Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei with Natalia Lomeiko (violin). Music by C. P. E. Bach, Stravinsky, Haydn and Prokofiev. Michael Fowler Centre, April 15.
It’s a symphony, Jim, but not as we know it. The opening work of Saturday night’s Fundamental Forces concert, C. P. E. Bach’s 1759 Symphony in E Minor, seems to modern sensibilities more like a chamber music piece.
But that’s the fascination of hearing such music, acting as it does as a waypoint between the soundworld of the first Bach and the Romantics who later elevated the symphony to new heights.
The work was well chosen, too, as a signal of Orchestra Wellington’s intentions this year, as they celebrate the Dionysian impulses in classical music.
Full of dynamic contrasts, the opening movement of the symphony was crisp and well-shaped, although the woodwinds weren’t fully integrated.
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The second movement was better, the orchestra capturing the tension between the slow, drowsy feel and the sharper, stepwise lines, while the final movement was pleasantly sprightly.
Next up was Stravinsky’s violin concerto, chosen to contrast with the stormier material on either side and perhaps to echo Bach’s chamber-music feel.
It’s a hard-to-pin-down piece, though, its challenges exemplified by the opening movement, in which the over-jolly marching lines in the brass seemed distanced from the harsh, staccato passages for Natalia Lomeiko’s solo violin.
Lomeiko’s technical assuredness and sinewy, intelligent tone adorned but couldn’t fully redeem a work that is undoubtedly clever but somehow lacks heart.
Matters improved immeasurably after the interval, however, thanks to Hadyn’s wonderful Symphony No. 39 (‘Tempesta di Mare’, literally ‘Storm at Sea’).
The opening movement, with its strange, unnerving pauses, had both suspense and moments of soaring delight under conductor Marc Taddei’s watchful eye.
Nuances were superbly observed in a stately second movement where the strings excelled and in a finale that was warm, varied and thrumming with energy.
From there the intensity only increased in a barnstorming rendition of Prokofiev’s primal Scythian Suite, which takes its name from a nomadic, horse-riding people, Iranian in origin, who lived in what is now (topically enough) the battlefields of southern Ukraine.
The work’s ritual dances, evoking Scythian gods of sun and darkness, and good and evil, were rendered as blistering walls of sound.
The tension slackened slightly in the inner movements, where the orchestra struggled – as it sometimes does – with rapid, multi-section piano passages. But the glimmering, metallic tones of the finale were brilliant and the percussion-heavy finale devastating, as if the air were swarming with hornets.
Taddei’s encore, though generous, felt superfluous, a step down from such intensity.