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.