Memorable and commanding Schumann and Shostakovich string quartets

The New Zealand String Quartet

Schumann: String Quartets Nos 1 in A minor and 2 in F; Shostakovich: Nos 13 in B flat and 7 in F sharp minor

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University

Tuesday 31 August, 7.30pm 

This was an important series of ten concerts by the New Zealand String Quartet, in five centres nationwide; it included two different programmes, of all three of Schumann’s quartets and four of Shostakovich’s 15.

I heard the first of the two programmes at the church of St Mary of the Angels on Saturday the 28th, which my colleague Peter Mechen has reviewed (that programme had also been played a week earlier in the Hunter Council Chamber at Victoria University) and the second on Tuesday 31 August, also in the Hunter Council Chamber. There were probably round 200 at St Mary’s and a full house (about 160) at the Hunter room.

The quartet’s challenge was to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Schumann who wrote only three string quartets, by putting them with another composer whose music might complement it in some way. At first glance, Shostakovich looked an odd choice, and though Helene Pohl made a reasonable case in her introductory remarks, the connections were rather tenuous: Schumann’s personality dichotomy: his imaginative creations Florestan and Eusebius, and Shostakovich’s two faces – the public one acceptable to the Soviet authorities and the private one which expressed his inner self.

In the end I felt Schumann had paid the bigger price, for there is hardly any music written in any age that equals Shostakovich’s intensity, anguish and profound personal self-revelation in a fearful political environment. Most composers in past eras have lived under repressive regimes of various kinds, but they were the norm; social barriers, lack of freedom and extreme inequality were everywhere; it did not occur to them to depict it in their music.

But Shostakovich’s fate was to live in a place which had declined into a condition that had become much more repressive and dangerous than the rest of Europe (give or take Fascism).

Alongside Shostakovich’s, some of the Schumann music sounded to me emotionally lightweight, as if he was trying to write music that would entertain rather than what was genuinely spirited, with integrity and genuine expressive power.

That struck me particularly in the F major quartet, played last. In the second movement Schumann seemed to be putting on the mask of a happy face to please Clara, who had urged him to write music that audiences would understand. While the Scherzo appealed strongly as one of the most interesting movements, of variety and confident handling, I felt that in the finale, Schumann reverted to his jolly mask, writing music that was more conventional. The real Schumann, on the other hand, wrote music that was joyful, spirited which, up to a point, becomes more exciting the faster it is played, such as the March of the Davidsbündler in Carnaval or the finale of the Piano Concerto, or the Piano Quintet.

Though I had had similar feelings about the last movement of the A minor quartet, its minor key succeeded in keeping Schumann from conventional temptations in the three earlier movements, and the players always exploited in the liveliest way his inventiveness and impressive competence of writing for the four instruments.

What was striking about all Schumann’s quartets however, was both the warmth of the tutti sound, and the interesting music given variously to all four instruments; and I heard more arresting individuality from Gillian Ansell’s viola and Douglas Beilman’s violin that one often hears in quartet context.

Though it was Schumann’s birthday, it was Shostakovich who really stole the limelight. Again, we had the pleasure (if that is in any way the word) of two more of the little-known quartets of Shostakovich. If there were rewarding passages for the viola in Schumann, Shostakovich could be accused of having a torrid love affair with it.

No 13 is an extraordinary piece, written in 1970 when the composer was ill, and at its opening the viola carries most of its unrelenting bleak view of the world – of his world at least. It is in one movement, though there are several contrasting episodes that do offer sufficient variety and structural character to justify its formal status as a quartet. Rolf Gjelsten’s cello also has a major role in the music’s landscape.

Though Shostakovich’s language is essentially tonal, dramatic use is made of pointed discords, that might be followed by high, marcato notes from the violins. Above all, if one does not succumb to the outward pessimism, there is dark and tragic beauty in this piece, which ends with a series of rising harmonics that might suggest either some kind of spiritual aspiration or merely life evaporating to nothingness.

In the second half, they played the more conventionally ordered No 7; three movements following the normal pattern, through a dark liveliness in the first movement, to which the players brought a fierce energy and a thrusting sense of momentum; the change in the Lento movement to Doug Beilman’s angular violin arpeggios, soon joined by Helen Pohl’s febrile first violin. The last movement opens with stunning violence that Gillian Ansell diverted to hollow rhetoric with her beautifully resonant viola; and the piece ends with the violins and viola in flighty ascending scales that seemed to offer solace or consolation.

A Shostakovich Quartet Series
That the quartet has got nearly a third of Shostakovich’s quartets under their collective belts for these two concerts prompted the rather obvious thought that they should be encouraged to master them all and offer them as the musical highlight of the 2012 New Zealand International Arts Festival. It is time for a musical renaissance at the festival.

I was at the wonderful Verbier Festival in Switzerland in 2007 where, at 10pm every other night in the alpine village’s minuscule protestant church, the Israeli Aviv Quartet played them all, not in order but in groups evidently guided by length and contrast. During a week’s stay I heard seven quartets in three concerts (Nos 4 and 14, 1, 12 and 8, and 3 and 7).

The performances captured the more dedicated chamber music lovers and there were struggles to get inside the church, all successful, overcoming any scruples by the local fire department or festival administrators.

These concerts have proved that we have a string quartet capable of interpreting these works with a passion, ferocity, and depth of musical and political insight that is rare. They should be encouraged to undertake the entire Shostakovich quartet canon, some of the greatest music of the 20th century.

Sunday evening with Moky Gibson-Lane – a ‘cello and piano recital

Mok-hyun Gibson-Lane (‘cello)

with Catherine McKay (piano)

JS BACH – Suite No.1 in G Major, for Solo ‘Cello / GYORGY LIGETI – Suite for Solo ‘Cello

LUIGI BOCCHERINI – Sonata for ‘Cello and Piano in C Major

MAX BRUCH – Kol Nidrei Op.47 / DAVID POPPER – Elfentanz (Dance of the Elves) Op.39

Central Baptist Church, Boulcott St., Wellington

Sunday 29th August 2010

Moky Gibson-Lane, visiting home in New Zealand from her various commitments as a performer in Europe, gave a delightful recital in Wellington’s Central Baptist Church, one which stimulated as much audience pleasure as a similar concert she gave on a home visit a year previously. She’s currently playing with the Berlin Staatskapelle, frequently conducted by Daniel Barenboim, and is a foundation member of the Stabrawa Ensemble, led by the Berlin Philharmonic’s concert-master, Daniel Stabrawa. She makes frequent Arts Channel television appearances in Germany, and has recently taken part, with Barenboim, in the Berlin premiere of Mosaic, a new work by Elliot Carter. The prospect, therefore, of hearing a musician with such credentials was too good an opportunity to miss; and, happily, as with last year’s recital, the young ‘cellist amply demonstrated with her playing why she’s such a sought-after musician in one of the world’s musical capitals.

Her recital was half-solo, half ‘cello-and-piano partnership, beginning with two major solo works, one a standard classic, and the other a contemporary masterpiece. Just what it is about JS Bach’s music that enables one to listen to countless performances of it without tiring I’m not quite sure (an exploration beyond the scope of a recital review), but the perennial freshness of the notes invariably seems to re-kindle from various musicians the same sense of re-awakening, of re-discovery, one which Mok-Hyun conveyed in her performance of the G Major Solo ‘Cello Suite from first note to last. From the expressive sonority of the Prelude, through the Allemande’s stately ornate decorations (very baroque-defining!), and the wonderfully spontaneous mixture of freedom and constraint with which she propelled the lively angularities of the Courante,  the ‘cellist proceeded to make the work her own. Her Sarabande had beautifully-focused dignity, contrasting beautifully with the energies of the two Minuets, the first cheerful and forthright, the second wistful and circumspect; while her “lightness-of-being” touch with the concluding Gigue brought out all of the music’s life-affirming buoyancy.

I’d never heard the Ligeti Solo ‘Cello Suite before, and was prepared for something a lot more acerbic and uncompromising than what was presented. The work itself had an interesting, and somewhat fraught genesis, being originally inspired by Ligeti’s unrequited passion for a female ‘cellist and fellow-student at the Budapest Music Academy in the late 1940s. Ligeti was then asked, a few years later, by an older, well-known female ‘cellist, Vera Dénes, for a piece she could play. The composer expanded his previous one-movement work into a two-movement Suite; but with Hungary under Soviet control in the 1950s, the piece had to be submitted to the all-powerful government-controlled Composers’ Union for acceptance. Interestingly, the committee allowed Vera Dénes to record the work (for a planned broadcast which never took place), but refused its performance in public, on the grounds that its second movement was “too modern”. It wasn’t until 1979 that the piece was performed again. Ligeti called the first movement a “dialogue”, intending (no doubt with his youthful student amour in mind) a man and a woman conversing. He remarked also that this music was “heavily influenced” by the works of Zoltan Kodaly. A sense of something tender and heartfelt awakening was conveyed by the soft strummings of the opening, alternating with measures of full-throated melody, the strummed notes “bent” to give a heightened emotional effect. An impassioned middle section alternated between low and high lines, and brought out powerful playing from Mok-Hyun, the “Hungarian” melody then giving way to further soft pizzicato chords that ended the movement.

Ligeti aimed for contrast in the virtuoso second movement, modelling the title Capriccio on Paganini’s well-known Caprices for solo violin. The “Presto con slancio” directive for the performer means “‘very quick, with impetus”, and produced here an extremely exciting performance, running figures, trenchant attack, and tortured, agitated lines – a wonderful volatiity, almost an expiation of the heart-on-sleeve feeing evinced in the first movement. The exuberant final bars brought out an enthusiastic audience response to some great playing.

Moky Gibson-Lane was joined by pianist Catherine McKay for the second half, beginning with a Sonata by Boccherini which sounded like Haydn at the beginning, the music having plenty of muscularity and sprightliness. It was mostly ‘cello with dutiful piano accompaniment in this movement, really, with the development bringing out a more colouristic and in places even sombre mood, though nothing too tragic or heart-rending. The slow movement brought out the ‘cellist’s beautiful cantabile, rich and low in places and decorated occasionally with melismatic impulses; while the finale began as a good-natured jog-trot, but with demands on the soloist involving spectacular high finger-board work – not always DEAD in tune, but impressively virtuosic, nevertheless.  Rather more musical substance was provided by Max Bruch’s lovely, lyrical “Kol Nidrei”, the opening exchanges between piano and ‘cello long-breathed and full of feeling. Here, the rhapsodic melodies became big-hearted, committed statements, but with both ‘cellist and pianist preserving a ritualistic, almost ecclesiastical feeling about the exchanges, before relaxing into the rapt, hymn-like romantic dialogues of the work’s final section. Mok-Hyun celestially floated the last few measures of her line, the final ascent perhaps not ideally pure of tone, but nevertheless, together with Catherine McKay’s angelic support, a beautiful supplication.

We sinners needed bringing down to earth again after experiencing such stratospheric evocations; and the final item did just that – Czech composer David Popper’s sprightly, and in some places somewhat manic “Elfentanze” (Dance of the Elves) was a kind of  Bohemian version of “Flight of the Bumble Bee”, featuring plenty of rapid figurations from both ‘cellist and pianist, and some hair-raising, right-off-the-fingerboard bedazzlements from the ‘cellist at the end, which, to use the classic phrase, brought the house down. At a supper straight afterwards most people were happily able to more fully extend those gestures of appreciation that we readily and enthusiastically showed both musicians at the end of the concert.

Good Taste in the Art of Musick: Geminiani at St Paul’s Lutheran

Songs and sonatas from Scotland, by Geminiani

Musica Lyrica: Dougals Mews, Rowena Simpson, Kamala Bain, Brendan O’Donnell, Shelley Wilkinson, Peter Walls, Ann Goodbehere

St Paul’s Lutheran Church, King Street, Mount Cook 

Sunday 29 August 5pm

This concert was advertised as part of St Paul’s Lutheran Church’s regular concerts, many of them associated with the church’s normal vespers services, when Bach cantatas, eventually all of them, are performed.

But this was different.

Peter Walls (in other lives, Professor of Music at Victoria University and now CEO of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra) had talked during the week on RNZ Concert’s Upbeat, and in his introduction to the concert, about its nature and aim, offering interesting bits of scholarship about violin practice as well as about the byways of music in 18th century Britain.

The great Italian violinist and composer, Geminiani, a leading pupil of Corelli, had moved to London in 1714 and developed an interest in Scottish folk music. As well as his treatise on violin playing, which gave its name to this concert, he collected a large number of folk songs in a volume called Orpheus Caledoniensis.

But before the concert could start, cellist Emma Goodbehere, had a mishap with her baroque cello, damaging the finger board, and she had to withdraw from the performance. It left a number of the songs and instrumental pieces short of bass substance, and caused the dropping of the Cello Sonata, Op 5 No 2, which would have been the major instrumental piece.

But the rest of the concert was pure delight. Soprano Rowena Simpson took all the song parts, and she decorated her lines with the most natural sounding ornaments as her voice proved an idiomatic vehicle for these fresh and melodic songs. They made it easy to understand how the folk songs of Scotland later became such hot property, encouraging publishers to commission composers like Haydn and Beethoven to make arrangements of them. 

Typically, the song was performed first, and then followed by a sonata based on it, using Peter Walls and Shelley Wilkinson on violins, or treble recorders* (Kamala Bain and Brendan O’Donnell) plus a continuo that was provided by Douglas Mews at the harpsichord and Ann Goodbehere on the viola.

Kamal Bain played a descant recorder* with  a couple of items and these were quite disarming, especially for one who has never felt very drawn to the instrument.  Her playing was fluent and utterly charming; without too much effort the sound of the bagpipe could be imagined.

The last of the Sonatas, based on ‘The last Time I came o’er the Moor’ used the two violins which elaborated on the song even more that the voice itself had, and it ended with a postlude the led to a graceful slow dance.

Bear these concerts in mind for a late Sunday afternoon: the standard of music making is very high.

*We had the sizes of the recorders wrong in the original review. The sizes here are now correct (L.T. 3.09.10)

Michael Houstoun in recital – in Wellington!

Michael Houstoun (piano)

JS BACH – Prelude No.1 in C Major BWV 846 / SCHUMANN – Arabeske Op.18 / Kreisleriana Op.16

CHOPIN – Sonata in B-flat minor (“Funeral March”) Op.35 / Two Nocturnes Op.37 / Four Etudes Op.25 Nos 1, 5, 7, and 12

Ilott Theatre, Town Hall, Wellington

Sunday 29th August 2010

Who says piano recitals can’t pack ’em in any more? True, if any pianist can here in Wellington, Michael Houstoun can, and especially so when the programme features the music of two composers whose spirit seems to exemplify music’s Romantic Age. This concert was a celebration of the year 1810, during which both Chopin and Schumann were born, Michael Houstoun unexpectedly and cleverly drawing these otherwise disparate figures together by way of JS Bach, whose music both of these composers revered. So we were given Bach’s celestial C Major Prelude from Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier by way of introduction to the recital proper, the music pausing briefly to draw breath at the Prelude’s end before Houstoun continued with the equally radiant opening to Schumann’s Arabesque.

One of the characteristics of Schumann’s music is its extraordinary pliancy, so that, more than many other composers’ music, his responds equally well to so many different interpretative viewpoints. Perhaps it’s the subjective nature of much of it, to which musicians connect more on an individual and spontaneous basis than a preconceived and predictable one, resulting in wider performance parameters being explored regarding the music’s interpretation. Consequently, there emerges no “way” to play Schumann, other than to convey a sense of identification and engagement with the composer and his world. Reading between the lines of Michael Houstoun’s thoughtful programme notes for the recital, one senses, intriguingly, on his part a slightly more ready inclination to “connect” with Schumann than with Chopin, though in practice it’s a near thing. I would have hazarded a guess that Houstoun might have felt more at home with the Polish composer’s ultra-refined syntheses of structure and feeling than his German contemporary’s often abstruse flights of fancy – so I was delighted to find myself drawn in to many of the moods he evoked with his performance of Kreisleriana, one of Schumann’s most enigmatic creations.

Expertly played though it was, I didn’t immediately warm to the pianist’s way with the Arabesque which almost immediately followed the Bach – though he exhibited great control and evenness of touch, he didn’t for me “dream” enough of the music, giving us a strong, unequivocal opening, but not seeming interested in bringing out the almost “question-and-answer” manner of the phrases, the poetical ruminations, as it were. The first interlude was strongly, almost passionately voiced, and did relax for a few measures just before returning to the main running theme, the two impulses beautifully married for the reprise. I liked the “kick” with which he brought the second interlude into being, though his tone hardened in places of emphasis, too much so, I thought, in relation to the gentleness of the whole work, though his return to the main theme was again finely-judged, and the coda of the piece was given a winning mix of strength and poetic feeling.

Kreisleriana was, of course, an entirely different matter; and I thought the pianist’s almost headlong plunge into the tempestuous opening an approach the composer would have approved of, the occasional split note adding to the sense of wildness, the music seemingly unnerved by its own evocations, and wanting to climb upwards out of the maelstrom of raw emotion towards the light. Houstoun’s way with the wondrous contrasting second piece, marked “Very inwardly and not too quickly”, gave the poetical atmosphere enough space to generate a rich, warm ambience via the wonderful forest-echoing “hunting-horn” theme, and the beautifully harmonised scale passages growing out of the theme’s resonances – though the brief intermezzi which punctuate the mood kept their energies within bounds, suggesting more an architect’s than a poet’s view of the whole structure. The pianist also found a telling contrast between sections three and four, the pure emotion of the latter beautifully breathed after the previous piece’s agitations, and the subsequent quickening of the pulse nicely judged – for me, one of several interpretative highlights of the performance.

Schumann’s dogged insistence dominated the next episode, Houstoun controlling the composer’s obsessiveness judiciously so that none of the repetitive figures outstayed their welcome. Another beautifully-realised piece was the following folkish lullaby (sehr langsam – very slowly), the achingly nostalgic left-hand theme seeming to grow out of the earth, as it were, Houstoun giving the ambience the dark, rich tones requited by the music’s suggestiveness. After the next piece’s wild, headlong opening, galloping through tempestuous storms, Houstoun brought the agitations under control with some nicely gradated chords, leading to the work’s final, most enigmatic section, the composer’s marking schnell und spielend (fast and playful) barely hinting at the music’s darker, more equivocal undercurrents. Houstoun brought these out beautifully, giving the elfin melody a slightly disembodied tonal character, and beautifully weighting the left hand so that the often maverick rhythmic stresses of the bass notes had a properly disturbing effect. In general, I thought the interpretation of the whole very satisfying, more thoughtfully and subtly realised by the pianist than given by him overt extremes of mood, colour and energy.

In a sense, the Chopin “Funeral March” Sonata which followed after the interval posed similar interpretative problems to Kreisleriana – the difficulty being how to bring some kind of coherence to a series of overtly unconnected “episodes” strung together to form an overall scheme – though Michael Houstoun hit the nail fairly on the head in his notes when he spoke about “a certain spirit or tone which serves to unify” in relation to both works. Somewhat ironically, it was Schumann who complained in a critical notice about Chopin’s Sonata that “he has simply yoked together four of his wildest offspring”; although it was the bestowment of the title “Sonata” on the work that gave the hypersensitive critic of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik misgivings, not the music itself. Houstoun sought to keep the music directional by refusing to make too much of any contrasts of tempo or dynamics throughout the first movement, the most surprising aspect of which was the pianist’s incorporating the very beginning of the work in the repeat, something which I’d not heard done before. The music’s strong undertow was maintained throughout, reducing the work’s propensity for dramatic contrast, but tightening the musical argument and keeping a sense of purposeful forward motion paramount.

Contrast was the order of the day with the Scherzo, in Houstoun’s hands the opening section big, energetic and darkly-wrought, before being almost completely disarmed by the sweetness of the ballade-like Trio, with only the occasional left-hand trills suggesting any hint of continuing unease. I fancied I heard some kind of momentary harmonic re-arrangement at the agitated opening’s reprise, though it may have been my ears playing tricks with my memory – in any case, a mere detail, swept away by Houstoun’s bringing out of the power and purpose of the whole. Some extraneous deep-toned thuds from without accompanied the hushed opening of the famous “Funeral March”, to no matter – the pianist’s power and concentration carried the day, the playing perhaps less antiphonal than some performances I’ve heard, but just as telling in effect. Houstoun seemed to integrate the Trio into the March, making it less of an inward escape to another realm than a more lyrical manifestation of the same force propelling time and life onwards, the repeats helping to intensify this feeling. Upon the march’s return, one realised how differently Chopin felt about life and death – Houstoun’s control made the reappearance of the cortège and its ghostly dissolution a salutary experience.

What Houstoun then did with the finale was interesting – played attacca, the sinuous strands of agitation were kept clear and largely unpedalled, refusing the music any kind of impressionistic wash or colouristic atmosphere, making the notes themselves do the work and create the musical effect. Those used to listening to the highly theatrical realisations of people such as Cortot, Rachmaninov and (more lately) Martha Argerich would have found Houstoun’s determinedly unvarnished realisation either rather too earthbound or remarkably singular in effect – rather like a long-forgotten extra item from out of Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition, or something. Here, it was of a piece with the rest of the sonata – coherent, focused, and cumulatively powerful in effect.

Strangely I enjoyed Houstoun’s playing of the two Nocturnes for probably quite perverse reasons – in a sense I would rather have a more instinctively poetic player to be my guide were I wanting to hear these extraordinary pieces; but I was amazed, especially in the case of the second of the two Op.37 Nocturnes, as to how “modern” the composer’s harmonic progressions sounded when laid bare by playing which emphasised the piece’s structure and inner constituent workings, rather than colour and a singing line. I would use the word “chiselled” to describe the way the opening of Op.37 No.1 was presented, the contourings very precise, and the sonorities in the trio section seamlessly organ-like. But surely the dynamic contrasts were raked too steeply at the reprise of the main theme – does moonlight come from behind the clouds as abruptly as that? Even so, I was made to listen to the barcarolle-like No.2 with what seemed like freshly-programmed ears.

Four Etudes from the composer’s Op.25 concluded the recital, judiciously chosen by Michael Houstoun to give a kind of “sonata” effect, perhaps (four more of Chopin’s wildest?), the first the beautiful Aeolian Harp in A-flat, the pianist getting a lovely “rolling” effect with the notes, and an especially feathery quality at the end. The C-sharp Minor No.7 followed almost without a break, its  melody beautifully “terraced” between the hands, building up an almost orchestral effect on places, with swirling figurations and massive chordings. The oddly “galumphing” No.5 in E Minor was the “scherzo”, with its Lisztian trio, Houstoun’s brilliant filigree right-hand work set against sonorous left-hand melody to great effect; while the final etude’s great ferment of whirling “Rachmaninovian” C Minor arpeggios glinted and flashed their melodic notes in truly virtuoso style.

All credit to Michael Houstoun for celebrating Schumann and Chopin so resplendently, and to Wellington Chamber Music for bringing to Wellingtonians that sadly diminishing rarity, a full-blooded piano recital. Some of the world’s greatest music (such as we heard this afternoon) deserves much more of Houstoun’s kind of advocacy and his near-capacity audience’s whole-hearted support.

Piers Lane entertains at the piano at Waikanae

Piers Lane (piano) – Waikanae Music Society

Schubert: 12 German Dances, Ländler & Valses Sentimentales, D779, D783 & D790
Brahms: Intermezzi in B minor, E minor, C; Rhapsody in E flat; Op.119
Beethoven: Sonata no.31 in A flat, Op.110
Chopin: Ballade no.1 in G minor, Op.23; Four Nocturnes,  Op.27, Op.48 & Op. Posth.
Schulz-Evier: Arabesques on the Beautiful Blue Danube

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 29 August 2010, 2.30 pm

What a well-constructed programme this was, celebrating Chopin’s bi-centenary, other supreme composers for the piano, plus a dazzling finale.  This was real pianists’ music: not out to be showy (with the exception of the final piece), but to be expressive.

Using a microphone, Piers Lane interpolated remarks between the groups of items.  These were informative, and sometimes humorous, such as when he told us that the words of the folk-song on which the second movement of Beethoven’s sonata was based had been translated as “You are a slob”!

The Schubert Dances he played, the pianist informed us, were made into a collection for performance by Dame Myra Hess.  He told us that he had created a show in memory of the great pianist, and performed it with actress Patricia Routledge as Myra Hess, the words being excerpts from her books, letters and interviews.

It was good to hear these pieces – it is rare these days to hear relatively slight items (in terms of length) in a recital.  Put together as a set with little or no break, the dances gave opportunity for great vigour and steady rhythm – one could have danced to them.  The result was delightful, though perhaps of  all Schubert’s works for piano, these would be more effective on fortepiano.

The Brahms pieces received masterful but sensitive readings from Lane.  He indeed, to quote the programme note quoting Brahms ‘luxuriate(d) in dissonances’ in the first Intermezzo.

There was great contrast between the second and third Intermezzi; the first was sombre while the next one was lively.  The heroic Rhapsody was just that.

Beethoven’s second-last sonata has a wonderful opening.  As Piers Lane expressed it in his introductory comments, the work proves that ‘one can have joy after suffering’.  Every note was distinct; pedal use was judicious and never blurring.

Contrasting with the poetry of the first movement, an energetic declamation of an allegro followed.  Then there was pathos in the exquisitely worked-out adagio.   This was thoughtful and expressive playing, by a pianist fully in command technically, and who has the piano at his fingertips physically, mentally and emotionally.  It was a joy to hear him play.

The first Ballade of Chopin becomes graceful and delicate at the second theme, yet there is great force and energy towards the end.  It was a feast of brilliant and virtuosic performance, demonstrating to the full the sheer inventiveness of this piece.  We were informed that the Ballade was dedicated to Schumann, and that both he and its composer loved it most of Chopin’s works.

It was a delight to hear the Nocturnes.  After the meditative first one, dark like a nightmare, broken by a bright middle section, the second was notable for the lovely singing tone and cheerful mood.  We were gliding by night on glistening waters.

The third, in C minor, has been described as imperious.  It was played more slowly than other performances I have heard, but seemed to gain effect from this tempo.  There was beautiful articulation in the last of the set.  Every note had its own piece to say, yet was part of the general flow.  It was mesmerisingly lovely.

The piece by Adolf Schulz-Evier (1852-1905) was quite amazing; a highly decorated paraphrase of Strauss’s famous waltz, that required great virtuosity.  It was a fast waltz, although slight rubati in the restating of the melody added interest.  It may be considered OTT, but what a triumph of invention, and of pianistic prowess.

The encore was by ‘a twentieth century British composer you may have heard of – Dudley Moore’!   It was the latter’s tribute to Beethoven.  Whether Beethoven would have been as amused as we were, we cannot tell.  The theme was the first part of the well-known ‘Colonel Bogey’ (of ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ fame), and it was treated to many of Beethoven’s characteristics of composition – exaggerated, of course.  There was a touch of ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ from ‘The Pajama Game’, even a fugue, and at the end of the numerous near-endings, touches of the Moonlight Sonata.  It was extremely clever, brilliantly played, and with some humorous gestures – though not as many as its composer would have employed.

We were treated to a demonstration of first-class pianism.  Piers Lane never came between the music and the large audience.  The composers were admirably served, and everyone present must have been supremely delighted.

Great liturgical works from the Bach Choir

The Bach Choir conducted by Stephen Rowley

Frank Martin: Mass for Double Choir; Cherubini: Requiem Mass in C minor (1815)

St Mark’s Church, Basin Reserve

Sunday 29 August, 2pm

The Bach Choir has a distinguished history in Wellington since 1968, when it was founded by the gifted organist and musical scholar Anthony Jennings. Like all choirs, its fortunes have fluctuated: for the past two years it has regained its position, directed by Stephen Rowley; its recent achievements have included the B Minor Mass, Elijah, a concert of Handel and Purcell, and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

It was an adventurous concert. In Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir the two choirs of about 20 singers each, were placed diagonally, at right angles to each other, facing the conductor.

But ideally it needed more singers to give a more homogeneous sound to each section; among other things, there were too few altos and tenors to provide a uniform carpet of sound. Whether that realisation was what caused the evident shakiness at the beginning, and which recurred quite often, I cannot say; another blemish, quite early, was a worrying abrasive sound from one or more male singer, perhaps pushing too hard and high at fortissimo. However I was told that the dress rehearsal had gone very well.

One of the most rewarding books on music of the past few years is Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise. He remarks that Martin’s Mass has been “entrancing audiences with the archaic majesty of its language. Martin had a gift for immersing himself in styles of the past without seeming to imitate them.” That is nicely put. It is not to say the music is easy to sing or to ingest. The Kyrie begins with an indeterminate plainsong-like prelude that may not be hard to sing, but seems hard to place before the bolder polyphonic entry by the full choir. The sound might be Palestrina or Victoria.

The antiphonal possibilities of writing for two choirs were notable, using, say, sopranos on one side and basses on the other, or using entrances of various sections, aurally spaced, with striking effect. The contrasts between somber passages in the Gloria such as ‘Domine fili unigenite’ and the more excited ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ were examples of the composer’s detailed conception of the mass, which the choir dealt with scrupulously. Later, in the Credo, I enjoyed the onomatopoeic rising and falling scales that illustrated ‘Et ascendit in coelum’.

Stephen Rowley succeeded very well, given the music’s difficulties, in expressing the varied emotions and religious sentiments, the sense of the words and the contexts of Martin’s very meticulous, intricate scoring that so rewards careful study and rehearsal.

Martin’s view of religion was nowhere more clear than in his setting of the Sanctus: reverent and sober; compare with the almost ecstatic Bach, heard only a week earlier.

It was only when I looked into the music itself that I realized why Douglas Mews’s organ accompaniment was so tentative: it was simply to support the choir in an otherwise a cappella work.

I was looking forward even more to hearing live for the first time, Cherubini’s Requiem for mixed choir; he has always interested me for his place in music history, bridging the classic and romantic eras, and the Italian, the German and the French, as well as for the real strength of his own music.

He was commissioned to write this one to commemorate the execution of Louis XVI in 1793, following the defeat of Napoleon in June 1815, when Louis XVIII returned to Paris in July, evidently to Cherubini’s relief. Later, the forces of conservatism throughout society, unleashed in the backlash to the ‘radicalism’ of the Napoleonic era, brought back a ban on women singing the liturgy, and Cherubini wrote a second requiem in 1836 in preparation for his own funeral, for men’s voices only.

On the whole, this was easier for the choir to sing. Though the electronic organ hardly offered the supporting grandeur of a pipe organ, let alone the original orchestral accompaniment, Douglas Mews supplied valuable sonorities.

The Requiem is a remarkably strong work without being adorned with particularly memorable melodies. It has the character of the quintessential requiem, having absorbed that of Mozart and probably the liturgical music of Zelenka, Haydn and Salieri, but before Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and the requiem’s secularization by Berlioz and Verdi. It sounds rather like what Beethoven might have written if he had decided to (and he admired Cherubini, especially this work).

The dramatic character of the work, to be expected of a composer whose career till he was over 40 had been dedicated mainly to opera, though only occasionally with great success (particularly Lodoïska, Médée and Les deux journées), is part of its strength.

It pays close attention to the sense of the text, starting the Introit in a very subdued manner, allowing a subtle crescendo with the words’Exaudi orationem meam’ which the choir handled carefully. But soon, in the tutti sections, one rather longed for the richness and sustained body of voices in a bigger choir.

A more sanguine tone flourished in the Graduale however, but the ferocity of the start of the Dies Irae was a little subdued, though there was more venom towards the end in ‘Confutatis maledictus’. However, other parts of the Dies Irae where Cherubini typically overlaps phrases and divides words between sections of the choir for narrative purpose, and  through the more emphatic ‘Mors stupebit’, were effective. The change of style in the ‘Recordare’ hinted at Cherubini’s opera habits, to handle the tripping trochee meter of the liturgy in this section, and it might have benefited from greater rhythmic vitality.

The long Offertorium was kept alert with a quasi-marching, open-air, staccato tread, here conspicuously supported by the organ.  After the gentle Pie Jesu faded away, the final, momentarily forceful Agnus Dei and ‘Lux aeterna’ (left out of the programme), lent renewed vitality that ended with the prayer for eternal rest. Again, a smallish choir fell a shade short in creating a profound sense of peace through the music’s long-sustained harmonies.

Given that ideally both works would have gained so much from a rather larger body of singers, I was very glad to have heard these admirable live performances, a real credit to conductor Stephen Rowley.

New Zealand String Quartet: Schumann put in the shade by Shostakovich……


The New Zealand String Quartet : Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman (violins) / Gillian Ansell (viola) / Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

SCHUMANN – String Quartet in A Major Op.41 No.3

SHOSTAKOVICH – String Quartet No. 5 in B-flat Major Op.92 / String Quartet No.9 in E-flat Major Op.117

St.Mary of the Angels Church, Boulcott St., Wellington

Saturday 28th August, 2010

Poor old Schumann! Of course he had no way of seeing Shostakovich coming when he wrote his quartets, and therefore didn’t feel the need to overtly externalise the flamboyant, turbulent side of his nature in much of his music, especially in a medium which was generally regarded as a vehicle for expression of a reasonably circumspect provenance. True, he had Beethoven’s magnificently virile example as a writer of quartets to refer to as exemplars of a more cosmic and elemental style and effect – but Schumann was no Beethoven, being a split personality far more seriously troubled by the demands of his muse and the disorders and conflicts of his inner being. His quartets are therefore imbued with quixotic contrasts between exuberance and poetic feeling, marvellously inventive, yet touchingly fallible – music very much at the mercy of performance sensibility, and thus needing from performers a sympathetic and sensitive attitude to interpretation for it to blossom and reveal its particular strengths and beauties.

These were the thoughts that coursed through my mind immediately after the concert given by the New Zealand String Quartet at which we heard Schumann’s Third String Quartet in A Minor Op.41, followed by two searing, dynamically-presented twentieth-century quartet masterpieces by Dmitri Shostakovich. On a certain level it was a case between the composers of “vive la difference!” (and the Schumann is, I admit, gradually “coming back” for me as a remembered concert listening experience), but at the time the Shostakovich works seemed to literally blow the Schumann Quartet out of the water. The group of people among which I sat were stunned at the end of the concert, by both the music and its realisation, our applause fitful to a fault, not because we didn’t appreciate the performances, but because we were more-or-less flattened by them, and wanted to sit in silence for a bit and let our sensibilities recover. Perhaps people who had heard ensembles like the Borodin Quartet play these works might have been more used to this feeling of being overwhelmed; but these were first-time concert hearings of these works for me, and I couldn’t imagine them being done more brilliantly than by this ensemble.

Some more information regarding the concert: this was one of two presentations designed to play homage to Robert Schumann during his two hundredth birth anniversary year, at which all three of the Op.41 Quartets would be presented. This being Programme One, our portion tonight was the third, and perhaps most elusive of the three, in A Major. Shostakovich was chosen by the NZSQ as a “foil” for Schumann as a quartet-writer, as there were several parallels between the two composers, which quartet-leader Helene Pohl talked eloquently about in between the two works presented in the concert’s first half. Pohl equated Schumann’s psychological duality as a personality with Shostakovich’s politically-enforced double-life, pointing out that both composers strove to reconcile these opposites in their music, while clearly and unequivocally acknowledging and characterising the differences, and the divide between them. I was intrigued at the choice of venue for this concert, wondering whether the ample acoustic of a sizeable church would tell against the characteristic intimacies of the string quartet medium, regardless of the beauty of the surroundings and the atmosphere engendered by the numerous candles placed around and about the sanctuary (this was advertised as a “quartets by candlelight” concert). I need not have worried unduly – after registering a certain “halo of warmth” around and about the sound when the performance started, I found I could discern the lines of the individual instruments quite clearly; and, in fact, I thought the Schumann quartet benefitted immeasurably from its textures being suffused with more glowing warmth than is usual.

Of Schumann’s three quartets, the Third has until now been a kind of “Cinderella” for me, one which seemed more than usually imbued by the composer’s rhythmic obsessiveness, to the work’s overall detriment. This being a judgement I made a good many years previously, I hadn’t sought out this particular work for listening to for some time; and was therefore charmed by my reacquaintance in this performance with the work’s ready lyricism and freely inventive juxtaposing of themes, skilfully realised by the players. They were able to balance most beautifully the tender lyricism of the themes’ expositions with their more forthright working-out, bringing considerable intensity and physicality to the development, but leavening the mood with their flexible and sensitive phrasings. I loved the “sigh” with which the group brought back the opening motto theme – a near-perfect encapsulation of a romantic composer’s world.

This time round I coped better with the scherzo rhythms, which were as obsessive as I remembered, but without being dry (the acoustic probably helping, here). I loved the triplets that came to the rescue of the music’s opening trajectories, and the frenetic contrapuntal energisings which threw more wistful and melancholic moments into relief. Altogether, the two middle movements I found surprisingly compelling, the slow movement quite gorgeously passionate at the outset, the viola leading the opening statements towards even more intense utterances of poetic feeling. The ghostly pulsatings that followed led to darkly-expressed agitations, so richly-coloured by the players, the acoustic imparting an almost “orchestral” ambience to the music argument, though perspectives such as the ‘cello’s wonderfully varied rhythmic pizzicati beneath the soaring lyrical lines remained in an overall “chamber” context. Perhaps the finale’s repetitive opening rhythmic motto runs the risk of becoming too much of a good thing, though Schumann contrasts the mood with tripping figures and a ritualistic round-dance, energetically characterised by the players here, who revelled in the alternations before dashing into a “last hurrah” with the motto rhythm, cranking up both its detailing and its energies for an exhilarating finish to the work.

What can one say about the performance of the Shostakovich works? – except that they were as committed and wholehearted performances of anything I’ve ever seen and heard the NZSQ do. The Fifth Quartet, completed in 1952, was one of a number of works written by Shostakovich over a number of years that had not been offered for performance until after the death of Stalin in 1953, due to the savagery of a previous attack on the composer’s music by the Soviet authorities. The Tenth Symphony was written at around the same time as the quartet, and the two works share a similar breadth and orchestral way of thinking, Shostakovich’s writing in the quartet in places creating a massive, orchestrally-conceived sound. Another link between symphony and quartet is the composer’s use of his motto, the notes DSCH (D/E-flat/C/B) which the viola plays repeatedly in the quartet’s first 12 bars.

At the outset, the NZSQ caught the droll, march-like sense of a long-breathed story about to be told. Episodes of furious activity which followed had an almost visceral, full-blooded quality, matched by the growing sense of unease and rising anxiety, like an approaching firestorm or imminent terror, relieved only by the lyrical waltz-like second subject. The conflicts and intermittent episodes of bleak calm were stunningly delineated by the players, whose focused concentration exerted a kind of surreal hypnotic trance over the auditorium’s listening body, a spell maintained without a discernable break throughout the work’s three continuous movements. Of particular note was the middle Andante movement, whose intensities were coloured by Shostakovich’s use of a melody by a student and fellow-composer, Galina Ustvolskya, with whom it was said he was “emotionally involved” – the NZSQ players demonstrated enormous physical and emotional resources energising these long-breathed intensities before hurling themselves into the final movement’s maelstrom of thematic interaction, and finally sustaining the violin-and-viola-led exhalations of bitter-sweet release that floated uneasily through and around the becalmed vistas.

The Ninth Quartet, has its own peculiar engimatic character, not least because the composer had actually written an earlier version of the work, which he destroyed in what he called “an attack of healthy self-criticism” three years earlier. Where the Fifth Quartet had come across as a brooding work punctuated with powerful, uncompromising outbursts, the Ninth sounded rather more exotic throughout many of its episodes, and certainly in the opening movement. The players gave themselves wholly to a parallel sense of ritual and unease, with sinuous melodies and oscillations at the very beginning criss-crossing over the top of spacious pedal-points. That same intense concentration carried the music unswervingly through the somewhat charged pizzicato jogtrot rhythms, and into the long-breathed elegiac utterances of the second movement than followed. The composer’s penchant for near-manic energies was given full rein by the players in the polka-like dance that sprang from the music’s hesitant pulsings, before some superbly-projected pizzicati declamations (startlingly and effectively repeated at certain cadence-points) redirected our sensibilities into the strange and somewhat grotesque territories of the final movement. The NZSQ players seemed to take us into the heart of each phrase, each succeeding episode, each abrupt change of mood, colour and pace, before throwing everything into the wild concluding dance, with its abruptly sardonic concluding gesture.

The resulting audience acclamations were as much release of pent-up feeling as deep appreciation concerning the music and its performance. It seemed to me hard on Schumann at the time, but such was the visceral and emotional impact of the Shostakovich performances that it took this listener some time to work backwards through the whole worlds of intense feeling wrought by the Russian composer’s  sharply-focused and deeply-weighted evocations towards retrieving the erstwhile beauties of the Schumann quartet’s performance. One could, fatuously at this stage, suggest that Britten’s quartets might have provided a different, and more equally-weighted set of twentieth-century parallels with those of Schumann – but such metaphysical speculation shouldn’t get in the way of acknowledging the NZSQ’s stellar achievement in realising all the music in this concert so very completely and compellingly.

National Youth Orchestra in brilliant form

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (Vaughan Williams), Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (Stravinsky), The Chairman Dances (Adams), Symphonic Dances (Rachmaninov)

NZSO National Youth Orchestra conducted by Rossen Milanov with Jason Bae (piano)

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 26 August, 7.30pm

The habit of reviewers reporting, in mock wonderment, that the concert by the current incarnation of the National Youth Orchestra has offered the most exciting and committed symphony concert of the year, or decade, has become traditional, almost a ritual. Such claims are made in all good faith and in the hope of being seen as friends of the young and apostles of hope that the mature population will follow the lead of youth.

To do otherwise is very difficult, especially when the facts obviously favour the tradition. Especially this time; for not only was this perhaps the most uniformly talented body of musicians that the orchestra has gathered together, their ages ranging from 12 to 24, but it was also guided by a conductor with a gift for inspiring his players with some kind of rare and profound spirit, and drawing from them revelatory and polished performances.

Fast-rising Bulgarian-born conductor, Rossen Milanov, had devised a slightly eccentric programme, yet one which I had imagined might have filled the Michael Fowler Centre. I am clearly not a good judge of the tastes of most of my fellow citizens, however, for the MFC was more poorly inhabited than I can remember for some years. Though I gathered later that it might have been flaws in the seat booking system.

Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis opened: it was a deeply reverent, delicate account that let us hear how the limited body of strings could play with a refinement and subtlety that one hardly expects from youth. The performance steered between an overtly English pastoral style and an overdressed metaphysical expression in a Germanic tradition. Punctuated early on by an unrestrained cough in the audience, it evoked the dim light of a medieval cathedral, its long polyphonic melody soon given substance by a gentle rhythm and harmonies that respected its origins.

The orchestra’s arrangement was interesting, reflecting baroque practice. The chamber sized ripieno ensemble was in a tight semi-circular phalanx at the front while the concertino of nine strings was spread out across the rear of the orchestral terraces; affording visual support to the arresting aural effect, which was to lend the small group a remote air, especially when playing with mutes, rather than giving prominence to such a solo-like group. In addition, the quartet of string principals played the beautiful prayer-like passage with a maturity and commitment that was typical of the entire concert.

The plan to give strings and winds distinct exposure in the first half might have been an ingenious one, with the first piece for strings alone and the second for winds and percussion; but the choice of Stravinsky’s piano concerto was unfortunate. It might well be the only work that features the piano with a wind band (though there are also six double basses and timpani), but it is a particularly tough and somewhat abrasive example of the composer’s neo-classical style. The brass players, mainly the horns and trombones, did not cope well at the start, though trumpets soon restored an equilibrium. Such a piece has to be played with tremendous musicality and accuracy, making musical what can otherwise sound chaotic. 

Pianist Jason Bae, an 18-year-old Korean studying at Auckland University, proved a remarkable executant, coping brilliantly with Stravinsky as if he had been living with this music happily for years. After the troublesome start, woodwinds were more successful in managing the tortuous rhythmic and harmonic hurdles.

The full orchestra came successfully together in the second half. John Adams’s The Chairman Dances, commonly thought to be drawn from his opera, Nixon in China, was not incorporated in it, but the association remains pertinent. It is a mesmeric piece that has its detractors, possibly among those who cannot accept that a 1980s piece can actually be, or alternatively, has any right to be, listenable.

It is a latter-day Bolero in its repetitiveness, in the way it slowly accelerates and increases in orchestral complexity and density. For me, this was a performance of huge delight, brilliant in every department, filled with virtuosic playing, colour, and infectious rhythms. The performance had every appearance of being huge fun for the orchestra.

Finally came the piece that I would have thought might have had the greatest pulling power: Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. It had the stamp of a full-scale professional performance, by an orchestra fired up by a really gifted conductor.

It was an inspired choice, offering evidence of the orchestra’s mastery of biting staccato attacks, of spacious, long-breathed melodic lines, of moments of relaxation; and throughout, opportunities to hear some of the orchestra’s most conspicuously gifted players: the alto saxophone and the bass clarinet, the piano, the oboes and bassoons, the horns. The first movement has a particularly gorgeous passage where first violins and cellos lead other sections, not in any ordinary musical sequence, but heart-stopping, rapturous and eloquent.

In the waltz-tempo second movement, the sour, muted trumpets set the scene, another angle on Ravel’s ironic vision in La Valse. Here we heard a lovely solo from concertmaster Jessica Alloway, and later the big viola section – equal in numbers to the second violins – picked up the waltz tune darkly, capturing its sinister voluptuousness as if these young people had seen a lot more of the dark side of human nature than one hopes they have.

Here, as everywhere in the concert, one’s eyes, as well as ears, were transfixed by the conductor’s balletic performance on the podium; often, such movement can be more self-serving than musically useful, but Milanov is the real thing: a conductor whose gestures and foot-work seem to be intrinsic to the dynamic totality of music in live performance.

More percussion emerged in the edgy finale, hinting at a witches’ Sabbath, Berlioz or Liszt – tubular bells, eerie flourishes from clarinets and flutes, and Ravel again – La Valse, the Concerto for the Left Hand – in the jazzy rhythms, the skeletal clatter of the xylophone in its treatment of the Dies Irae. For those who didn’t know the piece, there could have been no more stunning introduction to one of Rachmaninov’s masterpieces.

Cook Strait Trio in distinguished performances

Wellington Chamber Music Society

Turína: Piano trio no.2 in B minor, Op.76; Rebecca Clarke: Piano trio; Mendelssohn: Piano trio in D minor, Op.49

Cook Strait Trio – Blythe Press (violin), Amber Rainey (piano), Hugo Zanker (cello)

Ilott Theatre. Wellington Town Hall

Sunday, 22 August 2010, 3pm

It was a pleasure to hear this young trio again, albeit with a different cellist – this one from Canterbury, now playing in the Magdeburger Philharmonic Orchestra in Germany.  The other two are still studying, Press having completed his Bachelor’s degree at Graz, Austria, and now studying for a Master’s; Rainey is studying piano accompaniment at the Guildhall in London.

It was amazing that two piano trios made up of young players could be heard in Wellington in two days, the other being the Boyarsky Trio on Friday evening.

A confident start to the Turína work set the tone for the entire concert.  I was unfamiliar with this trio, but it had much charm in the first movement.  All three instruments were in complete accord, playing with full tone, and complete rhythmic and interpretative integrity.

The second movement featured vivace opening and closing, with a slow section in the middle.  Despite much repetition in the string parts, the piano never dominated.

The final movement was stirring and vigorous, and played with a panache which the solid technique of each of the players permitted.

Pianist Amber Rainey spoke before the Rebecca Clarke work, in which it was revealed that Hugo Zanker had only played with the other two musicians for a month.  She continued with an informative introduction to the Rebecca Clarke work, asserting that it should be played more often.  She described it as impressionistic and dissonant.  However, I didn’t entirely agree with her remark about the status of Clarke; what about Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann?

Two years ago we heard the Tawahi Trio play Rebecca Clarke in the WCMS Sunday afternoon series.  That time, it was Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale, which made a very favourable impression.  Since then, I have heard Clarke’s works on the radio a number of times, and I find that there is a Society recently created in her name, to promote her works.  Grove dismisses her as a violist, married to the pianist James Friskin.  (Probably only in the case of Schumann is a wife ever noted in writings about the husband!)

The first movement featured abrupt mood changes, and lower register passages for both strings, which produced lovely tone.  This was true in the second movement also, yielding a mysterious quality. In the third movement a sonorous piano solo was underpinned by delicate string accompaniment.  In this movement particularly, there were intriguing figures for all the instruments.  The middle section had a dreamy quality, then it was back to the sparkling opening.

The piece was interesting and skilful, and played by a group of talented young musicians, but I did not find it an endearing work.

Endearing and entrancing are, however, the words for Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D minor.   There was plenty of warmth and depth to this playing.  The opening agitato movement was not uneasy, like Clarke’s appassionato.

The soulful second movement was notable for the many changes in dynamics, always appropriate.  Listening to these performers, one would not guess their youth.  Amber Rainey has a compact, unfussy style of playing, and is always totally in accord with her colleagues.

The Scherzo and Finale exhibit Mendelssohn’s delightful treatment of his themes.  The latter’s ending was brilliant, especially from the piano.

This was thoroughly delectable playing of a wonderful work, completing a concert of distinguished, finely crafted performances.

All present would wish the trio well in their continuing studies.

“Johann Sebastian – Mighty Bach!” from Orpheus

J.S.BACH – Mass in B Minor

Madeleine Pierard, Lisette Wesseling (sopranos) / Christopher Warwick (counter-tenor) / Paul McMahon (tenor) / Daniel O’Connor (bass)

Orpheus Choir

Vector Wellington Orchestra

Michael Fulcher (conductor)

Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 22nd August, 2010

Because JS Bach’s Mass in B Minor is such an established part of the choral repertoire, it’s interesting to reflect on the somewhat piecemeal origins of the work – as an entity it was assembled by the composer in 1749, one year before his death, but parts of it were actually composed up to almost thirty years before, with some of these parts intended for other works – the Sanctus dates from 1724, and the Kyrie and Gloria come from 1733, used by the composer in one of his “Lutheran” Masses – though ironically the Latin settings suggest the Catholic liturgy as much as the Lutheran. Bach had composed this earlier Mass for the new Catholic Elector of Saxony, at whose court he had hoped to get an appointment as court composer (he got the job!). Opinions among scholars differ as to the likely dates of composition of the rest of the B Minor Mass – most are agreed that the work took its final shape throughout the 1740s, though the Credo setting continues to divide opinion regarding its origin in time and place.

What has all of this got to do with the performance we heard on Sunday of the Mass given by the Orpheus Choir and the Vector Wellington Orchestra, with an excellent team of soloists, all directed by Michael Fulcher? Well, it’s just that, despite this somewhat checquered compositional assemblage, the mighty work continued to amaze and inspire and profoundly satisfy on practically all counts. The performance was a splendid achievement, taking into account the usual “settling-in” period from both choir and orchestra, and a few glitches of the kind readily associated with live performance – once things started coming together there were places when a burnished glow came over both singing and playing. I thought the choir particularly good at maintaining those long-breathed sonorous melodic lines in the grander, more declamatory music – so the openings of each section of the work sounded particularly resplendent, with the women’s voices particularly strong and focused, and the men’s invariably characterful and accurate, though not as full-sounding. The orchestral soloists were, without exception a joy to hear; and once the rest of the players got into their conductor’s vigorous stride (the opening of the Gloria was a particularly breathless affair, especially for the brass), they were able to articulate the music with precise attack and homogenous tones.

What the work really does is present the listener (and performers) with a kind of compendium of Bach’s compositional styles and techniques, an assemblage that, thanks to the sheer composer-craft of technique and imagination of invention, sounds as though its constituent parts flow from one to another as if conceived in the same melting-pot at the same time. Neither its composer nor the performers or audiences of the time thought there was anything unusual about it or about how it was put together – baroque composers were so much less “purist” about their own music than we are about it, and Bach was no exception, if the genesis of this Mass is anything to go by. While the work doesn’t in my view achieve the variety of invention and profundity of feeling that do the two major Passions, St.John and St.Matthew, it still tests the technical skill and interpretative depth of any musician involved with its performance.

A lot of focus was centred on soprano Madeleine Pierard, whose activities overseas, particularly in the operatic field, give an impression of a career developing steadily and rewardingly. She made a delightful impression on a previous return visit to Wellington in 2008 to sing in “Messiah”, and was just as vocally attractive and interpretatively insightful on this occasion. The singer gave Bach’s lines a wonderful mixture of strength, purity and emotion that really made the music come alive, the technical accomplishment she’s already achieved allowing her to concentrate on the text and the line and their interaction to make an expressive effect.The difference this time round, apart from that of the music, was in the quality of her soloist colleagues in this concert, enabling her as a matter of course to engage with them in equal partnerships, true give-and-take affairs that brought out the best in the participants.

As second soprano, Lisette Wesseling brought her own distinctive tones to both ensemble pieces and solos, making a fine job of the lovely “Laudamus te” from the “Gloria” (even at Michael Fulcher’s lively tempo, phrasing her lines with elegance and grace), and earlier blending characterfully with Madeleine Pierard in the “Christe eleison”. Australian tenor Paul McMahon contributed a similarly interactive role with Pierard in a gorgeously-sung “Domine Deus”, also from the “Gloria”. Here, and also with McMahon’s lovely singing of the “Benedictus” from the “Sanctus”, flutist Karen Batten won our hearts with some lovely, limpid playing, generating with the singers many subtle light-and-shade gradations of tone and phrasing.

I recently heard counter-tenor Christopher Warwick sing in the Wellington performance of the Monteverdi Vespers, and was impressed on that occasion by his ability to hold long lines of true tone with real quality – and it was that ability he brought to his singing of the “Agnus Dei”, as well as contributing, plangently and long-breathedly, to the duet with Madeleine Pierard from the Credo “Et in unum Dominum”. He was less comfortable with his first solo, “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris”, one whose slightly awkward intervals gave him the occasional pitching problem – but his contribution to the general ensemble was most estimable.

Yet another soloist to give pleasure was the bass Daniel O’Connor, whose focused, agile singing was nicely set off by the horn obbligato in the Gloria’s “Quoniam tu solus sanctus”, and again by some lovely instrumental work in “Et in spiritum sanctum” from the “Credo”, this time with a pair of oboe d’amore adding their lines in thirds and carolling a memorable refrain. It was somewhat diverting to experience such deep, sonorous tones coming from so youthful-looking a figure, but nevertheless one who obviously has great potential as a performer, and who can already hold his own in more experienced company.

The performance took place in the Wellington Town Hall, which couldn’t be a better venue as regards sound. Bach would have written this music for performing in a church, but one suspects that he expected the focus to be well and truly on the music, considering the care he took and the intricacies that he created – he obviously meant these to be heard rather than delivered in a matter-of-fact way as a background to something else happening. In the Wellington Town Hall the acoustic was perfect for the work – a warm and rich sound that nevertheless allowed detail to come through. And there’s something about the venue – I think it’s partly the sound, but also the  “shoebox” shape of the auditorium – that encloses you and makes you feel as though you’re in the same performing space as the musicians, which gives the music-making a greater sense of intimacy. The Orpheus Choir’s performance was one that first and foremost sounded good, given that Bach’s part-writing is extremely demanding, and often written for voices as though he didn’t expect them to need to breathe – so the occasional loss of tone in the more torturous contrapuntal part-lines was something which a lot of performers experience when undertaking this work. And the Wellington Orchestra, after a bit of a scratchy start, gave the music a warm, richly-toned instrumental response throughout. Michael Fulcher kept everything together with great skill – he liked swifter speeds in places than I wanted, most notably in the “Laudamus te” which almost EVERYBODY I’ve heard, both in live performance and on record, goes too fast (Mathew Ross, his violin soloist for this performance, coped with the tumbling figurations most skilfully) – but his choir and his singers and players were almost invariably equal to the task, giving us a strong and direct realisation of this marvellous, somewhat quirky work of “Johann Sebastian – mighty Bach!”.