ALFRED HILL – String Quartets Vol.2

ALFRED HILL – String Quartets Vol.2
Quartet No. 4 in C Minor / No.6* in G Major “The Kids” / No.8 in A Major
Dominion Quartet (Yury Gezentsvey, Rosemary Harris, violins / Donald Maurice, viola / David Chickering, ‘cello) *in Quartet No.6 the second violinist is David Pucher

Naxos 8.57209

Put on Track 10 of this new Naxos CD for an irresistibly foot-tapping introduction to the three quartets by Alfred Hill you’ll find here, in characterful readings by the Dominion String Quartet. Hill was Australasia’s first “recognized” composer – though born in Melbourne, his formative years were spent in New Zealand, after which he studied in Leipzig, becoming steeped in the music of Brahms, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky.

The first volume of Hill’s Quartets on Naxos (8.570491) show these European and nationalistic influences, whereas the works on this new CD find him gradually evolving a more austere and distinctive style. Like composers of an earlier era Hill thought nothing of “borrowing” his own music for different works; and so part of the first quartet on this CD, No.4 in C Minor, was reworked as a Symphony in C Minor, entitled “The Pursuit of Happiness”. It’s all beautifully written for the quartet medium – a lovely “sighing” opening, leading into an invigorating allegro, then followed by three equally distinctive movements, the highlight of which is probably the slow movement, with its Elgarian overtones. Quartet No.6 in G Major is engagingly subtitled “The Kids” – the slight gaucherie of the title belies the work’s structural strengths and attractive lyricism (the music is dedicated to Hill’s students at the New South Wales Conservatorium, where the composer was Professor of Composition). Particularly memorable are the Beethoven-like rhythmic patternings of the scherzo’s introduction and (again) a slow movement whose lyrical intensities highlight the child-like naivety of the music’s return to its source of inspiration in the finale.

String Quartet No.8 in A Major shows Hill’s most adventurous compositional undertakings to date, the opening movement redolent of Debussy’s more “impressionist” colourings, but at the same time energizing the music’s structures with folk-like exuberances. After the thoroughly engaging scherzo (referred to at the beginning) comes a slow movement whose whole-tone hamonies and chromatic accompaniments are of breath-catching quality.

The finale recycles the work’s opening, before removing the listener’s sensibilities from such stringencies, introducing an extended melody across different time- signatures and even working a fugue into the development, before drawing all the strands together nicely in a properly festive finish. Throughout, the Dominion Quartet plays like a group with a mission, and they deliver the goods triumphantly, aided by a mellifluous and truthful-sounding recording.

RICHARD FARRELL The Complete Recordings Volume One

RICHARD FARRELL The Complete Recordings Volume One
Richard Farrell (piano)
The Halle Orchestra / George Weldon

Atoll ACD 208/1-2

The exhumation of mostly long-invisible recordings by New Zealand’s greatest pianist has been a slow and laborious exercise. Richard Farrell who died aged 31 in 1958 left only a small number of commercial recordings, although there is other evidence of his career surviving in the Radio New Zealand sound archive which I hope will also soon reach the light of day. I heard Farrell play more than once though I can pin-point only one concert in 1951 when I was a 6th former at Wellington College, as I still have his signed recital programme from the Wellington Town Hall.

Atoll Records are in the process of releasing three double albums of the extant recordings. The first has just appeared and contains an interesting variety of music, and with playing that emerges as so revelatory, so commanding, so effortless yet dazzling in its virtuosity and entrancing in its musical feeling. The first disc opens with the Grieg Piano Concerto. It’s a long time since I sat and actually listened to the work, either live or on recording and I was quite beguiled both by its charm and its high level of musical inspiration. Grieg of course has fallen out of fashion for many listeners more concerned with being in tune with what is critically a la mode than to listen to music through their ears and to respond with their emotions. Words that have been used often to describe Farrell’s playing are ease, naturalness. The Grieg concerto may not be among the most challenging in technical terms but the sound, the flawless playing and the timeless quality of Farrell’s interpretation remove it from any hint of being a restored vintage recording. Interpretation is the wrong word too, for this a simply a glorious, lyrical many-coloured performance of Grieg without any sense of the pianist’s own mannerisms or ego interventions.

Next come the Brahms Ballades Op 10. Farrell plays these not-so-familiar early pieces with a simplicity and feeling for their singing qualities that we are more familiar with in the last groups of piano pieces from Op 116 onwards. No 3 in the set is particularly interesting. There is a concentration and imagination in the playing that is not common. It is a bold and somewhat dark fairy-like piece in which Farrell makes magic out of its fleeting emotions. The fourth ballade is the longest and owes more perhaps to Chopin and foreshadows the mature piano pieces; Farrell holds the attention with the poised delicacy of his playing. Given the age of the recording – in this case 1958 – the piano tone that he draws is warm and opulent and remarkably varied. The rest of the first disc is taken with the 16 Waltzes. Brahms himself adapted his original duet version for solo piano and again Farrell displays his gift for investing rather slender music with eloquence and charm if not actually grandeur. The second disc starts with Grieg again. The Ballade in G Minor, a kind of keyboard tone poem, 20 minutes long, is one of Grieg’s finest works but because of cyclical musical fashion, little known. Farrell offers a delicate and quite entrancing rendering that establishes a sympathetic disposition for the group of Popular Norwegian Melodies and Lyric Pieces that follow. From few pianists since Farrell (perhaps Emil Gilels, or Leif Ove Andsnes) have we had such profoundly sympathetic Grieg performances. These are far from trivial pieces – in sophistication, artistry and plain musical inspiration, they are in the class of comparable music by Schubert, Chopin, Debussy, music quite simply of the greatest beauty whose neglect has been a real loss to the last generation.

For me, these recordings have done far more than reawaken my huge admiration for Farrell, but have renewed my affection for Grieg, understanding why a couple of generations ago he could be classed among the great composers. The First Piano Concerto of Liszt was originally issued with the Grieg on a Pye LP and later, in stereo, on the American Mercury label. Accompanying was the Halle Orchestra conducted by George Weldon, one of Britain’s finest conductors of the post-war period, the conductor who first made the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra into a great ensemble. The concerto is a model of discretion, orchestral and piano clarity, yet it does not lack excitement and rhetoric; the contemplative character of the first section allows the subsequent dramatic passages to make greater impact. Both conductor and pianist are clearly at pains to show Liszt’s poetic and lyrical qualities, and they take time to dwell on these aspects to an unusual degree. There is a joyousness, a youthful buoyancy, clarity of detail yet dazzling virtuosity in the piano, as well as a beautifully balanced orchestral presence in this performance.
This re-issue of recordings long out of circulation, the work of Wayne Laird of Atoll Records, ought to be embraced wholeheartedly by New Zealanders, finally able to appreciate the great gifts of the one pianist of undeniable international stature that we have produced.

Alfred Hill (1869-1960) – A Birthday Celebration (139 years young)

Alfred Hill (1869-1960)
A Birthday Celebration (139 years young)
ALFRED HILL – String Quartets: Nos. 7 and 9
The Dominion String Quartet (Yury Gezentsvey, Rosemary Harris, violins / Donald Maurice, viola / David Chickering, ‘cello)
Wadestown Presbyterian Church
16th December 2008

Introducing the music and the performers for this concert was Donald Maurice, the violist of the Dominion String Quartet, a musician and scholar who has worked tirelessly to re-establish the reputation and credentials of Alfred Hill as New Zealand’s first professional composer. He talked about the formation of the Quartet in response to the challenge of recording all seventeen of Alfred Hill’s works in this medium for the Naxos label. Longer-term, the Quartet hopes to be able to tackle other New Zealand works, including some more of the repertoire written by composers both prior to and following Douglas Lilburn.

This concert was in fact held to celebrate Alfred Hill’s birthday, in fact the composer’s 139th, an occasion further made special by the presence in the audience of the composer’s great-nephew, whom the audience appropriately acknowledged.

The Dominion Quartet has already released two CDs of Alfred Hill’s works (see the review of Vol.2 of this series elsewhere in this issue), and this concert featured two works recently recorded for the next CD which will appear during 2009. These performances of Quartets Nos. 7 and 9 were both New Zealand public premieres, and served further notice of the significance of Hill’s compositional output. Long regarded in many people’s minds merely as the writer of the charmingly dated song “Waiata Poi”, the composer whom these quartets represented came freshly before us as a vibrant and compelling creator of a memorable and enduring body of music. Quartet No.7 made an arresting beginning to the concert, with a rhythmically snappy introductory figure that was to launch a long and sinuous first subject, one whose questing energies led through a contrasting legato episode to a development where the same rhythmic “kick” stimulated exploratory harmonic shifts with chromatic agitato figures sliding from hue to hue. The pizzicato opening of the second movement set in motion a wonderful waltz whose trio section, introduced by the lower strings, had more than a hint of schmaltz in its makeup. The slow movement took us to further realms of fancy, with a Borodin-like melody whose radiance was offset by deep sostenuto strings, redolent of the Russian master’s famous “Nocturne” movement in another quartet. In conclusion, the finale’s vigorous stride brooked little interference from the occasional modulatory swerve, bringing the music homeward to the point where the quartet’s opening rhythmic flourish returned, stimulating celebratory fanfares and other vigorous gestures which concluded the work in an extremely satisfying manner.

With the following Quartet No.9 the development of a more personal and self-confident style of writing by Hill, described by Donald Maurice in his introductory talk, became even more evident, especially with the work’s slow movement, which seemed to come from nowhere after a more conventional but tightly-worked opening movement, with plenty of directly-expressed energy and focus. How profoundly everything then changed, with a strange and new world being brought to view! – intense pressure-points of sound, column- like creations whose proportions slowly evolved and reshaped like pillars of mist, a vision whose intensities were quietly resolved at the end. Then, just as disconcertingly, the scherzo, a festive dance with an engaging rhythmically ambiguous pizzicato accompaniment swept away the gloom with Dvorak- like vigour, clearing the decks for the finale. Hill took no prisoners with this strongly-etched music, biting chords at the beginning bridged with rhythmic patternings that led off into a melancholic lower- strings tune, and a central episode that looked inward as much as forwards, making the return to the opening music all the more telling. It was the work of a composer who seemed to be saying at the conclusion “This is how it is – like it or not !”. If performances weren’t absolutely note-perfect at all times throughout, the players nevertheless captured every mood of the music to a telling degree, and did its composer full justice. One can hardly wait for the recording, as much to hear the Fifth Quartet also, as to relish yet again the delights of those heard this evening in concert.

Afterwards musicians and audience were able to join together and sing “Happy Birthday” to Alfred Hill, as well as enjoy a wonderfully voluminous cake made by violinist Rosemary Harris – certainly a birthday worth remembering! (PM)

J.S.BACH – Christmas Oratorio

J.S.BACH – Christmas Oratorio
(Cantatas 1, 2 & 3)
Nicola Edgecombe (soprano)
Andrea Cochrane (alto)
John Beaglehole (tenor) / Peter Russell (bass)
Douglas Mews (continuo)
The Chiesa Ensemble
The Bach Choir of Wellington
Directed by Stephen Rowley
St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, 14th December 2008

Surely the first couple of pages of J.S.Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” rate as one of the great musical openings – timpani calling everything to attention, flutes and oboes trilling joyously, and trumpets resounding with fanfares, heralding the festive approach of the processional, with its message of “praise, joy and gladness”. St.Andrew’s-on-the- Terrace reverberated with such glad sounds on Sunday afternoon, instrumentalists and choir launching into the work’s opening with great gusto under the energetic direction of Stephen Rowley, a name new to me, but obviously a conductor capable of getting an energetic and committed response from his musicians.

In general both the Bach Choir’s singing and the Chiesa Ensemble’s playing gave enormous pleasure throughout each of the three cantatas. The opening movement featured some splendid “trumpets and drums” moments from the players, and singing from the choir which had attack, precision, energy and great variety throughout. Stephen Rowley got from his forces both the music’s ritualistic grandeur and its excitement, pacing the three parts of the work admirably through the contrasts afforded by movement and stillness, ceremony and reflection.

In a venue which emphasised immediacy and visceral impact of sound, the music and its performance made a stirring impression. Particularly memorable was the choir’s singing of the more reflective chorales, from “Wie soll ich dich empfangen” in the first cantata, to “Ich will dich mit Fließ bewahren” in the third. But there was warmth and splendour in abundance as well, for instance in the work’s final chorus “Herrscher des Himmels” (Ruler of Heaven), where conductor and voices managed a nice differentiation between gentle and full-throated vocal lines at a tempi that allowed maximum articulation. Only in the angelic chorus in the second cantata “Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe” (Glory to God) did I feel the need for a bit more word- projection – the lines, though nicely dovetailed, didn’t quite scintillate with enough vocal excitement, so that we weren’t quite caught up in the bubbling wonderment of it all as we ought to have been.

As for the Chiesa Ensemble’s playing, the instrumental sounds pinned back our ears right from the opening chords, drumstrokes and wind-and-brass fanfares, all of which were delivered with infectious energy and superb focus. Equally telling was the quality of the obbligato work throughout, strings and winds supporting the vocal soloists unerringly, supporting and colouring the ambience of each episode with beautifully-phrased playing. With the Sinfonia that began the second cantata the music seemed to take a while to cohere between instrumental groups, but in general the players realised all of the score’s rhythmic and textural complexities with great élan, strongly supported by eloquent continuo-playing from Eleanor Carter (‘cello) and Douglas Mews (organ).

Each of the four soloists had challenges aplenty to tackle, with old Bach writing for his solo voices as if they were instruments with effortless range and limitless resources of breath! Tenor John Beaglehole threw himself into his recitatives as though his life depended upon the outcome, and his clear sense of line, of putting across the narrative’s meaning fully engaged his listeners, even though his delivery showed occasionally strained notes. Despite getting a bit out of synch with his accompaniment at one point in the second cantata’s “Frohe Hirten, eilt” (Happy shepherds, hurry), he made a good fist of the difficult runs in this aria, and worked mellifluously with Nancy Luther-Jara’s solo flute throughout. Alto Andrea Cochrane used her rich tones to beautiful effect in the slower music, never more so than in the second cantata’s “Schlafe, mein Liebster” (Slumber Beloved), where her long-held opening notes coloured the music’s textures magically. She also brought off the last, and somewhat treacherous run of “Wo wir unser Herz erfreuen”, in the aria’s middle section with determination and confidence, though she occasionally lost some of her poise and projection in numbers such as “Schließe, mein Herz” in the third cantata, where more warmth in the tone was needed.

Soprano Nicola Edgecombe and bass Peter Russell had a fine time with their duetting in the first and third cantatas, the first a lovely dialogue “Er ist auf Erden kommen arm” with the soprano’s chorale light but true against the bass’s focused and properly weighted recitative “Wer will die Liebe recht erhöhn”. The second, “Herr, dein Mitleid” featured nicely “sprung” rhythms and finely-sustained lines from both singers, with great teamwork at “Deine Holde Gunst und Liebe”, delivered against a backdrop of beautifully- voiced oboe accompaniment. Peter Russell, in his several solo arias, demonstrated his usual intelligently musical responses to words and music, retaining his balance and momentum even when the highest notes seemed just beyond his reach. The three cantatas were played without a break, making for a rich hour-and-a-half’s concert whose proportions seemed well-nigh perfect for a pre- Christmas Sunday afternoon – for the goodly crowd which attended, it proved a delightful and rewarding musical experience. (PM)

Opera Society’s year-end gala concert

Opera arias and Liebesliederwalzer, Op 52 by Brahms

The New Zealand Opera Society, Wellington Branch.

Year End Gala Recital with Madeleine Pierard (soprano), established and rising singers accompanied by Bruce Greenfield and Julie Coulson.

National Library Auditorium, Wednesday 10 December 2009

The New Zealand Opera Society is one of New Zealand’s longest-lived musical institutions, founded at the same time as the first home-grown opera company, the New Zealand Opera Company, in 1954. Its purpose was to be friends of the company. The company died in 1971, but the society knew that it still had a job to do, supporting opera wherever to emerged in New Zealand. It has survived one other major national company, based in Auckland, which lasted a mere three years.

Since the 1970s the society whose main strength was, and still is, in Wellington, it publishes the monthly magazine, New Zealand Opera News and its Wellington Branch presents regular recitals and opera events of many kinds. In recent years it has also run screenings of opera on film and DVD but has struggled to attract audiences to live recitals.

Wednesday the 10th of December was a singular exception when there were few empty seats at the National Library auditorium.

The reason obviously, was Madeleine Pierard whose rise to celebrity has even overcome the general level of media neglect of classical music. Hardly out of her studies at the Royal College of Music in London, she has already been cast in significant roles at Covent Garden and other important opera houses. Back in New Zealand this past week, she has sung in the meretricious Paul McCartney concoction, Ecce Cor Meum as well as in a magnificent, full-house Messiah with The Tudor Consort in the Town Hall.

For the opera society she was in the spotlight with two brackets of arias.

The first comprised excerpts from opera seria: from works by Handel, Mozart and Rossini. The second bracket comprised ‘Mon coeur ne peut changer’ from Gounod’s Mireille and Marietta’s Lied from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt.

Madeleine’s absolute command of style and technique held the audience spell-bound in the aria from Handel’s Alcina, ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ Without denigrating the supporting singers, here was a star, not just in the making, but made, though there are areas in which she will develop, for example in cultivating greater warmth and lyrical qualities. In the strange artificiality of Handelian belcanto, she brought an electrifying dramatic sense, utter security, agility and brilliance. In music closer to recognizable human emotions, in the aria ‘Deh se piacer mi vuoi’ from Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito: there was fury and ambition. It was interesting to hear her mezzo soprano range still strong and natural. Finally, in Rossini’s famous Semiramide aria, ‘Bel raggio lusighier’, she demonstrated a virtuosity that I would risk saying might be unmatched by any other New Zealand singer.

Madeleine moved onto Kiri Te Kanawa territory with Marietta’s Song from Die Tote Stadt: very different indeed: the velvet and lyricism replaced by a crystalline, almost spectral quality which captured the opera’s decadent, Freudian obsessiveness.

Finally, a welcome exposure of Gounod’s other opera – Mireille, some rank it ahead of Roméo et Juliette as his second finest work. This aria, ‘Mon coeur ne peut changer’ has been recorded by Malvina Major on her CD Casta Diva. Madeleine sang it with the right combination of wistfulness and sparkle.

The concert was by no means simply a showcase for Ms Pierard however.

Georgia Jamieson Emms opened the evening with Norina’s ‘Quel guardo il cavaliere’ from Don Pasquale, with a degree of uncertainty in both style and panache, but her later arias – The Queen of the Night’s Act I aria and Zerbinetta’s stratospheric aria from Ariadne auf Naxos, displayed considerable flair both vocally and histrionically.

The other solo performances were from Daniel O’Connor, a young baritone who has acquired a natural ease of delivery and attractive stage presence. The notes of ‘O du mein holde Abendstern’ (Tannhäuser) may not be hard to find, but it can be a dull and stiff affair; with O’Connor it was anything but that, and there was an intelligent grasp of the Wagner idiom. Then he sang Onegin’s Act II aria, in fine Russian, with a proper degree of empathy and gentleness. Perhaps he is on the same path as T T Rhodes.

Barbara Graham is a young singer who, like O’Connor, has been on the New Zealand Opera‘s emerging artist programme. She had both the personal assurance and the musical talent to carry off, if not at especially breakneck speed, the brilliant ‘Glitter and be gay’ from Candide.

Throughout, the singers had the benefit of the most sensitive and finely judged accompaniments from Bruce Greenfield. His page turner throughout the recital had been Julie Coulson who eventually took a seat at the treble end of the keyboard to share the duet accompaniment for Brahms’s Liebesliederwalzer. None of the young featured singers took part in that performance: instead four of Wellington’s leading resident singers joined forces: Lesley Graham, Linden Loader, Richard Greager, Roger Wilson.

Individually, they brought life and affection to these somewhat pale imitations of what Johann Strauss II was wowing the world with at the same time (to be fair, Brahms did call them ‘innocent little waltzes’ to make clear that he did not aim to ape Strauss, whom he greatly admired); but as a vocal ensemble, their voices were not particularly engaging. It does not reflect on individual vocal qualities, but could as easily happen if you put together four of the world’s greatest singers: the art of selecting voices and managing them so that they blend is a delicate matter, and the smaller the number of singers the more difficult the job.

Nota Bene – A Snow-Free Christmas

Nota Bene – A Snow-Free Christmas
Nota Bene Choir
Guest Conductor: Peter Walls
Carolyn Mills (harp)
Frances Moore(soprano)
Peter Barber (viola)
Fiona McCabe (piano)

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill St.,Wellington

Saturday 6 December 2008

A couple of nights after being mightily impressed by the singing of the Tudor Consort at a recent “Messiah” I must confess to being even more taken with the performances by Christine Argyle’s wonderful choir “Nota Bene” at the group’s recent concert “A Snow- Free Christmas”, conducted by Peter Walls, and given at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Wellington on Saturday night (December 6th).

The Hill Street Cathedral has the double virtue of intimate audience/performer proximity within a relatively voluminous space, and we audience members certainly reaped the benefits of both of these characteristics throughout the concert. This sense of involvement in an occasion was underlined at the beginning and end of the opening work, Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols”, which featured the entrance and exit of the all-female choir singing the traditional Christmas Motet “Hodie” – such a scalp-tingling effect at the start, those distant voices drawing nearer and nearer, bringing with them all the excitement and expectation of something festive, rich and satisfying.

Britten’s work was just one of the evening’s “Christmas” offerings, but it was among the most significant – and its performance, I thought, did the music full justice. The women’s voices of Nota Bene may have lacked the sheer animal vitality of some of the boys’ choirs whose performances I’ve heard of this piece on recordings, but the beauty and purity of their singing for conductor Peter Walls made for some breath-catching moments in places. Aided by some of the most atmospheric and diaphanously-woven harp- playing in this piece which I’ve ever heard, from Carolyn Mills, the choir encompassed every aspect of Britten’s wonderfully variegated settings, moving easily and tellingly from the vigour of “Wolcum Yole!” to the rapt beauty of “There is No Rose”, and beautifully integrating the use of solo voices with the contrasting amplitude of the larger group in numbers such as “Balulalow”. In the previous setting for solo voice and harp, “The Yonge Child” I was struck during this performance by how Britten manages to conjure up sounds that are at one and the same time so new and yet so old, speaking to our time, yet perfectly in accord with the medieval texts favoured by the composer.

Perhaps the choir’s singing of “As Dew in Aprille” might have had a touch more “swing” in its melodic trajectory at the climax to achieve absolute rapture, but amends were made with the tumbling energies of “This Little Babe”, and later a fine sense of almost pagan abandonment in those cries of “Deo gracias” that concluded “Adam Lay I-Bounden” most satisfactorily. Carolyn Mills’s incomparably sensitive realisation of the solo harp interlude was followed by a setting which could be described as the work’s dark heart, “In Freezing Winter Night”, with the choir’s anguished insistence on a repeated high-lying phrase heightened as the music moved up half-a-tone at the climax towards even colder and more forsaken realms, the emotional “squeeze” expertly managed by all.

Solace came with lovely duetting in the “Spring Carol” and a joyous feeling of homecoming in the excitable “Adam Lay I-Bounden”, before the performers took their leave as they had come. After the interval, we were treated to some attractive, intriguingly inter-connected Christmas music manifestations – firstly, listening to Michael Praetorius’s seventeenth-century arrangement of “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen”, and then a twentieth-century “take” of the same carol, arranged by Jan Sandström (the “Motorcycle Concerto” man, as Peter Walls gleefully pointed out to us, reminding us of the NZSO’s recent performance of this work with trombonist Christian Lindberg). Untutored, one would be hard put to associate the latter music and composer with the sounds we heard here – the melody and words were exquisitely “floated” by a quartet of voices antiphonally placed in the choir loft over the top of rich choral humming vocalisations from below – an amazingly timeless effect, brought off most beautifully.

Another set of inter-related musical strands were woven by the performers with a performance of the 14th-Century carol “Resonet in laudibus” (some evocative bare fourths and fifths raising antiquarian goosebumps), then relating the melody to the 17th- Century Lutheran Chorale “Joseph Lieber, Joseph mein”, both carols associated with the medieval practice of “rocking” a cradle during services. As Brahms used this same melody in the instrumental parts of his “Geistliches Wiegenlied”, soprano Frances Moore, violist Peter Barber and pianist Fiona McCabe then performed this song with sensitive teamwork and winning and nostalgic atmosphere.

Francis Poulenc’s attractive “Quatre motets de Noel” challenged the choir in all departments, and enabled them to shine – the opening “O Magnum Mysterium” demonstrated the voices’ flexibility over a wide dynamic range, and a capacity to deliver exquisite detailing; while the dialogues between shepherds and their questioners engendered a compelling story-sense in musical terms. Only the cruelly high soprano writing in “Videntes stellam” seemed to bring out the merest hint of strain, though the poise of the singing was unimpaired, with the evocative shifting harmonies of the concluding “Hodie” making for a rich and satisfying conclusion to the work’s performance.

Next were three traditional carols from France, Italy and Latvia – first, the enchanting French “Il est nè le divin enfant” captured our sensibilities with its lovely, droll rhythmic carriage, rather like dancing bagpipes or musettes in partnership with voices. Then came a different connection with another recent Wellington concert – the Italian carol “Quando nascette Ninno” shared the same tune as Handel’s “He shall feed his flock” from “Messiah”, this lovely performance gently scintillated by a jig-like tambourine accompaniment. Most distinctive of the three, however, was the Latvian carol “Dedziet skalu, putiet guni”, whose bell- sonorities and mesmeric rhythms built throughout agglomerations of groups of voices towards an enticing episode of filigree decoration from the sopranos that resonated within a bell-like finish – very nicely brought off! To conclude the concert we were treated to a New Zealand bracket of carols, featuring the work of Carol Shortis, Andrew Baldwin and Douglas Mews Senior. Carol Shortis, a Philip Neill Memorial prize-winner, is currently studying composition at the New Zealand School of Music, and Andrew Baldwin is composer- in-residence at Wellington’s Cathedral of St Paul. Both Shortis’ “I saw a Fair Maiden” and Baldwin’s “O Magnum Mysterium” demonstrated their composers’ skill and experience in writing for voices; while the older, and in some ways more adventurous and confident-sounding work of Douglas Mews Senior, “Snow-free Carols”, gave us three nicely differentiated Christmas settings from this collection, a Pohutukawa Carol with a tripping 6/8 rhythm, a meditative setting for two soloists and choir of Eileen Duggan’s poem “An Imprint of His Little Feet”, and a vigorous, coda- like call to action “Christmas Come In”.

An unscheduled, but wholly appropriate encore to the concert was a performance of the original setting of Franz Gruber’s “Stille Nacht” with guitar accompaniment, the old tune as moving and as evocative as ever, but made even more magically so as the culmination of Nota Bene’s seasonal feast of truly lovely singing. (PM)

Handel – MESSIAH – The Tudor Consort

Handel – MESSIAH – The Tudor Consort
Madeleine Pierard (soprano)
Nicola Hooper (alto)
Edmund Hintz (tenor)
Hadleigh Adams (bass)
Tudor Consort
Vector Wellington Orchestra
Conductor: Michael Stewart
Wellington Town Hall
Thursday 4th December 2008

This was a “Messiah” performance that obviously caught the public’s imagination before a note had even been sounded in public, judging by the palpable buzz of excitement in and around the Town Hall beforehand, with queues of people waiting to be admitted a few minutes before starting-time. The Tudor Consort has always publicised its concerts cannily, and perhaps the presence of Madeleine Pierard as a rising young soprano star was also a drawcard – whatever the case, the choir, as well as the Wellington Orchestra people, must have been gratified by the near-full Hall.

Reading conductor Michael Stewart’s note in the programme beforehand, regarding the work’s history and different performance practices over the years, alerted one to the idea that this was going to be a performance of Messiah with its own distinction. In practice, this was very much the case – Stewart had obviously thought long and hard about the work and recent scholarship into performance style, so that this would definitely be something of a fresh look at a much-presented classic, far removed from a mere reproduction of the last hundred or so Town Hall performances over the years.

Obviously with the superb voices of the Tudor Consort at hand, the conductor had the singers able to fill out his conception of the music with real sounds, along with an orchestra at his disposal that has in the past proved a flexible, willing and highly skilled band capable of rising to the most demanding of challenges. The result was an energetic and totally committed performance from all concerned, that earned for the performers a sizeable ovation at the end from an extremely satisfied audience. Whatever criticism one might be inclined to make regarding this and that detail, the overall conception of the work had a conviction and overall sweep which couldn’t help but impress.

The over-riding impression one carried away from the evening’s performance was the obvious extent to which everybody – conductor, soloists, choir and orchestral players – gave of themselves to the music. Thus the story of the oratorio was put across with a considerable amount of energy and skill, atmosphere and colour, an upshot of the very physical way that all of the musicians seemed to engage with the business in hand. All of the four soloists had particular qualities to offer, even if only one of them, soprano Madeleine Pierard, possessed the technical and interpretative means to bring off triumphantly almost everything she wanted to do within her part. Each of the others began strongly, and had their notable moments – Edmund Hintz truly consoled our sensibilities with a lovely “Comfort Ye!” right at the beginning, Nicola Hooper similarly charmed with a nicely-turned “He shall feed his flock”, and bass Hadleigh Adams pinned our ears back with his blood-and-thunder “Thus Saith The Lord”, as well as negotiating “The People Who Walk in Darkness” with a growing sense of passing from a state of gloom and despair into one of hope and gladness.

Despite the difficulties encountered by tenor, alto and bass at various other moments, each had the ability to sustain the mood of the music and the sense of what was wanted, so that the musical argument was sufficiently maintained. By contrast, Madeleine Pierard’s singing was a joy throughout, an artist whose work came across with the confidence, élan and sparkling projection that informed whatever she sang – a truly class act. It was possible to feel just a touch of astringent tone in one or two places, particularly noticeable when she followed Nicola Hooper’s opening “He Shall Feed His Flock” – but by the time she had reached “I know that My Redeemer Liveth” her voice had all the focus, warmth and colour to do the music full justice.

Director of the Tudor Consort Michael Stewart controlled his forces expertly throughout, and secured an extremely vital and energetic performance. He got absolutely splendid playing from the Vector Wellington Orchestra, who weren’t spared by an insistence on fleet-fingered tempi and incisive rhythms whenever the score called for them. Yet the playing had an attractive gravitas in places as well – a fine performance, with lovely brass work in items such as “The Trumpet shall sound” and of course “Halleluiah”.

Which brings me to the Tudor Consort Voices themselves, who covered themselves in vocal glory, despite in places being asked by their director to negotiate the music at what I occasionally felt were speeds that reduced the music’s coherence. I felt that Stewart’s desire to “blow away the cobwebs” resulted in the quicker music being given an edge that was too insistent, to the point that some of the structure’s paintwork was blistered as well as the surfaces freshly cleaned. It was as though he was relying too much on speed rather than rhythmic pointing to generate momentum and excitement, at which times I felt cheated at not being able to experience the delight of listening to those strands interlocking together to produce an amazing and articulate musical structure.

For me the approach emphasised the energy and vigour of Handel’s writing at the expense of some of its grandeur – there were places where I thought the music under- characterised, as in “For Unto Us A Child Is Born”, where the cries of “Wonderful’ and “Counsellor” hardly “told” so as to provide a contrast with the delicious contrapuntal matrix of the opening.  The wonder is that the choir enunciated their lines as clearly as they did, but despite their skill I felt that some of the music was passing me as if in a blur. “And He Shall Purify” reminded me of high-speed trains crossing a network of lines in a complex operation that gave me more anxiety than pleasure – in some of the choruses (such as “He Trusted in God” and “Let Us Break Their Bonds”) a valid emotional response, but surely not as an all-purpose treatment of quick movements and numbers.

The famous “Halleluiah!” made its mark, though, partly because of the focused singing and playing, and partly because almost everybody in the hall stood up – “that hoary old tradition!” was one friend of mine’s reaction – but I loved jumping to my feet with everybody, because doing so heightened for me the whole evening’s sense of occasion, of ritual, even of participation in the performance instead of listening passively. Of course, long before the performance had reached this point, Michael Stewart, with his soloists, the Tudor Consort and the Wellington Orchestra had already swept all of us up in the ferment of music- making; so this was a kind of “word made flesh” moment of audience involvement, which was almost unanimously relished. In its way it was a spontaneous tribute to the performance as a whole, with Stewart’s “fresh perspective on a favourite work” receiving its proper, well-deserved due. (PM)