Orchestra Wellington – gone vinyl to splendid effect with live Beethoven

BEETHOVEN – Symphonies Nos.1 & 3
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Symphony No. 1 in C Major Op. 21
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Op. 55 “Eroica”

(recorded “live” at the Michael Fowler Centre:
Symphony No. 1 on 13th May 2017 – Engineer, Graham Kennedy
Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” on 2nd December 2017 – Engineers, Darryl Stack, Steve Burridge

Orchestra Wellington OWTOWN 001/1-2 (LP issue)
(also available on CD – Concordance Records)

I was there at the 2018 concert when conductor Marc Taddei and Orchestra Wellington launched their ground-breaking classical recording release of two Beethoven Symphonies, recorded “live” at separate Michael Fowler Centre concerts the previous year – and what was more, caught on two splendidly appointed vinyl discs which were displayed most tellingly to a visibly gobsmacked and positively enthusiastic audience. Being an originally-pressed vinyl aficionado, I failed to take much notice of what Marc Taddei might have said about the CD issue of this release, though I registered that such a thing did and does exist, obviously giving the pleasure to be had from these splendid performances even wider currency.

For, to borrow from the words of the old song, I only had eyes for the startlingly, vividly-presented  2-LP vinyl set, one disc snow-white, and the other fire-engine red, both discs being enthusiastically brandished by the conductor (oh! – those poor, precious record surfaces – careful!!) their colours replicated with the words “Orchestra Wellington LIVE” on the outer gatefold sleeve housing the LPs. The publicity I’ve seen since makes much of the recent phenomenon of a “vinyl comeback” amongst the music-buying public, with artists across the board declaring for a number of reasons their newly-found allegiance to the grand old, tried-and-true medium; so a venture like this puts the Orchestra into the forefront world-wide of matters pertaining to the presentation of music in a lasting format.

I was thrilled to get hold of a copy of the LP set, though its arrival coincided with “troubles” developed by my equipment, so that I had to take the recordings for their first hearing to a friend’s abode and listen to them on his (admittedly, far superior to mine in quality) system.  We played the opening movement of the “Eroica”, and, thanks to the skills of recording engineers Darryl Stack and Steve Burridge, found ourselves in what sounded like “the best seats in the hall”, the full flavour of what I remembered from the actual concert coming across as an even more beautifully-balanced sound-picture, and with plenty of “audience ambience” to add to the occasion’s impact.

I reviewed the concert at which the “Eroica” was played in Middle C soon afterwards – https://middle-c.org/2017/12/cataclysmic-conclusion-to-orchestra-wellingtons-diaghilev-season/ and hearing the performance again merely confirmed my opinion as to its quality – what struck me afresh when I finally got the chance to hear the whole of the symphony on my “restored” sound equipment was a characteristic that it shared with all of the “great” performances I had heard, whether monumental, like Klemperer’s or Barbirolli’s, or swift and incisive, like Toscanini’s or Karajan’s, a sense of an unbroken, vibrant musical line sounding and resounding throughout the whole work. This was brought about less by speed than by a sense of unremitting forward movement, enabled by incisive orchestral attack and clearly-focused phrasings – not a bar, not a phrase, not a musical sentence in this performance reflected anything but the inevitability of the whole, the viewpoint of an eagle’s eye. Even what seemed like the most discursive sequences, such as the famous Trio of the Scherzo, featuring the three playful horns, or a most charming variant of the finale’s opening “Prometheus” bass theme in triplets, here ear-catchingly played by solo strings, kept the argument moving forwards, whether teasingly or quirkily, always with the work’s end in the conception’s ear.

New to me was the performance of the First Symphony, which took up Side One of the first of two discs. Taddei and his players gave Beethoven’s somewhat off-beat opening to the work plenty of sounding-space before the strings nimbly set the allegro dancing, the rushing figurations turning to gossamer at the conductor’s tempo, in places the playing sounding as light and airy as thistledown! Having been brought up in this Symphony with the renowned “Kingsway Hall bloom” on the strings in Klemperer’s 1950s version (captured for all time in what was perhaps London’s most well-known recording venue), I thought the sound here beautifully balanced by engineer Graham Kennedy while honestly reflecting the hall’s clear but ungiving quality. If there was little “bloom” the players at least generated whole spadefuls of bubbling energy, each one thrusting upwards, eager to be released.

I enjoyed the ongoing concert ambience in between the symphony’s movements – leaving the microphones “on” was an inspired, enlivening idea, readily recapturing the “whole” occasion’s atmosphere, one which the performances had worked so hard to help bring about in the first place.
The second movement’s brisk, eagerly-phrased dance firmly placed the work in the “Haydn” era, Taddei and the players generating moments of dramatic insistence in the movement’s development section, both strings and timpani accentuating their dotted-rhythm figurations to thrilling effect!  I liked, also, how the Scherzo’s gait wasn’t rushed, but had space in which to “point” the rhythms, and allow the timpani’s contributions plenty of clarity, the Trio similarly relaxed and contrastingly lyrical in character – I have to confess I especially enjoyed the unexpected second-half repeat when it came, in the recap of the opening!

The finale sounded here very Leonore No.3-ish at the outset with trumpets and drums prominently sounding, Taddei then getting his strings to “tease” in a delightfully po-faced way before the allegro skipped its way into the sound-picture. Brimful with infectious energy as things got properly going, the playing gave detailings like the timpani figures opportunities for plenty of robust prominence, with the churning vortex mid-movement gaily teased back into the mainstream by the chirpy winds. It was left to a celebratory, festive-sounding coda to round off the work, bringing forth instant and enthusiastic acclaim from an appreciative audience at the end.

So, these are two remarkably compelling and attractively presented performances! Very great credit to all concerned for this venture, in my view admirable and successful on all counts! Orchestra Wellington’s Marketing Manager Marek Peszynski has already aired some further recording ideas and options – one waits with bated breath to see what will come of it all. The idea of combining popular repertoire with contemporary New Zealand pieces is a laudable one, but there are some New Zealand classics that could do with some help along the way – David Farquhar’s challenging, ambient, descriptive and resonant First Symphony for one! We will all have our wish-lists, but I’d like to think that we’ll also equally get behind and support whatever this remarkable orchestra and its inspirational music director, together with its enterprising and progressive administration, will come up with next!