Exotic, rhapsodic, gruesome and tragic – Wellington Chamber Orchestra with conductor Andrew Atkins and Thomas Nikora (piano)


BORODIN – In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880)
RACHMANINOV – Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini Op.43**
DVOŘÁK – Symphonic Poem “The Wild Dove“ (Holoubek) Op.110  B.198
TCHAIKOVSKY – Fantasy Overture “Romeo and Juliet“ (1880)

Thomas Nikora (piano)**
Andrew Atkins (conductor)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, 23rd September 2018

I thought the programme’s given, somewhat “Readers’ Digest”, title “Great Romantic Symphonic Poems” simply didn’t convey the essence of this concert, so I have invented my own, above, thinking that it ought to “grab” people’s attention more readily, even if for the wrong reasons. The adjectives refer, of course, to the concert’s contents, and by no means to the performances, which were simply riveting throughout – and what reservations I might have had concerning the latter can be self-dismissed, in any case, with the words “in my opinion”, writ in water rather than in stone!

At least the title conveys the extraordinary range of content and sensibility to be found in this assemblage of music, of which only Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” could be said to be truly standard fare. I can’t ever remember hearing Alexander Borodin’s delectable piece “In the Steppes of Central Asia” in concert, before, and we don’t get to hear “live” THAT often the most jazzy and contemporary-sounding of all of Rachmaninov’s works for piano and orchestra, the Paganini Rhapsody. As for the Dvořák symphonic poem “The Wild-Dove”, well I didn’t anywhere see any labels on the item with the words “Contains disturbing content” or “Adults must be accompanied by children” – but the material from which the composer drew his inspiration for this and several other tone-poems outdoes even some of the Brothers Grimm’s stories for malevolence and bloodthirstiness (the “Wild-Dove” actually being the least brutal of a very nasty bunch of stories by Karel Jaromir Erben, based on Czech folklore!)

So, ‘twas programming of a most enterprising kind, and its realisation was, I thought, most successful. Beginning with that most evocative of musical realisations, Borodin’s “In the Steppes of Central Asia”, a brilliantly-conceived musical picture of, for we South-Sea Islanders,  a most exotic and fairy-tale part of the world, the performance straightaway took us to a land of seemingly endless vistas, through which occasionally passed travellers from both east and west, in this case a caravan from Asia making its way westwards accompanied by Russian soldiers. Borodin’s idea was to portray these salient characteristics of two worlds in music, separately at first, and then together, all under the sway of the landscape’s vast spaces.

The strings began with a single held note, delineating the vast stillness of the steppes, with solos from firstly clarinet and then horn (beautifully played) establishing firstly the “Russian” presence, followed by the sinuous “Eastern” melody, here most evocatively sounded by the oboe, both wind choirs and brasses beautifully realising their differently-coloured and ambiently spaced-out sequences. And so came the ”big tutti”, which burst upon the scene in brazen glory, the Russian theme splendidly “rasped” by the brasses and ably supported by winds and strings alike – magnificent!

But the most splendid part of the work was to come, with the two melodies then so beautifully and nostalgically combined as the different worlds intermingled, sharing instrumentations and colours and timbres between them in lump-in-throat ways, the strings particularly affecting here as they changed from Russian” to “Eastern” in one of the sequences. A shortness of breath in one of the early wind solos, and some momentary imprecise ensemble between wind and strings in the “intermingling” of melodies did no violence to the power and beauty of the evocation by conductor and players, the horn and wind solos all heroic, the strings and flute heartbreakingly magical at the end.

Enter then Thomas Nikora, taking time out from his duties as Music Director of Cantoris Choir, to essay the soloist’s role in Rachmaninov’s “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” for piano and orchestra. With a flick of the conductor’s wrist, a couple of emphatic, confident piano chords, and a frisson of orchestral energy, we were away on a wild, spontaneous-sounding ride, the music very much in Rachmaninov the composer’s later leaner, more spiky mode, though with a few melting moments at one or two places. Of course, everybody was waiting for the work’s most well-known sequence, the eighteenth variation (when asked about this variation’s return to the “old” Rachmaninovian style, the composer simply replied “That one was for my agent!”) – and Nikora and Atkins and the players didn’t disappoint, giving the famous melody plenty of room to expand and fill the spaces with luscious tones – even if the strings lacked the “heft” of professional orchestras their backs were bent to the task and their phrasing of the melody fully demonstrated their depth of feeling for the music.

Elsewhere, the soloist and players relished the “cat-and-mouse” moments of the music’s interactions as much as the quieter, more reflective sequences. I was impressed with the articulateness of it all, and the fitting-together at high speed of the various impulses, drolleries, explosions and longer lines – there was only one minor derailment, early on, that I noticed (I think in Variation V), when the orchestra was in one place slightly too quick for the pianist, who adroitly skipped the hiatus and reconnected in an instant, a moment atypical of the performance as a whole, though the realignment was in fact perfectly in line with the quicksilver responses of the musicians in general.

Besides the brilliance there was atmosphere – Variation VII brought the first appearance of the composer’s oft-used  “Dies Irae” theme, with bassoon and lower strings filling out the lugubrious tread of the music, and Variation XI rhapsodised, with tremolando strings and piano recitatives bringing a stillness to the soundscapes into which was poured cascades of piano notes in quasi-cadenza fashion, followed by Variation XII, which disconcertingly turned the “Dies Irae” theme into something like a ballroom waltz, graceful and sultry. More half-lit and even sinister in places was Variation XVI, staccato strings and stealthy piano ushering in a plaintive oboe, with the harp sounding the tocsin and strings shivering with foreboding at the phrase-ends and the solo violin doing its best along with the clarinet to reassure,  despite wonderful moans from the horn and flute – everything so well characterised!

As for Thomas Nikora’s piano-playing, it was by turns brilliant, forthright, charming, poetic and ruminative, as befitted the character of each of the variations – whether scintillating with cascades of notes as in Variation XI, or emoting with elegance and poetry, as in the famous No XVIII, or in complete contrast despatching the virtuoso demands of the last three variations with strength, wit and brilliance, he seemed in complete command of the music and in accord with what conductor and players were doing – at the end of it all we felt we had been “treated” to something out of the ordinary, and responded accordingly – quite unexpectedly, we were then given by the pianist an additional gift of a delicious arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from the “Nutcracker” Ballet.

After the interval we returned for some more serious, not to say grimmer, business – Antonin Dvořák’s “Holoubek“ or “The Wild Dove“ is one of four symphonic poems written in 1896  by the composer, all inspired by a collection of folk-ballads called Kytice (Bouquet) written by Karel Jaromir Eben. Dvořák had previously written works inspired by Eben’s poetry in his “Legends“ (written firstly for piano fourhands, but later orchestrated), and like both Mussorgsky and Janacek in their music sought to reproduce something of the native flavour of the texts, and make specific musical references to objects and events in the stories, in the case of the symphonic poems often using Eben’s actual speech-rhythms in his treatment of the thematic material. The influential and arch-conservative critic Eduard Hanslick, who had previously expressed great enthusiasm for Dvořák’s music, was outraged at this “descent“ into programmatic detailing (Hanslick had previously castigated Liszt’s symphonic poems for similar reasons), calling Eben’s poems “ugly, unnatural and ghastly“, adding that Dvořák “has no cause to go begging before literary texts”. Fellow-composer Leos Janacek, on the other hand, embroiled at the time in his own work on the opera Jenufa, praised Dvorak’s latest pieces, saying that “the direct speech of the instruments……has never sounded with such certainty, clarity and truthfulness”.

The story of “The Wild Dove” involves a woman who has poisoned her husband and taken a new lover, whom she intends to marry. After the wedding a wild dove appears from nowhere and lands on the grave of the former husband. Its piteous cooing reminds the woman of her guilt, and increasingly torments her conscience, so that she eventually takes her own life. Conductor Andrew Atkins and his players brought the whole doom-laden scenario to life, right from the introductory darkness of the funeral march, through the quickening of interest between the widow and her new lover, the music’s pastoral beauties burgeoning into joyful dance-like expression with the wedding celebrations, and the arrival of the dove and its piteous cooing, accompanied by sinister winds and baleful horns, with the bleakness of the scene activating guilt and subsequent suicide on the part of the murderess. Dvorak also adds a kind of “redemptive” coda, suggesting a kind of acceptance and even forgiveness NOT in Eben’s story! I thought it a strong, evocative and sharply-focused performance.

Perhaps after such a gamut of tragic and harrowing dramatic expression, Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture “Romeo and Juliet” which followed was all just a bit much of a similar mode to take in! I appreciated the conductor letting us know that the piece was special for him, and I wondered whether at times he was “loving” it all a bit too much rather than letting parts of the music simply breathe and establish a more natural flow. Ask person B for his or her opinion and the impression could well be different; but I thought in places the expression was too “full on” at the beginning of a sequence for the music to be able to “go” anywhere except where the players started from. Particularly in the case of the wind choirs at the beginning and end of the work, I thought a lighter, more air-borne texture would have given the music more life and allowed the players room to deepen the expression as the sequences developed – here, it seemed to me that everybody was trying just a bit TOO hard!

That said, the work’s other sequences provided by turns plenty of excitement and lyrical warmth – apart from a too-eager horn at the beginning, the detailing from the different instrumental strands readily and precisely  brought things to life – the timpani and the lower strings built the tension superbly just before the “fight” music, the strings’ swirling exchanges with the winds prepared the way excitingly for the brass and percussion interjections depicting the warring houses, and the combination of strings and cor anglais melted all hearts with the famous love-theme, the harp and strings sounding gorgeous together with the winds when creating a diaphanous resonance in the lovers’ wake.

The return of the “fight”music created even more tension a second time round with great work from the horns, and the strings brandishing great attack and holding tightly-wrought rhythms, so important in this music. The heavy brass made splendid sounds, while the trumpets, fallible at their first big entry, rallied and delivered, contributing to the excitement – amid the exhaustion of these energies, the conductor drove his winds and strings onward to that incredible upsurge of feeling which  flooded in with the love theme’s return, the strings giving all they had with real passion and commitment. One more frenzied upsurge of energy and the music most satisfyingly collapsed, all passions spent, everybody having played their hearts out! A pity that the brass, having done such sterling work throughout were a degree or so too loud for the timpani’s deathly, funereal drumbeats to be heard, though a friend I sat with who was an ex-brass player commented on the difficulty for the players of keeping the instruments’ tones really soft. Though I thought the winds also gave too generously at the end, I thought the strings positively celestial in their rising figure, with the thunderous timpani and powerful brass giving us a most emphatic conclusion to the concert.

I haven’t given sufficient attention to Andrew Atkins’ direction throughout – though parts of the Tchaikovsky I thought needed a lighter touch, I was riveted by his work with the players for the rest of the time – the responses he got from the orchestra throughout the afternoon’s music-making produced, to my way of thinking, a truly memorable musical occasion.