Essential Classics at the National Concert Hall, August 8th 2014.
Hearing a title like “Essential Classics” you’d be forgiven for immediately imagining a 2am informercial for a box set including such “timeless hits” as Beethoven’s Fifth and Debussy’s Clair de la Lune. What you might not jump to is a challenging programme like Mendelssohn’s Ouverture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D topped off with Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, with the powerhouse combination of John Wilson conducting and Andrew Haveron soloing. Surely nothing could go wrong?
Following a subtle opening of the Mendelssohn there are a series of energetic blasts leading to… a rather unimpressive plateau. After a few minutes of barely anything happening, the woodwind interject and breathe some life and magic into the piece with an emotive passage, but sadly this does not last as we return to some lackluster string passages. The timpani roll and finishing chord are similarly unimpressive, with the most touching point frankly being the moment that an audience member hands Wilson back his baton, which had been lost amidst his efforts to get the orchestra moving.
Thankfully the sleepy atmosphere is torn asunder as Andrew Haveron blasted the fast-forming cobwebs away as he leaps into Korngold’s Violin Concerto. Haveron’s spontaneity, flare and originality means he transcends love of music and communicated a passion for life in his performance of the first movement – though in this case first act would be a more appropriate term given the drama present on stage. Helpless, we all burst into applause when there is a moment of silence, unable to sit quietly in the face of such brilliance.
Following a return to some melodic subtlety in the Romance: Andante – no less moving than the first, simply lulling us with true beauty rather than fiery passion – we return to the thundering crests and dizzying troughs of the third movement. Wilson and Haveron’s past comes shining through here as together they depict something akin to a minute-long-summary of the Lord of the Rings; shockingly contrasting phrases jostling together, never a moment taken for the ear to adjust. The movie soundtrack feel may have been an obvious choice for the pair, but rarely is a composer’s dramatic intention seen through to its full realisation in the way we get to experience here.
The tempi Wilson chooses for Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is somewhat baffling, and it isn’t clear whether he is using a conductor’s creative license to push boundaries in a potentially exhilarating new way, or simply trying to finish the programme before he collapses in exhaustion. At times the speed Wilson takes is highly effective, bringing a new momentum to passages that can be lumbering or stodgy, but there are many missed opportunities for either a dramatic pause or tension-building accelerando. The piccolo trumpet solo, which is of course notorious, is not steady until joined by the second trumpet for solidifying support.
While overall Haveron stole the show, a significant highlight goes to Wilson, when at re-entry of the strings after the tenor horn solo in Bydlo he’s suddenly fed up with the strings’ passive performance and dramatically grasps at them, making huge gestures totally in contrast to his usually refined manner, grabbing their attention and demanding they put in the effort Mussorgsky, and Ravel’s phenomenal orchestration, deserves.
The programme is a challenging one at the best of times, but over the course of the night we are convinced that while their bodies may have been firmly planted in their seats of the National Concert Hall, the minds of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra are dreaming of sitting on a sunny beach somewhere far, far away.
Mendelssohn A Midsummer Night’s Dream Ouverture
Korngold Violin Concerto in D Op 35
Mussorgsky orch. Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition