Musica Lyrica in the 17th and 18th centuries

Musica Lyrica

A concert embracing visiting Auckland cellist/gambist Polly Sussex, of music the 17th and 18th centuries. By Jean-Baptiste Barrière, Johan Jakob Froberger, Joseph-Hector Fiocco, Handel, Buxtehude and Anon. 

Rowena Simpson (soprano), Shelley Wilkinson (baroque violin), Emma Goodbehere (baroque cello), Douglas Mews (harpsichord) and Polly Sussex (cello, piccolo cello and viola da gamba)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University

Wednesday 21 April 6.30pm

Perhaps this concert was presented by the New Zealand School of Music because Polly Sussex was in town; she had played in the weekend with the baroque/classical ensemble Musica Lyrica at St Paul’s Lutheran church in Mount Cook. Sussex teaches at Auckland University and has an international reputation as a specialist in the early cello and viola da gamba. The ensemble, formed with the support of the church to perform Bach cantatas in their original Lutheran setting, comprises a total of about 15 musicians, varying according to requirements. 

In its advertising the concert was characterized by a Latin proverb Musica laetitiae comes medicina dolorum (music is a companion to joy and a balm of sorrow). No one can quarrel with any attempt to keep a vestige of Latin alive now that it has been almost entirely banished from the New Zealand school system (I heard that only 25 candidates sat Latin for NCEA Level One, alias School Certificate, last year).

The Hunter Council Chamber – the former main library that was socially central to students of my era, laid out with book-lined alcoves and shelves rising to the ceiling on all walls, reached by two levels of narrow iron gangways – may now be visually bereft, but it offers excellent acoustics for small instrumental ensembles though not so good for an orchestra.

The players presented a pretty sight. In addition to the delicately adorned harpsichord, a viola da gamba with a body of contrasting laminations and a cello, lay on the floor. While a piccolo cello and a normal cello were in thee hands of Polly Sussex and Emma Goodbehere, the two string players for the first piece, by Barrière. Barrière lived in Paris in the 18th century in the early years of Louis XV and became a virtuoso cellist.

The two cellos created a sound blend that I had never heard before, flowing harmonies that combined their voices in an utterly enchanting way. I was surprised by the sound of the piccolo cello, distinctly more open and sweet than many violas, and less nasal than the typical cello played high up the finger-board.

The Sonata II a tre, for piccolo cello, cello and harpsichord, comprised four short movements, some treating the two in canon, some as a normal duet. There was nothing complex or musically rich, but much that was technically tricky and quite charming.

Johan Jacob Froberger lived a century earlier, in Germany, Italy and England, and his influence was widespread, through Bach and Handel even perhaps to Mozart and Beethoven. It was a harpsichord Tombeau – a memorial honouring a dead person, in this case one M Blancrocher – that Douglas Mews played next. It offered an admirably warm and clear display of the sonorous possibilities and playing techniques of the harpsichord, in interesting harmonies: very slow and quite elaborate in conception.

Mews also played the famous last movement of Handel’s ‘Harmonious Blacksmith’ keyboard Suite in E.

Jean-Hector Fiocco was Belgian, a contemporary of Barrière. Soprano Rowena Simpson had the company of the two cellists and Mews in his Lamentatio prima which, according to the programme note, is a setting of Chapter 2 of the Book of Jeremiah. Rowena returned three years ago from years of study and singing in Holland and elsewhere in Europe and her voice projected confidently, reflecting that experience not simply in early music but also in dramatic interpretation; sustaining her breath over quite elaborate passages and handling decorations, including a cadenza near the end, with ease.

She also sang the next piece – a German aria of the 1720s by Handel: ‘In den angenehmen Büschen’. It was distinctly more modern sounding, though light in spirit and unlike his typical operatic writing of that time. The accompaniment of baroque violin (Shelley Wilkinson) and harpsichord however connected it clearly enough with an earlier era.

Then came a surprise: an anonymous viola da gamba sonata recently discovered in the Bodleian Library. Polly Sussex explained what was known of its provenance: found in 2006 in a collection, bearing the hallmarks of a French viol piece of the late 17th century, though described on the modern printed score as of Lübeck. It was pretty, exercised the player’s technique and the resources of the instrument, a normal seven-string bass viol of the time.

Finally Rowena Simpson returned, accompanied by Wilkinson, Sussex and Mews to sing Buxtehude’s cantata ‘Singet dem Herrn’, one of the few vocal works of this mainly organ composer. It exercised the musicians while proving most engaging, with undulating dynamics and attractive passages of tremolo or trilling.

It’s encouraging that such small, specialist ensembles keep arising around Wellington, evidencing the abundance of musical talent ready to take initiatives to attract audiences of both aficionados and newcomers to the genre in question. This ensemble has talent to spare.

The April Moon over St Andrew’s

Lune d’avril

Songs by Rossini, Debussy, Chausson and Poulenc

Janey MacKenzie (soprano), Jodi Orgias (mezzo soprano), Robyn Jaquiery (piano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 21 April 12.15pm

The concert title might have celebrated the season but there was little in the programme, other than the last of Poulenc’s songs, that seemed specific to April either in the northern or southern hemispheres.

However, let us suppose (I don’t know) that the Venetian regatta takes place in April; Rossini’s infectious duet (La regatta veneziana from Les soirées musicales) opened the lunchtime concert to delight a well filled church, with the two rather different voices which, however, blended happily to produce boisterous, rocking rhythms and sparkling tunes; and an accompaniment that relished its showy little rising arpeggios and gondolier-flavoured triple time. They followed with a second duet, La pesca (from the same set), less ebullient but just as charming with its gentle swaying rhythm.

The concert ended with another Rossini duet, from Semiramide – ‘Serbami ognor’. Again in triple time, with nothing radical in terms of harmony, but a brilliant vehicle for the crucial misunderstanding between Queen Semiramide and Arsace (a trouser role for contralto) that the music reflects and the two singers captured excellently.

The pair also sang a couple of duets by Chausson – La nuit (a poem by Théodore de Banville) and Réveil (by Balzac) – in which the two voices seemed a little more exposed. Rossini’s extrovert bravura seemed to bother them less than the finesse demanded for these near-impressionist songs. Here and there were signs of discomfort, lack of perfect focus, but there was far more astute and intelligent interpretation, where, again the two quite distinct voices created a persuasive blend.

Each singer had a solo bracket. Jody Orgias sang four Debussy songs. The first two, ‘C’est l’extase’ and ‘Il pleure dans mon coeur’, by Verlaine, in Debussy’s collection Ariettes oubliées of 1888; the third and fourth, Romance (poem by Paul Bourget), and Dans le jardin (by Paul Gravolet): all relatively early songs. Her dark, throaty voice, that tends nasal in the upper part, may not be conventionally beautiful, but has the advantage, especially in the way she uses it, of investing songs with character, of drawing attention to their meaning and their emotion. The result, in ‘C’est l’extase’ for example, was not an overtly voluptuous sound perhaps, as from in the mouths of some singers, not ideally legato, yet the sensuousness remained, and an immediacy.

Debussy’s setting of ‘Il pleure dans mon coeur’ has never seemed to reflect my own feeling about the poem: not sufficiently melancholy, and this performance was no different. Jody sounded comfortable in the Romance, with pianist conspicuously capturing that always important contribution, but did not entirely convince in Dans le jardin which is conversational in tone, rhythmically ambiguous and not perhaps among Debussy’s masterpieces.

Janey MacKenzie’s offering was the Poulenc cycle, La courte paille (The short straw – isn’t it curious that the rather contemporary metaphor existed in 1960?). In the 40 to 60 years since Debussy’s songs, a major French composer has stripped away the mystery, ambiguity, harmonic and rhythmic obscurity of the Debussy era in favour of cleaner, simpler lines and harmonies. She approached the seven songs confidently, at home in the various styles, rhythms, moods, finding their quirky or absurd wit through both her voice and demeanour.

How lucky we are to have such an institution as the free St Andrew’s concerts and musicians prepared to give their time and efforts freely to make them happen!