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.