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.

A St Patrick’s Day ensemble: clarinet, piano and strings

The Leprechaun Ensemble: Philip Green (clarinet), Tom McGrath (piano), Anne Loesser and Cristina Vaszilcsin (violins), Peter Garrity (viola), Rowan Prior (cello)

Clarinet Quintet, K 581 (Mozart), Sextet: Overture on Hebrew Themes (Prokofiev), Piano Quintet, Op 34 (Brahms)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 17 March 2010, 6.30pm

This early evening concert may have been one of the most looked forward to though its audience may have been reduced by the clash with the first of the two concerts by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Those present were richly rewarded.

There was curiosity about the meaning of the name, and the best guess seemed to be the date of the concert, St Patrick’s Day.

Philip Green is co-principal clarinet in the NZSO and he has also made a big contribution to chamber music since coming to New Zealand from Australia in 2002. The sound he produces is very beautiful – steady, clear, capable of a very wide dynamic range and variety of colours, and he performs masterly glissandi and note-bending.

The sequences of up and down arpeggios in the first movement were not simply exercises; they were organic things with individuality, ravishing expressions of musical delight, sounding as if Mozart expected that nothing was likely to disturb the course of his life.    

The first movement is a masterpiece of structure, but also of rapturous melody; the second movement is no less, each instrument displaying the players’ gifts, often most attractive in duet. One of the effects that caught my ear was the alternating phrases between clarinet and the two superb violins where the violins’ tone seemed to merge with the clarinet. The ornaments in the Minuet and Trio were beautifully turned and the clarinet led the movement to a particularly glorious end. None of the repeats in this music were unwelcome; perhaps, even, there were too few! The variations of the Finale were the final source of wonder, the variety of mood and emotion, of colours and decorative effects and the prolonged phrases of the closing page were of unbelievable beauty.

Whether it was decided to play Prokofiev’s sextet first and then to look for a piano quintet to make full use of Tom McGrath; or whether the presence of a clarinet and a piano together with a string quartet led to a search for a piece using all six, who knows?  Prokofiev’s little piece is a charmer, usually heard in its orchestral clothes, but this is the real way. Right at the start I knew we were in for an exemplary performance, right inside the composer’s mind, Its sharp contrasts of mood and tempo make it an engaging piece and these players let no nuance go unexplored and enriched. Makes you wonder that its success did not inspire him to write more for such ensembles.

As if the most beautiful of clarinet quintets (well – what about the Brahms?) was not enough, I shall recklessly suggest that Brahms’s piano quintet, Op 34 made this an evening of absolute ecstasy. There are a couple of other piano quintets of surpassing beauty too, but this one did for, or rather undid, me. I listened to the lovely viola melody in the opening pages, and soon to the duetting by the two violinists (both exceptionally fine musicians and treasured imports from Europe in the past decade to join the NZSO’s first violins). Other charming little musical relationships of twos and three also emerged.

At first I thought the piano was not entirely at one with the quartet, but by the second movement I had completely changed my mind. Sure there was an occasional slip, but McGrath seemed to fall in naturally with the spirit of the string playing, the colour and rubato, their expressiveness.  His hesitant opening phrases in the second movement endeared the piano’s part to me and their sensitivity to moments of restraint or particular emphasis, seemed second nature.  The string players did well to invite McGrath back to Wellington to play with them.

Their instinct for the dramatic found full scope in the last movement, the withholding, and the releasing of tension, finally giving way to the galloping motif than plunges to the finish.  Brahms fecundity seems to know no end; till the very end you sense him, with difficulty, resisting the temptation to let his endless flow of fresh ideas and variants delay him.

I hardly need say this was a wonderful concert.

3 2 Tango and Friends – pleasures of the dance

Music by Astor Piazzolla and Peter Ludwig

LUDWIG : Tango Triste / Casar der Hund / E / Tango Nuevo / A.G.Mius

PIAZZOLLA : Oblivion / La muerte del angel / Seasons of Buenos Aires / Sprng and Winter / Le Grande Tango   Libertango

Catherine McKay (piano)

Slava Fainitski (violin)

Brenton Veitch (‘cello)

Matt Collie (percussion)

Rebekah Greig (accordion)

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace March Series of Concerts

Wednesday 17th March, 12.15pm

For this concert, the group 3 2 Tango became four, and then five, firstly with percussionist Matt Collie joining the group, and a little later, accordion player Rebekah Greig. And, as if the pleasures of those tango rhythms and tones alone weren’t sufficient, we in the audience were able to luxuriate in the tango dancing of a couple who were introduced as “Sharon and Stephen”. What was more, we were invited by concert organiser Richard Greager to join in with the dancing if the spirit moved us so; but I suspect the presence of two fairly confident and polished dancers made it difficult for anybody else to feel they had something as good to put on display – and so only one other person, a woman, dancing solo, took up the invitation to the floor to join in, almost at the very end. For myself, I can report that my enjoyment of both music and dancing was sufficiently palpable for me to feel as though I’d been treated to a real-live tango experience, without ever leaving my seat!

Although the concert was described in the blurb as one “focusing on the legendary Tango composer Astor Piazzolla”, much of the first half featured the music of Peter Ludwig, a modern exponent of the tango both as composer and performer, the pianist in a duo called Tango Mortale, with ‘cellist Anja Lechner. The five tangos of his which 3 2 Tango presented during this concert were interesting and varied pieces, the composer preserving the traditional “fixed rhythm” of the dance while avoiding what a European reviewer called “the gloomy, depressive and low-spirited tangos which come from Argentina” – doubtless a sideswipe at the great Piazzolla and his imitators, here! For myself, I thought Ludwig’s music on the present showing itself lacked nothing in sultry expressiveness, though perhaps not as consistently dark-browed as Piazzolla’s, having more of an “emotion recollected in tranquility” feel to it. But, untrained though my ear might be in such things, I detected no marked “lurch into the mire of humanity” when, during the concert, Piazzolla’s music became the focus of our attention.

The concert began with Peter Ludwig’s Tango Triste – piano and violin evoking cool ambient spaces at the very start, into which Brenton Veitch’s ‘cello poured the most sonorous of tones, a lovely beginning.  Slava Fainitski’s violin and Catherine McKay’s piano dug into the rhythms, adding snap and volatility, with some percussive help from Matt Collie – the mood swung readily throughout from full-blooded and heartfelt physical address to sombre and sultry withdrawal, with lovely string slides adding to the ambivalence of the atmosphere. The dancers joined in with the next tango, Casar der Hund, their movements quite “tight” and controlled, very “together” and with little open space explored in the way that I imagined tango dancers did (of course, I’m conscious of showing my limited knowledge of things, here!)……

The next tango, enigmatically called E, ran a volatile course, with frequent changes of metre and lots of rubato – a lovely ‘cello solo once again, some “gypsy-sounding” violin-work, and then skyrocketting glissandi from the piano all built towards a spectacular flourish at the end. Again, with Tango Nuevo, feelings both ran deeply and coruscated the surface of things throughout, the agitated rhythms digging fiercely in, suggesting darker passions and emotions suited to a nightscape, whose uneasy calm was evoked by violin tremolandi, ‘cello pizzicati and piano murmurings, before irrupting once again and concluding with a spectacular downward slide – great stuff! And A.G.Mius (another enigmatic title) brought out a headlong helter-skelter dash from the trio, strings bouncing the bows rhythmically as the piano called the tune, the players generating terrific momentum throughout, the music suggesting more than a touch of Magyar gypsy to me in places, and none the worse for that.

Piazzolla’s music made its first appearance on the programme with Oblivion, the group being joined by accordion-player Rebekah Greig. Despite a short pause for some player re-alignment as a result of music being mislaid,  not a beat was missed after the restart, the music redolent with suspense and tension, and the accordion adding both colour and “edge” to the sound – the dancers moved haltingly and asymmetrically to this one, their steps seeming almost improvisatory, as did the music. La muerte del angel was much the same in effect, the piece building tensions by intensifying rhythms and crescendi. Almost thankfully, Seasons of Buenos Aires I found rather more discursive and easeful, though still atmospheric and descriptive; as was Spring and Winter, whose deep, sonorous and languid opening rhythms metamorphosed into something resembling Red Indians on the warpath before returning to a more piquant note to finish. Perhaps the most well-known of Piazzolla’s pieces, Le Grand Tango, written for and premiered by Mstislav Rostropovich in the 1980s, delighted us with its full-on explorations of instrumental colour and gesture, the players revelling in the composer’s demands, and flexing their imaginations in the music’s different directions. After this, the final Libertango seemed comparatively straightforward, definitely one to dance to, though including our single free-spirited audience member, it remained a dancing menage a trios, the rest of us content with paying tribute to all of the performers at the end for a wonderful and spirited lunchtime’s music-making.

Michael Houstoun plays Beethoven

BEETHOVEN – The Last Three Piano Sonatas

Michael Houstoun (piano)

Recorded live at the Gallagher Concert Chamber,

Hamilton, in November 2007

Interview with Michael Houstoun

“The Last Three Beethoven Piano Sonatas”

(Interviewer: Terry Snow)

HRL Morrison Music Trust DVD MMT 4001

What a thoroughly enjoyable and life-enhancing experience! I well remember my excitement, back in the 1990s, when Michael Houstoun began recording the Beethoven sonatas for Trust Records, beginning with the “Middle Period” works (MMT 2001-3), marvellous playing captured in what I thought was perfectly decent and listenable sound-quality. Alas, my excitement was considerably lessened by the recorded sound on subsequent issues in the Trust series, a change of venue for the late sonatas set that followed (MMT 2004-5) producing an oddly cold and brittle piano tone, and throughout the remaining two collections a distressingly dry and airless ambience that did Houstoun’s laudable efforts no favours. This was piano-playing which I thought deserved oceans more support than what Houstoun was being given at the time by those making the recordings – one had only to sample the contemporaneous Radio New Zealand broadcasts of his live performances of the cycle, to hear what ought to have been captured in the studio.

It’s pleasant to report, therefore, that Trust has brought out this beautifully-recorded DVD of a concert featuring Houstoun’s playing of the last three Beethoven sonatas. Interestingly, I found those earlier studio performances of the same works bolder and more sharply-etched, the interpretative points more “gestural” to my ears, forcefully and unequivocally made. One of Michael Houstoun’s strengths as a pianist is for me his sense of utter conviction about how he interprets the music he’s playing. So, however much the listener might want the music to be played a different way at the time, what’s being presented is done with such clear-sightedness and surety it seems the right way for the music to go at that moment of hearing. That direct, focused quality has stood him in good stead over the years – and going back to those Trust CDs not only reconfirmed for me Houstoun’s strength and clarity as an interpreter, but alerted me to finding more flexibility of phrasing and gradations of tone this time round than I was ready to give him credit for previously. I still found the recorded sound of the late sonatas set cold and glassy, though it was only in the lovely A-flat Sonata Op.110 that my ears remained troubled throughout by an acoustic that wouldn’t let the music bloom in places as I thought it ought.

Which, as I’ve said, is where the new DVD especially comes into its own – those opening chords of Op.110, the quickening pulse as the melody rises towards the oncoming sunlight, and the happy, cascading release of tumbling arpeggiated notes are beautifully realised and activated by Houstoun, and winningly captured by Wayne Laird’s sound-recording, made in 2007 at Hamilton’s Gallagher Concert Chamber in front of an appreciative (though entirely unviewed) audience. The second movement – often hammered mercilessly in places by pianists striving for the effect of contrast – here receives an unexaggerated yet articulate performance, eschewing the “whisper-then-roar’ approach which some interpreters use to illustrate the picture of a composer prone to violent mood-swings and temperamental instabilities. Houstoun keeps the chordal introduction to the slow movement moving, equating the musical line with declamation rather than thought, and easing naturally into the “Klagender Gesang” lament, everything kept clear-eyed and poised, awaiting the fugue, eloquently voiced throughout, and given a subtle warmth of expansion at the climax. As with the other interpretations on the DVD, Houstoun seems to me to have embraced a “less-is-more” principle, relying more on the paying out of rhythms within phrases and longer sentences, and allowing lines to develop their own buoyancy in such a way that they speak with an engaging naturalness. The second “lament” intensifies the mood of the first, bringing the music to the point that the pianist characterises so movingly in the interview which follows the concert on the DVD – the spirit sinking almost to the point of dissolution, before finding the spark that re-activates life, and gradually emerging from the darkness via the repeated chords whose sounds build upwards and outwards in a quietly, and deeply affecting way.

The remaining two sonatas in concert on the DVD largely repeat that paradoxical process of enrichment and simplification of what the pianist achieved in his earlier recorded performances. With Op.109 I thought the earlier performance a shade more daring and energetic – surprising, really, as the received wisdom is that musicians sound “more like themselves” away from the recording studio and in front of an audience (I don’t have the pianist’s radio broadcast performances of the 1990s to hand to fully back up that statement, unfortunately!). Much is shared between the readings – the balance at the very opening between structural focus and visionary freedom remains finely judged, while the march conveys similar energy and purpose, the studio recording giving an edge to the sound in forte that can both stimulate and irritate, something that the DVD renders far more fully and roundedly, interestingly, at once seeming to liberate and “contain” the playing. But throughout the theme-and-variation movement Houstoun brings out the varying characters of the episodes with remarkable surety, making so rich and heartfelt those elongated ascents to the cadence-points of release in the fifth variation (again, a mite stronger and even theatrical in the studio; and more direct and simpler before the audience, though no less telling in effect).

Rehearing the studio performance of Op.111 after playing the DVD I thought the former very fine, more involved and deeply-considered than I remember acknowledging when the recordings were first issued, especially in the second movement. In the interview on the DVD Houstoun talks of the “pure drama” of the key of C minor in this music, and both CD and DVD performance bring this out – the rawness and cosmic blackness of the opening unison leaps, and the focused energy of the dotted-rhythm chords and the rolling demisemiquavers “tell” magnificently. Houstoun hurls himself into this drama in the studio, the cool, splintery recording doing the essence of this work less damage than to its A-flat companion. On the DVD the attack in concert isn’t quite as furious, though the pianist’s left hand slightly splits the lower note of the second downward unison plunge, pointing the jaggedness of the gesture further. However, the cumulative energies of the spiky unisons and the dogged passagework register just as strongly as before – and with the newer recording the listener is mercifully freed from the occasional wincing as the double fortes hit home. Again, the energy, tensile clarity and vigour of the playing is remarkable, though less of a full-frontal attack than a cumulation of strength and energy, this time around, the big chords near the movement’s end skilfully weighted so that the onslaught is gradually allowed to play itself out.

Perhaps it’s just that before the audience the pianist’s expression is simpler, less inclined towards extremes and gesturings, as if the whole conception of the music has tightened, but in a totally free and life-enhancing way – also, as if, in front of an audience, Houstoun felt less bound to project, no longer attempting, as in the studio, to counter the remoteness of the ears and sensibilities for which his playing was intended. And I wonder if the concert venue’s warm ambience meant that Houstoun didn’t have to hold onto the final chord of the movement for so long, the silences nicely carrying the resonances over to the shared-key opening of the second movement’s beginning.

In the second movement, with its vigorous “dance of life” sequence (Beethoven’s most spectacular foray into “boogie-woogie”) I thought the pianist’s placings of the various episodes very beautifully done, especially the later minor-key introductions leading to trills whose lightness of being were seem to momentarily leave the physical world for spiritual realms, the hands delineating the spaces between by exploring the keyboard’s extremities, then teasingly fusing the two, with both corporeal dance sequences and stratospheric trillings, the leave-taking from which concludes the work. Houstoun holds his audience spellbound with the simplicity of it all, at the end letting the silence surge back into the spaces with complete assurance.

As if the music and playing weren’t enough to satisfy, Trust has generously included an interview with the pianist, one whose content and manner could easily warrant a review of its own. Enough to say that in the space of forty minutes pianist and interviewer (Terry Snow) explore in some considerable depth different aspects of these remarkable works and Houstoun’s response to them. I thought the latter came across most impressively, with comments at once thoughtful and spontaneous-sounding, making many insightful points about the music and clearly expressing his deeply-considered reactions to the challenges the music poses, as well as the delights it bestows on the player. I also appreciated, for comfort’s sake, the extent to which the producer allows occasional hesitancies and word-slips common to normal conversation in the interests of flow and naturalness. There really isn’t enough space in these columns to do the whole thing justice (I’ve already over-indulged myself and stretched the patience of readers on behalf of the musical performances);  but those who purchase this beautifully-wrought DVD to experience the thrill of hearing and seeing New Zealand’s foremost exponent of Beethoven’s piano music play some of his greatest works will be charmed at being allowed a valuable additional insight into the workings of a great musician’s approach to that same music. Definitely a must-buy, in my opinion – and a dollop of wishful encouragement to those involved – dare we hope for more Beethoven from the same source? – and why, I wonder, does the “Hammerklavier” come so readily to my mind?