Messiah from Kapiti Chamber Choir

Messiah by Handel. Conducted by Guy Jansen with Kapiti Chamber Choir, members of the former Bel Canto and friends, and an orchestra  

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Sunday 29 November 2009  

It looked as if this would be the first year, in living memory, that none of our choirs had scheduled a Messiah, when news came of a performance by the Kapiti Chamber Choir, one of Peter Godfrey’s former choirs. Conducted by Guy Jansen, it was likely to be as fine a performance as any we have heard, and so it has transpired.

There were two performances: the first on Sunday 22 November at Paraparaumu and the second in Wellington on the 29th. Today, it is more common to use rather smaller choral forces than a few decades ago when huge Victorian choirs were favoured. The performances in Handel’s time didn’t exceed 40 or so. On Sunday there were 40 singers.

The result was one of the most splendid performances I’ve heard.

Part of the secret was the addition of members of the former Bel Canto choir and friends: that was an ensemble of mainly professional solo voices, founded by Jansen in 1987 and disbanded in 1998 after he left to teach at the University of Queensland (what a shame no New Zealand university grabbed him).

They added to the strength and spirit of the entire ensemble, sharpening attack, dramatizing dynamics and expression, and generating an exciting, vivid sound; the distinct choral groups allowed the music to be passed from one to another in an electrifying, dramatic way; and each group took certain choruses on its own. With Jansen’s inspiring leadership, they produced sounds ranging from magical calm to awful fury. I used to feel at times that Bel Canto’s drawback lay in the strength and individuality of many of the voices, not properly merged in a uniform sound. It was not evident here.

All the solo roles were taken by eight Bel Canto (and friends) singers, almost all in fine voice; they happen to be still among Wellington’s best singers.

One of the things he drew attention to in his pre-concert talk, was the belief that success lay in rooting the singing in the meaning of the words, their sounds and rhythms. And that became very clear in the performance; it lent every number, every line, its particular character; clarity of diction too benefitted from this attention. It struck me first during the chorus’s singing of ‘Every Valley’. Care with sense and dynamics, word colours, rhythms and ornaments were all gained from the attention paid to this aspect.  

Particularly striking were sopranos Janey MacKenzie (‘How beautiful are the feet’: ethereal high notes) and Barbara Graham whose bracket was confined to those following the Pastoral symphony ending emotionally in quite operatic character in ‘Rejoice greatly’.

However, I dare not make distinctions between the others, basses Roger Wilson (fearsome in ‘Thus saith the Lord’ and clarion high notes in ‘The trumpet shall sound’) and Rodney Macann (who joined Alison Hodge in ‘But who may abide…’, alternating benevolence and wrath, and his own ‘Why do the nations’, all outrage); and tenors Ed Hintz (pure high notes in the opening ‘Comfort Ye’) and John Beaglehole who sang ‘Thy rebuke hath broken his heart’ with real anguish. Soprano Lesley Graham sang two major arias in Part 3, ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ and ‘If God be for us’; the two altos: Alison Hodge’s ardent ‘O thou that tellest’ was embellished with a fine violin obbligato, while Denise Wilson shared ‘He shall feed his flock’ capably with Janey MacKenzie.

The small orchestra played like professionals; strings were polished, confident and energetic, oboes lovely, trumpets commanding; and Jonathan Berkahn’s contribution to continuo was often marked, and though I was not aware at the time because his name was not in the programme, it was Douglas Mews who opened up the main organ to add to the excitement of the final numbers, creating an ecstasy of religious triumphalism.  There was a standing ovation.

(An expansion of the review in The Dominion Post)  




Guitar’s Song and Dance – the old and new worlds of Gunter Herbig

Gunter Herbig – Classical guitar

Music by Luys de Navarez, J.S.Bach, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Douglas Lilburn and Agustin Barrios

Old St.Paul’s Church, Thorndon

Sunday 29th November 2009

During the nineteenth century Franz Liszt was the greatest exponent of the transcription – he used the piano to help popularise orchestral and vocal music whose performance would have otherwise been confined to places and venues where there were orchestras and musicians able to present the music as written. Another instrument whose range and flexibility made it an admirable vehicle for transcriptions of all kind of music was the guitar – one that Liszt unfortunately never turned his hand to – and during the nineteenth century people such as Anton Diabelli, the Bohemian virtuoso Johann Casper Mertz, and the Spaniard Francisco Tarrega were responsible for guitar versions of music by people such as Mendelssohn, Schubert and Paganini, though the last two did themselves actually write directly for the guitar. It struck me, while listening to guitarist Gunter Herbig give his inspirational concert recently in Old St.Paul’s Church, how versatile the instrument actually was – a good deal of the programme was made up of transcriptions of both songs and works for other instruments, yet the guitar seemed admirably suited to express the music’s essential elements. My point in citing Liszt’s well-known transcriptions for piano at the beginning of this paragraph is to thus draw a favourable comparison with similar kinds of reworkings of music to be played on the guitar.

Gunter Herbig’s programme spanned several centuries and continents, being described as “a musical journey from the Old World into the New World” A small degree of amplification was used throughout the concert, which seemed somewhat obtrusive to my ears right at the start, but one quickly adjusted to a point where it was hardly noticeable. Herbig began with some pieces written by the sixteenth-century Spanish composer Luys de Narvaez, a song “Cancion del Emperador”, and two sets of variations. The song had a wistful and melancholic air, with elements of ritualised movement suggesting dance-steps, while the sets of variations contrasted nicely with one another, the first “Diferencias sobre Guardame las Vacas” cheerful and forthright, the other Diferencias sobre otra parte” more ruminative and varied in voicings and in timbre.

The next item was a transcription by Herbig of J.S.Bach’s Partita in D MInor BWV 1004, written for what the guitarist called “prepared guitar”, which meant that a steel wire was inserted beneath the strings of the instrument to colour the sound. The result was not unlike those throaty timbres one associates with early keyboard instruments of the kind that Bach himself would have been familiar with – the clavichord and the early fortepiano. I must confess that part of me was at first wondering why anybody would want to emasculate the beauty and purity of clearly-voiced classical guitar timbres, but I got used to the sound after a while. The somewhat spectral tones of the doctored instrument certainly reflected something of the turmoil that would have afflicted the composer at the time of writing this music, with the unexpected loss of his first wife. Whenever the playing’s intensity heightened, the astringency of the sound sharpened, so that the more introspective moments, robbed of their intrinsic tonal beauty, took on added poignancy in Herbig’s hands. Best of all was the great concluding Chaconne, whose forthright flourishes just before the return of the final tragic statement of the theme made for wonderful drama and deep expression.

After the interval we heard the Five Preludes of Heitor Villa-Lobos, a guitar classic of its kind, as it were – but one with a difference, here, as Herbig was using a new edition of the work incorporating earlier handwritten manuscripts by the composer of these pieces, featuring differences to those of the published versions commonly known. These are wonderful works, the first a baritone-like aria with a duetted middle section, the second a quixotic dance whose central episode darkens (rather like a cloud crossing the sun) with flurries of chilly breezes, and a third (a favourite of mine) a recitative- like exploration of surrounding spaces, with beautiful progressions reminiscent of Grieg’s Norwegian March from his “Lyric Pieces”. A fourth seems like a nature-piece, declamations with whisper-echoes from great distances, sudden agitations and then silences filling up the remaining spaces, apart from a final strum of farewell, while the last is appropriately a Latin dance, here played with commanding colouration and rhythmic flexibility.

Nobody who knows the voice-and-guitar version of the song-cycle “Sings Harry” should be surprised that Douglas Lilburn wrote for the solo instrument. His “Seventeen Pieces for Guitar” (published in 1975, but written throughout the 1960s and 70s) were composed largely at the instigation and encouragement of guitarist and artist Ron Burt. Gunter Herbig played a set of pieces called in the programme “Six Canzonas” – two of these, including the poignant “Flowers of the Sea” from the “Sings Harry” cycle, were from “Seventeen Pieces”, while the other four were transcriptions of music written originally by the composer for Shakespearean productions in Christchurch in the 1940s. Together, the pieces made a gentle, somewhat melancholic impression, indicative, one suspects of a solitary inner landscape, with wistful, even lament-like melodies, measures and processionals, sparsely accompanied.

It was left to “the Paganini of the Paraguyan jungle”, Agustin Barrios, to disperse the pall of introspection that had been thrown over the proceedings, with a romantic waltz (Vals No.3), played with plenty of charm and rhythmic freedom, and two song transcriptions, “Julia Florida” and “Villancico de Navidad”, whose colour, rhythmic verve and depth of feeling amply demonstrate why some regard Barrios as the greatest of all guitarist-composers. Following his death in 1944 he was neglected by the world at large until a new generation of performers rediscovered his work, and restored his reputation as a composer. Gunter Herbig’s playing, as throughout the concert, brought it all to life with considerable elan and skill, concluding a most successful evening at the wonderful Old St.Paul’s.

Lunchtime at St Andrew’s: Mozart Trio, Strauss Violin Sonata

Mozart: Trio in E flat, K 498 (‘Kegelstatt’) with violin in place of clarinet; Violin Sonata in E flat, Op 18 (Strauss)

Cristina Vaszilcsin (violin), Peter Garrity (viola), Catherine McKay (piano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wednesday 25 November 2009   

These three players have been tantalizing us with Strauss’s youthful, highly coloured violin sonata, with performances of just the first two movements (at Paekakariki) and of the Improvisation movement alone (at the Friends of the NZSO concert a week earlier); I’d heard both. Here at last we heard the whole thing, though it was not without its curiosity even here.

As the players prepared to start the second movement (Improvisation), Cristina dashed off to get her mute; she then played her first two notes – alone; Catherine got up from the piano and went out and when she didn’t come straight back Cristina left too. Time passed.  Concert organizer Marjan Waardenberg went out too and we waited; one or two people left, but the first movement had been so compelling that almost all remained seated, hopefully.  A good five minutes later they all returned and calmly began the second movement.

Catherine had had a nose-bleed.

It was the energy and rapport displayed by these two players that was striking; one sensed a strong shared commitment to and sympathy for the sonata which is an early work, written aged about 23, and not universally admired; it is given to exploiting both Strauss’s fecund compositional gifts, a romantic imagination fed by a growing admiration for the aesthetic of Wagner and Liszt; I found it curious that I was here and there reminded of Franck’s sonata, even though Strauss could hardly have known it since it was written only a year earlier.

Even though marked Andante, the first movement creates a passionate impression that belies the actual underlying tempo, and it was this impulse and thrust that animated the performance most strongly. The second movement suffered not the least from the pianist’s brief ailment; in fact it was as if the problem inspired an even more rhapsodic, expansive performance, filled with graceful phrasing and ecstatic piano filigree supporting the violin’s more legato lines.

The third movement was the place for even more highly romantic effects, endless scales and decorative arpeggios played as if they were much more than flashy gestures, then a middle section where the violin became playful in a perfectly wholehearted way. There was always the sense of impassioned momentum that sustained a constant awareness of the larger picture.

They had begun the concert with Mozart’s wonderful clarinet trio, with the clarinet replaced by Vaszilcsin’s violin. Not only did the violin quite seduce me with a feeling that this might well have really been the sound Mozart had in mind, so natural and gorgeous was it, but the different environment also lent the viola greater distinction than it had, at least in the traditional sounds lodged in my mind, alongside the clarinet.

In the Rondeaux allegretto (last movement) the violin’s summery joy and warmth led to a feeling of deep, if very histrionic, soulfulness which the viola reflected in its lovely duo with piano in the middle section. I am given to exclaiming about performances that are unlikely to be excelled this year, but this was such a performance, of two wonderful works that are too rarely heard.


Musica Sacra: These Distracted Times

Directed by Robert Oliver; comprising Baroque Voices (director: Pepe Becker) and Academia Sanctae Mariae (led by Gregory Squire)  

Music by Henry and William Lawes, John Jenkins, Richard Dering, Thomas Tomkins, Matthew Locke  

St Mary of the Angels, Wellington; Sunday 22 November 2009

I found myself unusually intrigued by the last concert of Musica Sacra’s 2009 series, dwelling on the music of the Civil War period in England in the mid-17th century; for interest in English music has tended to wane with the death of the composers who were active in Elizabeth’s and James I’s reigns, such as Orlando Gibbons, Peter Philips, Thomas Campion, John Dowland…   

Though this concert included music from both before and after those 20 years of strife and the subsequent Commonwealth – the 1640s and 50s (Richard Dering was dead by 1630 and Matthew Locke was born in 1630 and lived till 1677), most of the music was touched in some way by either the gathering clouds or by the strife itself. Catholic liturgical music was banned and most musical composition was directed towards domestic music; the Puritans did not object to music per se.

Those central to the years of the Civil War were John Jenkins who lived from 1592 till 1678, and Henry and William Lawes (though William was killed in battle in 1645).

The older brother, Henry, is presumably well known to Wellingtonians as a result of the very rich Milton collection in the Turnbull Library which has been expanded to encompass Milton’s literary, musical and political contemporaries. Milton’s masque Comus was written to be set by Henry on commission from the Earl of Bridgewater. Though his music was lost, an adaptation of Comus was later set by Thomas Arne and was very popular; that version was performed in Wellington a few years ago by an opera group, Brio, led by Lesley Graham.

Milton wrote a Sonnet, his No 13*, in praise of Henry Lawes for completing a certain play. It first appeared as the introduction to Henry and William Lawes’s Choice Psalms of 1648.

Henry Lawes’s setting of Psalm 9, ‘Thee and thy wondrous deeds’ opened the concert: a setting for five voices, strings and organ, which set the tone for the evening. It began with Pepe Becker, at her peak, a pure yet warm soprano, so fluid and brilliant that one feared she would outshine the other singers. But they did match her in their different, perhaps not quite as remarkable, ways; in duet with her, tenor John Fraser held his own, and both Jane McKinlay and alto Andrea Cochrane established themselves confidently in solo passages as well as in the several trios involving two or three women.   

Bass David Morriss in particular has emerged with greater confidence and his lower voice has gained splendid strength; in Locke’s ‘Ad te levavi’ (Psalm 122), and elsewhere, he impressed with skillfully decorated lines.

The programme took the form of Psalm settings and several Latin motets with continuo, by Dering (most of whose life was spent outside England) and Locke; these were interspersed with readings by Morriss. Although the amplification made some words hard to catch, they were amusing and pertinent, especially those from Nicholas L’Estrange’s collections of anecdotes (generally the decent ones, which are in the minority) and his brother, Roger’s Truth and Loyalty Vindicated.

One related a protest by ‘One Mr Saunders’ who remonstrated with people talking during an instrumental performance: “This is not vocal music,” he is reported crying out.

The two groups involved in Musica Sacra are alike in their sensitivity to the style of the music they play and achieve a degree of harmony of tone as vocal and instrumental ensembles that is remarkable. The three women, sopranos Becker and McKinlay, and alto Cochrane, created an especially beautiful blend in the Matthew Locke motet ‘Audi Domine’; but the five together achieved almost as much perfection.

The instrumental ensemble accompanied, in various configurations, sometimes both violins, Greg Squire and Shelley Wilkinson, Robert Oliver on bass viol and Douglas Mews on the chamber organ; sometimes the organ alone. As well as contributing an ultimate polish and balance to the singing; they played several purely instrumental pieces such as a Fantasy Suite by John Jenkins (involving demanding virtuosity) and two sonatas by William Lawes for all the instruments.

Mews played a solo piece for organ by Thomas Tomkins which gave the concert its name: A Sad Pavane for These Distracted Times; Tomkins’s life extended from the last 20 years of Elizabeth’s reign till 1656. He was a Royalist and the Pavane was composed a few days after the execution of Charles I in 1649; sounding from a somewhat earlier, happier time, this was a beautiful, intelligent performance, its tone elegiac and lamenting.

Even if interest in the less familiar music of the past is driven to some degree by the frustrations felt by audiences at much of the music of the past century, the benefits are huge; as with this concert, the explorations are not only unearthing less-known music of famous composers and obscure composers who were the links between many of the greats, but are also bringing to life music from totally neglected periods such as the early 17th century.

We are so lucky to live in a period when so much musical exploration is happening, unprecedented in any earlier time. For none of the composers in this concert was familiar to any but the musical historian till recently, and all are worth getting to know. 


*John Milton’s Sonnet No XIII (to Henry Lawes)


Harry whose tuneful and well measured song

First taught our English Musick how to span

Words with just note and accent, not to scan

With Midas Ears, committing short and long;


Thy worth and skill exempts thee from the throng,

With praise anough for Envy to look wan;

To after-age thou shalt be writ the man,

That with smooth aire could’st humor best our tongue.


Thou honour’st Verse, and Verse must lend her wing

To honour thee, the Priest of Phoebus Quire

That tun’st their happiest lines in Hymn, or Story.


Dante shall give Fame leave to set thee higher

Then his Casella, whom he woo’d to sing,

Met in the milder shades of Purgatory. 



“Cultural Property” – The New Zealand String Quartet at Te Papa

John Psathas – Abhisheka

Michael Norris – Exitus

Juliet Palmer – Egg and Tongue

Ross Harris – Variation 25

Jack Body – Three Transcriptions

New Zealand String Quartet

(Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman, violins,

Gillian Ansell, viola, Rolf Gjelsten, ‘cello)

Te Marae, Level 4, Te Papa, Wellington

Sunday November 22nd 2009

This programme of string quartets by New Zealand composers is being recorded by Atoll Records, the enterprise serving as a well-deserved tribute to not only the composers but also the New Zealand String Quartet for their advocacy of home-grown music over the years. And although a number of these works have been recorded before by the same ensemble, it’s a splendid idea to bring together the group’s updated “take” on pieces that have either already are or else show signs of becoming classic genre works in the ever-burgeoning stockpile of New Zealand compositions. Pieces like John Psathas’s Abhisheka have already developed something of a “performance history” which suggests a welcome longevity, as does Jack Body’s Three Transcriptions (though might the latter work benefit from a rather more mood-inducing title, such as “Three Travelogues” or something?). No such equivocation hampers Juliet Palmer’s intriguingly-titled but lesser-known Egg and Tongue, which dates from 1994, a deliciously “layered” piece bringing impulses, gestures and styles from various sources. The other two works on the programme were both 2009 premieres from Nelson’s Adam Chamber Music Festival, each piece suggesting in its own way a fruitful gestation of advancement in terms of future audience appreciation.

John Psathas’s Abhisheka represented the composer’s first sustained attempt to come to terms with through-composed stasis and spaciousness, though works such as “Waiting for the Aeroplane” (1988) featured episodes of similarly-conceived stillness and inward reflection. Here, the players beautifully “grew” the sounds out of the silences, subtly and unhurriedly exploring the piece’s different colours and textures along the way, and blending exotic melodic lines with faraway ambiences whose hypnotic spell seemed to transcend time and space. Reflecting the composer’s interest in writings by a Buddhist mystic at the time, the music suggested a creative fusion of impulse with reflection, encompassing occasional melismatic movement alongside a deeper, and perhaps inexplicable peace – the abhisheka of the title refers to the process of sprinkling and pouring into a receptive vessel that ineffable state of calm acceptance so alien to normal human “modus operandus”.

Juliet Palmer’s viscerally engaging Egg and Tongue made a great foil for the inward intensities of John Psathas’s work – though it was interesting how again episodes within the music set motion against long-breathedness in a different kind of way. The work suggested something bubbling constantly just beneath a surface whose “skin” would occasionally rupture and fragment – but never catastrophically, the impetus of accented movement being gathered in as quickly as the patternings irrupt. I felt there was an almost “hoedown” element trying in places to get out, its efforts at liberation giving rise to wonderfully startling sonorities, the crunching of four-note patternings against “jamming” pizzicati; while at other times held violin notes exchange like resonating bells, then, in the midst of a “battle of pizzicati” the same instruments excitingly swoop and soar like air-raid sirens. I loved the kaleidoscopic aspect of the piece, its patternings, mirrorings and (in places) volatile dissolutions, not the least of which was its wraith-like conclusion, the violin tones seeming to dissolve in the very air.

Ross Harris was one of two composers present at the Te Papa Marae to hear their work being played (Michael Norris was the other). Ross spoke about the impression made upon him by hearing Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” played by a string quartet, so that his meditation, also for string quartet on the 25th Variation of Bach’s work seemed like a natural outcome of the experience. Variation 25 began by underlining the original work’s lyrical qualities, then introducing downwardly chromatic harmonies to “charge” the music with a kind of late romantic aura, filled with grave, scented beauty. Impassioned accents and phrase-beginnings vie with more circumspect passages, before a  closely-worked scherzando-like episode invigorates the music, then gradually pares away the excess, until the notes take on a more pointillistic aspect as the piece explores different harmonic directions. A lovely solo from the violin, underpinned by the viola’s voice, calmly finishes the work.

While New Zealand composers often draw direct inspiration for their work from their immediate physical surroundings, they’re as liable to respond to wider cultural stimuli representing universal themes and preoccupations – so it is with Michael Norris’s Exitus, an exploration of four different geographical and cultural conceptions of afterworlds. The different scenarios are in themselves intensely poetic and descriptively colourful and varied, and the composer’s response does each of them rich justice. For example, Quidlivun, the Inuit afterworld, is the “Land of the Moon”, whose realisation draws largely peaceful sounds from the instruments, with occasional quasi-vocal intonations suggesting some kind of resigned lament, against a backdrop of patterned repetition that puts one in mind of a mantra or chant. Conversely, the Mayan Xibalba sounds a more fearful place, suggested by pungent-harmonied chords with slashing szfordandi, creating an oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere; while the Norse Niflheim, the northern region of icy mists and fogs, features a spectral hymn-like melody played sotto voce by violins and viola, leaving the cello to explore some hauntingly stratospheric sonorities, with lovely, eerie harmonics. Finally, the North American Choctaw Indian afterworld of Oka Lusa Hacha (Black Water River) describes a trial by water for souls wishing to enter the proverbial Happy Hunting Grounds, the higher violins driving the primitive rhythms on while viola and ‘cello intone with great expressive force the rites of passage, dramatically exchanging roles at one point before the quartet of voices plunges as one into a concerted drive towards the place of destiny, the textures gradually dissolving and disappearing with a brief and disarming flourish.

A “return to life” came with Jack Body’s Three Transcriptions, similarly exploratory, if more “here-and-now” manifestations of humankind’s endlessly varied music-making – something of the alchemic spirit of Franz Liszt’s transcriptions for piano of all kinds of music was evoked by these realisations for string quartet, all from different parts of the world. What struck me from the outset was how the composer contrived to explore timbres from the instruments quite foreign to normal expectations regarding a string quartet’s “sound”, the melody in the first piece Long Gi Yi having, for example, a haunting and exotic vocal quality, around which the other instruments wove a sinuous ambience. The second piece, from Madagascar was called Ramandriana, a dance originally played on an eighteen-stringed bamboo tube zither, the quartet tossing pizzicato and arco phrases back and forth with great brio, across simple and compound rhythms. Finally, the slashing Ratschenita from Bulgaria with its wild 7/8 rhythms underpinned by guitar-like strummings and foot-stampings inspired exhilarating energies and momentums that got everybody’s juices pulsing and tingling in properly life-enhancing ways. A great concert, then, in a most stimulating environment – full marks to all!

Odes to Joy – Wellington Orchestra with Michael Houstoun

BEETHOVEN – Piano Concerto No.5 in E-flat “Emperor”

ELLINGTON – Suite “The River”

RESPIGHI – The Pines of Rome

Michael Houstoun (piano)

Marc Taddei (conductor)

Vector Welington Orchestra

– with players from:

RNZAF Central Band,

Pelorus Trust Wellington Brass Band,

Titan Hutt City Brass Band

Wellington Town Hall, Sunday 22nd November 2009

You’d be hard put to devise a more celebratory conclusion to a season of orchestral concerts than this one, with both Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto and Respighi’s sonic blockbuster “The Pines of Rome” in the programme. Of course, Michael Houstoun’s performance of the Beethoven was the last in his presentation of the complete series of the piano concerti, giving the occasion a kind of “double-whammy” effect, and at the concert’s conclusion leaving us quite exhilarated with the energy and vitality of it all. I admit to enjoying the Duke Ellington work “The River”, even if it seemed to me to be a bit of “determined to be different” programming, interesting though the music was to hear – but perhaps I’m showing my prejudices regarding both the application of musical “novelties” to programmes and the parallel neglect of homegrown music. With only one New Zealand work (Jack Body’s “Pulse”) to its concert-programming credit throughout 2009, and one (admittedly a premiere by John Psathas) over four concerts next year, I’d be tempted to observe that the orchestra isn’t putting across much of an indication of compositional activity in this country to its concert-going public, given that scheduling one New Zealand work per season is better than having none at all.

Having gotten the gripe out of the way, I can more freely plunge into the business of reviewing Sunday’s concert, which was a great success – firstly, Michael Houstoun came, saw and conquered with his spirited rendition of Beethoven’s largest and grandest piano concerto, while the two second-half works by turns tantalised and thrilled us with their displays of different kinds of orchestral virtuosity, the sultry rhythms and colours of Duke Ellington’s dance-suite, and the full gamut of instrumental brilliance and power generated by Respighi’s Roman picture-postcards. The combination of exciting solo and orchestral playing and the inimitable Wellington Town Hall ambience made for plenty of thrills and, for me, after-glowings of satisfaction.

No-one ever plays the “Emperor” these days as I first heard it played, which was in the grandest possible manner on a recording made by Daniel Barenboim with the great Otto Klemperer at the orchestral helm – totally anachronistic, but still glorious and overwhelming! Vestiges of that formative magnificence, I confess, haunt my perceptions of other performances experienced since, and with which I constantly struggle, as with all first loves – Houstoun’s and Marc Taddei’s conception was a lean and fiery one throughout the first movement, the playing generating considerable orchestral excitement in the opening tutti, and providing an interesting foil for the soloist’s slightly more detached and Olympian manner. I liked the way Taddei encouraged the orchestra brasses, the horns occasionally rasping with scarcely-contained ebullience, and wonderfully contrasting their manner with the beautifully-phrased poetry of the wind playing. As for the strings, their warm tones and incisive playing was a joy – only in places such as immediately after the “battering exchange” between piano and orchestra mid-movement, where they share canonical phrases with the piano did I feel they lacked the numbers for their playing to “tell”. Houstoun’s playing encompassed all of these moods with both initiatives and responses that took us to the music’s four corners – incisive when needed, lucid and cogent in argument, and ruminative at certain cadence-points, he realised the composer’s “generosity of spirit” to which he made reference in a programme-note containing his own, thoughtfully-expressed views of the whole concerto series.

After the first movement I found parts of the remainder of the concerto a tad less engaging – the slow movement was very pure, with concentrated feeling and tightly-conceived lines, but for me the merest shade driven in places where I wanted the music to stand and catch its own stillness, and make listeners aware of their own breath-taking….I thought it lacked some of what the Germans call “innigkeit”, an inward intensity and concentration that banishes all other awarenesses of things.  A moment that did work beautifully was the hushed lead-in to the finale, the piano’s sudden surge of energy into the rondo-theme excitingly breaking the spell and causing exhalations of pleasure from some fellow-listeners in the hall. Houstoun had an uncharacteristic moment of lack of poise in one of the rondo episodes, but quickly recovered, enjoying the music’s exhilarations and contrasting episodes of playful teasing with the orchestra, even at one point anticipating and reaching a downbeat before Taddei and the orchestra could get there, to no great harm in the flow and ebb of it all. At the end, a well-deserved standing ovation seemed to abruptly and surprisingly come to an end, as if people were expecting something would be said from the platform by somebody, who never actually appeared. If there were flowers for Houstoun, one hopes he received them backstage, at least – his achievement in presenting the whole series of concertos with Taddei and the orchestra during the year deserved the warmest and most heartfelt acclaim.

After the interval, Marc Taddei spoke with the audience about the orchestra’s 2010 season, a schedule which I thought had been very nicely devised – a feature had been made of centenaries of pieces of music and their composers, with works connected with 1910, 1810 and 1710, as well as with the present (John Psathas’s commissioned work “Djinn”).  Of course, this configuration worked against including any New Zealand composition except a new one, which was the case with the above work (“Che sara, sara” as the song goes – but I shall return, teeth bared, snapping at the orchestra’s programming heels, in 2011!). In truth I thought the schedule showed rather more flair and imagination regarding repertoire than did the NZSO’s already-published 2010 prospectus, with mouth-watering things promised such as Elgar’s Violin Concerto played by award-winning violinist Feng Ning, and Saint-Saens’ wonderful “Organ Symphony”.

I had little idea what to expect of the Duke Ellington work “The River”, though it seemed on the face of things to resemble Smetana’s well-known “Vltava” from his “Ma Vlast”, the idea of tracing the course of a river from its source through different episodes to either a lake or a larger river or even the sea. One of the sections of the score was titled “Village Virgins”, causing some conjecture regarding how such beings could be rendered musically (Smetana’s “virginal” equivalent, not actually in “Vltava” of course, but elsewhere in “Ma Vlast”, was the war-maiden Sarka and her fellow-Amazons). In the event, the suite of seven movements featured plenty of recognisably “bluesy” rhythms and textures which could have hinted at the music’s origins, but also some full-blooded cinematoscopic orchestral all-togethers, expertly scored by “the Duke”. I wasn’t entirely sure that I’d got my sequences of what I was hearing in line with the programme’s titles, but the ballad-like opening “Spring” with its melismatic horn parts made a great impression, with lovely playing from all concerned. Another movement to impress was the “Giggling Rapids” episode, evoked by a piano solo and agile brass, with terrific percussion work from Jeremy Fitzsimmons. I also liked the section called “The Lake”, beginning with great stillness, and sensitive detailing from the winds over the top of a broadly flowing tune from the lower strings, which eventually became a kind of “Begin the Beguine” from the brass. Finally, just as the virgins were getting into the swing of things during their section, the lights began to dim, and, as the music finished everything in the hall dissolved into blackness, like the end of a scene from a movie – very atmospheric and nicely brought off. Joseph Haydn, of course, would have loved it!

The empty seats in both “organ galleries” had meanwhile been filled by bandsmen and women carrying various shining instruments, in preparation for Respighi’s work to follow – and what a performance it was! I thought the orchestra boxed, as the saying goes, pounds above its actual weight, capturing all the brilliance and  gaiety of the opening section at a scintillating tempo, but one which didn’t “flatten out” the rhythms at all, keeping everything nicely spiked and buoyant. The change to a deep, sonorous ambience for the second section was utterly compelling and dramatic, with Tom Moyer’s trumpet-playing true and sweet, if simply too close and unatmospheric (if he had been offstage it would have been a truly magical moment) and Taddei and his players building the great central archway to brilliant effect. The third section featured more beautiful solo work, this time from clarinettist Moira Hurst, summoning up the enchantment of a nightingale’s song, and setting the scene for the ghostly procession to follow, an eerie, plangently-voiced cor-anglais solo ((Madeleine Sakofsky) seeming to awaken the shades of returning armies marching upon the still-sleeping city. Taddei set a marvellously slow tempo, eschewing the virtuoso romp through this section that spoils many recorded performances by crack orchestras, and instead vividly capturing the sense of a human juggernaut inexorably approaching, and menacing in its power. By this time, the array of brass players on both sides were on their feet, ready to awaken the citizenry and salute the homecoming heroes. What sounds they were! – as the brass players from the Central RNZAF Band, the Pelorus Trust Wellington Brass Band and the Titan Hutt City Brass Band gave voice to their instruments, along with the deep tones of the Town Hall pipe organ, along with the orchestra playing at full stretch enriching the soundscape with the loudest tones I think I’ve heard in the Town Hall since a performance of the Berlioz Requiem I heard given thirty years ago. Simply overwhelming! Bravo!

An American Journey with Cantoris

Choral Music by Rorem, Copland, Ives, Barber,

Randall Thompson, Virgil Thomson


Heather Easting (organ)

Schola Sinfonica Players

Rachel Hyde (conductor)

St.Peter’s Church, Willis St., Wellington

Saturday 21st November, 2009

Cantoris concluded a rich and satisfying musical year working with current musical director Rachel Hyde by giving us a programme entitled “American Journey”. All but one of the works on the programme were composed during the twentieth century, the exception being Charles Ives’s setting of Tennyson’s “Crossing the bar” (1891). If one was looking for some kind of unifying spirit with which to tie the constituent parts of the concert together, it would be a sense I felt of the music having in almost every case been written to reach out to ordinary people. The exception was the Samuel Barber work Reincarnations, a set of three choral madrigals written in 1940 for the composer’s own Madrigal Chorus at the Curtis Institute of Music, complex, organically-conceived music, demanding for performers and more than usually challenging for listeners. Although the choir struggled at times with this work to maintain pitch, hold ensemble tightly and keep a pleasing tonal quality, it was nevertheless a rewarding piece to tackle, with many telling moments conveyed, such as in the second song, a setting of James Stephens’ poem about a hanged agrarian activist, where repeated cries of the martyr’s name, “Anthony” accompanying the verses generated a lot of power and feeling.

More characteristic of the concert’s general ambience was the opening “hymn anthem” written by Ned Rorem in 1955, a composer whose activities in different spheres would put most people’s creative output to shame in terms of volume, variety and interest. Sing my soul his wondrous love is the first of a set of three similar works dating from early in Rorem’s career, hinting at an interesting half-genre between hymn and motet, a gentle, sensitive setting of an Episcopal Hymn dating from 1841, beautifully “turned” by the choir under Rachel Hyde’s direction. In a not too dissimilar vein was Aaron Copland’s Four Motets, settings of Biblical texts written in 1921, the choir enjoying the “hummed” vocalisations in the first setting Help Us O God, and expertly negotiating the tricky key-changes (Thou O Jehovah, Abideth Forever) and the variation of metre (Have Mercy On Us O My Lord) in  the two central pieces, before capping the set off with the full-throated Sing Ye Praises To Our King, even if the singers’ attack had lost a bit of its “ping” by the end.

Charles Ives’ Crossing the bar, the oldest piece in the concert, sets some interesting harmonic modulations on the back of the basic key of C Major, such as those at the words “Twilight and evening bell”, out of which swells a great flood of emotion for the lines “….may there be no sadness of farewell”, nicely encompassed by the singers, as was the exultation at “I hope to see my Pilot face to face” and also the gentle, ruminative repetitions of the final “When I have crost the bar….” After this came what the programme notes styled as an American choral classic, Randall Thompson’s Alleluia, given a properly exultant reading, but paying due attention to gentler detail, such as the undulating accompanying passages in thirds, beautifully controlled. Conductor Rachel Hyde added a spontaneous percussive element to the excitement of the work’s climax, before gathering in the strands once more for a rapt “Amen” at the close.

Returning to Ned Rorem’s music after the interval was a delight, the 3 pieces taken from a larger, 15-part work, in which they form unaccompanied interludes. Most obviously striking was the first of the three, whose sexual imagery persuades as much as it initially startles: – “nothing at all to talk to and make love when I awake”, the choir’s voices shaping the phrases with delightful relish; and then responding more urgently to the quicksilvery Father, Guide and Lead me and the epigrammatic Creator Spirit,please….. which followed. I liked also the direct simplicity of Virgil Thomspn’s Oh my deir hert, hymn-like with a humming accompaniment, music for which this sort of programme was devised.

The “other” Thompson (Randall) made a reappearance, with his work Frostiana, settings of the work of one of the truly iconic American poets, completed in 1959. The composer set seven of Robert Frost’s poems altogether,from which set four were chosen for presentation here. Originally for piano accompaniment, Thompson orchestrated the settings after the poet’s death (there exists contradictory evidence regarding the poet’s attitude towards the musical settings of his verses – perhaps Thompson’s reticence while Frost was still living provides a clue!). Several young players from Rachel Hyde’s own Schola Sinfonica accompanied the choir, and sustained their rhythms and tones well throughout, the lovely quasi-oriental instrumentals at the end of the first setting The Road Not Taken being particularly well-realised. At the end, the programme featured the youngest composer’s work, Matthew Harris (b.1956), exerpts from three books of Shakespeare songs from various plays set by the composer. A very “American” use of wordless “do-do-do” vocals coloured the second setting, Tell Me, Where is Fancy Bred, and as well the last of the four O Mistress Mine featured a soloist with an ear-catching “popular song” manner. I also liked the “Hey nonny-no” motif of It Was a Lover and His Lass, used rather beguilingly as a rhythmic carriage for the song, while the choir’s forthright tones and rhythmically confident delivery of the opening Take, O Take Those Lips Away was carried through the companion settings and made for a most rewarding evening’s singing and listening.

Jared Holt sings Dichterliebe at St Andrew’s

Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No 2 and Dichterliebe, Op 48 (Schumann)

Jared Holt (baritone) and Nicole Chao (piano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace, lunchtime, Wednesday18 November 2009 

Jared Holt won the Mobil Song Quest in 2000, proceeded to the Royal College of Music in London and through the mid 2000s sang roles at Covent Garden, Glyndebourne and Opera Australia. In September/October he sang Papageno in Southern Opera’s The Magic Flute.

At Canterbury University he took a law degree and has now returned to pursue that as his principal livelihood, in Wellington. Happily, he still sings, in opera and in song recital.

The recital began with the pianist alone, playing Scriabin’s Second Piano Sonata, whose first movement is markedly Lisztian, of the more romantic of the Années de Pèlerinage; though It is flavoured by Scriabin’s melodic fingerprints and the rising augmented fourths and fifths that recur so affectingly in much of his music. Chao’s playing was filled with unaffected rubato, and she easily evoked visions of bare birches and snow-covered pines. Though sometimes compared with his contemporary Rachmaninov, how different, more openly emotional, is Scriabin’s music. The Presto second movement, influenced by another area of Liszt’s genius, was under less control both in dynamics and in clarity at speed; and the boomy acoustic didn’t help. Nevertheless, it was a performance that captured Scriabin’s spirit and his romantic character most satisfyingly.

Though comprising sixteen songs, Dichterliebe is not a long cycle; each song is quite concise, none of Heine’s poems is indulgent and nor does Schumann allow himself to expand the material by repeating lines or stanzas: there is no time for interest to flag,

Though primarily an opera singer, this concert showed a gift in the song repertoire which is supported by taste and finesse, and excellent German diction. However, though St Andrew’s has its virtues, it is given to amplifying bass orchestral sounds as well as distorting focus when voices are too pushed.

I wondered whether he was finding it difficult to judge the responsiveness of the acoustic or was sometimes over-reacting to the occasional emphatic passage from the piano, in his tendency to drive his voice too hard, but in truth, I found the piano’s role always sensitive and supportive, rising and falling in response to the emotion, for example in the striding, widely-spaced melody of ‘Aus alten Märchen winkt es’.

When he went beyond a mezzo-forte in his upper register, vocal focus suffered. That was evident right from the first song, and in ‘Die Rose, die Lillie,,,’, but in the middle register, things were easy and the real quality of his voice could be enjoyed. The calmer, more spoken quality employed in ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen…’, even high up, resulted in a beautifully expressed emotion.

There was never any doubting Holt’s command of his resources or his grasp of the poet’s or the composer’s meaning and intent.  If only there was a regular song recital series, comparable to Wellington Chamber Music’s Sunday chamber music series, in which we could enjoy the singing of Wellington’s many excellent singers in the huge repertoire of classical song, live performance of which has become something foreign to many music lovers. 


NZSO players entertain their friends

Wellington Friends of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra: End of Year celebratory concert

Ilott Theatre, Sunday afternoon 15 November 2009 

The Friends of the NZSO exists partly to give themselves musical entertainment and background, and partly to raise money for the orchestra.  To help promote those aims around twenty NZSO players plus guest pianists and mezzo soprano Annabel Cheetham took part in a highly entertaining potpourri of mainly chamber music before a full Ilott Theatre.

The concert began with Carolyn Mills on the platform, alone with her harp, to play Autumn Arabesque by her former colleague Kenneth Young, achieving music beautifully adapted to the harp; at first ethereal, later adorned with arpeggios that no harp piece could be without, moving to its heart in which it was hard not to remark a palette and melodic characteristics suggesting the sounds of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro, coloured with comparable charm. 

Other orchestral instruments that are less common in recital appeared throughout; the next, cor anglais, played by Robert Orr as part of a Cor Anglais Quartet by Françaix; his companions were the members of the Iota String Trio – Haihong Liu, Lyndsay Mountfort and Eleanor Carter. Françaix is not a major composer, at least, not of deep and weighty music, but the three of the five movements played were lively, somewhat irreverent and were played accordingly.

The violin sonata is not a rarity, but Strauss’s youthful Op 18 is not often heard; violinist Cristina Vaszilcsin was joined by Mary Barber to play the Improvisation (second) movement. It marked Andante cantabile, it is romantic and rich in tonal variety, hardly improvisatory at all.

This item demonstrated a theme that ran through most of the programme: performances that I’d heard in various places over the past few months: this one in a ‘Mulled Wine’ concert at Paekakariki. 

I heard the Trombone Quartet, as ‘Bonanza’, at the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson in January; it is a brilliant ensemble. There were some different players; one new embouchure was Mark Davey, a new graduate from the New Zealand School of Music and a player in the Wellington Orchestra; he took the main line, with easy lyricism, in their arrangement of Mendelssohn’s song Die Nachtigall. ‘Achieved is the Glorious Work’ from Haydn’s The Creation seemed an unusual piece to give to a trombone quartet, but its realization was convincing. To read interesting comment on the role of the trombone in this chorus by a trombonist in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, go to: I would guess that the New Zealand players had read and taken on board Mr Yeo’s counsel, They also played a fugue in D minor by Bach, and the party piece for all trombones by Meredith Willson (though they were 72 trombones short of the prescription).

The Cecilian Ensemble, for this purpose at least, comprised Rebecca Struthers and Elizabeth Patchett (violins), Belinda Veitch (viola) and Roger Brown on the cello, together with guest trumpeter Cheryl Hollinger (she was heard at a St Andrew’s lunchtime concert a few months ago). Using a baroque soprano trumpet, she led Purcell’s Sonata for trumpet and string quartet. If it hadn’t been for the strings-only second movement in which the string players did indeed reveal energy and warmth, the brilliance of Hollinger’s virtuosic trumpet with the most adroit and tasteful ornaments, would have made it a rather unfair contest,  

Stille Liebe was the title given to a recital at the Cambridge Terrace Congregational Church two weeks before, which had included the song of that name in a cycle that Schumann composed to poems by Justinius Kerner. But we didn’t hear that; instead, three songs by Frank Bridge which called for mezzo soprano Annabel Cheetham and Mary Barber (piano) along with Peter Barber with the obbligato viola part. The poems, by Shelley, Arnold and Heine, seemed oddly assorted, but Cheetham’s voice was a good fit, given her distinctive timbre and character.

The Zephyr Wind Quintet consists of wind principals from the orchestra (Bridget Douglas, Robert Orr, Philip Green, Edward Allen, Robert Weeks). They gave two concerts with different programmes in July and August, in another ‘Mulled Wine’ concert at Paekakariki, and in Wellington; both the pieces here were played at Paekakariki, and both repaid further hearing.

This was one of the most striking groups of the afternoon; they played Barber’s beguiling but quite unsentimental Summer Music with singular instinct, as well as skill and musicianship; flute and oboe had prominent parts in episodes where the music danced. It was followed by Opus Zoo by Luciano Berio, an eccentric, witty piece, but also one with a social and political message, calling for each player to recite texts.  Musically, it shows neo-classical influence, and the overlay of words suggest The Soldier’s Tale, but there is no consecutive story and it uses a sort of animal allegory to cautionary purpose.

There is an uneasy air about the music that was confirmed by the disparate texts: each of the four movements seems distinct though united by a common idiom. The second movement deals with war: “the cry of bombs…the scream of distant fields… what madness of men…to blast all that is lively, lively, proud and gentle. What can the reason be?”; which is intoned repeatedly by several players. The other movements use animals to exemplify innate weaknesses that lead humans to disaster.

Finally, after the stage was rearranged by timpanist Laurence Reese (whose purposeful stage management throughout won a round of applause), he wheeled a side drum from behind the curtain, sat at it, and set up the rhythm for Ravel’s Bolero, The two cellists carried their instruments out, plucking the bass ostinato strings as they came, and they were followed by winds, with the tune, violins and violas, and finally the four trombones which lent some real swagger to the performance. Naturally, it was much abbreviated, but it brought the house down.


Diverse Soundscapes – Segerstam and Kringelborn with the NZSO

SIBELIUS – Luonnotar, for soprano and orchestra

GRIEG – Songs


BRAHMS – Symphony No.4 in E Minor

Leif Segerstam (conductor)

Solveig Kringelborn (soprano)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Friday 13th November 2009

It was hard to know what to make of this programme as an assemblage of music – I thought of it as a concert of two diverse halves, the first an exploration of cool, bracing sounds and ambiences from both the planet’s hemispheres, and the second an exposition of one of the greatest of all romantic symphonies. I would have preferred to have heard Leif Segerstam conduct more Scandinavian or perhaps some Russian music, following his and the orchestra’s magically-wrought first-half evocations of music associated with Arctic and Antarctic regions. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in how he would approach a work from the standard Central European symphonic repertoire. But, interesting though the Brahms Fourth Symphony performance was, I would have thought a major symphonic work from Northern Europe (Nielsen comes immediately to mind, though there are any number of works by other fine symphonists from this part of the world) might have been considered a more appropriate companion for music by Sibelius and Grieg, along with Chris Cree Brown’s impressive tone-poem “Icescape”. I remembered the remark “Segerstam is a wild man!” made by Pietari Inkinen during a pre-concert discussion forum at the beginning of the NZSO’s Sibelius symphonies series, and wanted to hear him apply that wild spirit to more music that breathes the same fresh, tingling and rarified air.

Still, in an imperfect world I was content with hearing Luonnotar, Sibelius’s utterly magical evocation of the Finnish creation myth, made all the more mysterious and ritualistic by the use of the composer’s native language, here engagingly delivered by Norwegian soprano Solveig Kringelborn. Her clear, communicative tones and detailed diction helped bring a powerful sense of storytelling to the work (wrongly described as a “song-cycle” in the pre-concert publicity – Luonnotar is actually a fully-fledged stand-alone extended orchestral song). At the beginning, the singer survived a slight “tickle” on one of her opening notes, going on to capture all of the brooding, mystical power of both words and music. Segerstam and the orchestra, for their part, provided her with a stunning evocation of timeless creative impulse, a real sense of something being wrought from nothing – now still and brooding, now urgent and restless, now elemental and declamatory. It was a marvellous performance, and a perfect fillip to the earlier Sibelius festival series – would that we had more directed by Segerstam in this vein (the incidental music to “The Tempest”, for example…)

More did follow, but not from Sibelius – instead, Christchurch composer Chris Cree Brown’s “Icescape” tellingly kept our listening temperatures firmly in single figures with some gloriously rugged orchestral sounds – rasping string timbres and bird-like cries from winds, accompanied by primordial glissandi from the brass and crystalline touches from percussion. Elemental blocks of sound from different orchestral sections contrasted tellingly with both a volatile dancing element and episodes of great stillness, the sostenutos readily suggesting the icy wastes of the Antarctic continent. It was a work where timbral differentiation was as crucial to the argument as was rhythm and dynamics, with some amazing, ear-tingling sounds resounding in the memory at the music’s conclusion.

I wondered whether the bracket of Grieg songs coming after such austerities would merely serve to underline Debussy’s dismissive “pink bonbons stuffed with snow” remark regarding the Norwegian composer’s music. I needn’t have worried – Grieg’s uniquely piquant and richly unsentimental harmonic language (greatly admired by both Frederick Delius and Percy Grainger) is heard to its most telling advantage in his songs, striking even in oft-heard pieces like “Solveig’s Song” from Peer Gynt, and the well-known “Last Spring” (one of two songs that the composer arranged for string orchestra, but vastly preferable in its original form). Singer, conductor and players made this music their own, with many magical touches, the soprano’s affecting “world-weary” tones in Solveig’s Song, the orchestra’s heartfelt phrasing of the strings-only passages of “Last Spring”, and the astringency of the strings-and-wind textures in the Mahlerian “En Svane” (A Swan) which concluded the first half. Only in the more declamatory passages of “From Mount Pincio” did I feel that the singer lacked the tonal reserves to fully “command” the vocal line, though again she shone in the work’s more ruminative, sensitively-breathed passages, and generally won our hearts.

Segerstam propelled the Brahms symphony on its way with little fuss and no intrusive exaggerations – everything was sweet-toned and unhurried, rather small in scale, but with nothing pushed or “hefted up” unnaturally. My notes make ready references to gorgeous orchestral playing from all departments, the whole creating a lovely autumnal atmosphere, with one or two touches suggesting the occasional ‘edge of the abyss” realisation, without drawing undue attention from the shape of the whole. I thought the opening of the slow movement was beautifully done (though it’s music that always gives me goosebumps!), pizziccato strings and winds enjoying the music’s equivocations of regret and resignation that colours whole episodes of this movement. The NZSO strings didn’t disappoint at the reprise of the big, Brucknerian tune, here gloriously rich and deep-toned, while the horns made a suitably baleful impression just before the movement’s close. I enjoyed the timpani’s prominent voicings during the rumbustious scherzo, with the horns this time warm and sonorous in the middle trio section.

Throughout the symphony a section of the audience had been applauding at the conclusion of each movement (unusual for a Wellington audience), and matters came to a head when the applause after the Scherzo interrupted the conductor’s attempt at an “attacca” with the final movement – Segerstam turned to the audience and pointedly extended four fingers, one after the other, to the amusement (or bemusement) of all concerned. Despite the finale’s big-boned opening, which splendidly carried us through the first gaunt utterances of the Passacaglia theme, I didn’t feel that Segerstam consistently picked up the music’s underlying forward thrust after some of the more lyrical episodes – the result was that the tension sagged towards the end, and the last few pages for me didn’t have that “screwed-up-tightly” quality that surely the whole movement is inexorably moving towards. And the conductor’s agogic pause inserted before the final chord seemed more self-indulgent than logical and organic, in this, the most “connected” of all romantic symphonies.

For me, however, all of this was of little moment – the concert’s first part alone had reaped such ample rewards, I felt richly repaid, and grateful that I had been given the chance to experience Pietari Inkinen’s “wild man” at work with repertoire he knows and loves – even if it was only half-a-concert’s worth!