Admirable, enterprising concert of Dvořák from Orchestra Wellington players

Players from Orchestra Wellington

Dvořák; Serenade for winds, cello and double bass in D minor, Op 44 (B 77)
Merran Cooke and Louise Cox – oboes, Mark Cookson and Chris Turner – clarinets, Leni Maeckle and Penny Miles – bassoons, Shadley van Wyk, Dominic Groom and Vivian Reid – horns, Brenton Veitch – cello, Paul Altomari – double bass

Dvořák: String Quintet No 2 in G, Op 77 (B 49)
Monique Lapins and Konstanze Artmann – violins, Sophia Acheson – viola, Brenton Veitch – cello, Paul Altomari – double bass

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Friday 13 April, 12:15 pm

Dvořák wrote two serenades: the first, for strings in 1875 and the second, for winds plus cello and bass, in 1878. We heard the latter.

His two serenades occupy a rather special place in music of the Romantic era, the wind one especially, as there had not been a work of comparable charm since Mozart’s 80 years before, and none quite as fine later. Though perhaps not influenced by Dvořák, there were two comparable works within a decade of his Serenade: Gounod’s charming Petite Symphonie approaches it, and Richard Strauss’s Op 7, a prodigious 18-year-old’s remarkable work which really stands on its own feet!

The Wind Serenade
The first impression of the playing was of a bold sound when my feeling of the music is for a somewhat neutral beginning, reflected in its minor key; it’s Moderato, quasi marcia. I wondered whether it would compromise the scope later, for dynamic variety, but that feeling soon evaporated. But what I did miss a little was a warm, easy flowing momentum which the minor mode also seems to suggest. There was a good deal of excellent playing, and early on oboe and bassoon caught my ear particularly.

The second movement is a minuet (the single sheet programme didn’t indicate movements), and I actually spent a little time wondering whether it was a minuet, with its interesting duple time running alongside the minuet rhythm. But there was no alternative of course, and there was, properly, a contrasting trio, much more sprightly, in the middle which might indeed have been in some other dance style. The alternating oboe and clarinet phrases were a delight. This movement had the happy effect of demonstrating the composer’s quite beguiling use of wind instruments,

It was only in the slow movement (Andante con moto) that the absence of flutes struck me, following the instrumentation of the great Mozart Serenade for 13 wind instruments (but not for Strauss who does use flutes); only reeds allowed! But there were some lovely horn ensembles and time to rejoice in the composer’s intuitive handling of all his instruments in turn, even the cello and bass. It’s my favourite movement (when I was young I liked the fast movements best), but I had to admit that when the finale – allegro molto – began, it carried me along in its intended joyful spirit.

Because I did continue to feel a little overwhelmed by the volume of sound produced (I was in the fourth row; a friend seated at the back told me that he had no such experience), I was looking forward to the string quintet, since I usually find strings better adapted to the church acoustic.

String Quintet Op 77
The numbering of Dvořák’s works is confusing as he adopted a very cavalier approach to the matter so that musicologists would be able to justify their time spent in the hilarious task of working out just when and how his compositions were written. He bestowed Op 77 on his second string quintet, though it was a relatively early work, originally with an earlier opus number 18, written in 1875 when he was 34. It is unique in being scored for string quartet plus double bass; the first string quintet (for orthodox instruments) had been his second work, in 1861, aged 19; he gave that Op 1. A third quintet, in E flat, Op 97 was written after the string quartet in F, Op 96, ‘American’, when he was in the United States in 1893.

It’s a lively, imaginative, though underplayed work. Why, when musicians think of Dvořák chamber music, is it always the ‘American’ (used to be called the ‘Nigger’) quartet or the wonderful piano quintet?

I last heard it played by the New Zealand String Quartet and the virtuoso NZSO bassist, Hiroshi Ikematsu, in 2011 at St Mary of the Angels.  It is a delight; it starts from the bottom, bass and cello intoning secretively, then engaging the higher instruments one by one, up to the bright-toned violin of Monique Lapins; ready for the first big theme, naturally bass heavy, to burst out fully formed. It’s entitled Allegro con fuoco.

The performance was full of energy. One normally hears these players, generally briefly, within the symphonic sound mass of Orchestra Wellington, and it was both a revelation and pleasure to hear them as polished chamber musicians too. After the first elaboration of the main theme, Brenton Veitch delivered his energetic yet lyrical account of it before they all took over. In fact, throughout the first movement Veitch’s part was particularly distinctive.

The same thrusting energy appears in the second movement which, though in triple time, is not a minuet but Scherzo, allegro vivace. There’s a distinct change of tempo and tone in the middle, slower and more lyrical and the quintet demonstrated a more meditative quality.

The slow movement is marked Poco andante and its wistful opening theme was not only musically related to its predecessors, but was the first opportunity to hear the quintet’s more legato, lyrical playing. It’s not especially Slavonic in spirit, as I think Dvořák wanted to establish his reputation in conventional western European, let’s say, Germanic, music. His nationalistic music was largely expressed in the Moravian Duets, the Czech Suite, Slavonic Dances, the first set of which, Op 46, were written in the same year as the Quintet; and so on. And the last movement, conventionally Allegro assai, is very driven and full of energy. It can probably be played with even more passion and brio than these players produced.

This was a performance that achieved two things. The unearthing of some chamber music (if we can stretch the term a bit for the Serenade) that doesn’t get much attention in a string quartet dominated world, and there’s a great deal more of it – quintets, sextets, septets, nonets and so on by many of the great composers (Mozart’s wind serenades of course) and some not so great – just two: Spohr’s Nonet, Berwald’s Septet (we do get plenty of octets by Schubert and Mendelssohn).

And secondly, I am delighted that Orchestra Wellington is moving in this enterprising direction, filling the musical gap I mention, as well as putting themselves before the public more often, letting people know that excellent musicians also inhabit Orchestra Wellington. It’s an initiative that presents worthwhile music instead of (or in addition to) being drawn in the direction of pop, film music and other kinds of cross-over material which I have serious misgivings about.

And it needs to be noted that this concert, very modestly priced, drew the biggest crowd at St Andrew’s that I’ve seen for such a concert for a long time.