stopped” out-of-phase effect which kaleidoscopes the music into yet another world of wonderment).

I recall both my Middle-C colleague Rosemary Collier and myself being delighted by Tabea Squire’s work for string quartet “Jet-lag” at a 2014 concert, a piece with something of a similar sharply-etched sense of character, obviously wrought by a composer with an ear for textures and the on-going ambiences. What mischief, and indeed, even danger, was let loose with the burble and ferment generated by the brass in their “hornets’ nest” sequence! – again contrasting with the nobility of the chorale voiced by those same instruments not long after – reminiscent of Hindemith, here, as the strings muscled up to join with the tutti in gestures of satisfying finality, snappy and definite. I thought the music most skillfully and confidently focused and blurred its edges all at once, throughout, as the title suggested it might.

Relatively unknown compared with its Nordic cousin written in 1904 by Sibelius, the slightly later (1911) Violin Concerto of Carl Nielsen’s proved equally as strong and fascinating a work, and certainly as difficult to play, if not more so. Like Sibelius, Nielsen was himself a violinist, though neither composer would have attempted to perform his own concerto, despite Aino Sibelius describing her husband’s playing of the work’s solo part during its composition as “on fire all the time.….he stays awake all night, plays incredibly beautifully,…he has so many ideas it is hard to believe it….”

Nielsen’s work, unlike Sibelius’s, turned away from the standard three-movement concerto form, the composer casting the work in two large movements, each with a slow and quicker section (some commentators alternatively describe the work as having four movements). The music began strongly, dramatic and declamatory, the soloist (South-Korean-born Australian violinist Suyeon Kang) meeting the orchestra’s initial challenge with full-throated recitative-like passages whose striking quality of tensile strength and flexibility of phrasing instantly compelled and held one’s attention throughout. I wondered whether, in the big-boned virtuoso sequences, Kang’s tightly-woven silken tones would fill-out sufficiently to provide a sufficient match for the orchestra’s more assertive gestures – but such was her focused concentration her instrument seemed able to “inhabit” the music’s dynamics in an entirely natural and unselfconscious manner. From these trenchant responses right through to the Elgar-like lyricism of the Praeludium’s final musings, she held us in thrall.

Nor did she shirk the physicality of the jolly “cavalleresco” opening of the allegro, with its vigorous exchanges, rapid running passages, and sudden moments of introspection, all leading to a solo cadenza which mirrors the quixotic moods which have gone before in the music, before dancing back to the allegro’s lively theme. And such was the breathtaking skill with which she swung into the movement’s dancing coda, and traded playful feints and gestures with the orchestra right to the end, that the audience responded with some spontaneous unscheduled applause (to which Marc Taddei, after acknowledging the soloist and the clapping, remarked “But wait! – there’s more!”).

The slow movement featured lovely playing throughout the opening sequences from the winds, joined by the horns, and some beautiful Sibelius-like accompaniments in thirds for the soloist, whose utterances seemed bent on expressing some kind of private sorrow. The horns offered comfort at various points, as did the strings, so that the music’s abrupt recourse to a kind of droll waltz seemed almost Schubertian in its stoic, at times quirky and humourful resignation, the orchestra occasionally launching into moments of mock seriousness, none of which last for very long. One thunderous episode provoked an angular cadenza from the soloist, during which, at one point, she played simultaneously a drone bass, a repeated pizzicato note and some bowed figurations, all most divertingly and unselfconsciously. It was a remarkable performance from all concerned, and fully deserved a response which matched in enthusiasm that given to another Korean musician in the MFC just over a week ago, Joyce Yang, after her Rachmaninov concerto performance with the NZSO.

We reformed after the interval to the sounds of fireworks outside, which were soon well-and-truly put in their place by a performance of Stravinsky’s eponymous ballet “Petrouchka” from Marc Taddei and Orchestra Wellington which I couldn’t imagine bettered in terms of precision, skill, atmosphere and overall theatrical and musical impact. Every sequence, every scene, every tableau came alive, the music-making bringing into being both dance and drama, and forming a kind of triumvirate of successful evocation of artistic achievement. At its conclusion I felt sympathy for Marc Taddei and all the players who deserved to be brought to their feet and given individual acknowledgement – but the trouble was, there were too many of them! Nevertheless I thought that all the winds and all the brass players were simply heroes, and that Andrew Atkins deservedly got his dues after all, for his superb piano-playing. Very great honour, of course, to Marc Taddei and his all-encompassing direction of the score. For all these reasons and more, I could have clapped for much, much longer!











Astonishing performance of complete Daphnis et Chloé ballet music, plus a Schumann allusion

Orchestra Wellington and the Orpheus Choir conducted by Marc Taddei with Stephen de Pledge (piano)

Schumann: Carnaval (four scenes arranged by Ravel)
Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor Op 54
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé – complete ballet score

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 5 August, 7:30 pm

Orchestra Wellington continued its 2017 series theme that focuses on the great impresario Sergei Diaghilev, the genius behind the Ballets Russes which changed the face of ballet before the First World War, and also impacted on most of the other arts. For he employed the most gifted choreographers, composers, dancers and designers, of the age, and inspired them to produce work that would radically enrich and rejuvenate, even revolutionise the arts generally. One of the greatest ballets inspired by Diaghilev was Daphnis et Chloé; and the orchestra must have faced the necessity of performing it with trepidation.

But we began with an arrangement of Schumann’s Carnaval. What’s the link with Diaghilev?

Carnaval is a bit of an oddity, for it was first used, at Fokine’s initiative, in a collaborative orchestration by Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Arensky, Lyadov, and Tcherepnin for the Ballets Russes in 1910. So it is curious that in 1914 Nijinsky asked Ravel to do another arrangement of Carnaval, this time for a London season; a Ravel arrangement was inspired no doubt by the success of Daphnis et Chloé in 1912, the year before Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps.  Most of Ravel’s score is lost and only four parts are extant: Preamble – German waltz – Paganini – March of the ‘Davidsbündler’ against the Philistines. So it was a minor work in the Ballets Russes story, but it acted as a sort of overture to this concert.

It is hard for me to adopt an objective feeling towards an orchestration of music that seems so utterly, quintessentially for the piano and which I’ve loved in that form for hundreds of years. Clearly, the orchestra decided to include it, as Marc Taddei explained, because Schumann’s piano concerto was scheduled in the first half, and the idea of some kind of link was attractive.

So, it’s essentially a scrap, a remnant in which there is not enough time to become much engaged by the sort of delightful, eccentric magic that a performance of the entire 20 pieces of the original creates, making emotional and artistic sense of the complete score.

I couldn’t avoid the feeling that it presented the orchestra with an insuperable task, to ingest the music, firstly to overcome resistance to sounds not from a piano, and to be persuaded that Ravel himself was convinced by it. Though whimsy, children’s make-believe, a chimerical world, the exotic, are common to both Schumann and Ravel, I have the feeling that they imagined them in quite different ways.

So I was not surprised to find in the scoring little that I’d have ascribed to Ravel in a blind-fold test.

Schumann Piano Concerto
The Piano Concerto was an entirely different matter: it was among my first LP purchases as a Schumann-enraptured teenager; but it’s a long time since I’ve heard a live performance. Adding the visual element to the music, I found myself noting aspects of the score that spoke of a composer not as much at ease with an orchestra as with his piano (a very familiar view which I decided was unhelpful). My attention nevertheless, was largely on the beautifully lyrical piano writing and the sympathetic, unostentatious playing by Stephen de Pledge which (in spite of blemishes here and there) soon took my attention away from the rather traditional orchestral score. Though very different in character, the reputation of Schumann’s concerto a little like that of Chopin’s two concertos: one disparages the orchestration. However, De Pledge’s playing, and particularly his cadenza that was musical rather than flashy, were enough to draw applause at the end of the first movement; that might also have indicated large numbers of the audience fairly new to classical music – one of the positive achievements of Orchestra Wellington’s policies.

The little encore was, appropriately, from CarnavalChiarina, a portrait of Schumann’s fiancée and future wife, Clara Wieck.

Daphnis et Chloé
The main purpose of the evening was the rare performance of, not the more familiar suites that Ravel himself took from the work, but the whole nearly hour-long ballet, Daphnis et Chloé, complete with chorus.

The huge array of instrumentalists (over 80) and the 100-strong Orpheus Choir could not been a more striking contrast to the music before the interval. These 70 years had led to music that was as different as Matisse and Braque are from Ingres and Delacroix.

Though it is in three parts or Tableaux – not, formally speaking or conspicuously in ‘Acts’, one does not notice the sort of contrasted movements that characterise traditional classical music.  The overwhelming impression is of organic growth, through a series of evolutionary mood changes and a story that moves to and fro, in and out of focus. Thus there is no point in trying to point to particular episodes as ‘effective’ or ‘unfocused’ or ‘particularly arresting’, in the way a critic often feels obliged to do. What do tend to stand out, to sound familiar, are naturally enough the parts that form the two suites that Ravel compiled, which include the Nocturne, Interlude and Danse-guerrière; and Lever de jour, Pantomime, and Danse générale, mostly from Tableau III.

Even though the impact on the listener is so overwhelming that there’s little chance to attend to details of thematic evolution, of the use and significance of contrasting keys, one has to take as read the fact that its success in maintaining rapt attention, and perhaps a longing for it to continue for another half hour, is due to those inconspicuous compositional secrets.

Though there’s no question about the singular brilliance and emotional power of the ballet, as music, there is an old-fashioned idea that the best test of the real depth of music’s originality and genius, lies in its likely impact if it could be heard without the trappings, regalia, colours and jewellery that adorns it. Would the music, stripped of its gaudy, overwhelming orchestration, reveal weakness in invention, in structure, in the unfolding of a musical narrative; would it remain engrossing if reduced to a piano score? Might it emerge featureless and drab? Who knows?

Of course, that’s as nonsensical as looking at a Turner or a Monet and asking that it be judged in a black and white reproduction. So the flamboyant and luxurious orchestration was an essential element, a major attraction, achieved through an orchestra of Mahlerian or Straussian size, and a great choir. And to think that a merely part-time orchestra, though overflowing with experienced professional musicians, both permanent and as frequent guests, had the temerity to take on one of the most famous, most challenging, sometimes acknowledged as the greatest, orchestral masterpieces of the 20th century. Not only were the wind sections enhanced with relatively infrequent instruments like bass clarinet, E flat clarinet, alto flute, but there were two harps and nine players lined up behind timpani and percussion, more than I can recall at any previous concert. Just for the record, percussion (taken from details in Wikipedia) were snare drum, bass drum, field drum, tambourine, castanets, crotales, cymbals, celesta, glockenspiel, xylophone, wind machine, tam-tam and triangle.

Then there’s the wordless choral element, present throughout most of its length: music that to some extent, is rather like what I described above: dense in complex harmony but sonically uniform. Learning the choral parts was probably more challenging than it would have been with conventional word setting where memory of words and music are inter-dependent and mutually supportive; and the choir’s performance sounded as near faultless as I imagine it gets (particularly conspicuous in the impressive passage without accompaniment). If diction was never an issue, the sheer energy and incisiveness of the singing, and the incessant demands on singers spoke of thorough rehearsal and dedication under their conductor, Brent Stewart (who was not named in the programme but singled out at the end).

This was the most courageous and momentous enterprise of Orchestra Wellington’s entire 2017 season, and perhaps one of the orchestra’s all time finest hours; it was mainly a tribute to conductor Marc Taddei, for its conception, inspiration and leadership that carried it through to a performance of astonishing dramatic and musical subtlety, insight and sheer splendour.


Orchestra Wellington’s fifth concert excels with last works of Berlioz, Bartok and Tchaikovsky (almost)

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei and Vincent Hardaker, with Michael Houstoun at the piano
Arohanui Strings – Sistema Hutt Valley, conducted by Vincent Hardaker

Arohanui Strings: arrangements of music by Purcell, Tchaikovsky (Serenade for Strings and the waltz from Sleeping Beauty)

Orchestra Wellington:
Overture to Béatrice et Bénédict (Berlioz)
Bartok: Piano Concerto No 3
Tchaikvosky: Nutcracker – Act II

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 15 October, 7:30 pm

This was the once-a-year event for the young musicians involved with the Hutt Valley Arohanui Strings, the project inspired by the famous Venezuelan institution, El Sistema. They filed in after some of Orchestra Wellington’s players had taken their seats: the more advanced ones taking seats alongside a professional player as mentor; the beginners spread across the front of the stage – some of them looked aged about four. They were conducted by the orchestra’s assistant conductor Vincent Hardaker, with assistance from the side by Alison Eldrigde, encouraging the littlies at the front.

Playing some simplified, though genuine classical pieces: Purcell, Tchaikovsky, Scottish dances, they charmed the audience.

Hardaker stayed to conduct the orchestra itself in the Béatrice et Bénédict overture, Berlioz’s last opera and though about six years before his death, really his last work. It’s based on Shakespeare’s Much ado about Nothing, written on commission from the Baden Baden Opera. Though it hasn’t taken root in the regular repertoire, I saw it staged by the Australian Opera in 1998; there’s some fine music, several quotes of which appear in the overture, which has always held its place in the orchestral repertoire. Its brightness and wit were splendidly captured by Hardaker and the players, with secretive little passages from clarinets, edgy brass and dancing violins.

Bartok’s last piano concerto, left a few bars short of completion when he died in New York in 1945, as WW2, too, was ending. I recalled with bemusement how barbaric it sounded when I first heard it in my late teens, which was, after all, only about 10 years after its composition.

Musicologists enjoy themselves identifyjng its odd modal tonalities; all quite beside the point. Any audience can assess its blending of Balkan folk music with ancient modes and contemporary musical obsessions, all overlaid by sheer musical inspiration. Houstoun approached the first movement with a sense of determination and energy, though its generally lyrical character emerged clearly, allowing melodic figures to take root; lovely flute notes at its end. It confirmed the admirable collaboration between Houstoun and conductor Taddei.

The second movement on the other hand can be heard simply as a rather beautiful piece of music, even though analysis shows characteristics uncommon in western classical music. But ‘beautiful’ hardly touches the enigmatic, spiritual, orphic quality of this singular movement. The orchestra alone and many individual players proved their capacity for exquisite, contemplative playing at the start and throughout there are some breathlessly calm, slow passages for the piano alone, Bach-like figurations, in which Houstoun captured a metaphysical spirit, perhaps the composer meditating on his imminent death – it’s entitled Adagio religioso. But then there’s an upbeat interlude, curiously alive with bird-calls in the middle, ending with skittering keyboard.

The third movement returns to an energetic, folk-dance-inspired Allegro vivace, where there’s still more opportunities for individual instruments to shine, like horns and the piano to indulge in fast fugal passages that come to envelope the whole orchestra.

In all, a splendid show-case for the orchestra and pianist, in one of the 20th century’s real masterpieces.

The opportunity to hear a whole of Act II of Nutcracker played without the distraction of dancers proved hugely rewarding, as the score is endlessly inventive and memorable as pure music, quite apart from its qualities of marvellous danceabilty with which choreographers and dancers have been able to create indelible productions.  While I have grown very tired of performances of the Suite that compacts the character dances, in their setting, as little orchestral pieces played by a live orchestra in the concert hall, they sit perfectly in context; their genius, their instrumental brilliance, and the way they flow the one into the next is simply a delight. The programme note records that Nureyev said that it was Tchaikovsky who encouraged serious composers to engage with choreographers, making possible masterpieces like the Stravinsky ballets, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë, Prokofiev, as well as dozens of wonderful scores by other great 20th century composers.

Nutcracker engages with an orchestra, inspiring spirited and moving playing from almost every section and including a few instruments like the celesta which Tchaikovsky was the first to use symphonically (though Chausson had actually beaten him by a few years with incidental music for a French version of The Tempest). It’s the great Pas de deux that follows the Waltz of the Flowers that especially enchants me, and it was wonderful to hear this played so well by a ‘live’ orchestra.

Nutcracker mightn’t have fitted perfectly with the ‘Last Words’ theme of this year’s concerts, for the Sixth Symphony, and some piano pieces and songs followed it. But it served a higher purpose: to elevate the genre of great ballet music to the concert hall, and with this performance Marc Taddei proved the case most convincingly.

Taddei gave the first clues to the 2017 programme, which will follow the same most successful pattern as this year, disclosing the general theme of the music, associated with the great impresario Diaghilev, and at least two of his greatest collaborators: Stravinsky and Ravel. If you buy before the next and last of this year’s concerts, the sub is only $120.