Paekakariki’s Mulled Wine Concerts: Houstoun and Brown

Beethoven’s cello sonatas, Op 101; Elégie by Fauré; Cello Sonata by Rachmaninov.

Michael Houstoun (piano) and Ashley Brown (cello)

Memorial Hall, Paekakariki

Sunday 28 March  

The second in the 2010 series of Mulled Wine Concerts in one of Wellington’s unique concert spaces, found the sun pouring in the west-facing windows, the sea across the road and Kapiti Island beyond. There was hardly a spare seat.

That two of New Zealand’s finest musicians should be prepared to play in this modest community hall, is evidence of the reputation of the series and the commitment of a devoted audience.

There were no concessions to musical standards. Beethoven’s last two cello sonatas are not very familiar, but reward acquaintance. Though I know them quite well, I am always surprised by passages that I had not remembered, which had failed to take root, perhaps because of the apparently awkward shapes and somewhat dry character of some of the music, especially No 1, in C. They are not quite as immediately memorable or attractive as most of Beethoven’s music; but in the hands of two such committed and gifted musicians, even the most difficult music becomes engrossing. Op 101 was written in 1817, at the start of his last decade that saw the composition of the Choral Symphony, the Missa Solemnis, the last great piano sonatas and string quartets.

The first of the two is a fairly gritty, severe piece, consisting mainly of short phrases that don’t seem to evolve very much; in the Adagio introduction to the second movement the cello adopts a grainy, almost gruff tone while the piano countered with a lighter, decorative quality; the final Allegro vivace emerged as a movement of stark contrasts, with little overt lyricism.

In the second sonata, in D major, the cello relished its charming melodic theme in the optimistic first movement, and in a more sympathetic, lyrical middle movement the cello again enjoyed a real tune that Brown explored in his rich middle register, not concealing its mood of anxiety which the two musicians dispelled in a rhapsodic performance.

The second half consisted of the Rachmaninov sonata, and Fauré’s Élégie, which is a lot more than just the salon piece that its title might suggest. It is a small masterpiece, the clearest evidence, the disturbed rather un-Fauréish middle section that came out as an arresting and profound expression of loss.

Finally they played one of the few great, and much loved, cello sonatas of the 20th century: Rachmaninov’s, written just after his Second Piano Concerto; various episodes, particularly in the piano part, indeed recall details of the concerto.  For that reason, it is easy to hear it at times as a piano sonata with cello obbligato, but the cello is given some highly characteristic passages, for example, in the second movement with its rather unorthodox, low lying theme that swung from the ominous to the cheeky. Here, while the cello had a leading role, the piano’s decorative accompanying figures proved almost the more interesting to listen to.

The third movement was enriched by the cello’s deeply expressive melody and the piano’s later full-blooded work-out. Both players brought a muscular quality to their performance that drew attention to its structure, largely avoiding the temptation for romanticizing or sentimentality; what there was of that, was pretty disciplined. 

The concert maintained this congenial series’ impressive level of musical quality and commitment.

Wellington Chamber Orchestra – Warring Walton and Enigmatic Elgar

WALTON – Spitfire Prelude and Fugue

Suite from Henry V

ELGAR – Serenade for String Orchestra

Variations on an Original Theme “Enigma”

Wellington Chamber Orchestra

Rachel Hyde, conductor

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 28th March, 2010

The music-comedy team of Michael Flanders and Donald Swann (of the show At the Drop of a Hat fame) would invariably begin their live performances with a roistering number “A Transport of Delight” (happily preserved on recordings). This was, as Michael Flanders would explain, to help them “get the pitch of the hall”, a phrase which came immediately to my mind when Rachel Hyde and the Wellington Chamber Orchestra began the band’s first Sunday afternoon concert of the year. Although not as large an orchestra as, say, the Vector Wellington ensemble or the NZSO at average strength, the Wellington Chamber Orchestra is sizeable enough to make a pretty stirring noise at full throttle – one that always takes a bit of getting used to at the beginning of any concert in the confined spaces of St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace. Walton’s rousing “Spitfire” Prelude did the trick, the full-blooded sounds pinning our ears back, blowing away exterior and interior cobwebs, and probably temporarily flattening out our finer hearing sensibilities, thus enabling us to cope better with the rest of the programme! In such an immediate, even raw-sounding acoustic, it’s difficult for any orchestral group to produce a pleasing tone, not to mention surviving a fairly analytical spotlight; and the Chamber Orchestra emerged from this concert with considerable credit on both counts.

After the cinematoscopic strains of the “Prelude”, the orchestra launched into the splendidly-written fugue, negotiating its leaping energies steadily and giving the phrases plenty of “point” under Rachel Hyde’s direction. I enjoyed picking up the different changes of texture as different instrument groups threw their weight into the fray, the heavy brass sounding particularly exciting. The slower central section was sensitively handled, despite some string intonation diffculties; and apart from some slight out-of-sync problems between strings and wind when the fugue returned, momentum was excitingly restored, with the brass’s toccata-like statements at the end capping off a great finish to the work.

Elgar’s adorable Serenade for Strings was next; and to my delight it received a sensitive and glowing performance throughout – a lovely opening, the very first viola phrase’s leading note beautifully accented in a way that was echoed throughout the movement, imparting to the music a “charged” quality that gave the rhythms and phrasings a real lift, that characteristic Elgarian “stride” which informs much of his work. I thought the violins a bit reticent at first, but they leaned into that wonderful upwardly-leaping phrase so beautifully and with such heart, that the music readily took on the glow it needed to work its magic. The violas momentarily lost their poise at the reprise, but quickly recovered, supporting the violins with their last heartfelt utterance, before things were brought to a beautifully autumn-coloured close. Rachel Hyde encouraged some lovely phrases at the slow movement’s opening, the three-note figure like a sigh leading to and away from the middle note – most affecting. The strings sweetly understated the “big tune’s” first appearance, then radiantly resolved the minor key episode at the top of the phrase – very nice! Altogether, the ebb and flow of feeling in this movement was beautifully caught by all concerned, the violas at the end chiming in with a moment of smoky beauty – lovely. The wind-blown start to the finale generated deep-throated ascents from the lower strings and great strength of tone at the reprise of the tune – an untidy transition to the “striding” episode soon passed, allowing us to enjoy that lump-in-throat key-change to the full, capturing the music’s almost valedictory nostalgia at the end so tellingly.

Although Walton’s fashionable literary circle friends (notably the Sitwells) disliked Elgar’s music, Walton himself admired Elgar. There are touches of Elgarian colour and spectacle of the sort one encounters in Falstaff to be found also in Walton’s music for the wartime film Henry V, which famously starred Laurence Olivier. Walton’s score for the film has gone on to have a life of its own in the concert hall, and Rachel Hyde’s energetic leadership of her orchestral forces throughout did ample justice to the music’s pageantry and colour throughout, evident in the fully technicolour opening The Globe Playhouse. The two strings-only movements, The Death of Falstaff and Touch Her Soft Lips and Part brought lovely tones and sensitive voicings from the players, while the visceral Charge and Battle again brought the big guns into play to great effect, with terrific work from all sections of the orchestra, and an echo of the famous “Bailero” tune from Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne in the aftermath of the battle. The concluding Agincourt Song found the brasses again in fine form, with winds adding fine flourishes to the resplendent colours, and the strings determinedly keeping the triplet rhythms going steadily and strongly. Altogether  it was a great and fitting flourish of a finish.

At the second half’s beginning, Rachel Hyde spoke to the audience about the concert’s major item, Elgar’s famous “Enigma’ Variations, getting sections of the orchestra to play examples of the composer’s use of his theme throughout the work – a helpful and engaging thing to do, especially for younger listeners. She spoke also about Elgar’s original ending for the work, a more sombre and circumspect one that conductor Hans Richter persuaded the composer to change, hereby concluding with a great burst of positive energy, and sense of optimistic well-being instead!  The performance was loving, detailed and deeply committed throughout, technically fallible in a few places, but conveying a real sense of a creative artist’s genius in bringing so many different human personalities into view. Highlights were many, from the tenderly-phrased opening statement of the theme, with beautiful winds and lovely viola-and-‘cello counterpoint, through and into the first variation depicting the composer’s wife, Alice, the music’s grace and dignity giving rise to the utmost depth of feeling via a passionate climax, nicely poised and shaped by conductor and musicians. Some of the more tricky syncopated rhythms and dovetailings sorely tested the players, the strings in No.2 (H.D.S-P) never really settling, and the opening of No.4 (W.M.B.) shaky at the beginning – but No.7 (Troyte) was terrific, with strong timpani playing, and swirling strings that caught the mood, and delivered the requisite snap at the end, as did, incidentally, the playing in No.11 (G.R.S.), strings nimble, brass punchy, and winds and timpani emitting fine shrieks and thuds at the end. People who came to hear No.9 (Nimrod) first and foremost wouldn’t have been disappointed, either – the conductor kept things moving, nicely building the blocks of sound, and shaping episodes beautifully, such as the wind phrases in the central section, and the noble brass outpourings at the reprise of the famous tune. And framing Nimrod were No.8 (W.N.) and No.10 (Dorabella), each here appropriately charming and lyrically played.

The work’s grand finale, No.14 (E.D.U.) started with plenty of swagger from the players, and continued with great rhythmic elan through all the accelerandos towards those great colonnades of sound at the climaxes, building up the tension and excitement well. Just towards the end I sensed something of a “Starting to run on empty” feeling about the playing, as if, having given their all, the musicians were struggling to find enough energy for the final payoff. But even if that was the case, with everybody hanging in there for life itself’s sakes, the achievement was notable and memorable. Applause for conductor and orchestra was whole-hearted, the response auguring well for the rest of the season. Full credit to Rachel Hyde, as well as to the players – I would like to hear and see more of her as a conductor over the next while, as she got an excellent response from her musicians, and did interesting and thoughtful things with them to make it all come really alive.

Wolfgang Wagner dies

Composer’s grandson and former Bayreuth director exits the stage

The Bayreuth Festival has announced that Wolfgang Wagner, grandson of the composer, has died at the age of 90.

Wolfgang Wagner was director of the German opera festival for an astonishing 57 years, when in 1951, alongside his older brother Wieland, he restored it to the calendar after a lull brought by the Second World War. As well as directing the festival administratively, both brothers also directed productions artistically – Wieland was by and large the more forward-looking of the two in this regard.

Wieland died in 1966, at which point Wolfgang assumed sole command. Under his leadership, Bayreuth enjoyed a degree of modernisation both on and off stage – the famous 1872 opera house underwent significant renovation and leading directors were invited from overseas leading to a number of groundbreaking productions, with Patrice Chéreau’s controversial 1976 Ring Cycle in particular proving a challenge for critics and audience alike. Demand for tickets soared, and there is now a ten-year waiting list for those who want to attend.

Fittingly, however, Wolfgang Wagner’s long life and career itself was not without drama and controversy. In 1997, Gottfried, Wolfgang’s estranged son from his first marriage, attacked him in print for failing to renounce his mother’s anti-Semitism and the Wagner family’s close ties to the Nazi leadership.

And then, two years later, the Wagner family found itself at loggerheads over who should take over directorship of Bayreuth, with Wolfgang grimly hanging on to his position well into his eighties and insisting on having the right to name his successor. Only in 2008 did he finally step down, with the festival passing into the joint hands of his daughters Eva (from his first marriage) and Katharina (from his second), despite the rival claims of Nike Wagner, Wieland’s daughter.

Reporting on his death, the Bayreuth website says that Wolfgang Wagner ‘dedicated his whole life to the legacy of his grandfather’.

Source – BBC Music Magazine website

Netherlands and New Zealand music from SMP Ensemble

The SMP Ensemble conducted by Lucas Vis

VISTAS — music by Karlo Margetic, Louis Andriessen, Jack Body, Dylan Lardelli, Anton Killin, Yannis Kyriakidis  

Adam Concert Room, Victoria University

Friday 26 March 2010

The recent St Andrew’s series during the Festival included a concert by the SMP (Summer Music Project) Ensemble; that comprised music by Polish and New Zealand composers. This concert was entirely of New Zealand and Dutch music. Michael Norris introduced the concert Caprice Arts Trust director . They included the Caprice Arts Trust, the New Zealand School of Music, both universities, the Netherlands-New Zealand Association, KLM and Creative New Zealand. There was one premiere; some pieces were quite new and others as much as 40 years old.  

The title of the concert was Vistas: I suppose honouring Dutch conductor, Lucas Vis, a prominent figure in the promotion of new music. Most of the music in this programme was written for unconventional instrumental combinations and most eschewed the kinds of sounds that have been embraced by the generality of music lovers. Composers of this turn of mind seem comfortable carving a isolating niche, largely rejecting the standard musical formations and forms, such as the symphony orchestra or the string quartet, most kinds of tonal music and even the strains of contemporary music that have found more general acceptance.  

The first piece, written for a probably unique combination, was Karlo Margetic’s Hommage à WL: that is, Witold Lutoslawski. It opened, and closed, with Yoshiko Tsuruta playing with soft mallets on a wood block, soon supported by a dense bed of winds and strings: clarinets and horn; violin, viola, cello and double bass; piano and percussion, and it evolved into an aleatoric exercise (for which Lutoslawski was noted) each instrument playing according to his/her own instinct, but launching afresh at the end of each phase; those points were about the extent of the conductor, Lucas Vis’s, role. Occasionally a definite punctuation point arrived, e.g. with piano and cello; the mood became increasingly disturbed, even frenzied, before subsiding.  

Louis Andriessen’s Zilver was written in 1994. The prevailing character was vivid contrasts of pitch, setting flute against piano, vibraphone and marimba, all of which played identical or closely related lines. While the effect was distinctive, one lost a sense of the individual instruments; this was the effect of much of the music in the concert, for while the ensemble was smallish, several pieces were scored extensively for all together, in this case seven voices that the ear is not accustomed to hearing all sounding at once.

The music, nevertheless, gained in coherence as repeated motifs – gestures rather – were handled, at slowly increased speed and changing rhythms, at one point seeming to make wry allusions to the Viennese waltz. It drew to a close by dismantling the tighter framework that had evolved.

Jack Body’s Turtle Time dates from 1968 – a setting of surrealist poems by Russell Haley. Dated? well, perhaps, but it successfully maintains its character: witty, eccentric, the poems brilliantly articulated by Karlo Margetic, with huge gestures, likewise surreal, that reached out insistently to the audience. The music and its performance by piano Sam Jury), harpsichord (Jonathan Berkahn), organ (Matt Oswin)and harp (Natalia Mann), imposed a sort of irony of very traditional sound sources handled with drollerie and wit.  The words might have been a useful addition to the programme note.

Then came the ‘World premiere’ (I do wish we could just settle for ‘first performance’; I do doubt that even the composer expects a rush of breathless music publishers and promoters wanting performance rights in Buenos Aires and St Petersburg). Dominating the stage was the contrabass clarinet of Justus Rozemond, reaching two meters high, along with piccolo, piano, viola and cello.  

Noh theatrical precepts lay behind Dylan Lardelli’s piece, entitled Aspects of Theatre; where each performer rehearses alone, and the eventual performance is the first time the players have got together. The resulting spontaneous spirit was palpable; the musical experience was of extreme dynamic variety, of seemingly random, widely spaced pitches, whose relationships were irrelevant.  Though I have to plead failure to get Noh theatre, in spite of first hearing 40 years ago at the Athens Festival, and subsequent exposures.

Anton Killin’s Two Moments were approximately that; when its end seemed unexpectedly close to its start, Vis led a second performance there and then. In spite of its brevity, the composer had taken pains to score it carefully for seven strings, winds and an accordion carefully arrayed on stage. Interesting, though the purported depiction of the life of Denisovich and the death of Solzhenitsyn failed to register with me, and I had to wonder about the sort of audience envisaged by the composer.

The last piece, Tinkling, was for a much larger ensemble, ten players. Eshen Teo – flute, Andrzej Nowicki – clarinet, Peter Maunder – trombone, Dylan Lardelli – guitar, Dorothy Raphael – percussion, Yoshiko Tsuruta – marimba, Vivian Stephens – violin, Charley Davenport – cello, Simon Eastwood – double bass, Sam Jury – piano. A reworking, shortening of an earlier piece, based on a riff by Thelonius Monk, there was more for the mind to adhere to than with some of the other pieces.  More familiar musical patterns and procedures were suggested; subtle dramatic moments occurred, and arresting little accelerations; attractive hints of rubato in repeated phrases. Again however, I found the busyness of the scoring prevented distinguishing many individual instruments a lot of the time; why bother then with such detailed instrumentation? Pianist Sam Jury had been particularly notable and conductor Vis singled him out.

There was no question about the accomplishment of the players who devoted themselves with commitment to some pretty challenging music that clearly appealed to this audience. The concert was well-attended and there was long applause for the ensemble and for the conductor in particular.

Crisis in public radio

Most of our readers will be aware of the announcement a week ago by the Minister of Broadcasting, Dr Jonathan Coleman, that Radio New Zealand would have to sustain cuts; and he eyed especially RNZ Concert.

This alert was first posted on 8 March: it is now updated in order to be visible.

In case the message was not clear enough, please write letters to the Minister of Broadcasting, Dr Jonathan Coleman saying whatever you feel about this move to barbarity. There is a splendid blogsite called Savepublicradio with some 20,000 names subscribed to it. That is great, but individual letters, by the thousand, are also needed.

It is also to be noted that the arguments in support of Public radio in general are not entirely congruent with the more particular arguments in defence of Radio NZ Concert.

Look at the way the Government back-tracked on the Goldcard public transport issue when there was a great protest.

We must do the same. Use the thoughts in the article below and/or add your own.

The threat is extremely serious, and urgent.

But the first thing to consider is the legitimacy of the minister’s action. Radio New Zealand is funded through New Zealand on Air which was set up to be an arms-length body that distributes funds to TVNZ and Radio New Zealand. How it allocates its money is not a matter for Government control – that was the reason for establishing an independent authority.

The $38 million that RNZ gets from NZ on Air is divided between the National and the Concert networks, with the great majority going to National. Some $5 million goes to Concert; smaller sums go to Radio New Zealand International and the archiving of programmes.

Because the board of Radio New Zealand is also an independent body, insulated from political interference, it too should not have to base its financial decisions on instructions from above.

So what Dr Coleman is doing is simply attempting to influence the functioning of two independent state authorities; the Radio New Zealand Act specifically forbids the minister’s interference in operational matters.

It is also worth asking why in its effort to cut spending the Government is unable to distinguish between areas where cuts might be tolerable, and would yield significant savings, and areas such as broadcasting where cuts would be crippling and the savings in dollar terms negligible.

Dr Coleman proposes the introduction of advertising and commercial sponsorship. They were the proposals made by his predecessors in the early 1980s which were eventually set aside, mainly by as a result of a change of government. Commercial intrusion into a national radio system at once raises the risk of interference, and of an inexorable pursuit of ratings, pressure to popularize and to dumb-down, pressures that would harass and ultimately sideline the most precious element of Radio New Zealand’s work, the Concert network.

In any case, the additional cost of an advertising department, which would be necessary, would undoubtedly outweigh the revenue it would be able to attract, at least as far as Concert is concerned.

There would hardly be an audience that would respond more negatively to the advertisers during its broadcasts than those of RNZ. Advertisers would know that.

Radio New Zealand is already labouring under severe budget cuts imposed over the past two decades, including staff cuts. It is dishonest to point to slightly increased staff numbers over recent years as bureaucratic growth: a small recovery has been made but numbers are still far below those of two decades ago. Staff simply do a great deal of unpaid, voluntary overtime.

Ratings are not at all relevant (though RNZ Concert’s ratings are remarkably high by international measures; contrary to Michael Law’s remark in his scurrilous Sunday Star Times article, the ratings are published on the RNZ website). The role of RNZ Concert is comparable to that of a national library, a national art museum: a storehouse of material that is available for all, at any time people want or need it.

RNZ Concert offers great music of all ages, that has stood the test of time, and new or neglected music that deserves to be given a hearing. Terms such as ‘elitist’, ‘pointy-headed’, ‘minority interest’ are no doubt applicable also to classic works of art and literature from Botticelli and Michelangelo to Monet, Homer to Shakespeare and Tolstoi…

Just as a national library’s role is not to be measured by the frequency of borrowings or visitors through the doors, the importance of a ‘fine music’ or ‘classical’ broadcaster is not to be measured by ratings.

Civilisation survives through the care taken by those in charge of cultural things to preserve artifacts from the past, and the present.

The Radio New Zealand Charter starts by calling for: ‘Programmes which contribute towards intellectual, scientific, cultural, spiritual and ethical development, promote informed debate, and stimulate critical thought…..programmes which encourage and promote the musical, dramatic, and other performing arts, including programmes featuring New Zealand and international composers, performers and artists.’

One of the areas that would suffer with cuts would be the ability to record concerts for later broadcast from around the country. Already these are severely reduced from the level a few years ago. For many concert promoters, broadcast fees make the difference between viability and no performance at all.

Polls show that 84% of those polled agree that it s important for New Zealand to have a national broadcaster. Over 90% think it provides fair and balanced information. Even more believe that it contributes to the development of an informed society, and nearly 90% think it provides programmes not generally found on other radio stations.

Those figures would suggest that the great majority of New Zealanders would reject the barbaric statements by Michael Laws in the Sunday Star Times on 21 February, claiming, unbelievably, that commercial radio can do the job as well! Laws hosts a talk-back on commercial radio and so his backing of Coleman’s idea of privatizing the national news service is predictable.

One might have criticisms of the range of news gathering and the obsession with crime, violence and sport – even on RNZ Concert, when what is wanted is less tabloid reporting which commercial news services would be bound to provide even more of – pandering to the lowest common denominator, and instead, more solid political, economic, arts news, both domestic and international, which would be highly improbable from a commercial service.

RNZ Concert plays a huge role in enabling classical music to be heard, especially New Zealand music – mainly classical of course (as popular New Zealand music can be expected to find the support it deserves from commercial radio). Its role in making direct broadcasts of major concerts is what the radio service in all civilized nations is expected to do; and it is the recording of concerts for later broadcast that is even more important for the international dissemination of New Zealand music.

Radio has become almost the sole vehicle by which the broad public can become familiar with the entire field of classical music, now that exposure to it has been largely deleted from school syllabuses.

Some of the world’s greatest tragedies have been the loss of great libraries and art collections – such as that of Alexandria in the late Roman era; the rich collections destroyed by conquering religions like Christians at various periods who destroyed huge quantities of classical literature and art; the Nazi’s destroying thousands of works of ‘degenerate’ art; the loss of great libraries and museums in recent decades through insurgency or religious extremism, in Bucharest and Baghdad, and the Taliban’s destruction of Buddhist religious sculpture in Afghanistan; and a few years ago an accidental fire in a princely library in Weimar rich in manuscripts, early printed books and music.

A national radio network might not deal in the same kinds of physical artifacts (apart from the scores and the recordings) but its role is of comparable importance to a country’s level of civilisation and culture.

Let not New Zealand, recently faced with threats to its National Library, and now once more to its public radio system, join Romania, Nazi Germany, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Full-frontal Mahler at St.Andrew’s

MAHLER – Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn)

Linden Loader (mezzo-soprano) / Roger Wilson (baritone)

Terence Dennis (piano)

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace Season of Concerts 2010

Friday 19th March

No composer is more identified with song as integral to his output than Gustav Mahler. The creator of a number of vast symphonic edifices, he worked into most of these compositions either direct quotations from his own songs or melodies derived from them. His Eighth Symphony is, in essence a choral symphony, and his orchestral song-cycle Das Lied Von Der Erde he regarded as a symphony in all but name.

Mahler grew up in the garrison town of Jihlava, in Moravia, a region steeped in folksong, and a place which would have frequently rung with the sounds of military marches, the boy’s enthusiasm for these tunes probably accounting for the prominence of such melodies and forms in his instrumental works up to the Eighth Symphony. His forty or so songs include no less than twenty-one settings of verses from a German folk-collection of verses entitled Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), an anthology which first appeared in 1805, with two further volumes following. These poems, collected by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Bretano, include a colourful variety of themes, topics and characters, both religious and secular, all displaying an engagingly simple but deeply direct set of fireside-wisdoms.

Mahler first set some of these verses in 1883 for a collection entitled Lieder und Gesange; but better-known are the twelve settings which make up the composer’s “Wunderhornlieder”, and which we know indeed as Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The use of orchestral accompaniment brought out Mahler’s skill at fashioning chamber-like instrumental sonorities, often using single lines or small groups for colouristic effect, though the expediences of publication and performance saw Mahler write piano versions of the accompaniment as well.

To have the whole set performed live would be, I think, a rare treat anywhere; and singers Linden Loader and Roger Wilson along with pianist Terence Dennis threw themselves into the humour, tragedy, irony, drollery, foolishness and romance of the different settings with plenty of feeling and gusto. The theatricality of some of the duets brought out a ready response from Roger Wilson, putting his extensive operatic experience and vocal acting skills to good use with some vivid characterisations. If somewhat less outwardly demonstrative and spectacular in her character portrayals, Linden Loader’s beautiful voice made the perfect foil for her partner in their duets, such as in the opening Der Schildwache Nachtlied, a dialogue between a soldier and a beautiful ghostly temptress. And she nicely caught the cocquettishness of the girl in Trost im Unglück, a song abut a hussar and his recalcitrant sweetheart, one in which the singers played the contrasts off each other deliciously. For me, the “plum” of the duets is Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen, a song whose music is filled with eerily-charged beauty and deep regret, depicting an encounter between a girl and her dead lover – both singers here characterising their parts with the utmost feeling, and Terence Dennis’s piano-playing getting everything right, from the ghostly trumpet calls near the beginning to the flashes of anguish transfixing the girl’s vocal line, and the beautiful transitions between the warmly romantic music in 3/4 time and the spectral reveille-calls of wind and brass. Elsewhere, perhaps Roger Wilson’s extremely boorish lad in Verlor’ne Müh might have been thought by some too dunderheaded to be a credible object of a young girl’s attention; but I enjoyed it immensely.

The individual songs were no less finely done by each singer. Again, Roger Wilson pointed the words of Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt with obvious enjoyment, relishing the irony of the fishes’ pragmatic response to St Anthony’s sermonisings, and later, turning his gift for comic irony towards creatures of a different kind in Lob des hohen Verstandes, bringing off the brayings of a donkey most beautifully. He was suppported to the utmost by Terence Dennis, whose playing nicely underpinned the garrulousness of the saint’s preachings (a fiendishly difficult “perpetuum mobile” piano-part), as well as pointing all the fun and pomposity of the animals’ pronouncements in the latter song. And Linden Loader caught our sympathies all too heart-rendingly on behalf of both mother and child, in the tragic Das Irdische Leben, but then in due course restored equanimities with a charming, nicely-related Rheinlegendchen, the music lovely, lilting and lyrical (the performance surviving the all-too-audible and out-of-rhythm tappings of a nearby workman!).

Performing Revelge, the longest song of the set last of all in the concert naturally threw weight onto the darker, more serious side of the collection – the piece describes a post-battle parade of ghost-soldiers, with music that’s mostly funeral-march in character, but filled with sardonic, mock-heroic gestures as well as grim finalities. I thought Roger Wilson and Terence Dennis gave the piece such vivid, in-your-face treatment that anything that followed afterwards would have seemed impossibly pale and wan. The singer’s repeated cries of “Tra-la-li” at regular intervals seemed, if anything, to increase in energy and desperation as the song marched grimly onwards, with the piano-playing at times practically orchestral in its amplitude and colour, resolutely supporting the singer to the bitter end. For some tastes, perhaps, a little TOO over-the-top – but not for mine! Any music written by a man who, upon visiting Niagara Falls, exclaimed “At last – fortissimo!” cries out for the kind of full-blooded performances which we certainly got during this splendid concert.

‘If London were like Venice’ – songs to end the St Andrew’s series

Michael Gray (tenor) and Bruce Greenfield (piano)

Arias by Vivaldi and Tosti
Benjamin Britten: Song Cycle ‘The Holy Sonnets of John Donne’

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Friday, 19 March, 6.30pm

This concert brought to an end the innovative and interesting series of concerts of the St. Andrew’s season, timed to coincide with the International Arts Festival in Wellington.  Richard Greager and Marjan van Waardenberg, and St. Andrew’s Church, are to be congratulated on their enterprise and effort in bringing music-lovers a range of unusual repertoire and outstanding performers, notably singers and chamber musicians.

Unfortunately attendances, particularly at the early evening concerts (as compared with the lunchtime performances) were not large.  However, this concert bucked the trend; there was a well-filled church to hear the young tenor.

Michael Gray produced an excellent programme for his recital: the first page boasted a coloured picture of the Grand Canal, Venice, complete with gondolas, superimposed with buildings on London’s Trafalgar Square.  Good programme notes were followed by translations of all the songs.  Gray gave a spoken introduction to each group of songs.

Bruce Greenfield, described aptly in the brochure for the series as ‘doyen of Wellington accompanists’, was sympathetic and supportive, and as so often, managed at times to suggest a full orchestra.

The recital’s programme represented the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, with seldom-heard works.

The first of the Vivaldi arias, ‘Dovea svenarti allora’ from Catone in Utica, was Vivaldi at his most dramatic.  Gray had variety of tone and a good sense of style for this music, but his high note at the end was more of a shriek.

Mostly, his tone was natural and unforced, while his Italian language, benefiting from five weeks in Italy last year, came over easily and clearly.

Britten’s cycle using John Donne’s wonderful sonnets was a very different animal from the Winter Words cycle by the same composer, sung by James Rodgers.

The declamatory nature of many of the musical settings became even aggressive and powerful in the second song ‘Batter my heart’.  This is difficult music to learn and to perform, and the accompaniment, virtuosic at times, does not help the singer a lot.

Gray’s voice is very different from that of Peter Pears, but he carried it off well, and conveyed the sense of the words thoughtfully. A beautiful pianissimo closed the third song ‘O! Might those sighs and tears…’.  In moments of word painting, such as ‘when I shake with feare’ in ‘Oh, to vex me…’, and ‘Christ crucified’ in ‘What if this present…’, the singer made the most of the opportunities presented.

Nevertheless, for me Donne’s words are better read as poetry.  Their sheer complexity defies musical setting.  Their music is in the words; musical setting does not enhance the words greatly, despite the competency of one as skilled as Benjamin Britten.

The dynamic range and nuance that can be brought into play by a skilled reader, is greater than that to be found in singing with piano accompaniment.  Yet this was a powerful performance of this setting of Donne’s superb words, and a tour de force for both performers.  Here again, Gray’s words were presented with clarity.

One of the Tosti songs (La Serenata) was also sung by James Rodgers, in his recital at the Adam Concert Room on Sunday evening.  Having seldom heard the composer’s songs, which were fashionable pre-World War II, I was surprised to hear them twice in a few days.  Nor were they as sentimental as I imagined.  Only for these songs did Michael Gray use the printed music.

If he hasn’t quite the smooth silky voice of the Italian tenor one imagines singing these songs, nevertheless he is a very fine, accomplished and intelligent singer.  For these songs he did produce a more Italianate tone, caressing the words appropriately. Again, there was some fine pianissimo singing.

Gray’s superb performance as Jupiter in the New Zealand School of Music’s production of Handel’s Semele last year, coupled with this excellent recital bode well for his future career.

Second concert by Freiburg Baroque Orchestra

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra conducted by René Jacobs with Gottfried von der Goltz (violin) – second concert

Symphony No 92 in G (‘Oxford’ – Haydn), Violin Concerto No 5 in A, K 219 (‘Turkish’ – Mozart), Symphony No 41 in C, K 551 (‘Jupiter’ – Mozart)

Wellington Town Hall

Thursday 18 March 2010

These two concerts brought what is widely regarded and one of the half dozen finest period instrument orchestras to us.  It’s just as well such a band comes to play the great music of the late 18th century, as the big symphony orchestras don’t play it much anymore, having become embarrassed about it over the past 30 years for fear of criticism from the early music purists: Haydn, Mozart, even early Beethoven.

The orchestra comprises excellent musicians who, even without the discipline of a conductor, produces performances that are arresting and idiomatic, flexible and in perfect accord. That was the effect of hearing Mozart’s ‘Turkish’ violin concerto in which the soloist, von der Goltz, the orchestra’s concertmaster, made the running in its interpretation, in its rhythms and tempo:  was it fair to wonder whether Jacobs’s influence was tempered here, without the somewhat curious speeds and sudden rallentandi that characterised the two symphonies, particularly the Jupiter?

The concerto is an extraordinary piece for a 19-year-old. The rising arpeggios of its opening phase had all the speed needed, coloured by restrained vibrato; he was not shy of giving different shapes to the ornaments, of putting the stress, unusually, on the second beat, of taking his opportunities to elaborate phrases with little cadenza-like flourishes. All this was arguably in keeping with knowledge of 18th century practice, though I felt that the main first movement cadenza had echoes of the 19th century. The second movement found the soloist in a state of exquisite calm, playing with an intimacy of tone peculiar to the baroque violin. It lent a startling contrast to the last movement where the Turkish elements, popular in Vienna at this time, burst upon it and where an authentic sounding vigour emerged.

The two symphonies were presented in a way that inhabited a sound world that was rather more different from we are used to with conventional orchestras. Here, with Jacobs himself fully in charge, there was much to admire, in the warm sounds of the flute and the two wooden oboes, the natural horns and trumpets, enhanced by the clarity of the Town Hall; the hard timpani were distinctive, but after a while their sound seemed to become slightly dislocated from the ensemble of the rest of the orchestra.

I hardly recognized the slow movement of the Oxford Symphony though it was one of the pieces that I played, as cellist, in a predecessor of the Wellington Youth Orchestra a long time ago. And there were speeds that were, shall we say, surprising, even though one has heard this music played rather like this on record often enough. I was open to persuasion, and enjoyed the performance though I will also continue to enjoy full-blooded performances (if any) by conventional symphony orchestras.

Jacobs’ field extends from Monteverdi through Bach and Gluck and as far north as Mozart, and really, no further: for him perhaps, Mozart is cutting-edge contemporary. Much of the performance of the Jupiter symphony was simply alive and filled with energy; though we are very familiar with ‘historically informed’ performances, it was still stimulating to hear live, such a performance of a masterpiece that sits very much in the modern symphonic tradition. So it sometimes called for open ears and mind. The minuet was very fast. But in the Finale, I was troubled by what I felt as excessive ritardandi, followed by a sudden resumption of the earlier tempo. Do it once, but four time in exactly the same way and it becomes a cliché.

Much as this performance was revelatory, suggesting the sort of sound that Mozart might have known, I have in my mind performances by modern orchestras that manage to prolong and intensify the drama of this great finale, affording its marvellous contrapuntal and fugal structure a grandeur and power that may be a little inauthentic but which works more on the emotions than does the lighter fabric of a classical (rather than baroque, one might add) orchestra.

Cello and piano recital at St Andrew’s series

Paul Mitchell (cello) and Richard Mapp (piano)

Schumann: Fantasiestücke, Op.73
Ernest Bloch: From Jewish Life
Samuel Barber: Sonata for cello and piano, Op.6

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Thursday, 18 March, 12.15pm

I must admit to being rather tired of the Schumann work; it is played so often, particularly on violin or clarinet.  Because of this, it no longer feels like a fantasy.  However, the playing of these performers redeemed the work somewhat.  A lovely warm, yet ringing tone from the cellist, plus perfect balance and ensemble characterised their performance.

Because I was unable to be at the recital either for its opening or its closing, I interpolate here a paragraph from Peter Mechen:
In the Schumann I didn’t quite get the “perfect balance” impression from where I was sitting (closer to the piano, perhaps – and the Bloch and Barber pieces were far better – see below) – I recently heard a performance of the Schumann in its viola-and-piano transcription, which had the effect of “lifting” the music out of its somewhat sombre-coloured world – the piece is problematical for the ‘cello and piano combination, because there’s a tendency (as here) for the ‘cellist’s tones to be covered in the figurations, especially if the player (also, as here) in the interests of poetry plays with some reticence. The players captured nicely the “wind-blown” tones of the second piece, with plenty of detailed phrasing and dynamic shading – occasionally I thought the cellist’s intonation a shade uncomfortable at the upper-end of his register, something which was evident at moments throughout the finale as well. So, modified rapture from me for the first item – I was struck by the difference in Paul Mitchell’s whole approach to the Bloch work – suddenly the ‘cello was “singing out” like I didn’t find in the Schumann at the beginning of the programme.

Ernest Bloch’s work had both emotional content and eloquence, as the excellent programme notes said.  The music produced gorgeous sonorities from the players.  The Hebrew cadences and inflections gave a character that was most affecting; quite different from the drawing-room aesthetic of the Schumann pieces.

At times the music was reminiscent of Middle Eastern music; although Jewish, Bloch lived entirely in Europe and the United States.  In the final of the work’s three movements, ‘Jewish Song’, the cellist obtained an almost moaning sound from his instrument.

Equally interesting was the Barber sonata, written in 1932.  Barber eschewed the tonal system of Schoenberg and his disciples.  However, though written in a traditional tonal language, the sonata is in no way an imitation of earlier composers, any more than Richard Strauss’s music is.  For a work written by a 22-year-old, this was a mature and assured piece of writing indeed.

The sonata was full of delights, inventiveness and contrasts.

Here Peter Mechen continues:
I really enjoyed the Samuel Barber work – I loved the way the music grew from out of the depths at the beginning, and blossomed into great surgings of tone from both instruments – very involving and expressive! The first movement traverses a lot of ground, it seems, full-blooded episodes following moments of touching introspection, bringing forth playing from both musicians that was focused and assured, the movement gradually yielding its ghost up to a murmuring silence. The players brought off the adagio/presto-adagio middle movement with great elan, full-breathed lines at the beginning, quixotic and energetic in the middle section, then some wonderful “digging into” the opening mood’s return at the end. Richard Mapp brought off the appassionato piano-only opening of the last movement with great energy, the cellist replying in kind; an exchange whose involvement carried us through a somewhat fragmented, volatile structure, and engaged our interest strongly, tapping into the work’s youthful whole-heartedness, and making it work. Generously, Paul Mitchell and Richard Mapp gave us a transcription of a Barber song as an encore, “Sure on this Shining Night”, its meditative loveliness bringing the concert to a satisfying close.

Rosemary Collier’s final words:
Mapp was an exemplary partner to the cellist: always ‘on the ball’ and subtly balancing the dynamics and interpretation of Paul Mitchell.

It was great to hear a solo cello.  How seldom we hear this sort of music live!   In a past era, the old Broadcasting Corporation’s Concert Section used to promote recitals by visiting soloists who were here to perform with the symphony orchestra.  One might hope for more such sonatas to be included in programmes presented by quartets, trios etc. touring for Chamber Music New Zealand, or performing for the Wellington Chamber Music Society.

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra – sounds from the Old World

HAYDN – Symphony No.91 in E-flat Hob.1:91

MOZART – Concerto for Horn and Orchestra in E-flat K.495

MOZART – Symphony No.38 in D Major “Prague” K.504

Teunis van der Zwart (natural horn)

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra

Rene Jacobs, conductor

New Zealand International Festival of the Arts Concert

Wellington Town Hall

Wednesday 17th March, 7.30pm

Without a doubt, a Festival highlight – two concerts on consecutive evenings in the Town Hall by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra with conductor Rene Jacobs gave local aficionados the chance to hear a crack European “authentic instrument” ensemble perform. Recent recordings, mostly on the Harmonia Mundi label, have already established something of the group’s and the conductor’s name and reputation in this country, and the concert programmes mirrored some of that repertoire, such as the Haydn and Mozart symphonies featured. And how interesting, for people both familiar with and as yet unaware of those recordings, to hear these live performances in a local context, in venues where we’re accustomed to hearing our own orchestras play.

My brief was the first of the two concerts; and although each was similar in format – Haydn Symphony/Mozart Concerto/Mozart Symphony – there would have been ample interest and variety for those fortunate enough to attend both.  Each Haydn symphony (No.92 in the second concert) would demonstrate the composer’s incredibly fertile invention and contrapuntal skills, the different Mozart concertos (the “Turkish” Violin Concerto featured on the second night) would bring out the specific instrumental character in each case; and having the “Jupiter” Symphony (Thursday) follow the “Prague” on the previous evening would, I think be a Mozart-lover’s heaven.

As much as I applaud in theory the work of “authenticists” who try to perform baroque, classical and early romantic music as the composers themselves would have heard it, I confess to finding the results in many cases disappointing, my pet dislike being pinched, vibrato-less string-playing in particular, a horror invariably compounded by impossibly rushed tempi and brusque phrasing – all of which is frequently served up in the name of “authenticity”. In the pioneering days of authentic baroque and classical performance many musicians seemed to be seized with a “born again” fervour in their rigid application of the “no vibrato” rule for either string players or singers. Fortunately, there’s been a degree of modification on the part of some of these performers in their playing style, allowing for some warmth and flexibility in a way that, to my ears, the music often cries out for. So, what kind of “authenticated” impression did the musicians from Freiburg make during their concert?

Tempi were generally swift, apart from the rather more relaxed interpretation of the Mozart Horn Concerto, whose trajectories gave both soloist and players plenty of time to “point” their phrases and make the most of the music. Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony went several notches more swiftly in its outer movements than I’ve ever heard it taken previously, to exhilarating effect, as the players still seemed to have ample time to phrase and point their accents. Perhaps having had a solo career as a singer, conductor Rene Jacobs was able to impart a flexible, “breathing” quality to the orchestra’s playing, in a way so as to make nothing seem unduly rushed – though I generally prefer slower tempi for this music, I found the performance of the “Prague ” Symphony on this occasion quite exhilarating. I’d never before heard the connections between this work and “Don Giovanni” so underlined, with great timpani irruptions and minor key explosions in the slow introduction to the work. Then, again like in Don Giovanni, the mood switches from tragedy to an “opera buffa” feeling with the allegro, energy spiced with great trumpet-and-timpani interjections.

Rene Jacobs got a “flowing river” kind of feeling from the slow movement’s opening, with winds full-throatedly singing out their contributions. I loved the D-major “drone’ sound mid-movement, lovely and rustic, bringing forth some lovely ambient timbres from the winds, and contrasting markedly with the darker, more dramatic utterances of the development and recapitualtion. The finale’s near-breakneck speed worked, thanks to the skills of the players, miraculously able to articulate their phrases at Jacobs’ urgent tempo, strings and winds even managing a giggle with the trill just before the fanfares at the end of the exposition. It was fun to listen to, while perhaps at once regretting that so much wonderful music was literally speeding by – thank heavens for the repeats, both of the exposition and the development, which means we got to enjoy those marvellously angular syncopations of the melody twice over!

Still, I enjoyed the Haydn Symphony that began the programme even more – there’s something abut the tensile strength and muscularity of this music that responds to vigorous treatment, more so, I think, than does Mozart’s. I thought the players produced a lovely colour throughout the introduction, which was followed by a fleet and flexible allegro, with unanimity from the strings and solo work from the winds that reminded me of Charles Burney’s oft-quoted remark concerning the Mannheim Orchestra of the time – “an army of generals” – even a mishap concerning a broken string of one of the violins disturbed the music not a whit!  A briskly-walking Andante featured beautiful phrasing from a solo basson at one point, and some exciting dynamic contrasts, the lively tempo enlivening the textures and giving the music a strong sense of shape. Even more sprightly was the Minuet, with whirling passagework for strings, and lovely “fairground” trio section, horns chuckling off the beat, and winds counterpointing the strings’ tune the second time round, and with a “nudge-wink” dash to the end. Again, in the finale, the players exhibited the capacity to nicely sound and phrase the music at rapid speeds, the rapid, hushed figurations creating real excitement and expectation, the infectious joy breaking out accompanied by whoops of joy from the horns and rollicking oom-pahs from the lower strings.

Just as life-enhancing was the well-known Mozart Horn Concerto K.495, the one whose finale was adapted by Michael Flanders and Donald Swann to perform in their “At the Drop of Another Hat” concerts. However, this performance had its own set of distinctions, largely through being played by a soloist using a valveless horn, of the kind that Mozart would have written the music for. I had never heard such an instrument played “live” before, and marvelled both at the sklll of the player, Teunis van der Zwat, and at the remarkably distinctive tones produced by his instrument – many of the notes sounded “stopped” or “pinched”, giving the sounds a kind of “other-worldly” ambience in places, quite pale but very characterful – a wonderful cadenza, with great low notes and lovely trills, and a final flourish that brought in the orchestra on a low chord before the cadence.

In the slow movement in particular, the scale passages brought out notes of different individual timbres so that the music had a kind of “layered” effect, almost antiphonal in places. I wondered to what extent the soloist deliberately engineered this effect with his hand-stopping, or whether the variegated timbres happened anyway when he played. His tones were quite withdrawn for a lot of the time, even in the finale, though he brought out an exciting rasping effect on the repeated triple-note patterns, and some nice out-of-door flourishes at the work’s end which pleased the punters immensely.

I should add that Rene Jacobs and the orchestra gave us a lovely bonus item, in fact the finale of the Haydn symphony programmed in the second concert, the “Oxford”. Its delicately-scampering opening measures and full-throttled tutti passages made the perfect “sweetmeat” encore – and, of course, was the perfect “taster” for those intending to go the following evening. Joyous, exhilarating playing, bringing out the music’s wit alongside its colour and brilliance – marvellous sounds, indeed, from the Old World.