Tasman String Quartet


Wellington Chamber Music:

Bartok – String Quartet No.3

Thomas Ades – Arcadia for String Quartet Op.12

Beethoven – String Quartet in F Op.59 No.1 “Rasumovsky”

Tasman String Quartet: Anna van der Zee, Jennifer Banks (violins), Christiaan van der Zee (viola), Miranda Wilson (‘cello)

Ilott Theatre, Wellington, Sunday, 31st May, 2009

Bartok was originally to have been Mozart, in this concert, a change obliquely referred to by the violist, leaning conspiratorially towards the audience just before the music began, and warning us not to think their Mozart horribly out of tune, or words to that effect! As it turned out, the Quartet’s playing of Bartok’s Third String Quartet was beautifully-nuanced throughout, poised and lyrical, the “special effects” such as playing on the bridge and with the wood of the bow never unduly emphasized for their own sakes, but incorporated into a kind of lyrical folkish manner. It really was playing of an order that seemed beyond the group’s years, except that the intensity of their involvement with the music could be as easily attributed to youthful ardour – but even more impressive was their osmotic way with the music, the different episodes seeming to flow with a naturalness in keeping with the players’ interactive aspect, a constantly flowing process that the group, like their distinguished colleagues, the New Zealand String Quartet, seemed to be able to express with physical movement, almost in choreographic terms, adding a further dimension of appreciation for the audience.

Their sound as a group I thought not especially “moulded” whether by choice or otherwise, but it resulted in a tangy, flavoursome set of timbres whose combination made for ear-catching results. There was so much to savour about their playing of the Bartok – the terrific rhythmic point of the folk-dance episode against the second violin’s sustained trillings, the exciting interplay of their pinpoint pizzicato note-attack leading into an on-the-toes fugato, and the eerie skeletal timbres heralding the “air-raid siren” glissandi from the lower instruments as the rest run for cover; but overall the impression was of a deeply thought-about interpretation, whose salient points – fluidity, colour and rhythmic interplay – took place within an overall shape whose moulding allowed every significant detail to make a telling contribution.

New to me was the Thomas Ades work, Arcadiana for String Quartet, a name suggesting a kind of earthly Paradise, a Greek version of Shangri-La, the music in seven short movements suggesting various aspect of this state of earthly perfection. From the opening Lullaby, whose sounds refracted through a “do I wake or sleep?” kind of sensibility, with things drifting, changing, advancing and receding, the Quartet thoroughly immersed itself in the music’s sound-world. A ‘cello solo sings operatically against bright, chirruping strings in No.2, while the third, taking its cue from Schubert’s watery song invitation seems to glide downwards into as well as along the surface of aqueous depths. Pizzicati spark off arco variants of a heavy-footed dance, folk-fiddles digging in and adding an exotic element, music whose dance-rhythms were inspired by the words “Et in Arcadia ergo”, music in which the “here and now” gradually becomes a kind of swinging gate, as the playground empties, and the golden girls and boys make their way outwards to glory. Delicate, sighing harmonies characterize the opening of the fifth section, leading to an Elgarian reminiscence of an England whose past glories have an autumnal glow, an ambience that extends via the ‘cello solo into the last section, whose name, Lethe, appropriately characterizes the oblivion into which the music disappears at the end.

After the interval the Tasman Quartet tore into the first Beethoven “Rasumovsky” work (Op.59 No.1) as though their lives depended on the outcome, the playing urgent, thrusting and directional, though with enough flexibility to register the music’s mood-changes. The players kept things very tight and tense throughout, the music’s ebb and flow geared to a strongly-maintained pulse, though they didn’t ever make a meal of any of the movement’s “big moments”, such as the great chordal statement of the theme just before the movement’s end, keeping such utterances urgent and dynamically terraced. The second movement’s opening was nicely poised and sharply-etched – perhaps a bit too earnest (youthful intensities to the fore), though the second theme had great ‘schwung”! Trenchant playing in the movement’s middle kept the voltage high and pushed the intensity needle consistently into the red, though the players did relax a little for the cantabile moments, and the “theme-exchange” passages between the instruments.

This quartet has one of the many great slow movements found in Beethoven’s music – at the beginning the players found what felt like a natural-sounding expression, with nothing forced or strained, the lively-sounding Italianate thirds expressed by the violins perfectly in scale. I would expect these players to gradually find over subsequent performances of this music even more stillness in some of the less driven parts of the middle movements. Though exciting and engaging, the intensities of this performance I felt imparted a somewhat dogged feel occasionally to rhythms whose gait could have been less “pushed”, and whose unrelenting focus made true intonation difficult in places for the violins. But having said that, it was all part of a superbly-delivered musical conception which, if occasionally wanting a touch of humour, crackled and sparked with wonderful intensity throughout.

NZ School of Music Concerto Competition

New Zealand School of Music: Concerto Competition Final

Finalists: Judy Guan, Rafaella Garlick-Grice, Alex Chan, Andrzej Nowicki, Hannah Darroch, Charlotte Fetherston, accompanied by pianists Diedre Irons, Richard Mapp and Emma Sayers

Adam Concert Room, New Zealand School of Music, Friday 29 May

The annual concerto competition, formerly of the Victoria University School of Music, now the New Zealand School, ought to be a much more high profile event than it has ordinarily been. There is a very good school orchestra and the City Council would doubtless offer the Michael Fowler Centre at a peppercorn rent for a concert of such interest and importance and that might reinforce the status of Wellington as musically significant.

Wellington, after all, has been able to create and hold no major music contest, such as both Auckland and Christchurch cherish.

Judy Guan perhaps put herself at a disadvantage by playing a Chinese concerto, very popular there, but an essentially vacuous piece from the first decade of the Communist Chinese regime: The Butterfly Lover’s Violin Concerto. Beautifully played but, even though edited down to about 20 minutes length, it still far outlasted its musical content; it sounded padded: every time the end seemed nigh, the violin would set off afresh with another variation in the same saccharine vein. Nor was it a very rewarding exercise for accompanying pianist Emma Sayers. As adjudicator Michael Houstoun commented, such a slender piece demanded more personality, more varying dynamics and interest invested in phrasing.

Rafaella Garlick-Grice played the first and third movements from the Fifth Piano Concerto by Saint-Saëns. Her technique enables her to perform this highly virtuosic, but musically fine concerto with astonishing virtuosity and accomplishment, The problem was that the almost incessant, complex scales and bravura note-spinning, was delivered at an unremitting fortissimo and without the variety that should make every phase interesting.

Houstoun commented that he would have chosen the slow movement to play with one of the fast outer movements, for variety’s sake: a contrasting meditative piece was needed; he remarked that she tended to play at a constant mezzoforte instead of creating a magical pianissimo in the fast scales and The effect was no doubt aggravated by the fact that here, necessarily, was the only concerto involving two pianos: Diedre Irons’s orchestral reduction still contributed a torrent of notes that added to the aural assault.

Nevertheless, here is a highly accomplished pianist who won the audience vote for best performer.

Weber concertante pieces for woodwinds occupied two contestants. Alex Chan rather astonished with her high-pressure, unyielding performance of the Andante and Rondo Ungarese for bassoon. Though not among his best such pieces, rather pedestrian in the Andante, it is a fine and demanding showcase for the instrument; the Rondo is familiar and Chan managed its uninterrupted speed and energy with impressive stamina.

Clarinettist Andrzej Nowicki played the second and third movements of Weber’s Second Clarinet Concerto, accompanied again by Irons. The calm opening phrases of the Romanza caught the audience with their exquisite pianissimo expressiveness. The Alla Polacca was studded with quick, adroit ornaments, constant variety of articulation. The whole was spirited, ever varied, fluent and persuasive.

Praising the immaculate performance, its inflections, shaping, constant changes of tone, Houstoun awarded Nowicki the prize.

Perhaps the most challenging concerto from a musical point of view was Nielsen’s Flute Concerto – the first two movements. Hannah Darroch had Emma Sayers deputizing for an orchestra, and here, in spite of Sayer’s wonderful sensitivity, was perhaps the most problematic of the piano transcriptions, and the orchestra’s absence added to the soloist’s problems in spinning coherent lines and phrases. though the long quasi-cadenza, with supporting repeated bass piano notes, offered one of the occasions when the flute, with fluttering ornaments, specially impressed. In the third movement, Allegretto, Darroch showed her keen understanding of Nielsen’s idiom, the tricky rhythms and the shaping of phrases, and in the thoughtful moment just before the end.

Houstoun’s comment here noted the beauty of her playing, as well as the pianist’s, but added that Darrogh’s playing was probably not strong enough for performance with orchestra. Though it struck me that she had probably subdued her playing for the environment she was in.

Finally, Charlotte Fetherston played movements 1 and 2 of Walton’s Viola Concerto. She and Rafaella Garlick-Grice were the only two who played from memory and Houstoun commented on the professional expectation of memorising. He admired her confidence and the high intelligence and intensity that she brought to the music.

It was the performance that I gave my own audience vote to, as I was impressed by her musicality, the coherence of her long phrases that in lesser hands can quite misfire. Fetherston’s musicianship is superb, her tonal variety – she played close to the bridge a good deal, attenuating her tone where it counted – and her physical size and demeanour – why should that matter? – suggested the epitome of a violist. She was splendidly supported by Richard Mapp. Like Houstoun, I noted intonation lapses, but unlike him, did not feel that they vitiated what I thought was a very fine musical performance. I suspect that aspect might have led him to give the prize to Nowicki rather than her.

However, Fetherston is one to watch; really, of course, all six are to be watched.

HAYDN – New Zealand School of Music Students



New Zealand School of Music Students and Staff

JOSEF HAYDN (1732-1809)

String Quartet in C Major Op.33 No.3 “The Bird”

Donald Maurice, Rupa Maitra (violins),Helen Bevin (viola), Brenton Veitch (‘cello)

Concerto in D Major for Piano and Orchestra Hob. XVIII/11

Richard Mapp (piano), New Zealand School of Music Ensemble, Uwe Grodd (conductor)

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace   Wednesday 27th May 2009

Amongst the great composers I couldn’t think of a better lunchtime companion than Josef Haydn, judging from what’s come down to us regarding the man and his personality that’s to be found in his music, with its strength, candid directness and wry humour. I would expect to come away from such an encounter with the great man totally charmed, highly amused and utterly humbled in the presence of such a rare amalgam of sophistication and simplicity. For his part, I would imagine, he would be part flattered, part amused at the attention his death-anniversary was currently getting world-wide, and would also spend a lot of our time together telling me how marvellous he thought the music of his younger colleagues Mozart and Beethoven was, probably explaining that he’s since had ample time on his hands to revise his initial, somewhat bemused impressions of the latter’s work!

Thanks to the efforts of various members of the New Zealand School of Music staff and student groups, and the St Andrew’s concerts organizers, Haydn was indeed the guest of honour at a recent lunchtime concert in the church which celebrated his life and music by featuring two works, a string quartet from the Op.33 set (subtitled The Bird), and a keyboard concerto, written in the cheerful key of D major. Violinist Donald Maurice introduced the concert, and talked a little about Haydn’s work in developing the range, scope and status of the string quartet, eventually establishing the genre as one of the most significant and elevated forms a composer could use to express his deepest and profoundest thoughts.

Haydn’s Op.33 set of six quartets, sometimes known as the “Russian” Quartets (for the simple reason that Haydn dedicated the set to the Grand Duke Paul of Russia) is a group of works much admired by musicians, a favourite being the third of the set, subtitled “The Bird”, so named because of various avian goings-on during the course of the music, most notably during the first movement, where the tiny grace-notes decorating the first violin’s repeated figures sound like birdsong. The music tells its own little story as well, with the birds’ chattering at one point interrupted by a darkening of the textures, causing some anxiety as to the prospect of rain spoiling a good day out – but with the recapitulation all is well. After a rather un-scherzo-like scherzo, enlivened by some violinistic warblings, the slow movement brought out some elegant phrasing and subtle voicings from the group, with the fairy-tale-like narrative taking us in the music’s darker central section to places where no self-respecting bird would dare to go. The finale presented a relatively unclouded aspect with the cellist providing strong rhythmic support for the rest of the group’s chirruping high-jinks. A few very minor intonation lapses had little effect upon one’s overall feeling of intense pleasure in the music and the playing, the characteristic throwaway-ending essayed with po-faced relish by all concerned.

For the second part of the concert the physical scale of things was somewhat enlarged with a keyboard concerto, featuring an ensemble of a dozen or so players directed by Uwe Grodd, and with Richard Mapp as the soloist. The smallish group revelled in the opportunity to explore and contrast the music’s differentiating textures and colours, the whole delivered with plenty of energy and good humour. Richard Mapp’s playing sounded perfectly in scale, his tones crystalline and stylish, the first movement’s cracklingly quick tempo heightening the music’s sense of joie de vivre. His cadenza had more than a suggestion of Beethoven in its exploratory modulations, but nevertheless preserved the style of the whole. A chamber-like air infused the interchanges between soloist and players in the slow movement, the music encouraging a degree of intimate engagement that I found extremely touching. The wind players did well, here, their sustained notes unerringly supporting the textures and preserving the overall ambience. The Rondo finale was marked “all’Ungherese”, and was taken at a great lick, the tuttis giving strings and winds plenty to do as the horns held forth with golden tones in support, as the soloist’s fingers scampered this way and that. The music’s rapid mood-switches were taken in the musicians’ stride, from piano and strings exploring interesting modulations, through a heavier-footed peasant-like “Ungherese” section, into a piquant minor-key mini-adventure, and then back into the sunlight of the opening, all delivered by the musicians with the kind of infectious enjoyment one feels that Haydn had precisely in mind – all, in all, a modest, but fitting tribute to a great composer.

Salzmann and Irons at Waikanae

Edith Salzmann (‘cello) and Diedre Irons (piano)

JS BACH – Suite for solo ‘cello No.2 in D Minor BWV 1008
BEETHOVEN – Sonata for ‘cello and piano in A Major Op.69
DEBUSSY – Sonata for ‘cello and piano in D Minor (1915)
FRANCK – Sonata for ‘cello and piano in A Major (1886)

Memorial Hall, Waikanae
Sunday 24th May 2009

Composer/pianist Gao Ping was to have played in this concert, but had to cancel, so his place was instead taken by Diedre Irons, necessitating a programme change in the original plan – but considering the calibre of the artists involved in the rearrangement, no-one could possibly have felt hard done by. The programme was a ‘cello-fancier’s dream, beginning with one of those iconic works for the solo instrument, a suite by JS Bach from the set of six, regarded by many as the greatest music ever written for the ‘cello, and followed by sonatas by Beethoven, Debussy and Franck. ‘Cellist Edith Salzmann, born in Germany, has lived in New Zealand since 2001, working at the Canterbury University School of Music and playing in the Canterbury Trio, while maintaining a busy and varied international schedule of performance and teaching. Her colleague, Diedre Irons, well-known to Wellington audiences, has also had a long association with Canterbury, teaching at the University for a number of years until taking up the position as Senior Lecturer in Piano at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington in 2004.

Beginning with the Suite for solo ‘cello by Bach (No.2 in D Minor BWV 1008), the programme took us straight to the heart of the instrument’s expressive and technical geist. Edith Salzmann’s playing I took some time to fully engage with, partly the result of an acoustic in the Waikanae Hall which allowed her tones very little warmth and resonance. As the work progressed my ear “caught” more and more of what she was actually doing with the music, though her approach throughout the suite remained on the “intimate”scale, as though she was performing for a circle of friends, and the rest of us were eavesdroppers. She didn’t seem to want to ever “command” the music, preferring a lighter, more quixotic manner, with suggestions here and there of wider, more deeper realms, her ignoring of most of the repeats contributing to the evanescent nature of it all. The work’s Prelude was delivered in a free and rhapsodic way, with some of the notes in places brushed so lightly as to be practically inaudible – an interesting and somewhat circumspect discourse. She caught the character of the different dance movements well, expressing their speech/movement flexibility with a light touch, digging in where appropriate (as with the Sarabande), and differentiating nicely between the two Minuets. Her final “Gigue” set the dance leaping over the nicely-voiced “drone” throughout, but still, a somewhat “held-back” manner left me with the feeling that she would rather have been playing this music to a small circle of friends.

Beethoven – and Diedre Irons – brought the ‘cellist out of her shell somewhat for the next work,  the A Major “Cello Sonata Op.69. A lovely opening ‘cello solo begins this work, beautifully played here, and answered beguilingly, setting the scene for a fascinating interplay to follow throughout an extensive first movement. A patch of nebulous intonation at the top of the ‘cellist’s first exposed ascent was quickly forgotten amid the hurly-burly of the rest of the movement’s exchanges, contrasting the flying skin and hair in places with a wonderfully hushed reprise of the main theme’s “ghost” before the recapitulation proper. The scherzo, one of Beethoven’s wonderfully angular creations, was relished by both players, the ‘cello’s rather quixotic singing line and the piano’s dancing augmentations providing plenty of forward momentum. A deeply-felt  but short-lived adagio cantabile led into an energetic finale, delivered with plenty of spirit, and building up strongly to an almost orchestral climax with terrific surges of tone from both players.

The concert’s second half presented two works from the French repertory. Debussy’s ‘Cello Sonata is a late work, the first of six instrumental sonatas that he planned to write “for diverse instruments” – alas that only three were completed before his death in 1918. I thought this a strongly characterised performance of the sonata, bringing out the music’s almost superabundance of invention as episode followed episode. The opening’s forthright exchanges between the instruments melts into a lullaby-like section, whose awakening in turn leads to a big-boned, epic passage redolent of the same composer’s “The Engulfed Cathedral”, here relished by both players. The sounds then take on a veiled, sombre quality, emphasised by the ‘cellist’s slight “under-the-note” manner continuing in this vein to the movement’s end, with Edith Salzmann’s ‘cello giving us a lovely high harmonic chord. The second movement began with pizzicato exchanges between the instruments, the extraordinary voicings used by the composer uncannily blending the sounds of the two instruments, though interspersed by volatile goings-on between ‘cello and piano of an entirely different character, Salzmann and Irons really sparking off one another. The finale enters without a break, a cheerful folk-like melody giving the movement in places an almost Dvorakian feel. I felt Salzmann and Irons judged the balance in this movement between propulsion and languour to near-perfection, in a way that heightened the excitement of the final run-up to the work’s piano-and-pizz. conclusion.

Finally, we heard a well-known work in a less familiar guise, Cesar Franck’s Violin Sonata arranged for ‘cello and piano (the work of one Jules Delsart, done with the composer’s approval). Perhaps the ‘cello has to work a bit harder to maintain an equal voice with the piano, when compared with the brighter, more insistent violin, but the deeper voice has an attractive “withdrawn” quality at times, especially suiting the first movement’s introspection. Such was the warmth and richness of Diedre Irons’ piano-playing I found it difficult to concentrate elsewhere, so fascinated and absorbed did I become in places by what she was doing. The scherzo’s “whisper to a roar” beginning for piano, and the ‘cello’s colouring the melodic line were brought off with great gusto, the players’ energies and focusings capturing the “schwung” of it all, despite occasional mis-hits by both, which somehow added to the excitement. As telling in this movement were the rapt recitative exchanges between the instruments, the contrasts underpinning the music’s passionate outpourings. Difficult for the ‘cello is the scherzo’s coda, as the instrument can’t really “shine” against the piano’s onrushing figurations as the violin can do, and intonation sounded strained here in the attempt. With the slow movement returns the rapt ambience of the scherzo’s central section, the dialogues between ‘cello and piano capturing that “moment in time” quality so powerfully. Salzmann and Irons beautifully varied the intensifications, facilitating a real ebb and flow of emotion. After all of these somewhat confessional utterances, the finale comes as unalloyed joy; and so it was here, with the music’s contourings again beautifully served, and the work as a whole brought to a thrilling and satisfying conclusion.

NZ String Quartet and bassist Ikematsu in Sunday concert

String Quartet No 1 The Kreutzer Sonata (Janáček); Exitus for string quartet (Michael Norris); String Quintet, Op 77 (Dvořák)

The New Zealand String Quartet and Hiroshi Ikematsu (double bass)

Wellington Chamber Music Society

Ilott Theatre, Sunday 21 May 2009

I believe the audience for this concert in the Ilott Theatre was a little larger than had been expected, perhaps due to the presence of another contributor, NZSO principal double bass player, Hiroshi Ikematsu. Many will have heard him in concert with chamber groups and word could have got out that he was a player of remarkable accomplishment and talent.

My initial thought, looking at the programme, was that this piece by Dvořák may not have been a very clever choice to display his skill and musicality. At the end of the concert, this feeling was still lurking.

However, the concert began with Janáček’s Kreutzer Sonata quartet, a nice choice for those who had seen the interesting theatrical performance last year that told Tolstoy’s story in which the Beethoven violin sonata is the catalyst for a deadly extra-martial affair, intimately tied to the playing of the quartet by the Nevine Quartet.

Though I do not place importance on the non-musical sources of compositions, their programmes or aspects of the composer’s experiences, what is common knowledge can crop up; sometimes it gets in the way, sometimes it might provide a rewarding context.

In the case of such a deliberately named piece, the story can hardly be avoided. Ever since re-reading the novella a few years ago, the constant background of the railway journey in the narrative, the clicking of wheels on rail joints, has seemed to me present in the cello’s spiky notes that punctuate the first theme that recurs, passed from player to player.

Commentators differ on the nature of the Janáček’s message, some arguing that it is possible to hear aspects of the novella in great detail, others pointing to a great difference between Tolstoy’s and Janáček’s views of love and marriage.

Some quartets see the music more romantically than others. In the hands of the New Zealand String Quartet there was little ominous in it, though they gave voice to an agitation that’s present in parts of it; however, the very deliberate theme that first violin Helene Pohl announced, warm against the second violin’s tremolo, suggested no more than expectancy.

There was more unease in the second movement especially from the tremolo violin passages, chillingly sul ponticello, and similar effects recur in the third movement. Gillian Ansell’s viola contribution was striking throughout, seeming to find more angst and soulfulness than one hears in some performances. 

By the end, we had been in the grip of a tale of pity and of something irreconcilable in human nature, not simply tragedy.

I heard Michael Norris’s Exitus at the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson in January and it was interesting to hear it again: I confess, it was the composer who told me that he had shortened it in certain ways for these later performances; I did not pick it.

There is a common stylistic thread running through all four sections, with predominant use of high harmonics and tremolo, high tensile bowing, so lightly touching the strings that the pitch becomes indistinct.

The subject is the rituals surrounding death in four different cultures: interestingly, neither the Greek underworld, nor Maori/Polynesian myths about the passage to the afterlife, with which we are probably most familiar, were treated. It was Inuit, Mayan, Nordic and the Choctaw tribe of American Indians and their Black Water River experience that were explored. Each part evoked something of the environment and, with very limited expressive means, suggested the experience of the soul passing through whatever screening system each people believed led to the other world.

For example, the Mayan piece, Xibalba, created a rather frightening underworld scene through short upward bow strokes, long held notes interrupted by spiccato and emphatic thrusts by all four instruments, effects that are far from routine but which the players handled as if they were mere warm-up exercises.

In Nelson I had felt that the end could have followed the third piece, Niflheim, the equivalent of the Adagio movement, since it ended after a passage of very high shimmering harmonics from the cello, dying so perfectly. 

In the end I still felt that the problem of the piece was a too unvarying stylistic character; in spite of the subtle differences from one to another, the very subject matter that imposed a too uniform tone on the whole piece when one’s instinctive need was for something in the sun, among the living. But I have no suggestions….

Finally, the showpiece for the double bass. As I hinted, the bottom line of this piece by Dvořák hardly offered this brilliant player scope for the range of lyrical, legato, melodic, not to mention the amazing virtuosic skills of which he and his instrument are capable. It was confined, in fact, to music considerably less interesting than the cello enjoyed (and the cello collected bits of melody quite often), yet even within these limitations, the pizzicato and the fairly unadorned bowing of the bass line was uncommonly musical and provided a deep and rich underpinning for each movement.  

But the work as a whole falls into the class of the serenade or divertimento rather than of the string quartet. Happy tunes, some recurring too often, folk rhythms, all very skillfully written; and all the players gave it an affectionate and lively performance. But surely Dvořák would have come across the Paganini of the double bass, Bottesini, who was 20 years his senior, and would have known what the lovely instrument could do.


New Zealand School of Music Classical Voice Students

Music by Rossini, Debussy, Finzi, Mozart, Harris, Head, Messiaen, Schumann, Menotti, Donizetti

Rachel Day, Rose Blake, Issac Stone, Sophie Kemp, Laura Dawson,  Imogen Thirwall, Michael Gray, Olga Gryniewicz

Accompanist: Emma Sayers (piano)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wednesday, 20th May

Recitals such as these can amount to less than the sum of their parts if not organised and prepared for well; and the announcement at the concert’s beginning that several of the students had colds as a result of excessively wintry weather didn’t do anything to lift expectations of what was to follow to any great extent. However, what we should have taken into account was the enthusiasm and sheer determination of these young singers to make the most of what this concert offered them; and in fact the listening experience was packed with interest and intensity due to every bracket of songs being that particular vocalist’s chance to shine.

Rachel Day had the responsibility of beginning the recital with two songs by Rossini, from a set of three called “La regatta veneziana”, describing the scene at a Venetian gondola race, during which a girl excitedly encourages her lover, both before and during the event, to try his best to win. Her “salty tang” timbre admirably suited the songs, as did her engagingly focused “out-front” projection, putting across plenty of tumbling warmth and enthusiasm, and finding her high notes well. The two Debussy songs that followed were delivered with contrasting subtlety and atmosphere by Rose Blake, “Clair de lune” demonstrating a nice sense of the song’s shape, and “Fantoches” (Puppets) confidently and entertainingly suggesting storytelling abilities.

Isaac Stone was possibly one of the sufferers referred to at the concert’s beginning, as he seemed not to be able to project the lower tessitura of Gerald Finzi’s “Come Away, Death”, although the lighter, more lyrical episodes were nicely shaped, and the expressive points were well noted. “Who is Sylvia” exhibited a similar lyrical sensitivity. Sophie Kemp overcame some nervousness to sweetly deliver Barbarina’s “hankerchief” aria from Mozart’s “Figaro”, and relaxed somewhat into Ross Harris’s setting of Bub Bridger’s “The Swans”, confidently enunciating the meaning of her words.

Laura Dawson’s bracket of Michael Head’s songs was most impressive, her authoritative singing able to make her softer notes “tell” as significantly as her fuller declamations, and her interpretations of each song capturing a unique atmosphere with subtly-applied variation of emphasis and colour (supported by some superb playing from Emma Sayers). After “The Gondolier” came “Rain Storm”, whose opening notes were delicately-coloured and sensitively placed – the singer survived a slight voice-discolouring on the first of two high reaches towards the end, but beautifully managed the second one –  altogether, these were a memorable pair of performances. Different, less imposing, but as authoritative in a more whimsical manner was Imogen Thirwall’s singing of Messiaen’s Trois Melodies, varying bright and subtle tones and using face and gesturings well to convey the quizzical sense of “Pourquoi?”, then relishing the wistfulness of the reflective “Le Sourire” (another beautiful accompaniment from Emma Sayers), and the drama and resignation of the final song “La Fiancée Perdue”.

Michael Gray’s ardent, thrusting performances of three of Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” songs were also a highlight of the concert, the first “Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen” bright and eager, urgent to the point of vocal tightness, but with the interpretative heart in the right place; then a delicately-delivered “Hör ich das Liedchen klingen” and a forthright “Ein Jüngling liebt eine Mädchen” with lovely “pinging” notes at the beginning. Finally, Olga Gryniewicz demonstrated her communicative and theatrical skills with two operatic exerpts, the first being “The Black Swan” from Menotti’s spooky “The Medium”, sung with elegant phrase-turnings and nicely-shaped notes, if a bit monochromatic in colour during the middle section, though with fine ardour and a confidently floated high note at the aria’s conclusion. Then, to finish, we were treated to Norina’s cavatina “Quel guardo il cavaliere” from Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”, the opening lyrical and confident, the line drawn strongly, the ensuing coloratura nicely ‘sprung’, warming up as the music dances onwards, and  enabling the singer to triumphantly negotiate without mishap the high work at the end – impressive enough!

Very, very great honour and ample plaudits to the participants on this occasion, for giving us a wonderful concert.

NZSO with Steven Osborne in Shostakovich, Beethoven, Webern

Conductor: Matthias Bamert with Steven Osborne (piano)

 Passacaglia for Orchestra, Op 1, by Webern, Piano Concerto No 1 (Shostakovich), Symphony No 7 (Beethoven)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington. Friday 15 May 2009

There were many NZSO followers who were sorry when Matthias Bamert, who had several years as assistant chief conductor of the orchestra, did not become Music Director. However, he maintains his earlier, highly fruitful relationship. On paper, the programme looked a little odd; Webern has never become a much loved composer, apart from among a small band that sees music as an analytical challenge and professes to derive pleasure from esoterica.

His Opus 1, the Passacaglia, however, is another matter. Written before falling in with the rigours of Schoenberg’s 12-note system, it demonstrates the huge talent that seemed ready to carry forward the German tradition of Brahms and Wagner, Strauss and Mahler – and the young Schoenberg of Verklärte Nacht and Pelléas and Mélisande. It is a work, like the two Schoenberg pieces mentioned, that arouses the hope that perhaps there’s a lost corpus of works by these composers that continue the tradition of communicable music, or that suggest, more constructively, that we have not given the later angular, intellectual works a fair go, and we should try harder: that of course is the proper approach.

For the Passacaglia is a passionate and engaging work which, given expose such as the tone poems of Strauss and Schoenberg enjoy, would seem to be a candidate for popularity. It’s a set of variations on a fairly sombre theme but which lends itself to a wide range of emotions; naturally, everyone points to its likely derivation from the last, Passacaglia, movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony.

We could hardly have had a more persuasive advocate for this piece than Bamert, whose credentials extend to every corner of the repertoire. Perhaps shamefully, I confess this was my first live hearing, and I was overwhelmed by the searing emotional richness, dynamic range and opulent orchestral canvas, and the evidence of Bamert’s aural imagination in laying it out, at once well-ordered and expressive.

There were no romantic langours, no self-indulgent excesses of rubato or dynamics; yet the orchestral detailing, the entrancing patterns of colour achieved through effects like muted tremolo passages for strings and brass, offered plenty of scope for the construction of a narrative background. And it prompted regret that Webern was soon to turn his back on such gifts.

It would have been hard to conceive of a greater contrast between the 1908 Webern and Shostakovich’s first piano concerto of 1933, both written around the age of 25. The former a strenuous effort to meet the over-heated expectations of late romantic Vienna, and his mentor Schoenberg in particular; the latter, an ebullient display of the youthful confidence and popular success that the young Shostakovich had won, in a soon to be shattered Communist dream. The word sardonic, almost automatically used to describe its character, suggests a hidden, anti-communist agenda; but is it correct to attribute to the composer, as early as 1933, incipient disillusionment with the system?

Again, Bamert proved his infallible taste and stylistic instinct, not to mention burning energy and an ability to inspire the orchestra to the greatest intensity, whether handling the frenzied excitement of the fast, circus-like passages or the moments of sentiment and even profundity in the Lento, or pointing up the array of parody quotes from all and sundry.

Steven Osborne was his ideal collaborator, capable of matching whatever speeds were adopted and responding precisely to the abrupt tempo and mood changes. The work is scored with no wind instruments, timpani and the trumpet being the only instruments to off-set the strings. The effect, made vivid by the riveting performance that was as much a show-case for the orchestra’s virtuosity as for the pianist’s, was to emphasise the brilliant, hard-edged piano and trumpet and the contrasting legato of the strings – black and white rather than full colour.

But it also drew smiles of delight from the audience, surprised by the rare, conspicuous appearance of wit in music. A piano encore in the shape of an improvisation on a jazz piece by Oscar Peterson could not have been better judged. Though it did prompt thoughts about the absence of visits in recent years by major figures of the jazz world. Have we heard anyone of the stature of Keith Jarrett in recent decades?

Finally, after the interval came Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The first two movements could have been called ‘studied’ or metronomic and they were, but they were also alive with a tension that was almost hypnotic, over a bed-rock pulse from rich basses and cellos.

I must have heard a performance of the symphony in my youth in which the Scherzo was so without variety that I developed an aversion to it, and what I felt were tedious repeats. Words scribbled on my cuff during this performance included ‘energy’, ‘intense’, ‘varied colouring in winds’, subtleties’. In other words, I didn’t long for that final chopped-off reprise.

I was prompted to note the conductor’s gestures during the last movement. They are compact, yet free and compelling, there was graceful bounce in its rhythms, a delicious bite in the strings; all sections of the orchestra created an opulent, integrated sound.


Cantoris – Amaryllis and Absalom

Cantoris, conducted by Richard Apperley (guest conductor)

St.Peter’s Church, Willis St., Wellington, Saturday 9th May, 2009

Cantoris is one of a number of Wellington-based choirs whose activities serve to bring to local audiences a richly diverse range of the choral repertoire in committed and skilful performances. St. Peter’s Church on Willis St. provided a picturesque and elegant setting for this, the first Cantoris concert for 2009, featuring madrigals, sacred and secular, with one’s pleasure further enhanced by a beautifully-printed programme containing texts and commentaries about the music. Conducting Cantoris for the first time was Richard Apperley, Assistant Organist at Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul, and previously of Lincoln Cathedral in the UK, where he also formed and conducted the Cathedral Chamber Choir. With the help of Tessa Coppard, the choir’s assistant conductor, who rehearsed the programme before Richard Apperley arrived, the singers were amply prepared for the not inconsiderable demands made by a widely-ranging programme of sacred and secular music by Tudor composers.

In a programme note, Richard Apperley confessed to being a devotee of the music of Thomas Tompkins (1572-1656), a composer whose work began the concert with a setting of a Psalm text O sing unto the Lord a new song, a work which demonstrates, according to Apperley, the composer’s fondness for full-blooded expressiveness, using constantly changing tonalities and syncopated rhythms. The singers got over a somewhat nervous beginning to the piece, with tones and rhythms that strengthened in focus as the piece progressed. The voices took time to properly blend, but their differentiations added colour to the lovely antiphonal effects from the women, the whole acquiring a kind of appropriately raw fervour by the time the “Alleluias” at the end of the piece were delivered. Tomkins was again the composer of two laments using Biblical texts from the story of King David, concerning the deaths of his sons, Jonathan and Absalom – the first Then David mourned challengingly slow, taxing the sopranos with their high entries in thirds, and the choir elsewhere, and the second When David heard having a particularly “stricken” quality, well-captured by the voices, the performance extremely moving at the words “O my son”, and handling the “layered” receding ending into silence with control and skill.

Tomkins’ six-voice anthem Woe is me followed, the voices supported by a nicely sustained organ accompaniment. The music has an attractive “rolling” aspect which the choir brought out well amid exchanges of phrases between the women’s voices. Another anthem,
O God the proud are risen against me set for eight voices, vividly evokes conflict and its resolution – although the basses took a while to get the pitch of their phrases, the sopranos came to the rescue with beautifully-held long notes at “slow to anger”, and the choir achieved a properly celebratory climax with the words “great in goodness and truth”.

In general the choir seemed more at ease performing Orlando Gibbons’ music, with rounder tones and securer harmonic tuning. Gibbons’ madrigal The Silver Swan brought forth nice work from all sections, as did a second madrigal Ah dear heart, whose sensitive beginning inspired sweet-toned work from the tenors and later, sonorous archways of splendour from the basses  with long lines held together well. William Byrd’s work, too, seemed to bring out a consistent strain of engagement with Cantoris, whose voices under Richard Apperley’s direction caught the infectious gait of the madrigal This sweet and merry month of May with its skipping rhythms at “for pleasure of the joyful time”, its pleasantly pastoral merrymaking aspect contrasting strongly with the meditative beauty of the following Lullaby, before switching back to pastoral themes with Though Amaryllis dance in green,a tricky, syncopated rhythm-feast of a madrigal, confidently sung by the choir, relishing the piece’s many-stranded aspect and “snapping” rhythms.

Byrd’s Vigilate was another work in which the choir gave of its best, the strength of the writing matched by confident, declamatory tones at the outset, realising the urgency and directness of the work’s focus, with lines and interchanges kept going with spirit and clarity (a nice touch being the basses’ deliberately “gauche” timbres at the moment of cock-crow). Perhaps not every opportunity was taken to characterise the music fully, but the final cries of “Vigilante” went with an infectious swing. Byrd’s great contemporary was Thomas Tallis, whose five-part Te Deum concluded the programme, a hymn of praise whose English text allowed us to savour some of the composer’s word-painting, and appreciate the choir’s responses to the text – for example, catching the music’s rolling aspect of “The Holy Church throughout all the world”, and responding to both the surge of grandeur at “Thou art the King of Kings, O Christ” and the harsh pointedness of “the sharpness of death”. Again, if not all of the composer’s variation of mood and feeling was fully realised throughout, there was still a sense engendered of a great musical journey, with Richard Apperley and the choir making the most of “O Lord, in Thee have I trusted” at the triumphant conclusion of the piece.

Two organ solos played by Richard Apperley, one by Tomkins and the other by Byrd, gave even more variety to a concert whose repertoire and presentation made an interesting and absorbing impression throughout a most enjoyable evening.

L’Italiana in Algeri from the NBR New Zealand Opera

L’Italiana in Algeri by Rossini 

Conducted by Wyn Davies, director: Colin McColl, set and lighting design: Tony Rabbit, costumes: Nic Smillie, chorus master: Michael Vinten.

Singers; Wendy Dawn Thomson, Conal Coad, Christian Baumgärtel, Warwick Fyfe, Katherine Wiles, Richard Green, Kristen Darragh.

St James Theatre

Saturday 9 May 2009

The first of the two staged productions from New Zealand Opera in 2009 made a hit of an opera that is not really in the top twenty, even in Italy.

The Italian Girl has one of Rossini’s familiar, effervescent overtures, a couple of well-known arias and a lot of music that is infectious and witty, but a plot that is pretty thin.

It was last seen in New Zealand in 1983 in a production by Mercury Theatre in Auckland, the successor to the short-lived National Opera of New Zealand.

In the past 30 years, there has been a huge revival of interest in Rossini’s oeuvre of round 38 operas, most of which are not comedies. In his day he was more famous as a composer of dramatic opera. Among the comedies, one can think, after The Barber of Seville, only of La Cenerentola, this one and Il turco in Italia; there were several one act comedies – farces, burlesques – from his early years and in his last years in Paris – Il viaggio a Reims and Le comte Ory. All the other 30-odd operas are tragedies, dramas drawn from antiquity, medieval romances or from recent literature.

L’Italiana in Algeri

The secret of such comedy was fully understood by Conal Coad who took the part of Mustafa, the Bey of Algiers (Governor of the Ottoman province). He has shortcomings in western eyes, and these are mocked by presenting his character without the stock gestures of cheap farce. Coad knows that comedy depends on adopting an outwardly serious demeanour, with careful limits to stock comedic gestures, allowing pomposity and lack of self-awareness to be observed rather than drawn crassly to our attention.

Thus his every movement was pregnant with satire or self-evident foolishness; and his very presence on stage caused smiles: he was the essential focus of the comedy, and he triumphed.

The Italian Girl, Isabella, was sung by Wendy Dawn Thomson, a graduate of Victoria University and virtually runner-up in the 2005 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World. She has sung at Covent Garden, Opera Australia, Scottish Opera, Opera North, among others and at major festivals. She is a splendid actress with a voice that is rich in histrionic character, though it was not, on the first night, particularly large: not as I remembered her in The Death of Klinghoffer in Auckland in 2005.

Degrees of under-projection also affected other singers, something not evident when they were at the front of the stage. Thomson’s performance consisted, however, as an opera singer’s must, in far more than simply good singing; she threw herself round the stage, used her limbs and her face expressively, drew all eyes to her whenever she was on stage.

I assumed that Christian Baumgärtel, as her lover Lindoro, had vocal problems in the early stages, as his voice was strained, reedy in ‘Languir per una bella’. But in his duet with Mustafa, ‘Se inclinassi…’, the hilarious water-skiing coup de théâtre, all was forgotten. By the second act he seemed more comfortable, as both his acting and singing expressed confidence and greater ease, finally displaying the form that justified his journey from Germany.

The most striking aspect of the production was the staging. It was presented as an onlooker’s view of a filming of the opera as soap opera, with an amusing, showoff, sometimes obscene film director (Stephen Butterworth), gesturing and shouting unscripted instructions to performers and camera and lighting crew somewhere in the gallery.

Above and behind the stage was a screen on which was projected in real time, what a camera in the wings stage left was capturing on the stage below the screen. It puzzled and distracted to begin with, but one got the hang of it.

It could have been a mess, but director Colin McColl had developed his idea, with set and lighting designer Tony Rabbit, with such confidence and so convincingly, that it had its own logic and the audience totally accepted it; more, they loved and were enchanted by it.

However, it’s a pity that Colin McColl’s notes, seeking to justify the setting by likening Rossini to today’s soap-operas, both denigrates the greatness of Rossini and ridiculously elevates the contemptible squalor of most of today’s TV theatricals. And the character of the production might reinforce that unfortunate comparison in the minds of less aware audience members; that was the excuse for skimpy-clad, non-singing ‘beach babes’ (I’m not sure what the beaches are like around Algiers city). My feeling was rather, that it would have persuaded sceptics that opera is absolutely not a museum art, any more than Shakespeare or Michelangelo are.

But all the hilarious stage business would have meant nothing if not underpinned by Wyn Davies’s management of the musical shaping, its tempi, the Rossinian spirit and élan, the orchestral discipline as well as imposing the final degree of ensemble between soloists, orchestra and chorus. (I hope it will be noted that I do not refer to the conductor, as most reviewers do, as simply the conductor of the orchestra: he conducts the entire performance).

The chorus was one of the performance’s great ornaments; though not numerous, their polish, clarity and energy was a credit to the work of Michael Vinten as chorus master. (It’s all male, in spite of the opportunity for using soprano and alto castrati, seeing they are eunuchs).

I particularly enjoyed the patriotic chorus in Act II where a combination of the basic stage green, the red t-shirts and white of some costumes reflected the Italian flag as well as spelling Viva Italia: foreshadowing Verdi’s ‘Va pensiero’ in Nabucco.

The lesser characters can seem rather secondary in some productions, but here the strength of both Warwick Fyfe’s Taddeo and Richard Green’s Haly made their roles both significant and memorable. In his notable Act II aria ‘Ho un gran peso sulla testa’, Fyfe, corpulent in white, had both striking physical and impressive vocal presence. At each of Green’s entries, particularly his aria ‘Le femmine d’Italia’, his imposing bass demonstrated his wide experience at ENO in London and the medium-sized house at Bremerhaven.

The Bey’s wife, Elvira and her maid, Zulma – Katherine Wiles and Kristen Darragh, were both splendidly cast and there was some debate in the interval about whether their figures and legs, rivaling the three beach-babes, had recommended them for the roles as much as had their vocal gifts. Wiles’s interventions were particularly vivid – one would hardly have thought she needed Isabella’s guidance in assertiveness. Darragh was clearly distinguished in the several ensembles.

This production is a brilliant combination of a passable libretto and sparkling music, all viewed through a production that plants it vividly and consistently in the present day.

Post scriptum

I enjoyed the performance so much that I went along to the second one on Tuesday (11 May), got a seat high in the gods. But there, little blemishes that I had ignored on Saturday loomed a bit larger: the shrill piccolo in the overture which I’d put out of my mind, was more annoying as it recurred at other points in the performance. Likewise I’d left little misgivings about the orchestra’s playing unexpressed; but in the gallery, where the orchestra’s sound seemed amplified above the voices, occasional untidiness in ensemble and obtrusive volume, crowding the singers, was noticeable as it had not been centre stalls. But their playing was very much at the very decent level of the many German opera house orchestras that I’ve heard.

Again I found tenor Baumgärtel’s voice a bit thin, even pressured and unbeautiful, though his acting wholly compensated. And my pleasure was confirmed in the voices and histrionics of the other singers. Nor could I fault the treatment of the work, the business of the filming, the entr’actes enlivened with the dispatch of singers not needed in the next scene, marshalling the chorus and the singers for the next act, retouching makeup, quick reviews of the action and so on; but it became a little tiresome occasionally.

Though McColl’s treatment was risky, it worked, and a second viewing gave me no reason to fault it, as an acceptable, goofy version of an opera that you can do almost what you like with, such is its fundamental silliness. At my distance from the stage, the surtitles were hard to read, often not visible, and I gauged that they were probably too high on the screen for the dozen back rows: there seemed no reason for them not to be at the bottom of the screen, where they would have been visible to the whole house. The texts however, were pithy and well judged. Like Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail, it dealt with the then popular subject of the nature of the Muslim world, and contacts between Christians and Muslims. Strangely, though the Balkan conquests by the Ottoman Empire in the previous century had posed a serious danger to Christian Europe, and their armies were near the gates of Vienna just before 1700 – the Austrian Empire was saved only by the timely arrival of a Polish army – attitudes towards Muslims were far more tolerant and even amused than they are today in certain countries.  Then there were no human rights commissions to object to stereotyping and ridiculing of a religious community. And so a Muslim leader could be pilloried for behaviour considered not comme il faut by polite European society of the time.