Pinchas and Players – Wellington’s Zukerman Experience

Pinchas Zukerman (violin) / Jessica Linnebach (violin)
Jethro Marks (viola) / Ashan Pillai (viola)
Amanda Forsythe (‘cello)

KODALY – Duo for violin and ‘cello Op.7
BEETHOVEN – String Quintet in C Op.29
DVORAK – String Quintet in E-flat Op.97

Wellington Town Hall, Wednesday 12th August 2009

Known primarily as one of the world’s top virtuoso violinists, Pinchas Zukerman has also developed a reputation as a chamber musician, firstly in association with Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pre on recordings of music by Beethoven; and more lately with a group formed by the violinist in 2002, the Zukerman Chamber Players. Here in New Zealand for the first time to take part in “The Zukerman Experience”, the NZSO’s latest concert series, Pinchas Zukerman is also on tour with his group for Chamber Music New Zealand, taking with them two programmes nationwide. Wellington concertgoers heard the first of these programmes at the Town Hall on Wednesday evening.

In the programme, a quote from English critic David Denton summed up fairly what we heard from the group, with their programme of Kodaly, Beethoven and Dvorak – Denton talked about the Players’ “self-effacing musicianship never standing between the listener and the composer”, a sentiment which seemed to be echoed in the comments of people I spoke with who had also attended the concert. I would agree entirely, while at the same time wondering why on some occasions this self-effacement on the part of performers, often set up as an ideal by connoisseurs and critics, can in fact short-change the musical experience. In relative terms, the performances throughout by the Group were extremely classy; and in at least one instance, that of the Kodaly Duo, I felt thoroughly caught up with the music-making, finding the performers’ engagement with the sounds an enthralling experience. Elsewhere, I felt one step removed, as it were, as if a gloss or a sheen had been applied to the beautifully-finished product, keeping me in the bystander realms, the “spectator-line” in front of the art-work placed a little too far back, as it were.

So, what was different about the performance of the Kodaly Duo that engaged me to an extent that made the experience a stand-out one? First of all, there was a sense, right from the first note, that both Zukerman and his ‘cellist partner, Amanda Forsythe, were living the music – the interplay between them was palpable, the authoritative, “digging-in” opening giving way to a wonderful sense of the players exploring the sound-spaces and stimulating each other’s sensibilities, both using pizzicato motifs to goad the other into responses both of the utmost delicacy and beguiling richness. Then there was the sheer variation of tone-colour, gossamer figurations set by turns alongside full-blooded outpourings, the sounds at times resembling that of a string orchestra, the cellist with simple arpeggiations ravishing our senses with the glorious tones of her instrument.

The slow movement featured song-like sweetness at the outset, but with a central section whose character was almost surreal, as if a gentle dream had suddenly been hijacked by phobia-ridden angst, the tensions gradually melting-down with lovely Aeolian-harp-like strummings from the ‘cellist, and rapt responses from her duo partner. The finale began gloriously, with Zukerman and Forsythe generating an exultant, rhapsodising mood, then plunging into the dance, alternating dark, earthy Hungarian rhythms with more stratospheric flights of fancy, the episodes growing out of one another. I got the feeling that both musicians were throwing themselves into the intricacies of interaction and contrast that the music affords, with a wonderfully adrenalin-led burst of energy at the coda, leaving behind the concert-hall ethos and revelling in a richly-detailed out-of-doors spirit that left us exhilarated.
After these intense out-of-door explorations, the Beethoven Quintet seemed to inhabit another world of sensibility altogether. At first I liked the contrast set up by the more “orchestral” feel of the ensemble, but as the work progressed I began to miss in the playing that sense of involvement with the music that Zukerman and Forsythe had exhibited so tellingly during the Kodaly. Throughout the first movement I kept wanting the ensemble to “dig in” a little more to the string textures, perhaps at a slower, more “pointed” tempo. Interesting that I found the work as a whole somewhat reined in considering that the same composer at this time (1801) was working on other,  more revolutionary pieces that were challenging classical norms and structures in different genres such as the piano sonata (the Op.27 Sonatas, and the “Pastoral”).

I liked the contrasts afforded by the slow movement, the development section “breaking out” from the constraints of the opening, and the players nicely catching the humour of the “false ending”, at what seems like a concluding cadence suddenly plunging back into the turmoil, before slowly restoring a sense of calm. But contrary to the programme note’s description of the Beethoven finale as “pure drama”, I thought the ensemble brought out the music’s urbanity and elegance more than any kind of elemental connections. Detail was beautifully filled in, from the elfin ambience of the tremolando accompaniment at the opening, to the deftest of violinistic touches from Zukerman himself in the more withdrawn Andante episodes; while the Players obviously revelled in the music’s pacy minor-key sections, delivering the notes with plenty of snap and polish, and nicely contrasting the polarities of activity and circumspection throughout. Still, for me, the impression remained of a performance that never really “let go”, so that the Beethoven we were presented with remained a drawing-room composer, albeit an interesting and occasionally surprising one.
The Dvorak Quintet is justly regarded as one of the great glories of the chamber-music repertoire for string instruments – and in a sense, Zukerman and his Players performed it like that, with beautifully-modulated tones and tight rhythmic control throughout, allowing the work’s greatness as an absolute piece of music to shine through, even if there were no folk-singers intoning the tunes and clogs stamping to the rhythms. If my bias extends towards a performance ethos of this kind of music that makes earthier connections than we heard from these musicians, I’m not denying the virtuosity and beauty of tone that emanated from the Wellington Town Hall stage throughout. The musicians gave full-throated voice to the work’s lyrical opening, and expertly spun the syncopated rhythms of the ensuing allegro. Brilliant though their playing of the scherzo was, I missed the chunky “folk-fiddle” ambiences of my mind’s ear, and thought some of the music’s character had been ever-so-slightly dulled with too generalised a response. The Players came into their own with the hymn-like measures of the slow movement, lines gorgeously intertwined, and contrasting sections beautifully characterised, the ‘cello-playing from Amanda Forsythe always ear-catching, especially in the major-minor contrasts of some of the movement’s variations.

The work’s finale bottoms out a bit compared with the other three movements, its contrasting rondo-like episodes needing strong characterisation to provide sufficient contrast with the all-pervasive jig-rhythms of the principal theme. I thought the ensemble gave the music plenty of energy, but didn’t sufficiently “colour” the contrasts enough for there to be a real sense of “homecoming” at the return of the jig-like rhythm each time. But the movement’s conclusion was exhilarating, with dotted rhythms giving way to triplets and building the excitement towards the last, grand lyrical statement – and even if this was delivered more with drive and rhythmic purpose than full-throated joy, the excitement kept us buoyed up right to the end.
Pinchas Zukerman and his Players responded to the warmth of the audience’s appreciation with a movement from a work in the group’s “other” programme, the Andante movement from the Mendelssohn B-flat String Quintet, a supremely elegant coda to an absorbing evening’s music-making.

Two Lunchtime concerts: Old St Paul’s and St Andrew’s on The Terrace

1. Richard Apperley (organ)

The German Chorale: Pieces by Mendelssohn, Buxtuhude, Reger, Kuhnau, Hauff, Böhm and Karg-Elert

Old St Paul’s, Tuesday 11 August

The scheduled performer at this free lunchtime concert, Michael Fulcher, organist at the Cathedral of St Paul, had to make an urgent trip to Australia and assistant cathedral organist Richard Apperley stepped in.

He drew mainly on the repertoire that his CV describes as his particular interest: Buxtehude and contemporary organ music, and there were side trips from those centres. For example, as well as music by Buxtehude himself, he played attractive examples of three other of his near contemporaries; but nothing closer to our own age than Reger and Karg-Elert, both of whom died in the first half of the 20th century.

The two Little Chorale Preludes (‘Lobe den Herrn’ and ‘O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden’) of Reger, were indeed short yet they served to whet my curiosity to hear more of this somewhat neglected composer’s organ music. Today, Karg-Elert’s organ works are even less known, though I heard his music, and his name stuck I my memory, when I was a student; and this Chorale Improvisation, ‘Nun danket alle Gott’ renewed my interest, though perhaps it’s not typical of the composer whose music is usually more impressionistic (listen to his Kaleidoscope, Op 144).

The recital started with Mendelssohn’s third organ sonata, music that I hear as too serious, too venerating of Bach and of the spirit of 19th century Protestant religion. I’ve tried, having started with a secondary school friend whose own interest in the organ at least educated me a bit to the mysteries of the remarkable instrument. He was learning the Mendelssohn sonatas and I tried my hand too but was not hooked.

However, this performance, employing bright registrations, interestingly flavoured with flute stops made a very good case for it, but the feel of seriously pious music looking backward was undeniable.

Four of the other pieces were from the generation before JS Bach. Two were famous as his mentors: The two chorale preludes by Buxtehude and Böhm had some of the intellect and formal shape of Bach but not the imprint of genius that most of Bach’s music bears. Richard Apperley’s playing provided them with clarity and sufficient tonal variety and complexity to excite interest.

It’s a while since I’d heard the organ at Old St Paul’s played in a formal recital. Having heard it played without much apparent appreciation of its strengths and weaknesses, and sensitivity to the acoustic of the church, it was a pleasure to hear it played with such discrimination and attention to both its character and to the space it has to emerge in.

2. Baroque Workshop, New Zealand School of Music

Music by Telemann, Willem de Fesch and Sweelinck.

Olga Gryniewicz (soprano); instrumentalists: Brendan O’Donnell (flute), Judy Guan (violin), Emma Goodbehere (cello), Tom Gaynor (harpsichord and rogan), Douglas Mews (harpsichord)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace. Wednesday 12 August 2009

The lunchtime concert on the following day was another chance to hear several of the most talented musicians in advanced stages of their studies at the New Zealand School of Music. Intentionally or not, all the music was of the 18th century or earlier; it started and finished with pieces by Telemann.

The first was a Fantasia (No 7 in D minor) for flute and violin (Brendan O’Donnell and Judy Guan). While O’Donnell played it on the recorder, which I felt robbed it of the slightly more interesting texture produced by the flute, the two soprano instruments were played so scrupulously, with such calm, that the experience was rather enchanting both in the gentle Alla francese and the faster Presto, of the character of a courante.

A close Dutch contemporary of Telemann, Willem de Fesch (even closer to Bach and Handel) wrote the next piece, a cello sonata that was played by Emma Goodbehere and Douglas Mews at the harpsichord. There was a slow prelude followed by a quick movement in common time and two minuets, a most accomplished performance adorned with tasteful ornaments that were kept grounded by a carefully balanced harpsichord.

An anonymous piece, rather slight, called the Duke of Norfolk or Paul’s Steeple was played by Judy Guan on the violin with cello and harpsichord continuo: a set of variations on a popular dance tune. Though the violin was a little too bright for its context, it was the violin’s piece and gave Guan another opportunity to display her instinct for and taste in early music.

Jan Pieter Sweelinck lived a full century before Telemann and Bach, one of the most important composers of his age, particularly in the development of the organ. Thomas Gaynor played his Variations on ‘Mein junges Leben hat ein End’ which had a lightness that rather belied its morbid subject. Considering the modest colour palette available on the church’s chamber organ, Gaynor invested it with great interest and variety.

A cantata by Telemann brought the concert to an end: ‘Lauter Wonne, lauter Freude’, accompanied by recorder which had well articulated, ear-catching figures at several points, cello and with Gaynor on the harpsichord. Olga Gryniewicz (whom we heard singing the role of Iris in Semele a few weeks before) was the soprano soloist. It was good to hear her in another setting, her voice comfortable if a little tight, evincing some production problems, in the high register, agile, with a quick vibrato under good control.

Her performance was vivacious, the arias expressive, as if she really meant what she was singing, her recitatives dramatic, committed. In the second aria she created striking contrasts between moments of laughter and lamenting. She conveys youthful delight in performance, which transmits immediately to her audience. However, for all Gryniewicz’s accomplished performance, the success of the cantata rested just as much with the instrumentalists accompanying her.

Ensemble Selisih – making the difference


Elizabeth Farrell (flute), Mathias Trapp (piano), Daniela Wahler and Markus Rombach (saxophones)
DIETER MACK: “Selisih”, “Trio III”;
CHANG-SOON RYU: “Quartett”;
ROBIN TOAN: “Twitter”;

NZ School of Music Adam Concert Room, 12 August 2009

“Selisih”, an Indonesian word meaning “argumentative discussion”, was the name given by German composer Dieter Mack to his duo for alto and baritone saxophones. Mack, now on his third visit to New Zealand in a professional capacity, has lived in Indonesia studying gamelan performance practice, and (partly inspired by this) has made the interactions between players, one of the fundamental principles of his music. The name was subsequently adopted by this ensemble of four individualists – two saxophonists, a flautist and a pianist.

Mack’s 2003 composition “Selisih” itself formed part of the programme. The duo began with Wahler’s querulous alto sax answered by Rombach’s staid baritone, which in turn was to respond with increased nervous energy. The conversation turned to treat a serious topic with mysterious multiphonics, before they joined together in rapid unisono figures and a perfectly united vibrato.

The 2005 “Trio III” reflected Mack’s more recent concern with creating new timbres using multiphonics, incidental microtones and, especially, by blending together instrumental sounds (analogous to an organ’s mixture stop, and sharing some similar concerns with the French Spectralists). Flute (and sometimes piccolo) melded with alto sax to produce unison lines in novel, Messiaen-like colours, while the discreetly prepared piano added a quietly dark commentary.

Korean-born Chang-soon Ryu has studied with Dieter Mack in Lubeck. His 2007 “Quartett” for the Ensemble Selisih showed some of Mack’s interest in timbre-building, and also a feeling of stasis that those of us who have grown up with the thematic development, metrical pulse and harmonic motion of the western tradition, tend to associate with East Asian music.

Wellingtonian Dylan Lardelli’s 2009 “Two Bells” displayed a similar sense of static time, and for good reason: it was inspired in part by the stately unfolding of classical Japanese Noh drama. As with his 2008 “four scenes” for Stroma, and more successfully than in his earlier “Sent into Silence” at the 2007 Asia Pacific Festival, Lardelli here suspended any need for forward direction or climax. The poised, spare texture incorporated judicious special effects: muffled prepared-piano notes illumined by a halo of resonance; throbbing close-interval sustains; slap-tonguing and key clicks on the baritone sax.

“Two Bells” was commissioned by Selisih (with Creative NZ) to increase the repertoire for this unconventional ensemble. So too was Aucklander Robin Toan’s 2009 “Twitter”, a set of three short character-pieces “about” birds (not micro-blogging). The first – perky, cheeky, syncopated – was reminiscent of the “Aquarium” and “Puppets” movements from her 2005 “Barcelona Postcards”. The second was pensive, with a plangent melody on the soprano sax, some contrapuntal complexity and cadenza passages. The third was motoric (rather than syncopated like the first), featuring rapid ostinati on the baritone sax and chirping runs and trills on the piccolo, building up to an sudden end.

Michael Norris’ “BADB” was named after a shape-shifting Celtic goddess. It opened with Farrell singing into her flute, with crystalline high piano runs from Trapp. However, the goddess’s fearsome side was soon made evident with fortissimo crow-calls.

Gillian Whitehead’s “Taurangi” was premiered by Bridget Douglas and Rachel Thomson during the 2000 International Festival of the Arts. It made my list of highlights in the retrospective of that year that I wrote for the “NZ Listener”. This was a most elegant rendition from New Zealand-born flautist Elizabeth Farrell and pianist Mathias Trapp: the flute’s subtle pitch-bends and the closing, barely audible inside-piano glissandi still had the magic to send tingles up the spine.