Wellington City Orchestra presents
BEETHOVEN and SAINT-SAENS
BEETHOVEN – Violin Concerto in D Op.61
SAINT-SAENS – Symphony No. 3 in C Minor “Organ” Op.78
Helene Pohl (violin)
Max Toth (organ)
Wellington City Orchestra
Rachel Hyde (conductor)
St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Church, Wellington
Saturday 24th June, 2023
Small wonder that this concert drew what seemed like a full house to St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Church in Wellington on Saturday afternoon. – not only were the two featured works on the programme sure-fire drawcards, but each presentation had the kind of “ädded value” that made their pairing difficult to resist.
The lately-renamed Wellington City Orchestra’s second 2023 outing was this time with the much-respected Rachel Hyde taking her turn on the podium. First up was Beethoven’s adorable Violin Concerto, with great interest centred around the soloist, none other than Helene Pohl, the leader of the internationally renowned New Zealand String Quartet. Having heard Pohl lead her ensemble with enormous distinction through complete cycles of the composer’s string quartets I was naturally intrigued to hear how she would tackle the very different role of a concerto soloist, albeit in the same composer’s music .
What first grabbed my attention.however, was the sharply-defined focus of the orchestra’s introduction to the work, once the slight uncertaincy of the timpanist’s opening strokes had passed – Rachel Hyde secured finely-wrought dynamic contrasts between tutti and chamber-like passages with solo wind lines imparting great character. It was playing that created great expectancy regarding Pohl’s first, ascending-octaved entry, her tones beautifully “growing” out of the orchestral ambiences that had preceded the solo violin’s arrival.
I loved the “elfin” quality of Pohl’s tone throughout, with its shades of expression whose every utterance seemed to simultaneously evolve from whatever she had previously played and respond to whatever solo or ensembled phrases accompanied hers. Her instrument’s voice had a silvery quality which took on a more burnished- golden aspect in places where Beethoven’s thoughts were at his most profound, then returning to a diaphanous quality when, in places, dancing with similarly delicate orchestral solos. For their part, Hyde and her players both supported the soloist and took the lead when necessary, splendidly initiating and controlling the tensions leading up to the tutti outbursts leading to the movement’s solo cadenza.
Pohl’s sounding of this was like a prayer, chordal-like ascendings, followed by playful duettings of themes, and heroic passages in thirds, before her summonsing of the orchestra once more, true greatness in her playing of the melody’s valediction, and of the single note which sang out so purely at the top of the phrase’s final contouring – exquisite!
Hyde got her string players to sound the slow movement’s first trance-like phrases with wonderful “innigkeit”, horns, and then clarinets confidently taking over from the strings and preparing the way for the soloist’s birdsong-like rhapsodisings. Even more rapt was the movement’s central section, Pohl’s playing resembling a kind of hymn to existence, even more so when orchestral pizzicati provided an enchanting backdrop for the solo violin’s spell-weavings.
An orchestral call to arms, and a short, cadenza-like flourish from the soloist brought in the work’s finale, the orchestra taking a while to settle into the soloist’s rhythm, possibly the result of the players having, like the rest of us, “blissed out” during the heavenly Larghetto! Pohl took it all in her stride, alternating a characterfully rustic treatment of the main theme with more quixotic-like poise when repeating the same an octave higher. Then, in the more pensive minor-key second subject, the line was delivered with great emotion, ably supported by the bassoon – and, when the opening returned Hyde seemed to have reawakened her players so that they were with their soloist all the way, building those horn and wind fanfares into a mighty cadenza-welcoming shout! This was one to which Pohl responded with a cadenza I wasn’t as familiar with as I could have been, but which, using material from the finale itself, built quickly and spectacularly to the point where the orchestral cellos and basses were INVITED to make a “what do we think?” comment on the proceedings! – duly satisfied, soloist and orchestra here exchanged, syncopated, inverted and brought things to a by-then ecstatic close!
During the interval that followed, I gleaned. from all sides of where I was sitting. that things had been extremely pleasing thus far, the performance having created a suitable buzz in the minds of my neighbours, young and old. It seemed to augur well for what was to follow next, the orchestra having meanwhile “growed” some extra personnel for the second-half performance of Camille Saint-Saens’s well-known “Organ” Symphony, an undertaking obviously sparked by the not-too-distant (April 2021) refurbishment of the St.Andrew’s church organ.
I was a bit surprised that the organist for this occasion, Max Toth, was not given a special mention in the printed programme – though to be fair Saint-Saens’ work is not a “concerto” with a star soloist, but a “symphony”, and with works described as such individual instrumentalists’ names are normally mentioned only in orchestral listings of players. And the organist’s name was certainly there, even if the noise he conjured up from his splendid instrument was out of all proportion to his modest rank-and-file listing – a minor matter, and certainly in the light of the “special ovation” he was accorded at the piece’s end, at the prompting of Rachel Hyde herself…
As to the piece we were about to hear, Saint-Saens once remarked of himself that, as a composer he produced music as an apple tree produced apples, though he obviously meant he had great facility, and not that he considered his work facile and repetitive. The “Organ” Symphony was something of a biological “sport” for its time – the only reference I have found to a previous use of the organ in an orchestral symphony (1877) is by the nearly-forgotten Austrian composer Johann Ritter von Herbeck (1831-1877), though the fame of Saint-Saens’1886 work spawned a number of imitators, most of them French!
Right at the beginning, Hyde and her players opened up the work’s spaces, the strings’ first floating chords answered first by the oboe and then the flutes, their upward phrases drifting into what seemed like a void, but sparking a response from pizzicato strings and winds which suddenly and excitedly awoke the rest of the strings whose tumbling, chattering phrases spread through the textures galvanising the entire orchestra.
Hyde’s direction imparted just enough urgent impetus for the movement to maintain its course and for the players to keep the syncopated rhythms together, which they did most impressively throughout. And I enjoyed the occasional bedecking of the textures with detailed impulse, such as the tuba making its presence “tell” for a moment of glory, along with the brass and timpani, in underlining the importance to the work of the composer’s use of the “Dies Irae” variant by capping the climax of the excitement with great elan.
The slow movement was beautifully “prepared” for by pizzicato strings and brass, the organ establishing the requisite mood for the strings to fill the spaces with gorgeous tones, then allowing the wind and brass the chance to sing the same melody, the organ judiciously providing the transitions between the different orchestral forces’ sequences. Apart from some slight imprecision between the string “voices” in the duet-like-like sequences, the players delighted us with the beauty and focus of their playing of the movement’s gorgeous outpourings. At first I thought the organ pedal during the lyrical theme’s last great reprise not robust enough, but its deliciously tummy-wobbling aspect began to tell as the music soared to its conclusion – moments of glorious, ultra-Romanticism, capped off by the authentic-sounding reediness of the organ’s registrations at the end.
In terms of commitment from the players and cool-headed control from the conductor, the symphony’s Scherzo was for me a highlight of the performance (also bringing back vivid memories of my days as a percussionist, and our orchestra in Palmerston North tackling this work!). Strong, vibrant attack at the opening was capped off by on-the-spot timpani, and vibrant playing from the winds – Hyde kept the tempo steady, allowing her players room to shape and “point” the rhythms. As for the Trio, it was very properly a riot of impulse every which way, with the piano’s tumbling figurations adding to the excitement. The players did so well with these vertiginous rhythms and syncopations – while not every detail was perfect, the few spills simply added to the excitement and dare-devilry of the whole.
Both the Scherzo and the opening of the Trio were repeated, the latter dominated by the brass, with the winds capering all about underneath, and the strings steadying the euphoria with some meltingly beautiful playing, joined by the winds and brass, with the “Dies Irae” ominously sounded by the basses below – after all of this one could easily forgive the not-quite-together wind chord which prefaced the finale!
The voices awaiting within those organ pipes to sound their utmost simply burst forth magnificently as organist Max Toth activated the instrument! How emotional it all seemed, with the C major melody (the much-lauded “Babe” tune as garnered for use in the eponymous movie!) firstly stealing in via the strings and piano duettists underpinned by the deep organ pedal notes, then allowed its full magnificence with organ and orchestra each given its head, cymbal crashes, bass drum thwacks, brasses and all replying to the organ’s splendour! The strings made a sterling job of their fugal passage which followed, taken up vociferously by the brasses and then quelled by the lines being allowed to soar and “float” by the strings and winds, as a respite from the energies and excitements already unleashed and still to come. Enough to say that the performance of the rest fully expressed the “cri de coeur” of the composer: – “I gave everything to it I was able to give! – what I have here accomplished I will never achieve again….”
It seemed fitting that, right at the end Rachel Hyde gave the last voice to the organ, allowing the instrument to hold the final chord for a few moments after the orchestra had ceased playing (a gesture I’d not previously heard made in this work, but which certainly had its effect – not unlike the organ chord which continues sounding at the end of the opening (!) of Richard Strauss’s tone-poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra”). But the glory was as much the Wellington City Orchestra players’ and conductor’s as the organ’s, and of course the music’s. Both composers and their respective works were on this occasion certainly done proud.