Rites of Exultation – The Bach Choir of Wellington

PURCELL – Come, Ye Sons of Art

HANDEL – Coronation Anthems

Pepe Becker (soprano)

Andrea Cochrane and Katherine Hodge (altos)

Kieran Rayner (bass)

The Chiesa Ensemble (Leader, Rebecca Struthers)

The Bach Choir

Stephen Rowley (conductor)

St Andrew’s on the Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, 13th December 2009

What a tonic after reading the Sunday newspapers to go to such a concert! Here we had music by two of the greatest of all composers bent on celebrating all that’s gracious, noble and glorious about the idea of royal rule, transcending all the all-too-human preoccupation with aspects of human foible, such as scandal, gossip and intrigue, and setting the monarchy itself upon high with tones whose beauty, energy and magnificence ennoble the state of kings and queens. In each composer’s case the music that was produced spoke for the ordinary person, giving tongue to his or her feelings concerning the pride and righteousness of being a much-loved monarch’s subject.

The concert began with Henry Purcell’s Birthday Ode for Queen Mary of 1694, the last of six odes he wrote for a popular monarch, who was to tragically die of smallpox within eight months of the composer writing this final paean of praise for her – Purcell could not have forseen at the time that he would shortly be writing the Funeral Music for his Queen, or that the same music would be performed less than a year later at his own funeral. The words, whose authorship is doubtful (though some think it could be Nahum Tate, who wrote the libretto for Purcell’s most famous opera “Dido and Aeneas”, and the previous year’s birthday ode for the Queen), evoke the spirits of music to celebrate the queen’s birthday – her fondness for music would presumably have inspired Purcell and his librettist to couch their praises for her in the most metaphorically musical ways, a wide range of  instruments giving tongue to joy, celebration and praise – “Strike the viol, touch the lute, wake the harp, inspire the flute!”

Purcell was able to transcend the somewhat earthbound quality of the verses with energising phrasings and rhythms that lift the commonplace up into the realms of great art: The words “Come, ye sons of art, away, tune all your voices and instruments play, to celebrate this triumphant day” when set by Purcell, become a mellifluously-constructed ode to a friend and patroness of music, immortalising her in the process. Before the verses appear, the composer gives us a full Italian-styled three-part sinfonia, concluding with a grave adagio that serves to highlight the solemnity of the occasion and throw into relief the joyousness of the invocations to Art and Music to follow. Purcell’s librettists for these works were not great poets, apart from Sir Charles Sedley, who wrote the verses for the fourth Ode of 1692, Love’s goddess sure was blind. The satirist Thomas Brown, recognising this, wrote the perceptive lines “For where the author’s scanty words have fail’d / Your Happier Graces, Purcell, have prevail’d”.

The playing of the Chiesa Ensemble, led by Rebecca Struthers, was splendid at the outset – strings and trumpets set the scene with bright, shining tones and energised phrasings that brought the music nicely to life – conductor Stephen Rowley chose tempi that allowed phrases to be savoured by the players, whose momentum was generated by dint of accent and phrasing rather than merely speed. After the solemn adagio alto Andrea Cochrane surprisingly took the pulpit for “Come Ye Sons of Art”, placing her alongside the back rows of the choir – a miscalculation, I thought, as she should have been far further forward (in the front, next to the conductor) and more immediate-sounding. She sang very beautifully, but her invocation to the “Sons of Art” had insufficient power and persuasion, due to her backward placement. Similarly, both she and Katherine Hodge were further disadvantaged in “Sound the Trumpet”, not only backwardly-placed, but distanced from the continuo instruments (Eleanor Carter’s ‘cello and Douglas Mews’ harpsichord) who were providing the rhythmic trajectories of the music with such buoyancy. Both singers sang beautifully, blending and dovetailing their tones nicely, and keeping nicely in touch with their instrumentalists; but both of their rather soft-grained voices needed all the forward projection that was available to them, in order to sound the clarion calls that Purcell surely intended.

Having more brightly-focused and strongly-projected tones, both soprano Pepe Becker and bass Kieran Rayner were able to realise more successfully  the more “public” aspect of the Ode.  Kieran Rayner’s declamations sonorously encompassed all but the highest notes without a hint of strain – the  words “Grant, oh grant, and let it have the honour of a jubilee” in particular were clearly and splendidly hurled forth. And the aria “These are the Sacred Charms” was marked by more mellifluous singing from the bass, a momentary voice-slip towards the end apart.  Pepe Becker’s singing of “Bid the Virtues”, in duet with the oboe, while paying less attention, I thought, to word-painting than to the production of beautiful tones, realised some lovely moments, among them a beautifully-arched “Blessing with returns of prayer, their great defender’s care”. Again, I think the backward placement of the singers robbed the words of some of their expression, rather generalising the solo voices’ effect (not that the poetry was anything to write home about, but even the most banal words can be transformed by settings of genius, as here). Soprano and bass shared the festive splendour of the final verse-settings “Thus Nature, rejoicing” with rich and noble tones from all concerned, the timpani flourishes at the end capping off the celebratory effect in fine style.

Handel’s Coronation Anthems, written for the Coronation of King George II and his Queen Caroline in 1727, have proven among the most durable of his works, used in coronation ceremonies of monarchs since then, and regarded as epitomising the composer’s most public and grandiloquent manner. Of course, the music was written for performing in Westminister Abbey, and as such deals in broad brush-strokes of sound, written for maximum public effect. With a choir of fifty voices and instrumentalists numbering in excess of a hundred and fifty, that first performance must have made a splendid noise! St.Andrew’s in Wellington is certainly no Westminster Abbey, but the effect when the Bach Choir’s voices took up the opening words of “Zadok the Priest’ was scalp-prickling. There was a nice sense of processional about the instrumental introduction, Stephen Rowley’s tempi both here, and in the more vigorous “God Save the King” section which concludes the anthem, I thought perfectly judged to bring out the music’s spacious grandeur, allowing the players to put real point and “girth” in their phrasing.

The second anthem, “Let Thy Hand be Strengthened” saw oboe and strings bring a pleasing variation of colour to the music, the singing nicely “rounded” in effect, not perhaps especially pointed, but entirely lacking any mannerism of emphasis or articulation. The minor-key mood of “Let justice and judgement” was allowed all its deep-hued gravity, unfolding and breathing naturally, while the “Alleluias” at the end had plenty of spring and energy. In the next anthem “My Heart is Inditing” I wanted a bit more “spring” from the voices in their opening passagework, something of the kind that was readily provided by the oboes in similar passages throughout. I liked the sopranos’ emphasis on the word “inditing” in their vocal line, something which energised and personalised the words’ delivery. Again, Stephen Rowley managed a tempo at “Kings daughters” which allowed the phrasings of the music to set the rhythmic trajectory of the whole, and again brought out the loveliness of the soprano voices, an effect that was also noticeable, in tandem with the oboes, at “Upon thy right hand”. With the final “Kings shall be thy nursing fathers”, the brass and timpani again came into their own, as they did in the final anthem “The King Shall Rejoice”. Perhaps the concluding “alleluias” were a shade too fast for the choir’s comfort, the voices striving to keep with the conductor’s beat and with the playing of the orchestra – but the effect overall was of great exhilaration and a marvellous sense of occasion, which is what we got, and was, surely, what the composer intended!

Wendy Dawn Thompson (mezzo-soprano) and friends at St Andrew’s

Opera arias and songs: Handel, Strauss, Mahler, Brahms, Mozart and others

Emma Sayers (piano) plus Amelia Berry and Bianca Andrew (sopranos), Michael Gray (tenor), Matthew Landreth (baritone). Presented by the New Zealand Opera Society (Wellington Branch)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Saturday 12 December 2009

This was to have been a showcase for Wendy Dawn Thompson, with the support of two younger singers Amelia Berry and Matt Landreth. But because Wendy was ailing (she had to cancel a Messiah a few days before) it was decided to reduce her load by the inclusion of a couple of other singers. They were Bianca Andrew and Michael Gray.

It made a concert of greater variety even if we were deprived of more singing by the main star.

Wendy opened the evening with ‘Ombra mai fu’, Handel’s Largo (actually marked ‘Larghetto’) from Serse (Xerxes), handling the Persian King’s castrato role in a rich, almost fruity voice, for some tastes perhaps a little too heavy with vibrato; no doubt it was a symptom of her ailment. Her higher notes were warm and clear however. She followed it with ‘Behold, … O Thou that tellest’ from Messiah, which revealed a somewhat clearer performance. The rest of her offerings came in the second half of the concert: four Strauss lieder, all love songs of different characters. Gefunden, innocence and simplicity in a Goethe lyric in which a plant symbolizes the poet’s resolve to ensure his love’s survival by digging it up carefully and planting it in his garden. Nachtgang, mildly salacious, and Heimliche Aufforderung which approached R18, Wendy sang with nicely varied timbres and delicate dynamic control. Morgen was the best known song: Emma Sayers’s introduction, as delightfully coloured as throughout, announced a languid tempo with suggestive, expectant pauses with the subtle phrasing that all her performances displayed.

Amelia Berry sang two Mahler songs from his Rückertlieder. They showed some signs of unevenness of tone and occasional suspect intonation, but her voice is attractive and her dramatic talent (I last head her in the title role in the New Zealand School of Music’s production of Handel’s Semele mid-year) a clear asset.  She sang ‘Ruhe sanft’ from Mozart’s Zaïde (which I also heard her sing at the Wellington Aria Competition in August). She brought to it a good feeling for its warm lyricism though the high notes taxed her somewhat. She made a good fist of Baïlero too. In both songs one competes with particularly beautiful recorded renderings, not least by Kiri Te Kanawa: they colour ones impressions though they shouldn’t.

Here, as throughout the programme I found my ear caught by the beautiful, piano playing of Emma Sayers, creating vivid, contrasting orchestral colours in different parts of the keyboard.

Amelia’s last song was ‘Chi il bel sogno di Doretta’ from La Rondine; it wasn’t clear to me what happened at the beginning as she twice broke off to start again after a couple of bars. Much of it lies high and her voice thinned on those notes; though, as with the Mozart and Canteloube pieces earlier, there was a real feeling for the idiom.

Bianca Andrew also sang in Semele, as Ino. She opened her bracket with Cherubino’s aria, ‘Non so piu’, from The Marriage of Figaro, giving full rein to her character’s unruly hormones, with open agitation in her voice. Pastoral calm followed with The Sally Gardens in Britten’s arrangement, two Brahms lieder – Liebestreu and ‘Wir wandelten’. She sang them with an easy charm, occasionally resting her arm on the piano lid, handling the phrasing comfortably; they suited her voice excellently. And though she sang the Habanera from Carmen musically, she didn’t quite capture its dangerous sexuality.

Michael Gray opened his selection with Tosti’s La serenata, confident and polished, though not especially Italianate in character. Britten’s Holy Sonnets of John Donne on the other hand were sung with a sure instinct for their idiom and the poetry; his performance might have erred in the sense of dramatic feeling and emphasis, but for me, who doesn’t warm particularly to this sort of Britten, his performance, with its clear articulation, became meaningful.

In the opera, Don Ottavio’s ‘Il mio tesoro’ seems to hold up the drama, but Gray made a great deal of it.

Matthew Landreth’s share of the evening opened with Lilburn’s cycle of six songs, Sings Harry. (incidentally, there are 12 poems in Glover’s sequence as published in the 1971 edition of Enter without knocking, counting as one the three parts of Songs – ‘These songs will not stand’; if you want to refresh your acquaintance with Glover, look at Gordon Ogilvie’s full-blooded entry in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography – accessible on the Internet).

Both the colour of his very natural baritone (never mind they were written for tenor) and his instinctive feel for the songs made their performance a delight. The skill of a poetry reader in ‘When I am old’, a deeply nostalgic ‘Once the days were clear’, and those quintessential Glover lines ‘For the tide comes and the tide goes and the wind blows’ he articulated as movingly as anyone I have heard.

Landreth made an effortless job of ‘O du mein holder Abendstern’ from Tannhäuser, with fine pianissimo control; but was not quite as comfortable in ‘Se vuol ballare’.

This concert didn’t draw the audience it deserved, both on account of Wendy Dawn, or of the four others, or the splendid pianist or the intrinsic delight of the happily haphazard programme.

Wellington Chamber Orchestra – family connections

ANTONIN DVORAK – Serenade for  Winds in D Minor Op.44

TABEA SQUIRE – The Suneater – for Recorders and Strings

HELMUT SADLER – Concertino for Recorders and Strings

JOSEF SUK – Symphony in E Major Op.14

Wellington Chamber Orchestra

Soloists: Members of the Recorders and Early Music Union

Conductor: Gregory Squire

St.Andrew’s on the Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 6th December, 2009

Family ties involving both composers and performers were brought into play through this concert – firstly, on the strictly compositional front, works by both Antonin Dvorak and his son-in-law Joseph Suk featured on the programme; while Wellingtonian composer Tabea Squire’s commissioned work “The Suneater – for Recorders and Strings” received skilled and committed advocacy from musicians whose ranks included both of her parents, conductor Gregory Squire and leader of the Recorders and Early Music Union, Katrin Eickhorst-Squire. I was interested in the conductor’s (and, presumably, the orchestra committee’s) decision to play Tabea Squire’s new work TWICE on the programme – while it seemed a laudable thing to do for a new piece, helping the audience to take in so much more of the work’s essence on a second hearing, one would hope that Greg Squire would want to extend such advocacy to all new music he conducts. His enthusiastic and engaging spoken introduction to the work emphasised the importance of repeated hearings to the understanding of any unfamiliar music – by way of example he amusingly quoted his first encounter as a student with Brahms’s First Symphony.

However, it was not Brahms, but his great contemporary, Dvorak, whose music opened the orchestra’s programme, the Serenade for Winds, Op.44. This was a work which obviously represented another formative musical experience for the conductor, who described the prospect of directing the piece as akin to a dream come true. Something about this piece truly engages people – the friend I happened to be sitting next to in the audience bent over and whispered to me “This is my funeral music” just as the piece was about to begin! It’s certainly a most lovable work, one which the Chamber Orchestra wind players (helped by a ‘cello and double-bass) relished with delight, digging into the dotted rhythms of the opening with great enthusiasm and managing some nice dynamic variation through the lead-back measures (lovely clarinets in thirds, nicely answered by horns) to the opening’s return. The second movement (a trifle fast for the players’ articulation at the outset) deftly pointed the contrast between the lyrical opening and the scherzo-like trio section scamperings, even if some of the instrumental solos had treacherous twists, and the tricky rhythmic dovetailings at the end of the scherzo-episode fully stretched the group’s capabilities as an ensemble.The players got a lovely colour at the slow movement’s beginning, horns, bassoons and strings laying down a rich carpet of sound on which the individual solos could be floated; and while there were smudged instrumental lines in places, ensemble was good and the overall feeling was right. A good, strong and forthright opening set the finale on its way confidently, and even if the ensemble subsequently lacked the sheer weight of tone to bring to bear to the growing excitement of the rhythms and exuberance of the fanfares at the end there were heartwarming moments, the most engaging being at the recapitulation of the work’s very opening, sturdily and strongly played.

Tabea Squire’s work for recorders and strings was inspired by Keri Hulme’s iconic novel “The Bone People”, in which story appears a “Suneater”, an idiosyncratic device made of wires, mirrors and crystal which spins when placed in the sun, and which is accidentally broken by its maker. Further inspiration for the composer came from various world mythologies that have developed “sun-eating” stories explaining the oscillations in nature between darkness and light. The music explored a range of colours and hypnotic rhythms which suggested these processes. Right from its eerie Aeolian-harp-like opening on strings, through exchanges both throaty and piping-like with various recorders, the piece unerringly evolved a strongly-wrought atmosphere, somewhat reminiscent of Holst’s “Neptune” in places. I liked the oscillations between rich strings and more astringent winds, which moved the sounds away from such remote “unknown region” ambiences and into more volatile and interactive realms. The intensely “breathy” effect of the recorders gave the last section an almost primitive feel, the instruments’ earthy,  “wrong-note” harmonies moving the sounds as a block out and away from the string ambiences, like a separation of disparate elements, each to their own realms. A second playing of the piece focused these thoughts concerning union and dissolution even more strongly, though I found it was interesting how uniquely “charged” the first performance felt, compared with the repeat, when things simply sounded “different” – everything with more focus a second time round, but less ethereal and magical in effect.

Helmut Sadler’s pleasant but largely unremarkable Concertino for Recorders and Strings filled in an entertaining quarter-hour’s listening, from the “Walk in the Black Forest” aspect of the opening movement, with its out-of-door, almost cinematographic ambiences, and rumbustious attention-seeking tones from the massed recorders, through some quasi-exotic harmonisings in attractively ritualised marches and processionals (some lovely, sensitive solo and ensemble work from the wind players) to a final agitato movement, whose slower middle section was marred by some poor wind tuning, but whose livelier sections were well-upholstered by the strings and deftly negotiated by the “group of soloists”.

The family circle aspect of the concert was completed by the orchestra’s performance of Josef Suk’s Symphony in E Major, an early work, in many ways indebted to the influence of Dvorak, who was Suk’s teacher as well as becoming his father-in-law, but with many original and beautiful touches. As this was the only full orchestral outing of the afternoon for the players they made the most of things, and gave the performance all they had. Before the performance Greg Squire spoke of the composer’s later, darker works, such as the Asrael Symphony, written in the wake of the deaths of both Suk’s father-in-law and his wife, and emphasised by comparison the relatively sunny nature of the earlier symphony. The playing was marked by some lovely solo work in places – a single horn at the start, the clarinet introducing the second subject – and Greg Squire asked for and got great rolling cascades of sound in places, strings capped by festive brass, triumphant and buoyant. Similarly, for the slow movement, my notes read “lovely solos from clarinet and oboe, rich string accompaniments, playing captures the music’s volatility – everything full-on…” The orchestra realised plenty of the scherzo’s dancing energy and spirit, with only the trio section sounding less happy due to some string-intonation lapses.  As for the finale, although too long (the composer’s exuberance getting the better of his judgement with too many episodes and climactic denouments) Greg Squire’s and his orchestra’s concentration never flagged, keeping the narrative well-paced and nicely detailed. There were some tricky exposed passages for strings that sounded uncomfortable for the players at one or two purple points, but more importantly, the epic sweep of the music was conveyed to us in as full-blooded a manner as was required.

Messiaen’s La nativité du Seigneur from organist Richard Apperley

Cathedral of St Paul, Wellington, Friday 4 December 2009

This was the third year that Anglican Cathedral has presented Messiaen’s Christmas celebration on the big organ. Though it didn’t draw as big an audience as Messiah a week earlier at the other cathedral, the Happy Few enjoyed a commanding and brightly coloured account of Messiaen’s early masterpiece. It was written in the year of my birth, though I was much older that he was at its composition (28) when I first got to know Messiaen – probably over 40.

Though the organ at St Paul’s is capable of producing the characteristic sounds of the English organ, it is strong in vivid brass and treble woodwind stops, well adapted to the qualities of post-Romantic French organ music, and it was these that attracted Richard Apperley in the performance.

This characteristic was vividly heard at the start of the first piece, La vierge et l’enfant, opening with trembling, tiny, bell-like sounds, conveying the dim, cold atmosphere of the wintery manger. And Desseins éternels, with the presence of constant underpinning of deep pedal notes, Apperley again depicted a subdued feeling of awe, of the divine mystery.

It was with Le Verbe that the organ first expressed itself in bolder diapason sounds, though after a mere three minutes or so, Messiaen offers a musical version of the Word, employing the cornet stop in gentle, meandering lines, over obscure pedal harmonies. 

Apperley’s penchant for piercing treble registrations emerged again in Les Anges, culminating in an imagining of angels fluttering their wings.

From that, the ugly descent to Jésus accepte la souffrance, was a remarkable experience, with fearful, heavy pedals treading out Christ’s three burdens of suffering.  

I have been familiar with Marie-Claire Alain’s recorded performance (among others); the motion of a swaying procession of the Magi to be found in her playing makes it one of the most singular episodes; I did not feel quite that effect in Apperley’s playing. While his registrations were brighter, he nevertheless captured the sense of mystery, of being drawn towards something of which the wise men have only an uneasy premonition.

The last part, Dieu parmi nous, always seems a most remarkable creation, with its feeling of chaotic mingling of many elements, sparkling, fast-fingered joyousness, toccata-like episodes; Apperley distinguished himself here through the vivid contrasts he presented on different manuals, loud, penetrating stops riding over a subdued murmuring background, and the series of Bachian chordal passages, eventually building to a growing ecstasy with the series of teasingly unresolved chords that creates the kind of organ peroration that seems fundamental to the French school and to the French flair for dramatizing religious experiences. It was fully realized in this brilliant performance.   


St Andrew’s: Valerie Rigg and Tessa Olivier in Vitali Chaconne and Prokofiev sonata

Chaconne in G minor (Tomaso Vitali); Violin sonata No 2, Op 94 (Prokofiev)  

Valerie Rigg (violin) and Tessa Olivier (piano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wednesday 2 December 2009

This turned out to be a highly impressive and enjoyable recital of two famous works.

Valerie Rigg played with the NZSO  for 19 years, eventually as principal first violin, and she also had a professional career in England, Germany and Canada. She now lives again in Wellington.

She and Tessa Olivier (who emigrated from South Africa in 2002) played these pieces at a September concert at Old St Paul’s, which I heard.  This week’s performance displayed a noticeable advance in their playing of both pieces.

Wikipedia states that the manuscript ascribed the Chaconne to “one ‘Tommaso Vitallino’ who may or may not be Vitali” (his first name is spelt variously with one or two ‘m’s). Further, Wikipedia notes that it “is generally known in a heavily recomposed version by German violinist Ferdinand David” who, as you know, was the concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra and the dedicatee and first performer of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. In fact, some believe it could have been a pastiche by David, of several motifs by obscure Baroque composers; it appeared in a collection edited by David called Die Hoch Schule des Violinspiels.

In 1911 it was further ‘enhanced’ by French violinist Léopold Charlier who produced what is described as an even more taxing version. It was this that Valerie and Tessa played.

If we accept the kernel of the composition as authentic, the original piece could predate Bach’s solo violin works, since Tomaso was born 20 years before Bach; but it sounds far more ‘modern’ than Bach’s Chaconne, for example, because of the frequent and very radical series of modulations through which the variations move, a rather uncommon baroque procedure. In fact, scholars note that none of Vitali’s authenticated works are remotely like the Chaconne.

It has been called ‘astounding’, ‘a gripping tour de force’; that’s what I thought.

The Chaconne became very popular after its emergence through Ferdinand David, though I cannot ever recall hearing it played live; regardless of its provenance, it deserves to be included in violin recitals, and I welcomed this opportunity to hear it, both at Old St Paul’s and at St Andrew’s.

It was not a performance quite to compare with Milstein or Heifetz perhaps; but merely to play it marks out a violinist as pretty distinguished for it is indeed a highly challenging piece technically. Valerie Rigg had its measure, confidently, right from the stately first announcement of the main theme, in terms of its musical energy and her approach to its varied tempi and pyrotechnic elements that become increasingly hair-raising.

Tessa Olivier’s piano accompaniment, in the nature of a continuo but with a lot of individual interest as piano partner, was accurate and sympathetic, though there were moments when the two seemed rhythmically not quite at one.

The same boldness and confidence characterised their playing of Prokofiev’s second sonata which was his own arrangement of his Flute Sonata (so it’s normally labelled Op 94b).  Prokofiev’s music demands high technical skill, and a rhythmic pulse and momentum that exists in a strange kind of neutral emotional environment. In spite of the variety in the treatment of the themes and their undeniable musical interest, there remains a feeling of non-commitment – not on the part of the players but in the music itself.

The second movement has the feel of a moto perpetuo, in a spirit that is brusque and staccato; the performance was not perfect but splendidly outgoing and committed. Perhaps the real test lay in the playing of the calm Andante movement, beautifully realised through a common vision that maintained a steady focus. In the last movement – Allegro con brio – when writing originally conceived for flute was never far away, its pace was a little less exuberant than I was familiar with; but it gave Prokofiev more space, becoming even more appropriate and successful as a violin piece, combining lyricism with virtuosity. Those qualities, as in the first two movements, were the final demonstration of the admirable interpretative skills of these two musicians.