A TALE OF TWO CONCERTS. CPO Winter Symphony Season: Two concerts conducted by Robert Moody, with Bryan Wallick (piano) and James Jones (organ) as soloists. 23 June: Brahms: Academic Festival Overture, Op 80; Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No 3 in C, Op 26; Sibelius: Symphony No 5 in E flat, Op 82. 30 June: Dvorak: Carnival Overture; Poulenc: Concerto for organ, strings and timpani, FP93; Moussorgsky (orchestrated Ravel): Pictures at an Exhibition. DEON IRISH reviews.

In 1880, the University of Breslau (now Wroclaw) awarded Brahms an honorary doctorate. Initially intended to excuse personal appearance at the degree ceremony (although he did subsequently present himself at such and conducted the premiere of the work in question), he composed the quite delightful work that became known as the Academic Festival Overture, primarily based on a concoction of student political and drinking songs that he had first encountered in Göttingen, where his friend Joachim was an enrolled student.

I am not sure if inebriated students in the US (well, the ivy-league colleges, at any rate) behave markedly differently from their counterparts in Europe or the UK; but I have never witnessed a student gathering that broke into alcohol-infused songs, in which the tempi were not self-indulgently lugubrious. One has no reason to believe that 19th century Germany was any different.

It certainly explains the musical curiosity of British football fans in the Italian World Cup – in imitation of a Shirley Valentine – not merely appropriating Nessun Dorma as their own, but luxuriating in those top notes at full voice, utterly devoid of supposed British reticence. Pure E.M. Forster.

Organist James Jones
Organist James Jones

Brilliant account

Moody’s account of this marvellous overture, however, even if characterized by entirely accurate orchestral playing, was mostly taken at tempi which suggested a teetotaller scurrying past a sports bar. If this led to an undignified treatment of Guadeamus igitur (the words themselves should surely not be taken as a tempo indication as such) it felt far worse in the case of Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus, an overtly political song that had been banned in the Habsburg empire, and which delayed by some years the first Viennese performance of this overture in consequence. This section, with its rich horn chorale, really does cry out for feierlich treatment.

The contrast between the appropriateness of tempi choices in this overture and those in the Dvorak Carnival Overture a week later could not have been more marked. Dvorak’s concise masterpiece is a vehicle for unrestrained exhibition, its fiery opening affording no place to hide as conductor, orchestra and – by adoption – audience are plunged into an adrenaline-infused maelstrom of enthusiastic gaiety. There are few concert overtures which generate the sheer exhilaration of this tour de force; and this was an undoubtedly brilliant account, taken at precipitous yet controlled tempi, well balanced, full of unrestrained joy and conducted with sparse – even elegant – efficiency of gesture.

The concerti, too, were a tale of two very different concerts. In the first, we had Bryan Wallick tackling the fiendishly difficult Prokofiev 3rd; in the second, James Jones was obliged to tackle the unhappily dilapidated City Hall Norman and Beard organ in the Poulenc concerto, a work deliberately written to be not be overly taxing.

The Prokofiev received a very good reading, with orchestral accompaniment assured and stylish, and the intensely pianistic solo part (I know that sounds tautologous, but it isn’t actually) a concentrated exercise in machine-like finger work and precision chord placement.

Prokofiev was a consummate pianist (indeed, he arrived at the St Petersburg Conservatoire at the age of 11 as something of an enfant terrible) and this work shows off the full gamut of a pianist’s technical armoury: percussive brilliance in rapid passage work contrasted with plunging, pesante chordal assertions that stride across the keyboard; crisp neo-Classical polyphony including cross-handed interpolations matched by the Russian school’s trade-mark torrential double octave outbursts – all integrated into the frequently irregular pulses of the accompanying orchestral scramble.

There were some lovely orchestral solos – flute, bassoon and horn deserve mention – but I did think the orchestra rather too heavy for a good deal of the final allegro.

It was the relatively serene second movement (its energetic moments notwithstanding) – a theme and variations – that really caught the ear. There was a sense of integration of harmonic and melodic elements here, in a manner that was less discernible in the outer movements, in which one felt an absence of drive – not so much a question of tempo as of being drawn along by and into the unfolding structure.

The Poulenc concerto suffered the same lack of drive – but in this case certainly attributable in large measure to a lack of vigour and attack in execution. The work is constructed as a single movement having quite disparate sections – seven in all – and requires the sort of distinctive treatment of each that one might expect in – say – a Baroque fantasia.

Jones undoubtedly had his work cut out on this instrument, its shamefully poor condition preventing him making use of the Choir division at all and providing but a single workable stop (and that stuck on) out of all the Solo division ranks. Still, to be fair, this concerto was written for the relatively modest Ahouse organ@ of the Princesse Edmond de Polignac, the American-born heiress of the Singer Sewing Machine fortune. She  was herself a talented organist and the commission was originally intended for herself as soloist, the orchestration being limited to a modest string orchestra that would fit into the Polignac’s private concert hall, complete with its 1892 Cavaillé-Coll organ.

So, in truth, the Great and Swell divisions of the City Hall’s 1905 Norman & Beard provided probably not much less tonal and dynamic variety than the envisaged instrument would have featured; but the action is certainly sluggish and the scale of the pipework – far larger, with heavy duty diapasons, stentorian reeds and a massive pedal division all designed to accompany the grand Choral Societies of the Edwardian era – presented Jones with considerable difficulties of registration.

He overcame these hurdles with distinction, finding lovely combinations of stops which gave the individual episodes distinct and stylishly appropriate tonal palettes. Less successful was his conveyance of the innate architecture; the Bachian episodes lacking in crisp attack; the lush episodes absent a sense of spatial indulgence; and – most disappointingly – the fairground finale quite failing to catch the gaudy vulgarity of a carousel organ.

Pianist Bryan Wallick
Pianist Bryan Wallick

Unfussy direction

Which leaves the two symphonic works. It was in these that Moody really shone, both works being afforded readings that one felt were pretty much exactly (leaving out the odd orchestral lapse) what the composers intended. Once again, one was impressed with Moody’s clear and unfussy direction, managing to maintain elegance in the pursuit of efficiency.

The Sibelius 5th Symphony (written in celebration of his 50th birthday) is a relatively scarce migrant to most concert houses. Indeed, I cannot recall ever hearing it at this venue. One can certainly be grateful to Moody, then, for including this choice of unusual repertoire in his season.

The Ravel-orchestrated Mussorgsky suite is, by contrast, a very welcome and frequent visitor – and the more taxing to perform, in consequence, since every slight blemish is pretty immediately apparent.

There were blemishes in both works – but they were lapses in execution of individual players, no attributable in any way to Moody. If the opening movement of the Sibelius featured fine trumpet and horn solos and some truly refined string playing, the succeeding Andante presented a horn chorus that were in severe disagreement over intonation – partially made up for by a delicious oboe solo and some neat pizzicato string playing.

Moody has a clear affinity for this composer and his approach to the finale was exemplary. The Swan’s motif – whooping swans do not have a particularly melodious cry – was effective enough; but it was the inexorable brass build up in the final measures that really impressed and that provided the emotional apogee of a frequently rather cerebral work.

There is nothing cerebral about the wonderful concoction contained in Mussorgsky’s original piano suite; and, if Ravel brought his matchless orchestrational intellect to bear on its transformation to an orchestral suite, he lost nothing of the bold colourations of the original in so doing.

This was a lovely performance and the orchestra can be rightly pleased with their account of what will always constitute a very challenging work. There was (almost inevitably) the odd cracked note here and there: but, in truth, all of the orchestral soloists (perhaps especially the lovely saxophone of The Old Castle) can be well satisfied.

Indeed, the only aspect that did disappointment was the poor wind chording in the Ballet of the Chicks. On the other hand, the Great Gate of Kiev was presented in all its exotic majesty, a testimony to history and culture and continuity.

What: CPO Winter Symphony Season reviews
Reviewer: Deon Irish