Sacred Heart Cathedral Choir sings Victoria – a moment in time

A Requiem for All Souls

Tomás Luis de Victoria – Mass for the Dead

Sacred Heart Cathedral Choir

Michael Stewart, director

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill St., Wellington

Saturday, 30th October 2010

I ought to confess right here and now to having a bias towards presentations of liturgical plainchant, as it was very much the kind of church music I grew up with, being a Catholic and a New Zealand child of the 1950s. So, of course, this concert touched so many of my points by dint of sheer content, the effect immeasurably augmented by the general excellence of the singing and the music’s direction throughout. This was a reconstruction by Michael Stewart and the Cathedral Choir of Renaissance Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Mass for the Dead, or Requiem, in a proper liturgical setting – that is, in the context of the Catholic Mass. The placement of Victoria’s beautiful polyphony amidst the plainer and starker liturgical chants worked to the advantage of both, creating a well-nigh unique ambience, one to which the Cathedral surroundings gave even more atmosphere and impact.

Throughout the opening Introit Requiem I got the impression that these choir voices hadn’t been overly-moulded and honed into an excessively homogenous blend, a quality which I liked in this circumstance, as it gave to my ears a plainer, more direct and accessible feeling to the singing, almost as if the music was something one could oneself join in with. Having said this, in no way do I want to give the impression that the singing was anything but beautiful throughout – if the lines were not always ideally pure, they were still in tune; and invariably made up in focus and fervour for what they occasionally lacked in elegance. The middle voices gave consistent pleasure at the outset, with “et lux perpetua luceat eis”, bringing into relief moments such as the sopranos’ strongly-etched “et tibi reddetur” which followed. But most telling was the reprise of Requiem, which had a wonderfully charged devotional quality, an evocation whose intensity set the tone for everything that was to follow, such as the succeeding Kyrie, beautifully blossoming upwards from its first phrase, and contrasting nicely with its hushed, ethereal companion Christe.

Choir and conductor brought out the beauties of the Graduale, with its flourishes at “dona eis Domine” and timelessly-wrought cadences at the word “perpetua”. There was delight at a single soprano voice at “In memoria” being joined by others and reaching full resplendent tones at “mala non timebit”, the latter sequence  all the more wondrous through being “ritualized” by the plainchant exchanges between celebrant and choir. But what really set my pulses racing was the singing of the Dies irae, all eighteen verses of it, each poetic metre of three lines a self-contained meditation or beseechment regarding the Day of Judgement. When I was at school, we sang this alternating verses between small group and larger choir; but here, tonight, this was performed with full choir throughout, each verse given subtle variations of colour and emphasis depending on its content. The last, Lacrimosa, breaks the metre somewhat and features a new melody, which releases the tensions built up by the previous repetitions and their ever-growing emphasis, here realized by Michael Stewart and his choir in a profoundly satisfying way, at once sturdy, resigned and aspiring to the celestial.

And so it all proceeded, ritualistic gestures of exchange alternating with Victoria’s exquisite word-settings, such as those of the Offertorium, allowing us to relish the choir’s surge of emotion at “de poenis inferni”, and the luminous soprano lines at “repraesentet eas in lucem sanctam”, both moments to be treasured. And I enjoyed the celebrant’s intoning of both “Vere dignum et justum est” at the Preface and the Pater Noster, once again losing myself in remembrances of the patterning of the chants and their variants. Alternatively, Victoria’s treatment of the Sanctus put me in mind of Thomas Tallis in places, while the Lux aeterna again featured a nicely-distilled soprano line at the outset, and a properly devotional “quia pius es”, though I did register a touch of “hooted” tone from those same sopranos in the “Requiem aeternam” section. With the Libera me, the Proper of the Mass concluded, Victoria leaving the opening line as plainchant before developing “Quando caeli movendi sunt et terra” into vivid descriptions, tenor, alto and bass lines standing forth at “Tremens factus”, and with the whole choir excitingly igniting the textures at the point of return to the “Dies irae” text. As was fitting, the lovely cadential resolutions at “Requiem aeternam” worked their spell alongside the varied reprise of “Libera me”, extending the music’s mood, colour, declamation and harmony, and leaving the plainchant Antiphon to bring things to a properly poised and dignified end.

Given that my appreciation of this concert was undoubtedly coloured by my own history and experience of the music’s liturgical context, I felt confident nevertheless that my enthusiasm for the singing and conducting, as well as for the overall conception of performance, was well-founded. I’m sure my enjoyment would have been shared by all at the Cathedral that evening.

Chamber Music New Zealand’s Schubertiade at Sixty

SCHUBERT – Notturno Movement in E-flat D.897

String Quartet No.15 in G D.887

Piano Quintet in A D.667 “Die Forelle” (The Trout)

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman – violins,

Gillian Ansell – viola, Rolf Gjelsten – ‘cello)

Michael Houstoun (piano), Michael Steer (double bass)

Wellington Town Hall

Thursday 28th October 2010

Sixty years ago in Wellington, in 1950, the ubiquitous “Trout” Quintet was performed by members of the Alex Lindsay String Orchestra with Frederick Page at the piano. This was one of the highlights of the very first season of concerts organised by the New Zealand Federation of Chamber Music Societies that year; and so it seemed more than appropriate that this same work would feature in an anniversary concert this evening devoted to one of the most beloved of composers of chamber music. Called a “Schubertiade”, the concert was a grand celebration of sixty years of fine and auspicious music-making, as indicated by the many world-wide household names appearing among the “historical” lists of contributing artists printed in the programme.

What better way to open an evening devoted to Schubert’s music than with the adorable Notturno, that mysterious fragment of an uncompleted Piano Trio whose serene beauty has given it a life of its own as a concert piece? Michael Houstoun’s first gently undulating piano notes were the waters on which the beams of light from the strings played, long-breathed and with graceful turns, the music’s shape nicely choreographed by the players’ physical gestures, the string players’ bows delineating the pizzicato notes like rippling, scintillating light-shafts. Throughout, the trio of musicians went to the places that the music did, revelling in the ebb and flow of lyricism and intensity, and characterising the different episodes with, by turns, colourings rich and subtle and rhythmic impulses strong and delicate.

Having confirmed Schubert’s credentials as a lyricist, the musicians realigned their forces for a performance of the greatest of the composer’s string quartets, No.15 in G Major, D.887. This music poses huge interpretative challenges, physical, intellectual and emotional, not the least of which is how to establish a “through-line” across four markedly diverse movements. My feeling was that the New Zealand String Quartet characterised the first three movements wonderfully, but then took a rather lightweight view of the finale, which seemed not to invest the music with enough “demon” at the outset for the drama of the  major/minor key contrasts to tell.  This music shares with the first of the same composer’s D.946 Piano Pieces a series of “dark flight” sequences set against grittily determined major-key pushes towards the light, generating a feeling of unease masking something not far removed in places from fear and desperation. I thought the playing needed more of an edge, such as the NZSQ was able to amply demonstrate during their recent Shostakovich quartet performances – in this instance, for my liking, the music was allowed a little too much respite.

Which was a pity, because the musicians had dug in boldly right at the quartet’s beginning – again, not the most searing of accounts that I’ve heard, but whose control and command in itself created tensions associated with a sense of chaos barely held at bay. Here, and in the almost schizophrenic second movement, the quartet’s workings-out explored every nuance of feeling, every impulse of contrast, the playing very “integrated” and coherent. One was tempted at first to blame the ample acoustic of the Town Hall for what seemed like a certain lack of immediacy – but these same players had in no uncertain terms filled out the comparable vistas of the Church of St Mary of the Angels not long ago with Schumann and Shostakovich; so one’s conclusion was that their response to this music was here being more-or-less truthfully conveyed.

Rightly or wrongly, one tends to associate the historical Schubertiades with more gaiety and conviviality of utterance, than the angst and astringent feeling generated by this quartet. What happened next was far more in accord with this rose-tinted view, with the appearance of baritone Roger Wilson making a dapper figure in cloak and gloves, accompanied by Michael Houstoun, to perform the song that both inspired and gave the eponymous Quintet its name, “The Trout”. Chamber Music Chief Executive Euan Murdoch had seated himself on the stage ready to welcome the singer and his pianist (a few more staged “bodies” gathered to listen would have engendered even more of a Schubertiade atmosphere, methought – but nevertheless the feeling of it was right). Roger Wilson delivered a pleasantly-modulated, if somewhat understated performance of the song, as if he was, surprisingly, a little overawed by the occasion (I’ve heard this singer deliver a number of splendidly characterised performances on the recital platform in the past, and was thus a tad disappointed…) After he had finished and departed. Euan Murdoch welcomed the audience to the concert, spoke briefly about the Society’s sixty years of history, and wished all of us many more years of listening to great chamber music played by more wonderful artists.

For such an occasion, the “Trout” Quintet was an obvious choice – more reconfigurations of personnel saw Douglas Beilman take the leader’s position, Michael Houstoun rejoin the ensemble, and double-bass player Michael Steer, late of the NZSO and currently based in Dunedin for post-graduate study make his first appearance of the evening. I thought the performance was beautifully held together by Michael Houstoun, who proved to be an excellent chamber musician (not always the case with star virtuosi). His contributions surged outwards, or melted into the ensemble at appropriate moments, the rest of the time maintaining the flow and upholding what the other musicians were doing. It wasn’t Michael Steer’s fault that he looked far more impressive than he sounded – the music was obviously written for an amateur performer – but I still felt a bit more temperament in places wouldn’t have gone amiss. The other string players made the most of their opportunities for ensembled give-and-take, though I felt leader Douglas Beilman wasn’t having the happiest of times with some of his ascents on the e-string. I did like his trilling during the Variations movement – these were no caged birds whose song we heard, but sounds that were wild and free.

Despite the ‘chalk-and-cheese” effect of the concert’s two halves, I thought the “Schubertiade” concept was a wonderful idea. The Society’s many supporters made obvious their enjoyment of and delight in the concert in a way that would have heartened those who work to foster the continuance of chamber music in all parts of the country. Birthday congratulations to the Society are definitely in order.

Israeli cellist with a short programme in the Hunter Council Chamber

Inbal Megiddo – cello and Diedre Irons – piano


Shostakovich: Cello Sonata, Op 40;  Brahms’s Piano Trio No 1 in B Major, Op 8 – first movement, with Martin Riseley (violin); Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces, Op 73; Popper: Hungarian Rhapsody


Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University


Wednesday 27 October, 7pm 


A century ago, perhaps, a player with the talent of Inbal Megiddo would have been a household name by now – she’s 33 and her early career was phenomenal. She was born in Israel and is now resident in the United States. Picking up on the example of Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, her regular recital accompanist is Palestinian Saleem Abboud Ashkar.


After a prodigious rise to youthful eminence, however, her career has settled into something a little short of that of an international star; she appears to have played with none of the top symphony orchestras, and has recorded with none of the major labels. Yet she has played at the Lincoln Centre and at Carnegie Hall, New York, and in the Kennedy Center in Washington. She played recently with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and in recital at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin; with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, and with the Lithuanian Philharmonic Society. She has toured and recorded with The Yale Cellos and recorded with the Yale Philharmonia.


That famous orchestras do not feature on her CV is much more a commentary on the bewildering numbers of brilliantly gifted musicians competing in a frighteningly crowded profession, than on her musicianship.


For the evidence offered at this recital at Victoria University was of a mature cellist whose technical prowess, in Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody for example, is prodigious, and whose interpretive powers are guided by a profound feeling for the composers’ nature and intentions.


Shostakovich’s only cello sonata makes huge demands of both technical and intellectual resources, even though a relatively early piece; yet it seems not to be unified by a particularly coherent structure: the normal disparate character of the four movements are without the feeling that they are inevitably parts of a whole.


The performance, by both pianist and cellist, was full of dramatic variety, thrusting and energetic, agitated at the start and melodious later in the first movement; particularly arresting was the music’s rallentando and transformation into a sort of intermezzo before the second movement starts. Again, in this triple-time Allegro, the sense of unity between the instruments, supported by Diedre Irons’s astringent piano and the big robust sound of the cello with its ostinato motifs, was a hard-hitting experience. The Largo was the main opportunity to enjoy Megiddo’s rapturous, deeply expressive playing, particularly as the movement ended in beautiful calm, and she repeatedly sought out Diedre Irons’s eyes to ensure an ideal rapport.


One has always to regret the truncating of great music, and even if Brahms’s first piano trio, its first version written aged 20, is not one of his greatest works, the end of the first movement left us up in the air, waiting for the staccato, mephisto-dance of the Scherzo. But that wasn’t the main problem.


Martin Riseley, the head of string studies at the school of music, took the violin part; perhaps I was not sitting in an ideal position, but the balance of the three instruments was defective. Riseley’s sound was not the equal of either cello or piano, though when I made an effort to exclude the other instruments, his playing was unexceptionable, even if not as voluptuous as it is in my head.


My colleague Rosemary Collier recently lamented the frequency with which cellists put Schumann’s Fantasiestücke in their programmes. Though I have a special love of Schumann and also of the cello, I have to agree. There were dozens of pieces in her repertoire, to be seen on her website, that I’d have been delighted to hear. The duo made a nice job of the Schumann, but it was not a highlight.


David Popper is one of those composers known mainly to cellists, for that was the tool of his fame in the late 19th century. His Hungarian Rhapsody, drawn from several of Liszt’s eponymous pieces, was great fun as well as the predictable opportunity to demonstrate a lot of hair-raising pyrotechnics, brilliantly supported by the pianist whose task was hardly diminished as a result of the limelight being removed from her.

Wind and water in accomplished concert from the School of Music

Frank Martin: Ballade for flute and piano; Giovanni Bassano: Ricercata Quarta and Frais et Gaillard; Saint-Saens: Sonata for bassoon and piano; Ryo Noda: Improvisation 1 for solo alto saxophone; Telemann, arr. H. Roud: Fantasie for solo contrabassoon; John Steinmetz: Fish Phase for 2 contrabassoons and goldfish; Brahms: Scherzo from Trio in E flat, Op.140, for violin, horn and piano

Woodwind Soloists from the New Zealand School of Music

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 27 October 2010, 12.15pm

The players were accomplished performers, though whether the two (?) goldfish (complete with bowl and water) in the New Zealand premiere of Steinmetz’s work were moved by the music, we could not tell; they certainly could be seen moving. I’m not sure how often animals are involved in music-making (though in opera they sometimes are – many years ago I saw Bizet’s Carmen at the Paris Opera, and counted 13 different horses in the production – though not all on stage at once!). But I would be fairly certain that Steinmetz’s work was the first involving goldfish on stage.

Steinmetz, I gather from a brief Internet search, is an American bassoonist and composer who specialises in comic works; the work with goldfish is listed on his website as one of these.

However, the concert began in more serious vein, with a brilliant piece by Martin, played by Chloe Schnell, accompanied by Douglas Mews on piano. A clear spoken introduction preceded a work full of dynamic and mood changes, with many technical demands on both soloist and accompanist. It was executed very well, and set a very high standard.

Following that, we travelled back several centuries to hear two pieces for recorder, played by Brendan O’Donnell, with the versatile Mews now on the stool of the chamber organ, for the second; the first piece was unaccompanied. The spoken introduction stressed again that the students need to be taught to speak loudly and slowly enough to be heard in a large and resonant auditorium, and not to say ‘um’.

These were attractive pieces, superbly well played. Recorder and organ were in absolute accord in the second piece, and the playing was uniformly clean and articulated well.

Saint-Saens’ late sonata was performed by Kylie Nesbit, bassoon, with the ubiquitous and highly competent Douglas Mews, back at the piano. It was a delightful and charming work, tuneful and interesting, in Late Romantic style. A lilting accompaniment in the first movement (allegro moderato) contrasted with long melodic notes from the bassoon, at times reminiscent of the composer’s much earlier opera, Samson et Dalila.

Nesbit is a superb and experienced player, and like the composer, knew how to make the most of her instrument. The second movement, allegro scherzando, was very fast, with all notes articulated well – as was the performer’s clear (an sufficiently loud) spoken introduction. The final movement, molto adagio leading to allegro moderato, featured lovely variation of tone and dynamics.

What would Telemann have thought? A Fantasie for solo bassoon, originally written for the flute! I can’t say it improved in the transcribing – but what is there to play as a solo on the contrabassoon? Hayley Roud deserves marks for transcribing the piece.

The Fish Phase was performed by Hayley Roud and Oscar Laven, on two instruments constructed differently; Laven’s had a long extension on the top ending in a small horn, while Roud’s was more conventionally given an extra turn to make the greater length in more compact form. Unfortunately, the full spoken introduction was spoken too fast and too quietly for most of it to be heard. I gathered that there were alleged to be shades of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka in the piece, but I couldn’t really confirm that at this profundity of pitch. The piece was rather repetitive. Whether this reflected the behaviour of goldfish, I do not know.

The Brahms Scherzo took the concert considerably over the normal allotted time for these concerts. In this resonant acoustic, the horn was often too loud for the violin; the latter’s intonation was sometimes off-centre. However, the lyrical middle section of the movement was very well played.

A very varied programme displayed the considerable skills of NZSM students on a variety of instruments and from a huge range of composers.

Sharon Yearsley and friends in Mozart, Schubert, Britten and early Italians

Early Italian Arias (Caccini, Giordani, Parisotti); Three Cabaret Songs (Britten); Three songs by Schubert; Aria: ‘Porgi Amor’ (Mozart); Two songs by Sondheim

Sharon Yearsley (soprano)

Malinda Di Leva (soprano)

Chris Berentson (tenor)

Jonathan Berkahn (accompanist)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 20 October, 12.15pm

First on the programme were three Italian arias, which unfortunately I missed, which was a pity if only because apparently Sharon Yearsley accompanied herself on the piano – an unusual practice, which it would have been interesting to observe. I’m told that it gave the performance an intimate character, and that the arias were beautifully sung.

Two of the performers are members of the NBR New Zealand Opera Chorus in Wellington, and so have just been singing in Verdi’s Macbeth, which would have put them in good voice, after all the rehearsals and performances.

I noticed that the piano lid was not raised, but the sound levels and balance were appropriate for all the singers.

Two of Britten’s Cabaret Songs were sung by Malinda Di Leva, accompanied (as was the remainder of the programme) by Jonathan Berkahn. Di Leva has a good voice, especially in the lower register, but I found the top too shrill, and the timbre unpleasant at times. She sang these songs too ‘straight’, as though they were lieder; neither singer nor accompanist seemed to regard them as amusing. The tempi were too regular, there was little facial expression from the singer. They needed more of a humorous, ‘show-off’ style. This was particularly true in the first two songs: ‘Tell me the truth about love’ and ‘Funeral Blues’. The former is often performed by those able to give it the ironic vocal manner required. The third song, ‘Calypso’ had more expression. In all the songs, the words were enunciated well.

Chris Berentson followed with three of Schubert’s best-known songs. He introduced these, and recited Shakespeare’s sonnet ‘To Sylvia’. The Schubert setting followed. Berentson has a very attractive tenor voice, though there was some strain evident on the top notes. Pitch wavered from time to time, and ‘t’ and ‘s’ sounds were overdone for this acoustic. But in the main, the singing of ‘To Sylvia’, ‘Serenade’ and ‘Die Forelle’ was very good. A little more expression conveying the meaning of the words in the second and third songs would have been desirable. Both Berentson and Di Leva used the scores to sing from. Berkahn was an exemplary accompanist, though at times there was too much sustaining pedal for my taste, especially after chords at the ends of verses and items. But it was always tasteful, rhythmic and supportive of the singers.

Sharon Yearsley returned to sing Mozart’s ‘Porgi Amor’ and two songs by Sondheim: ‘Losing my Mind’ from Follies and ‘No One is Alone’ from Into the Woods. She introduced these songs briefly. Her voice is of even quality throughout her range, with more than a little vibrato. Sometimes her breathing was noisy. The Mozart aria had the appropriate touching quality; the Countess was well served.

In the Sondheim songs the words were excellent, and the style and accent appropriate to the pieces, though a little more swing from the accompanist would have helped the mood. The last song particularly featured warm tone and excellent words.

This was overall, an enjoyable recital by singers we do not regularly hear as soloists – they are to be congratulated for tackling a recital such as this.

NEWS: Broadcasting New Zealand music from Radio NZ’s archive


A joint venture by Radio New Zealand Concert and the Centre for New Zealand Music

The first collection of recordings of New Zealand music that have come to light through SOUNZ’s Resound project, will be released to the airwaves on Radio New Zealand Concert’s Sound Lounge on Tuesday evenings over the next ten weeks.

Funded by NZ on Air, Resound is a joint project between SOUNZ, the Centre for New Zealand Music and Radio New Zealand Concert that aims to make a vast resource of recordings of New Zealand music available for broadcast and website streaming.

The very first recording to be re-broadcast is Jack Speirs’s Three Poems of Janet Frame, in a performance by Stroma, conducted by Hamish McKeich, in 2001. (It was broadcast this evening, Tuesday 19 October).

“This is a really exciting time for everyone involved in this project”, says Julie Sperring, Executive Director of SOUNZ. “There is a treasure trove of recordings made over the past fifty or so years that has been locked away unavailable for broadcast – this project brings them back to life.  A long and detailed process has seen 1200 hours of music from RNZ’s NZ Composer Archive safely preserved as digital files, and re-licensed for future use. The upcoming broadcasts are the first steps towards making this unique cultural resource publicly available online.”

Originally, recordings held in the NZ Composer Archive were licensed for two broadcasts only, so many of them represent the first and only performance of a work. A major re-licensing effort, which is part of the Resound process, has secured permissions from composers and performers for the renewed use of this rich resource.

The digitisation from tape, DAT and CD, is now all but complete, and the recordings are gradually being approved for broadcast through an ongoing auditioning and selection process undertaken by an expert panel.

SOUNZ, the Centre for New Zealand Music is also soon to make a sizeable amount of this collection, plus other audio and video recordings free for streaming on its new ‘Media on Demand’ platform, which will be launched over the next couple of months.

For more details about the SOUNZ Resound project contact:

Chris Watson, Project Manager  801 8602, or

Julie Sperring, Executive Director  801 8602

(From press release issued by the Centre for New Zealand Music – SOUNZ)

Polish organist musically excellent but with distracting flamboyance

Organ works (and arrangements) by Buxtehude, Böhm, Bach, Sweelinck, Mendelssohn, Vivaldi, Chopin, Handel, Stanley and Zipoli

Gedymin Grubba (Poland)

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Mount Cook

Sunday, 17 October, 5pm

Gedymin Grubba, a Polish organist in his late twenties making his only appearance in New Zealand following his tour of Australia, played a programme well-suited to the delightful baroque-style organ at the Lutheran Church. There was no work later than those of Mendelssohn and Chopin, but the organ is not built for the resources required for most 19th to 21st century organ music, though there are some composers whose works would be suitable, e.g. some of Flor Peeters’ output.

Buxtehude’s Praeludium in F sharp began the largely baroque programme. Grubba (pronounced the same as Gruber) proved to play with an appropriately detached technique for this period of music. This piece began on the flutes and continued on reeds; throughout this quite lengthy piece in several sections, the range of registrations on the organ was explored.

The piece demonstrated Grubba’s fast footwork, and I could not fault the results. However, his style on both manuals and pedals was flamboyant and distracting. Any tendency towards pianistic technique (swinging elbows, rolling the fingers on the keys, much movement of the body) was quickly pounced on and eliminated by my organ teacher, Maxwell Fernie, at the first or second lesson. He explained that these movements did nothing to alter or improve the sound from the organ, unlike with the piano, where they can add weight to the sounding of the notes. The organ being mechanical rather than percussive, does not respond to these efforts.

Grubba’s pedal technique I also found unusual. He seemed to step on the pedals from a height rather than glide using the inner or outer sides of the feet. This may have contributed to a certain amount of mechanical noise from the pedals – or this may have been inherent in the style of the organ – and also sounds from the player’s shoes. Nevertheless, the detached style thus produced was suited to most of the music; in the Mendelssohn the pedal technique was more as I was taught. For all I know, the authentic school may favour Grubba’s style. There was no question of the organist’s accuracy or athleticism in this department.

Perhaps this effort was the reason for Grubba not wearing a jacket, on what was a rather cool Wellington spring day. His wife unobtrusively pulled the stops when required, and as he played entirely from photocopied music, she moved the pages across slowly as needed. The printed programme listed the composers (with dates) and the titles and other details of the works, but gave no notes for this hour-and-a-half long recital.

Staying in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, we were treated to a manuals-only chorale partita Christe, der du bist Tag und Licht by Georg Böhm. The music was grateful, and beautifully articulated.

It was followed by two of J.S. Bach’s works: the lovely short chorale prelude Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein. The melody was played using a mellifluous flute stop, but the line of the chorale melody was not always maintained, and the rhythm was jerky at times. The grace notes should lead onto the related melody notes, just as they would be if the chorale were sung, and not be broken from them, unless they are repeated notes.

The Prelude and Fugue in G major BWV 541, involved more fancy footwork. This relatively early work certainly demonstrated the skills of both composer and organist.

After the elaborate Bach, Sweelinck’s Psalm 23 was nice and simple, played on one manual only.

It was followed by the longest work in the programme, the fourth organ sonata of Mendelssohn, in B flat, Opus 65. What a different sound this was! Grubba managed to make the organ sound like a smaller version of the large nineteenth century organs the composer would have known. There was more mixing of ranks and use of couplers.

The first movement, allegro con brio, was grand; the second (andante religioso) somewhat sentimental to modern ears; the allegretto third, a charming movement played initially on flutes, and in the latter part, the melody was carried by the left hand on the upper manual. The allegro maestoso e vivace finale was possibly on full organ. It opened with a chorale rather reminiscent of ‘God save the Queen’. The ending was bright, employing a two-foot stop. The varied tempi and registration of this work held my attention in a way that others of Mendelssohn’s organ sonatas have not – or perhaps those were in less competent hands than Grubba’s.

The second half of the recital commenced with a transcription of ‘Spring’ from The Four Seasons by Vivaldi. I had never heard such an arrangement before (this one was by the organist himself). It was certainly lively and entertaining, but I found it too heavy, particularly at the opening, compared with its original orchestra setting.

Another transcription by Grubba followed: the well-known ‘Raindrop’ Prelude (in D flat major Op.28 no.15) by his fellow countryman, Chopin. This I also found too heavy compared with its piano original, and not really compatible with the organ. Repeated notes were not always separated sufficiently; the notes (raindrops) needed to be more detached, as they would be on the piano. The middle section with the melody on the pedals sounded dull; perhaps use of the 8-foot pipes would have carried the mood better. Or perhaps it was meant to be humorous?

As a complete contrast, next was Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. This transfers to the organ very successfully. Apart from a couple of fluffed notes, this was a very bright performance, the 2-foot stop really suiting the music. Here, the articulation was just right.

The only Englishman in the recital was John Stanley (unless you count Handel as English, especially since the final item was from an oratorio with English words). His Voluntary in E was a slow piece, on manuals. The sparkly second section on flutes included the 2-foot on the upper manual, and was quite delightful.

Domenico Zipoli I had heard of; he was an Italian composer (1688—1726) who died in Argentina. His ‘All’ Offertorio’ was a vivid piece. Both it and the following ‘Pastorale’ were for manuals only, with a drone pedal. The second was slower; a rather characterless section was followed by a brief lively one for manuals only. Then a ponderous section with drone pedal through part of it followed, with interesting key changes. This was repeated, and – did I hear a cuckoo? Nice articulation was a feature of this performance.

The programme wound up in triumphal style with the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Messiah by a composer now spelt Haendel. This rousing end gave the organ a good work-out, with manuals coupled, and I think I detected the Mixture stop.

Grubba’s rhythm was always spot on, though I think he could have used a little more rubato at times. There was good variety in the programme, and it made for an enjoyable recital by this skilful player.

Bow – New string ensemble’s first concert

BOW – The Inaugural Concert

GRIEG – Holberg Suite / VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus” / DVORAK – Serenade for Strings

Rachel Hyde (conductor)

Kathryn Maloney (concertmaster)

Bow String Ensemble

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace

Sunday 17th October 2010

An enterprising venture – a new string ensemble, no less! – this came about thanks to the enthusiasm and efforts of conductor Rachel Hyde, which brought together a goodly number of the capital’s amateur string players to make music, an ensemble, according to an introductory note in the program, “dedicated to the joy of string playing”. As newly-formed orchestras the world over have found, it takes a while for any ensemble to properly “jell”, there being no substitute for actual concert experience as part of that process of putting things together and making them work. The encouraging thing about the concert given by this new group, aptly calling itself “Bow”, was that so much of the playing gave a good deal of pleasure, even if one of the works on the program was, I thought, beyond the group’s grasp at this stage of its existence, brave though the attempt to tackle the music’s difficulties was.

Adding to the concert’s enterprise was the unconventional placement of the orchestra – in the middle of St.Andrew’s Church’s congregation, rather than, as normally is the case, at the chancel end of the interior, with seating for the audience entirely enclosing the players. The intention was to “involve” the orchestra with the audience to a greater degree, and I thought the experiment worked really well for half of the concert – I think the players’ positioning brought out more markedly the sounds of what they were doing, which was, naturally, something of a double-edged sword, highlighting both the felicities and difficulties in the playing throughout.

This degree of immediacy gave the concert’s first half a particular pleasure, with two of the best-loved works for string ensemble chosen. First up was Grieg’s Suite Op.40 From Holberg’s Time, and I thought, upon re-reading my notes, scribbled as the ensemble played the opening Praeludium, that the words described the best of what Bow achieved that afternoon, for the most part throughout the concert’s first half: – “Full, rich sound! – plenty of dynamic range, with strong accents in the right places. Inner parts brought out nicely…..very powerful mid- and lower strings – ensemble good, but just one or two shaky dovetailings in those scherzando-like passages…”. The playing of the subsequent Holberg movements confirmed most of these impressions, a beautiful massed violin sound in the Sarabande movement, a charming “country dance” ambience in the Gavotte and Musette, setting delicacy next to girth, and (best of all) a beautifully-phrased Air whose performance gave the music all the time in the world to express its melancholic character. Only in the concluding Rigaudon did I feel some caution on the part of the players inhibiting their expression, though the first viola’s support of the solo violin’s “dance-tune” episodes was admirable. I would have liked concertmaster Kathryn Maloney to have taken risks here, put aside her “admirable leader’s” example for a few moments, and played her solos a bit more roughly and gutsily, which would have allowed the folkdance element in the music a fuller, rustic flavor.

If Grieg’s music gave the ensemble the chance to revel in festive, out-of-doors goings-on, the following work in the program brought a deeper, more introspective vein of feeling to the proceedings – Vaughan Williams, who spent a lifetime acquainting himself with the beauties of English folk-song, wrote this work in 1939 for strings and harp, taking a tune he first encountered in 1893, the folk-song Dives and Lazarus, as a starting-point, and composing a set of variations of astonishing beauty. Rachel Hyde asked the players (apart from the ‘cellos) to stand while performing this work, which may have been a factor in the degree of intensity and warmth of tone produced by the ensemble. I very much liked the performance, particularly the waltz-like variation, with its limpid harp-tones nicely integrated with the ensemble, and the strong, chordal variant with answering triplet phrases – full and forthright tones, with only some of the more circumspect phrases occasionally making a less confident impression. Both the penultimate folk-dance variation, with its lively step and spring, and the full-throated final variation’s opening, dying away on cello and upper strings, inspired playing that caught the character of the composer’s different views of the lovely tune.

Buoyed by the pleasures of the concert’s first half, I perhaps expected too much from the ensemble in tackling the Dvorak Serenade after the interval. It’s a work whose difficulties lie in the degree of exposure of melodic lines (unlike the far more “supported” harmonic lyricism of both the Grieg and the Vaughan Williams works), and the often treacherous rhythmic syncopations in the accompanying figures. Those long-breathed first-movement lyrical phrases gave the musicians frequent tuning problems, the melodic lines mercilessly “out on their own” in this music, though the players managed the second movement Tempo di Valse rather more securely, especially at the outset. Best of all was probably the third movement Scherzo, attacked confidently, and with plenty of energy, especially in the lower strings’ accompaniments in the trio section. The opening phrases of the Larghetto sounded well, though the rapid tempo of the contrasting episodes seemed to un-nerve the players and undermine their poise; while the finale, again beginning well, came to grief over the running figurations and frequent syncopations and angularities of the music.

I would expect that, once Bow “gets used” to itself as an ensemble by playing a few more concerts and tackling slightly less ambitious and extended repertoire in the interim, it will produce far more confident and polished playing, and be well able to tackle more of those wonderful, if perennially demanding, pieces from the string ensemble repertoire that concertgoers know and love. I wish the group well.

Sweet Dreams from The Song Company

The Song Company – Chamber Music New Zealand

English and Italian Madrigals: William Byrd, John Wilbye, Thomas Weelkes,

Thomas Vautour, Claudio Monteverdi

Horatio Vecchi – A Night in Siena

Peter Sculthorpe – Maranoa Lullaby

Jack Body – Five Lullabies/Three Dreams and A Nightmare

Anon. – Israeli Lullaby

The Song Company, directed by Roland Peelman

Anna Fraser, Louise Prickett – sopranos / Lanneke Wallace-Wells – mezzo-soprano / Richard Black – tenor / Mark Donnelly – baritone / Clive Birch – bass

Town Hall, Wellington

Saturday 16th October, 2010

I spent the first part of this concert luxuriating in some glorious madrigal singing from the talented Australian vocal ensemble The Song Company, touring the country under the auspices of Chamber Music New Zealand. The ensemble’s programming enabling me to enjoy and marvel at both the similarities and differences between the English and Italian schools of renaissance vocal composition. The English group, which began the programme, contained some exquisite gems, from the heartfelt immediacy and world-within-a-flower simplicity of John Wilbye’s Draw On, Sweet Night, to the virtuoso inventiveness of Thomas Weelkes’ Thule, the period of cosmography, the group encompassing and beautifully expressing both kinds of intensities and fluidities. Wilbye’s major-minor colourings and antiphonal dynamic variations were most sensitively given, readily evoking the chiaroscuro of both outer and inner worlds commented on in the excellent programme notes. By contrast, Thomas Weelkes’ writing suffused the soundscape with intricate dovetailings and overlappings of tones and rhythms, beguiling one’s ear with echo and contrast, the unbridled mock-satire of Ha!Ha!This world doth pass a kind of Dionysian jest on the opposite end of the see-saw from the idiosyncratic philosophy of Thule. And I loved the sharp-etched character of Sweet Suffolk Owl, with its “te whit, te whoo-ings”, the group’s articulation and dynamism making the most of Thomas Vautour’s vivid portraiture of an iconic bird.

It’s probably too simplistic to declare that the main difference between the two madrigal schools seems to be the actual sound of each language; but the liquidity and sonority of those Italian vowels seemed straightaway to add a whole tonal dimension to the music – a different kind of intensity, rather less subtle, but richer and darker-toned seemed to me to come across almost straight away. The gloriously declamatory Sfogava con le stelle, with its evocation of the beauties of the night sky, milks the rhetoric to stunning effect, the singers full-toned and committed throughout. No less heartfelt was the following Si, ch’io vorei morire (the text’s erotic suggestiveness adding to the emotional charge), ascending sequences and repetitions in thirds heightening the expressive power of it all. Momentary relief was at hand from the weather and its interplay with the rest of Creation, with Zefiro torna, though the initial gaiety and playfulness of the nature-descriptions suddenly gave way to darkness and despair as poet and composer bemoaned the loss of the beloved amid Springtime’s felicities – the setting’s final line stretched the music’s expressivity almost to its limit before the heart-stopping final resolution. Mercifully, Oimè, se tanto amate and Amorosa pupilletta were better-humoured, the first giving rise to amusement with its repeated mock-serious “Oh my!”s, and the second featuring a drum accompaniment and wordless Swingle Singers-like “do-do-do-dos” providing a rhythmic carriage for a sombre dance of longing, beginning with a solo, then a duet, and then the ensemble, the singing keeping the impulses of feeling nicely ebbing and flowing throughout.

The group’s director Roland Peelman introduced Horatio Vecchi’s entertainment A Night in Siena, composed in 1604, a kind of musical catalogue of instructions for people to follow a game of mimicry – as the programme note puts it, “a 16th-Century version of musical theatre-sports”. I found the spoken introduction difficult to properly hear, so the programme note and texts of the songs were life-savers. The sequences were most entertaining, poking gentle (and, topically, probably not-so-gentle) fun at different types of people, be they travellers from other lands or simple girls from the country. One didn’t have to “read between the lines” to glean prevailing native attitudes towards these people, the German imitation taking us remarkably close to Basil Fawlty’s “Don’t Mention the War!” by the end, and the introduction to the exotic Spaniard persona making naughty reference to his abilities “as a very cunning linguist”. It was all tremendously good-humoured fun, the quasi-Spanish “effects” to finish rousing the participants (and their audience) to great enthusiasm, and a warm reception at the end.

After the interval the focus shifted from nocturnal entertainments both amatory and theatrical to the earnest business of sleep itself, by way of lullabies, dreams and nightmares. Peter Sculthorpe’s arresting Maranoa Lullaby fully exploited the spacious ambiences of the Town Hall, with the singers stationed at various points around the gallery. Dramatic lighting heightened the impact of each voice, the opening single-voiced bell-accompanied lullaby (originally an indigenous melody collected in Queensland during the 1930s) counterpointed by the other voices, all taking turns to add their melodic strands to the tapestry. A plaintive, strident episode caught up these strands and pulled them tightly together, focusing and hardening the harmonies, before bringing the work back to the unison theme once again. The whole sequence created a dream-like inner world which, despite its short duration, cast a powerful and evocative spell.

More complex and discursive, but with comparable subconscious explorations in places was the clever fusion of two works by Jack Body, the older (1989) Five Lullabies now interspersed with the freshly-commissioned Three Dreams and a Nightmare. The “invented” word-sounds of each of the lullabies demonstrated the composer’s interest in different folk-idioms and traditions relating to chant, while the dream/nightmare sequences explored the subconscious realms of sleep itself, using poetry by authors such as Shakespeare and ee cummings set with marvellously-wrought accompaniments, both vocal and instrumental – I loved the wordless exhilaration of the first Dream, Flying, with its vertiginous lurching and gong-like tintinnabulations, the singers occasionally sounding warning sirens in close proximity to reefs on treacherous sea-coasts. This was followed by the impulsive and volatile Brain worm, involving endlessly inventive vocalisings, layered, multi-harmonied and seemingly tireless. Throughout, the Lullabies gave a continuing “fled is that music?” ambience to the work’s progressions, rather like arias between recitatives, so that the saucy eroticism of ee cummings’ poem may I feel had an extra element of fantasy which for me gave those somewhat outrageous Rochester-like physicalities a more poignant, escapist connection (then again, perhaps I was simply feeling my age!)….still, those glass harmonica-like sounds, together with the volatile seduction-vocalisings made the whole Erotique episode properly suggestive and delightful.

The Nightmare pulsated and palpitated appropriately, the performance virtuoso in its control of detail and atmosphere, with drums and woodblocks beating out obsessive rhythms, threatening inescapable and intransient anarchic realms familiar to all who have experienced such disturbances – the poetry, well-known from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, evoked that wondrous imagery of “the cloud-capp’d towers” yoked with the stuff of dreams, the ensuing vocal writing suggesting a similar wonderment at the words’ fusion of the timeless and the ephemeral. Interesting that a composer would come back to an existing work and augment it thus – though there was a lot going on both in an immediate and a cumulative way, the contrasts had the effect of refocusing the listeners’ attentions and drawing them ever onwards.

Both the anonymous Israeli lullaby which followed, and the Eurythmics-inspired encore, brought us back from the labyrinth-passages of the subconscious sufficiently to enable us to properly and whole-heartedly register our approval at the end of the concert – the Song Company gave us “Sweet Dreams” which were entertaining, enchanting and inspirational.

Wellington Youth Choir enlivens Rossini’s great Petite Messe

Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle – selections from, and pieces by Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninov, Rheinberger and others

The Wellington Youth Choir conducted by Isaac Stone

Church of St Mary of the Angels

Friday 15 October, 7.30pm  

It’s usually a mistake not to go to concerts by our youth choirs and orchestras, because any lack of individual maturity or technical skill is completely subordinated, given a reasonably inspiring conductor, to the energy, enthusiasm and readiness to respond that young people can deliver.

The concert was a varied one, ranging from this rather extraordinary work by Rossini, through traditional choral sounds from Rachmaninov and Rheinberger to spirituals and solo performances.

Rossini’s liturgical essay was composed in the 1860s within five years of his death, an unexpected example of his remarkable sense of humour, both verbal and musical. Famously, it is neither short nor solemn, except for occasional moments (the solemnity, not the shortness).

The whole work takes over an hour and quarter and only about 25 minutes of it were sung here. The choice of sections was well made, offering a representative range of moods and styles. It was written for accompaniment by two pianos and harmonium but is also performed with orchestral accompaniment. One piano and discreet interjections from the organ were the rule here.

My first hearing of the whole thing was in rather memorable circumstances. In 1992 I ran into New Zealand percussionist/conductor Gary Brain near Place Victor Hugo in Paris – a singular enough chance – and he told me that he was to conduct his first major concert in a couple of days at a small festival on the Loire – comprising this Rossini work. I didn’t need encouragement and was on the train to Saint-Florent-le-vieil, between Angers and Nantes, to arrive in time for the concert. Gary was conducting the chorus of the Opéra-comique with a couple of pianists, in a small church that held 300 – 400 people – it was full. Having no other performances to compare it with, I was very ready to be delighted by the whole experience, and I was. Next evening over the phone I dictated a review to The Evening Post (pre-email).

It’s hard to convey in words the character of this work, so unorthodox and studiedly other than what any other famous composer would have dreamed of writing; a masterpiece of provocativeness, irreverence, tongue-in-cheek sincerity, music-hall vulgarity, jocularity, sobriety and finally passages of what had to sound like genuine religious feeling.

This was 21-year-old Isaac Stone’s first public outing as a conductor, and there seemed to be no sign of diffidence or nerves, such was the impression of his rapport with his singers and his mastery of the music. The writing for the choir varies greatly in style and in mood, sometimes transparent and delicate at other times with the full weight of an 18th century choral work. But there was never a hint of its actual time, when Europe’s choirs had become very large and grandeur and insistent piety were expected.

What Rossini does demonstrate, without ado, are the fruits of his thorough early training in counterpoint and fugue and these, juxtaposed with rhetorical phrases or light-spirited solos maintain a level of enjoyment, variety and sheer musical inventiveness that rarely left him. There were solo roles in most of the sections which were varied in quality but generally attractive and vigorous. Haydn-like in the Kyrie, after its dance-hall piano introduction; a brass-style fanfare starts the Gloria retreating to a calm section for three solo voices.

Again in the ‘Qui Tollis’ a piano introduction that suggests attention to Beethoven, is followed by duet between soprano and alto making step-wise intervallic moves and then an operatic sequence in thirds. An allegro choral opening of the ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’, becomes quite elaborate, weaving counterpoint that the choir managed admirably: there was skill and humour that led to a fine build-up of a typical Rossini crescendo that defied any categorisation of good or bad taste. 

The Credo for example alternated between sober polyphony and passages by a small ensemble; it was just one time for me to note the choir’s strong bass section (and the sometimes thin tenors).

In the Agnus Dei the piano makes dramatic play with bass figures before an alto solo enters with ‘Dona nobis pacem’, a long solo, leaving us with the enigma: how much of an agnostic was Rossini, as were most of the composers of great religious works in the 19th century.

The conductor and several choir members spoke about the music, but while they often conveyed engaging enthusiasm, they typically spoke so fast, with careless articulation, that I understood very little.

Given that, I rely on the names of accompanists as recorded in the programme, Evie Rainey and Louise Joblin – the first presumably at the piano, the second at the organ. The latter was a minor role, but the piano was well played, carefully adapted to the singing; it was both interesting and quite demanding.

The second half of the programme was a mixture: proof against boredom perhaps but not of even value or interest. They began with Vaughan Williams’s Antiphon from his Five Mystical Songs, a very powerful statement, involving a striking (and a bit too loud) piano introduction from Isaac Stone, to Aidan Gill’s singing.

Rheinberger’s Abendlied was a fine display of traditional late 19th century choral style, which prompted the thought that there’s hardly another Wellington choir that can produce such beautifully balanced, luminous, spirited singing and the same went for the more subdued Rachmaninov piece, ‘Bogoroditse devo’ (Rejoice O Virgin), from his Vespers, Op 37. 

Things went popular and variable thereafter, spirituals Elijah Rock and Deep River, both sung with total conviction; then an arrangement of ‘We shall not be moved’ by the conductor; though it seemed to engage the choir thoroughly, it sounded excessively varied in style and rhythm, modulated too much.

The final offering was ‘Let everything that hath breath’ which appeared to be a version of Psalm 96, ‘Sing unto the Lord a new song’,  whose jazzy character the choir tackled with the greatest gusto. And they sang ‘Ka Waiata’ beautifully as an encore in response to the warm applause from the audience.