Heartfelt Laments Tenderly Performed by the WNO String Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Puccini, Barber, Schubert: WNO String Orchestra and selected members of the RWCMD / David Adams (director), Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 2.12.2014 (LJ).

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Divertimento in D KV136
Giacomo Puccini, Crisantemi
Samuel Barber, Adagio for Strings from String Quartet (1936)
Franz Schubert, String Quartet in D minor (Death and the Maiden) D531, arr. Gustav Mahler.


The idea behind the pieces selected for the WNO String Orchestra’s (WNOSO) concert held in Cardiff’s RWCMD on Tuesday 2nd December, lies in their form as all were originally composed for string quartet and subsequently arranged to be performed by string orchestra. It also becomes apparent, as David Adams remarked when introducing the works, that each piece is related to the idea of death, whether composed as an elegy (as is the case with Puccini’s Crisantemi) or generally associated with a lament (Barber’s Adagio for Strings certainly fits this description). In a concert with such seriousness at its core, the WNO ensured that their playing did not weigh down like an unwelcoming tome.

Opening with Mozart’s Divertimento in D K136 which was written when Mozart was just sixteen, the WNOSO led by David Adams were crisp in their echoed passages and attentive to dynamic changes. The WNOSO produced a fullness of sound and lifted the music with their clarity and focus. The Italianate slow movement seemed to drift slightly, but both the Allegro and Presto were played with spirit.

This was followed by Puccini’s piece entitled Crisantemi. Puccini claimed that he wrote this elegy in one night after learning of the death of his friend (the Duke of Savoy) in 1890. These rich melodies were reused in his opera Manon Lescaut; a story about a woman (Manon) who is on her way to a convent when she meets and falls in love with a young student called Des Grieux. The pair decide to escape to Paris, but Manon is distracted by the wealth and luxury offered to her by the elderly Geronte. Knowing the opera (the WNO performed it earlier this year, directed by Marius Trelinski), different melodies were gleaned from this threnody by the more regular concert-goers. Written as a continuous movement, beginning with a solemn idea which is followed by a more active central section and returning to the opening minor mode, the structure of the piece was well shaped by the WNOSO. Rosie Biss and her cello section instantly melted the audience within the first few bars and the WNOSO stilled the entire hall with a performance which ended on a hushed silence and dramatic pause before receiving heartfelt applause from the audience.

Ending the first half with Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the WNO peeled back layer upon layer of Barber’s gossamer work, painting a musical scene of captured moments, as if turning the pages of a photo album. In a piece which is ‘full of pathos and cathartic passion’ and that ‘rarely leaves a dry eye’ (to quote Alexander J. Morin), the WNOSO were sensitive to Barber’s sobbing harmonies, but were not too heavy or excessive. In such a delicate and thought-provoking piece, the WNOSO maintained an appropriate restraint which did not overcrowd the emotion of the piece. Originally written as the second movement for a string quartet in 1936, this piece (in its arrangement for string orchestra) became associated with mourning after being used as funeral pieces for Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy. This slow, minor-key lament was inspired by Virgil’s Georgics where he describes how a trickling rivulet gradually becomes a flowing river. A sense of this aggrandisement was expressed fulsomely by the WNOSO.

After a brief interval the WNOSO returned to commence a piece which usually lasts around forty minutes. The cornerstone of all string quartet repertoire, Schubert’s Death and the Maiden arranged for a string orchestra by Gustav Mahler, is a challenging piece demanding unflinching focus and attention from each musician in the orchestra. Originally composed in 1824 when Schubert was suffering from serious illness and realised that his death was imminent, this piece simultaneously stoops with sorrow and clenches its fist with defiance. The dotted-minim, triplet and crotchet phrase that opens Schubert’s Death and the Maiden were played with a hungry surge and ravished the piece each time the opening theme was recalled. In a letter to his friend Leopold Kupelweiser dated March 31st 1824, Schubert described himself as follows:

Think of a man whose health can never be restored, and who from sheer despair makes matters worse instead of better. Think, I say, of a man whose brightest hopes have come to nothing, to whom love and friendship are but torture, and whose enthusiasm for the beautiful is fast vanishing; and ask yourself if such a man is not truly unhappy

Despite writing in such a defeatist manner of his unquantifiable distress, Schubert’s piece is as much about being shrouded in death’s cloak as it is a stubborn refusal to acknowledge it.  As the twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said in his diary ‘Culture and Value’: “One can point to particular places in a tune by Schubert and say: look, that is the point of the tune, this is where the thought comes to a head”. In Death and the Maiden, that point is reached and was immediately felt when the WNOSO played the opening bars of the infamous second section for this is Schubert’s testament to death. With a frenzied dance-macabre Scherzo and virtuosic Presto, the variations Schubert adds to this piece challenged the WNOSO with intricate passages which required ‘neat scrambling’ (if such a thing is possible). It seems fitting to quote Schubert’s remarks on Mozart from his 1816 Diary: “O Mozart, immortal Mozart, how many, how infinitely many inspiring suggestions of a finer, better life have you left in our souls!” Testifying to Mozart’s irrepressible imagination and creative spontaneity, Schubert’s own oeuvre contains a font of irrepressible styles and musical phrases. Indeed, in the variations following the main theme of Death and the Maiden, Schubert echoes Mozart’s tendency to produce a multitude of, for lack of a better word, ‘spin-offs’. However, these variation movements are not unwanted sequels; they add texture and depth to the main theme exploring and adding complexities which expand upon the original idea and unlock the framework of the piece. In this performance by the WNOSO, the audience’s eye darted from right to left, tracing the emphatic sounds by following the sections of the orchestra. With such concentrated passion and unwavering stamina, the WNOSO gave Cardiff audiences another excellent concert.

Lucy Jeffery

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