presented by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Saturday 8 June 2019
St Andrews on the Terrace, Wellington
Arcangelo Corelli: Concerto Grosso in D major, Op. 6 No.1 
Georg Telemann: Ouverture-Suite in D, TWV 55:D21 
Antonio Vivaldi: Flute Concerto in g minor, Op. 10 No. 2 La Notte 
Johann Joseph Fux: Overture in d minor, E109 [1724?]
Georg Telemann: Ouverture-Suite in D, TWV 55:D22 
Vesa-Matti Leppänen: director/violin
Bridget Douglas: flute
A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs
tldr: the short story
The programme was varied and captivating with clear direction and engaging tempos from Vesa-Matti Leppänen. The performers were, as expected, excellent with a sense of youthfulness and freshness that brought the music to exuberant life.
My favourite: Fux’s Overture and the second Telemann – masterful and intelligent music, excellent performances with a humorous and lively back-story.
The long story:
In the intimate setting of St Andrews on The Terrace, this Baroque version of the NZSO was resonant, full, rich and delightful. The programme was varied and captivating with clear direction and engaging tempos from Vesa-Matti Leppänen. The fast tempos were sparkling and effervescent. The slow, melancholy movements were tender and heartfelt, not depressed or grief stricken – a refreshing change from the Romantic angst or the cerebral 20th/21st century works. The performers were, as expected, excellent with a sense of youthfulness and freshness that brought the music to exuberant life.
The Corelli was an excellent example of the Concerto Grosso, when several solo instruments (in this case two violins and cello) are contrasted with the ripieno group (the ensemble of strings and harpsichord). The work had five movements. The first had Largo and Allegro sections alternating – slow tempo for the legato ripieno ensemble and spiky, staccato and bustling fast passages for the soloists; the second a stately dance with the ripieno group echoing the soloists. By the fifth movement the tempo was radiantly optimistic with busy, nimble fingers and quirky phrasing.
After the Corelli, the Telemann was almost symphonic. With the addition of two oboes, a bassoon and two horns, Telemann’s timbral and textural choices were manifold: tutti; strings only; alternate melody for the oboes and horns with strings accompanying; oboes and bassoon together; homophonic or counterpoint; plucking strings like an exploded guitar…. The Ouverture-Suite had seven movements and some were quite brief. The whole piece was over in 16 minutes! The third movement was an ABA structure with thrilling trills from the strings in the A section, and only the oboe and bassoons in the B section. The fifth was literally a gallop, the sixth had odd accented and syncopated phrasing and the final movement was an uplifting bright and breezy finish.
The Vivaldi Flute Concerto used only four violins, two violas, one cello and one double and the harpsichordist – and Bridget Douglas as the soloist. The ensemble played beautifully and Bridget was outstanding: her breath control, tone, range, phrasing was magnificent. Her tone was mellifluous and dulcet – the flute’s head joint was not the usual and I suspect it was wooden: a Baroque gesture? I expected to love the Vivaldi but my listening was tainted by the much-vaunted criticism: Vivaldi din’t write 600 concertos, he wrote one 600 times. The performance was excellent, but the music was too familiar – especially the accompaniment of the third and fourth movement: The Four Seasons with a (marvellous) flute soloist.
Vesa-Matti spoke before each piece and he informed us that Johann Joseph Fux was a renowned mathematician and composer. He wrote Gradus ad Parnassum, a book about the study of counterpoint in 1725. Apparently J S Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven owned and studied the book. As Vesa-Matti said: “If you are a composer you should buy the book by Fux”, made more amusing with a gentle Finnish accent!
As a Maths and Music teacher for almost 20 years, I guess I should have a predisposition of Fux‘s music. In fact, even with my past, I enjoyed the seven movement Overture immensely. It reminded me of Handel, but with more of a sense of humour and a bubbly, youthful element. The polyphonic counterpoint released streams of notes in sequences, the strings and woodwind echoed each other and surprising accents made a light-hearted mood. The third movement was more sombre and the last cadence was unfinished – not a definite closing cadence, but more of an afterthought. It went immediately to a forthright allegro passage that borrowed from the Concerto Grosso, with two violins solos accompanied by basso continuo. The fifth movement was chordal – almost a recitative that led to the stately dance in the sixth movement. Commonly the final movement is upbeat and jubilant but this seventh movement was a slow triple-time melody – unusual but very effective. A highlight.
The last piece on the programme was another Ouverture-Suite by Georg Telemann. Vesa-Matti divulged that Telemann is one of his favourite composers, and I suspect – in the English-speaking world – he is under-appreciated. Certainly this piece was intelligent, humorous, and ear-catching. The subtitle of the piece is Ouverture jointe d’une suite tragi-comique. Vesa-Matti explained, after the Ouverture, the piece described three ailments and three remedies. First, the Le podagre (Gout) [Remedy: La poste et la danse (dancing)]; Second L’hypocondre (hypochondria) [Remedy: Souffrance héroïque (heroic suffering)]; Third – Le petit-maître (a Fop – pride) [Remedy: Petite-maison (the small house – a mental institution!)]
The orchestration was three trumpets, timpani, strings, continuo. The Ouverture was quite bombastic and arresting – the trumpet and timpani filled the church. The Gout had shrieking first violins, answered with a ‘moan’ from the second violins. The remedy had busy, nimble strings punctuated by the timpani and trumpets. ‘Hypochondria’ was astounding. Basically, Telemann mixed two pieces together. The first legato phrase was disconsolate and anguished, but the answer phrase was bright, airy – almost a ditty. The remedy was a march rhythm – upright and bold. The third ailment – pride – was boastful and disdainful and the remedy was played at a breakneck speed – a brilliant and thrilling finish for the concert.
As a whole, the concert was not a perfect performance. Some violin’s notes wavered unsteadily, the bass and treble were not always intonationally attuned, and occasionally the blend and balance was marginally suspect – but that didn’t spoil the flavour of the concert. In fact, it made it more real. The humour, the joyfulness, the optimism of the music was infectious and stayed in the mind.