New Zealand and other solo piano music
The Enchanted Island: music by J S BACH, FRANK HUTCHENS, ERNEST JENNER, DOUGLAS LILBURN, ROBERT BURCH, ALFRED HILL, SAMUEL BARBER, WILLIAM GREEN, GEORGE GERSHWIN, JENNY McLEOD, JACK BODY, HELEN BOWATER, MICHAEL NORRIS, RICHARD WAGNER (arr.FRANZ LISZT)
(A Caprice Arts Trust Concert)
William Green (piano)
St. Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington
Friday, 24th September 2010
This was a recital that had more than a whiff of magic, mystery and atmosphere about it, thanks in part to a tempestuous Wellington spring wind that roared around and about St. Andrew’s Church throughout the evening, activating creaks, groans and occasional muffled bumpings and rumblings. It was as if an army of musical ghosts had congregated amid the rafters of the church and were making their presence felt none too silently (shades of the composers, perhaps, come to hear their music given an all too seldom public airing in many instances).
Other things contributed to the magic of the occasion, not the least of which was William Green’s playing. An Auckland-based musician who gives frequent recitals exploring the surprisingly rich legacy of New Zealand piano music, Green was here making his Wellington debut as a solo recitalist. He brought with him a programme whose substance and presentation deserved far greater support than the paltry numbers who did attend the concert were able to generate, appreciative though the audience was of the pianist’s efforts. Whether the sparse attendance (no more than thirty people) could be attributed to lack of advertising, the pianist’s and the repertoire’s largely “unfamiliar” status, the recital’s injudicious timing or the less-than-salubrious weather, the response remained disappointing and reflected less than positively on the capital’s reputation as a centre for arts and culture.
But what magic there was in the music as well! – in the Caprice Arts Trust’s advertising preamble, William Green referred to the programme as focused “on the small and the lyrical – often clothed in the unusual!”. Most of the works were written by New Zealand composers, many of which pieces were new to me; and the pianist’s own work, a set of three Rags Without Riches was given its world premiere performance (he also played an exerpt from another of his compositions, No.5 from Five Miniatures). The idea of including in the recital works by JS Bach, Samuel Barber, George Gershwin (three song arrangements, fascinatingly different treatments) and Richard Wagner (Liszt’s famed transcription of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde) certainly “placed” the home-grown pieces in wider contexts of both time and space, and not at all to their detriment.
Not inappropriately, the recital’s “anchor-stone” whose opening tones readily suggested a sense of “something rich and strange” was a Busoni transcription of JS Bach’s Nun Komm der Heiland, the music’s deep-throated, solemn stride evoking at once the mystery of unfathomable being and the beauty of ritual, a recipe for gentle bewitchment if ever there was one. The piece which gave the recital its name followed, Frank Hutchens’ The Enchanted Isle, atmospheric, impressionistic music, figurations beneath which sang a sonorous melody, and awakenings of echoes and distant voicings, the pianist’s ultra-sensitivity presiding over a beguiling harmonic kaleidoscope of colour-change. Wilder and more energetic was the same composer’s Sea Music, a kind of pianistic “jeux de vagues”, rippling figurations concerned with playful, impulsive dialogue between melody and counter-melody, nothing too adventurous harmonically, but with the occasional guileful twist. And Ernest Jenner’s Foxglove Bells, though hinting at touches of the exotic with some of the opening harmonies, was a gentle, pictorial English pastorale, the bells at the mercy of the breezes across the meadow, their tones rising at the piece’s lovely, questioning ending.
Terser, more enigmatic fare was Douglas Lilburn’s Piece ’81, a piece whose soulful, upward-arching impulses gave themselves and their resonances plenty of air and light, contrast and distance generated by almost sepulchral bass notes that opened up the textures, the pianist allowing the music plenty of room for thought, then gently nudging a couple more upward impulses into the silences. A contemporary of Lilburn’s was Robert Burch, respected as a fine horn-player as well as a composer – William Green played the third of Burch’s set of Four Bagatelles, a piece redolent of tolling bells, with an inquiring, angular figure that walked backwards and forwards across the soundscape, leaving the bells to carry on with an ever-diminishing dialogue, the pianist beautifully controlling the resonantly receding ending. Rather more salon-like was Alfred Hill’s Come Again, Summer, a welcome song in the manner of Cecile Chaminade, though with some telling harmonic shifts in places, especially towards the end.
Green next figured as a transcriber of a bracket of Samuel Barber’s songs, including an aria from the composer’s opera Vanessa. A powerfully bleak, almost Messiaen-like The Crucifixion, complete with birdsong, was succeeded by the well-known, warmly resonant Sure on that Shining Night , rolling and romantic in style; and the group was concluded with the tightly-focused, theatrically interactive To Leave, to Break, the interchanges between bass and treble voices suggesting the piece’s stage origins. Another set of transcriptions, later in the programme, were of George Gershwin’s songs, this time by three different transcribers, each of which had something distinctive to offer, the first, Love walked In, featuring for instance Percy Grainger’s “woggle” (the composer’s irreverent name for a tremolando).
To conclude the recital’s first half, Green played us his new work, Rags Without Riches, three cleverly-written, almost pastiche-like dances paying homage to different New Zealand locations, the first, Starvation Bluff, beginning with what seemed like a pianistic cry of pain, the dying fall as pathetic in effect as the tortured opening. The music evoked hard times and bitter disillusionment, occasional bright-eyed utterances exposing their shadow side, the ghostly ascents taking us into tonal realms where warmth was stripped to the bone and feeling bleached to the point of numbness. Then came Poverty Bay Shuffle, music beginning with droll rumblings and upward rollings, the rhythmic energies projecting a laconic, weathered sensibility, again without warmth or illusion, a structure liable to disintegrate without warning, occasioning desperate gestures such as Grainger-like hand-clustered chords, hollowed-out exchanges of melodic fragments and a final, cursory downward slide. The final Poor Knight’s Rag took on a manic aspect, cluttered, insistent and claustrophobic, a “Singing Detective-like” musical hallucination which recklessly ran itself headlong into the waiting clutches of oblivion. And then it was, as Tom Lehrer would have remarked, more than forty years ago, time for a cancer!
Apart from the Gershwin transcriptions, and Liszt’s well-known keyboard traversal of Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan, the rest was New Zealand music – William Green gave us two beautiful Tone Clock Pieces by Jenny McLeod, the first (No.2) tolling its notes and enjoying its own ambiences, then exploring antiphonal voices and various resonating reflections, ending with deep, rich soundings; while the second (No.4) rolled, spun and orbited its arpeggiated figures, registering fragments of echoings and chordal replies, rather like a meeting of two disparate elements. Jack Body’s classic Five Melodies was represented by the fifth piece of the set, the oscillation of the notes very beautiful and haunting, the figurations “travelling”, as does sunlight upon water-surfaces, spontaneously recreating the scenario’s basic patternings. Another “Piece No.5” was William’ Green’s own composition, from 5 Miniatures, a lovely, open-textured piece whose explorations of space and becalmed ambiences had to compete with a considerable amount of wind-noise from various parts of the building – the performance nevertheless beautifully sustained by the composer-pianist. By contrast, Helen Bowater’s rapid-fire, high-energy tribute to an Asian housemate’s attempts at communicable language No Problem From Little Bit bubbled with excitability and joy at the prospect of being understood. The pendulum swung back to circumspection for Michael Norris’s Amato, a Caprice Arts Trust commission, here receiving only its second public performance – music whose stillness suggested worlds of frozen time, repeated right-hand water-droplet notes a constant while the left hand tentatively explored middle and bass registers. Clustered etchings of sound began to fill up the piece’s spaces, the pauses defining the dimensions tellingly before being made to resonate with rich tones – some marvellous sounds from the pianist and his instrument! To finish, quiet,firm-voiced declamations, and gentle scintillations of light, everything judiciously controlled and beautifully-breathed.
The Wagner transcription became a “back to the world” undertaking, a piece whose quiet but rapidly burgeoning insistence can produce an overwhelming effect, even in keyboard guise, thanks to the genius of Liszt. William Green’s playing unlocked most of its its magic here, even if I wanted somewhat longer-breathed phrasings at the beginning and a touch more rhetoric at “the” climax, rabid sensationalist that I am! Our over-saturated sensibilities at the conclusion were then refurbished by a “cleansing” encore from the pianist, another of Frank Hutchens’ pieces, called “Two Little Birds”, one whose sounds and realisation expressed exactly what the title said the piece would do – in terms of the recital’s avowed pursuit of “the small and lyrical”, a perfect way to end. And hats off to William Green and Caprice Arts for their splendid enterprise!