How does one approach performing a piece as ubiquitous and overexposed as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (particularly here in New Zealand, where various movements have haunted us through the National Bank television advertisements for years now)? The Auckland Chamber Orchestra, with musical director Peter Scholes, decided in this case to recast Vivaldi’s concertos as works for wind and orchestra with Scholes himself as soloist. Scholes’ specialist instrument is the clarinet, but for this performance he elected to perform not just on four different sizes of clarinet but also two different saxophones and two recorders. The result was a rather baffling presentation, veering between the stunningly effective and the slightly sub-standard, with some attempts at comedy and a decent amount of the downright bizarre.

Peter Scholes
Peter Scholes

Scholes alternated his instruments between each movement (only the finale of Winter had two different solo instruments within the one movement). To be viable on instruments other than violin, transpositions obviously needed to be made, and these were mostly unobtrusive and largely in the spirit of the music. It was very clear from the outset that Scholes is most proficient on the clarinet and that the movements on that instrument were the most effective. The Allegro movements were full of sparkle and wit and pretty jaw-dropping virtuosity. Scholes scarcely seemed to breathe as his clarinet danced through the virtuosic passagework with pretty ideal clarity of attack. Having the trills in Winter played on the clarinet gave an interesting timbre to these little evocations of shivering. On at least one occasion the transposition demanded that the clarinet dive into its lower register, and the first violin played in harmonics along with it – a surprisingly ravishing sound texture.

Summer was divided between a tiny sopranino recorder and a large bass recorder. Perhaps realising the ridiculousness of the sopranino in the passagework of the outer movements, Scholes played this concerto mainly for laughs and was surprisingly funny, bending over double to produce the final high note (more like a squeal) in the first movement. The bass recorder made a beautiful husky sound in the slow movement, but after the sopranino squeaked through the last movement it was a relief to return to Scholes’s clarinet for Autumn, the amusement having worn a bit thin. The timbre of the alto saxophone was just too bright for the slow movement of Winter, and Scholes seemed to be flagging by this stage, emitting some unfortunate noises. While the tenor saxophone in the slow movement of Spring was more expertly played, I still can’t shake the feeling that the basic saxophone sound is just inappropriate for a Baroque adagio. Scholes also had some trouble in the slow movement of Autumn, this time on bass clarinet, with the meandering solo line sounding laboured and sometimes inaudible, making nonsense of the musical piece. It must be said, though, that the use of lute stop on the harpsichord in this movement was a lovely touch.

In this and the preceding Mendelssohn, the Auckland Chamber Orchestra has clearly taken some of the lessons of period performance practice to heart, as evidenced by some generally gutsy and exciting articulation (although vibrato was not eschewed). The storm movements were savage indeed – though the players numbered only around 10, you wouldn’t have known hearing the flurries of sound emerging from the group. They also tempered their tone beautifully for the slow movements.

Mendelssohn's evergreen Octet, a product of the creative flowering of the teenage years that also produced his Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, received a much more conventional rendition. The first movement was full of concentrated intensity from the outset. This followed through with a beautifully moulded account of the slow movement. The third movement was very reminiscent of the Midsummer Night’s Dream music in this performance, all sylph-like lightness and sparkle. In the last movement fugato, it was wonderful to be able to watch the melodic fragments being passed between the different instrumentalists. The playing here was dazzling, no one exhibiting any signs of strain in handling Mendelssohn’s fiendish demands. The composer left instructions that “the Octet must be played by all instruments in a symphonic style” and the soloists, drawn from the Auckland Chamber Orchestra, played this up to the hilt, bringing a full-orchestral level of volume to the more dramatic passages and toning the sound down exquisitely at moments of delicacy. This dynamic contrast was hugely effective in the compact Raye Freedman Arts Centre.

This was certainly not a note-perfect performance, as the occasional dropped note, smudged passagework or bit of questionable intonation was audible, at least prior to the last movement. But this was more than made up for by the electric sense of propulsion and identification with the music. There was a real sense of commonness of purpose, of all eight players heading towards a shared goal with great intensity and enthusiasm – rarely have I experienced a chamber performance so thrilling.