Shakespeare in Song – choral settings by Cantoris conducted by Rachel Hyde

Songs from the plays; Sonnet No 18; and other songs by Gibbons and Ramsey

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 20 November 2.30pm

Here was a most interesting programme, introduced in an engaging manner by conductor Rachel Hyde, who attempted to demonstrate the essential musical quality of Shakespeare’s language and the way in which music permeated Shakespeare’s work and Tudor society in general. For example, she said that someone had counted some 300 musical stage directions in the plays.

To her credit, Hyde kept away from the most common settings of the songs, though many might have waited for them: the agenda was choral settings, so no Finzi or Quilter, no Schubert or Brahms or Mendelssohn; no Tippett and Britten; or less familiar names like Frank Martin, Amy Beach, William Mathias; New Zealanders David Farquhar and David Hamilton are just two who have set the songs – the latter for choir; instead, American and Finnish composers seemed to dominate.

There was nothing from the huge number of operas based on the plays.

One of the curious sidelights to which Rachel Hyde drew attention was that almost all the songs in the plays were written for minor characters, whose role it was to entertain or divert rather than to advance the story; and she expressed doubt, in the event justified, about the success of setting the blank verse of some of the great episodes. She mentioned Komulainen’s ‘To be or not to be’, and I agreed – it quite lacked Hamlet’s profound self-questioning anguish. The only one of that group of four that found tolerable musical setting was ‘O weary night’ from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

All but one of the songs (William Schuman’s ‘Orpheus with his lute’) were unaccompanied; the Schumann sounded distinctly more secure than some the others, and it made me wonder about the usefulness of denying such support to amateur singers, especially when the choir is small.

Schuman’s fine song set words from Henry VIII, believed to be a collaboration between Shakespeare and Fletcher. The words struck me, indeed, as lacking Shakespeare’s verbal whimsy.

Many of the songs were either melodically devious with sequences of taxing intervals, or harmonically testing, all of which caused intonation difficulties and some less than precise ensemble and articulation, evident in songs like Lindberg’s ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ (Sonnet 18), or Vaughan Williams’s ‘Over hill, over dale’ from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The more successful setting of Sonnet 18 was by Robert Appelbaum, capturing a sunny spirit, the music interesting but not too difficult so the choir sounded comfortable.

I approved of the decision not to print the words in the programme, which leads to the prospect from the choir’s side of the tops of heads buried in programmes. Instead, choir members read the lyrics before the performance, some well, some not so well. But it was an excellent idea.

Hyde warned us about the John Rutter setting of ‘It was a lover and his lass’ from As You Like It; it was a good start, sounding barber-shop, using bass voices to simulate a string bass underlay, singing ‘Doo-wa-doo’, the modern equivalent of ‘Hey nonny nonny’.

There were two probably non-Shakespearean songs. The first was by Orlando Gibbons, ‘What is our life?’ After the somewhat superficial group by Komulainen, it came as a piece of genuine musical inspiration, though the reduced, and so more exposed, choir did it less than justice. ‘Sleep fleshly birth’ by Jacobean composer Robert Ramsey was again accorded to a smaller ensemble which made intonation less secure and the pulse more difficult to maintain.

There were two songs by American composer Matthew Harris, one of the three settings of ‘It was a lover and his lass’. It, and his other song, ‘Take, O, take those lips away’ from Measure for Measure which brought the concert to an end, were among the more successful as music, and the choir delivered full, confident sound.

There were a couple of other groups, as well as the aforementioned Komulainen’s: Vaughan Williams’s three settings and four by Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi. The Vaughan Williams songs did not generally impress me, though ‘The cloud-capped towers’ from The Tempest captured its misty gothic turrents. Another was ‘Full fathom five’, also from The Tempest, but I enjoyed more its setting by Mäntyjärvi – the penultimate song in the concert.

‘Double, double, toil and trouble’ from Macbeth was also in this Mäntyjärvi group; its words were recited by a French choir member whose accent lent it a curiously covenish effect; and the music, too, caught its atmosphere most effectively.

Such an imaginative undertaking deserved good support and the audience of perhaps a hundred responded well.

Festival Singers delight with Rossini’s “Little, Solemn Mass”

ROSSINI – Petite Messe solennelle (for soloists, choir, harmonium and two pianos)

Lesley Graham, soprano / Linden Loader, alto / Jonathan Abernethy, tenor / Roger Wilson, bass

Jonathan Berkhan, Louisa Joblin (pianos) / Thomas Gaynor (harmonium)

Rosemary Russell, musical director

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Hill St., Wellington

Saturday 20th November 2010

“Good God—behold completed this poor little Mass—is it indeed sacred music [la musique sacrée] that I have just written, or merely some damned music [la sacré musique]? You know well, I was born for comic opera. Little science, a little heart, that is all. So may you be blessed, and grant me Paradise!”

With these words Gioachino Rossini prefaced his Petite Messe Solennelle, written in 1863, and called elsewhere by the composer the last of his “pêchés de vieillesse” (sins of old age). Characteristically, the music is neither “petite” nor particularly “solemn” – but there’s little doubt as to the work’s sincerity – an expression of faith and piety from one, in his own words, “born for comic opera”.

One of the most engaging aspects of Rossini’s work is its complete lack of sanctimoniousness – nowhere does one sense a feeling, emotion or impulse that doesn’t spring straight from the composer’s essential nature. As with the Stabat Mater, written in 1842, the music unashamedly evokes the theatre in places, an example being the “Domine Deus” section of the Gloria, which featured a ringing, heroic tenor solo reminiscent of the famous “Cujus animam” aria in the earlier work. Tenor Jonathan Abernethy made an excellent fist of this, singing with flair, accuracy and plenty of dynamic and tonal variation – his work featured some lovely high notes in places such as the concluding “Filius Patris”.

Immediately afterwards, soprano Lesley Graham and alto Linden Loader took us to more sombre realms with “Qui tollis peccata mundi”, piano and harmonium setting the scene with piquant and dramatic utterances (great playing from the instrumentalists throughout) leading to further heartfelt sequences such as beautifully essayed chromatic ascents in thirds by the two singers, and a lovely blend by the two at the haunting “Miserere Nobis”, which developed into some positively theatrical Verdian duetting throughout those same words’ final repetitions.

Always one to relish his opportunities, bass Roger Wilson, in resplendent voice, splendidly delivered the “Quoniam”, at once finding the music’s lyricism and energising the sequences up to “Jesu Christe” with the help of Jonathan Berkahn’s vivid, very orchestral piano-playing. With Louisa Joblin on the second piano deliciously bringing extra “galumph” to the accompanying textures, the choral fugue “Cum Sancto Spiritu” sounded simply glorious, director Rosemary Russell characteristically finding a “tempo giusto” which brought out a polka-like “schwung” to the music that even Smetana might have envied.

I hope these descriptions of “flow” throughout just one of the work’s many sequences  will give a sense to readers of the music’s dramatic coursings from episode to episode, with  every impulse the seeming result of the composer’s instinct to speak in a language that comes naturally, with nothing contrived or laid on for a generalised effect. I loved the Britten-like energies of the Credo’s opening, vigorously ascending piano figurations answered by the choir, with the soloists’ contributions dancing in and out among the exchanges. Another treat was the almost Wagnerian “descendit de caelis”, outrageously visceral downwardly-rolling sequences for choir and piano, relished with splendid elan by the performers . By contrast, the “Crucifixus” featured Lesley Graham’s soprano movingly evoking with piano and harmonium something of the awe and pity at Christ’s own suffering in sacrificing his own life for all mankind. Although the second fugue, at “Et vitam” was initially less than tidy between voices and instruments, Rosemary Russell and her sopranos pulled things together, with the cries of “Amen” at the end a grand focal point, before a brief hiatus and final shout of “Credo” ended things triumphantly.

What the sleevenotes of my old LPs refer to as a Prélude réligieux followed, played as a piano solo by Jonathan Berkahn (my recording features the harmonium at this point) – a mesmeric fugal keyboard meditation, beginning and ending with imposing, Beethoven-like chords. In its way, it made a telling prelude to the Sanctus, whose interchanges between soloists and choir had a kinetic energy as well as drama, finely sung, with the men in the choir especially strong. Lesley Graham then made the most of O Salutaris, her equivalent operatic “scene” for soprano, a big-boned and lyrical outpouring, whose mirror image was the contralto solo at Agnus Dei, introduced by portentous piano and harmonium tones, and simply and gravely sung by Linden Loader, balancing dignity with moments of theatrical expression – her cries of “miserere”, supported by lovely chorus work, were truly supplicatory, leaving Jonathan Berkahn to complete Rossini’s piquant piano solo farewell at the end – a wry gesture, entirely characteristic of the composer.

Immense pleasure was to be had from all of this, completing a concert and a year the Festival Singers can, I’m certain, be proud of.

Soprano, trumpet and organ aid lunchtime digestion

Handel: ‘The Trumpet’s Loud Clangour’ (from Ode to St Cecilia’s Day)
Bach/Gounod: ‘Ave Maria’
Saint-Saëns: ‘Ave Maria’
Mozart: ‘Laudate Dominum’ (from Vesperae Solennes de Confessore)
Handel: Trumpet Concerto in G minor
Fauré: ‘Pie Jesu’ (from Requiem)
Stanley: Trumpet Voluntary
Handel: ‘Let the Bright Seraphim’ (from Samson)

Clarissa Dunn (soprano)
Paul Rosoman (organ and piano)
Andrew Weir (trumpet)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 17 November 2010, 12.15pm

With an interesting programme for an unusual combination, this programme had added appeal for the opportunity to hear and see someone we know as a disembodied voice on radio; Clarissa Dunn is a presenter for Radio New Zealand Concert.

The recital began and ended with performances from the gallery, using the fine church organ.  Clarissa Dunn proved to have a full, florid voice with a velvety quality except in the highest register.  She could hold her own against the organ; Handel did not make her compete with the trumpet part in the first piece.

The well-known Gounod arrangement of Bach’s prelude by the addition of a melody on the words ‘Ave Maria’ received a rather mushy organ registration – but perhaps that was appropriate for Gounod.  Unfortunately the singer sang some of the time just slightly under the note, spoiling an otherwise good performance, which ended with delicious pianissimo.

There were no intonation problems in Saint-Saëns’s setting of the same words.  This was sung from the front of the church, with a rather pedestrian and over-pedalled piano accompaniment – perhaps the sudden switch from organ affected the playing.  A good point was that the lid was down; often at St Andrew’s recently the sound from the piano has been too loud, due to the resonance from the varnished wooden floor.

The trumpet stood in for the mezzo-soprano of the original setting.  Andrew Weir’s control of volume when playing with the soprano was exemplary.  Both performers proved to have excellent control of breath and dynamics.  Flowing lines were beautifully carried on the breath by the singer.

The exquisite ‘Laudate Dominum’ of Mozart was sung admirably, given the limitations of performing with piano rather than orchestra.

A trumpet concerto by Handel followed (which I cannot find in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians); this time the organ part was played on the baroque organ at the front of the church.  The balance between the instruments was splendid , and the use of a two-foot stop in the fast second movement gave a charming effect.  The playing was commendably light and baroque in style, making for a thoroughly enjoyable performance.

Now for something completely different: the delightful ‘Pie Jesu’ of Fauré, sung with organ from the gallery.  Again, some notes were a shade flat, and there was some unevenness towards the end, but on the whole the singing was most accomplished.

John Stanley’s piece showed both trumpet and organ off well, in its bouncy, eighteenth century manner, but it is a rather uninspired piece of music.

Handel’s ‘Let the bright seraphim’ made a rousing end to the recital.  At the beginning I found the organ a little too loud, but it soon modified, and Clarissa Dunn was vocally equal to it.  Both trumpet and singer had their trills all in place; the organ-playing was very fine also.  The words were not clear, but they a difficult to get over in such a florid work.

It was a pity to have neither programme notes nor brief biographies of the performers.  However, Clarissa Dunn gave spoken introductions to the works, in an informal, engaging manner.

I hope to hear more from these three accomplished performers, who are to be congratulated on their interesting and varied programme.

Caprice Arts Trust present saxophones and a fine wind quintet

Altotude Saxophone Quartet: Pieces by Gershwin, Tchaikovsky, Paul Pierné, Bryan James, Piazzolla.

Lucy Rainey (soprano sax), Greg Rogan (alto sax), Amity Alton-Lee (tenor sax), Bryan James (baritone sax)

Quintet X: Nielsen: Wind Quintet – first movement, Armando Ghidoni: Adagio from Badaluk – Concerto for wind quintet, Poulenc: Sextet for winds and piano

Kirsten Sharman (French horn), Rachelle Eastwood (flute), Marianna Kennedy (oboe), Lucy O’Neill (bassoon), Taleim Edwards (clarinet), Paul Romero (piano)

St Mark’s church, Lower Hutt

Tuesday 16 November, 7.30pm

The Caprice Arts Trust continues to offer chamber music with a difference, generally taking concerts to two or three venues in the Greater Wellington region. This concert, shared by two groups, was first played at St Andrew’s on The Terrace on Friday 12 November: I caught the second performance at Lower Hutt.

I had previously heard – indeed, heard of – neither ensemble. The Altotude Saxophone Quartet which, I gather, draws on a variety of players, occupied the first half. They played the pieces in an order different from that in the programme.

As is to be expected. it was the pieces written originally for saxophone quartet that came off best, though an exception was the opening piece, an arrangement of part of Gershwin’s American in Paris, which the composer scored for full symphony orchestra including all four saxophones. That achieved a fusion of a jazz sensibility with French piquancy that lent itself readily to a saxophone quartet; and its essential character survived the transition.

But the second piece, the Andante cantabile from Tchaikovsky’s first String Quartet, was another matter. Though leader Bryan James claimed that its origin for four string instruments made it suitable for another family of four instruments, the music’s essence, so perfectly conceived for strings by a composer with an extremely refined ear, was simply lost. Almost every aspect of its articulation and dynamics, its sound world and emotion, was obliterated. Perhaps a listener who had never heard the original would not have had this reaction, but its familiarity, so rooted in the string quartet medium, excluded that possibility for me. In particular, the entry of the second theme seemed irredeemably crude.

A couple of pieces by Bryan James followed: Blue Pig and Desert Storm. In both pieces, the comfortable writing for the quartet was as successful as one might expect from a saxophonist. Blue Pig captured an idiomatic jazz feeling, in which individual instruments, starting with Amity Alton-Lee’s tenor sax, took effective solos. Desert Storm was inspired, not directly by the Gulf War, but simply by that landscape; its use of the whole tone scale was evocative but the melodic and rhythmic motifs eventually became repetitious.

The third part of Three ConversationsAnimé by Paul Pierné (1874 – 1952 – a cousin of organist and composer Gabriel Pierné), emerged a lively piece that could be judged by normal early-20th century classical music criteria, sharp bursts by the chorus followed by ejaculations by individual instruments captured the air of dispute hat apparently inspired it.

The final piece, two parts of Piazzolla’s Histoire du tango, originally for flute and guitar but in many arrangements, is in a spirit not too remote from jazz, could well have worked for saxophones; Café 1930 was a comfortable fit, but Night Club 1960 suffered through an arrangement I found uncongenial, with uncomfortable tempo changes and uneven balances.

The talented wind quintet. Quintet X,  was the creation of Caprice’s Sunniva Zoete-West, especially for use in these concerts. The initiative was a triumph, and the quintet played all three pieces with taste, energy, accuracy and excellent ensemble. They began with the first movement of Nielsen’s wonderful wind quintet which offers no place to hide for any of the instruments: all justified their places in a performance that was generally very close to professional level. The choruses by the three high woodwinds were especially beguiling; the horn’s tone was velvety and elegant and the bassoon a highly polished performance from one of the school of music’s gifted students. O for the entire work!

Another single movement followed – the Adagio from a work called Badaluk-Concerto by the contemporary French/Italian composer Armando Ghidoni, which turned out to be a highly attractive piece that has ingested all that is best in today’s music, now freeing itself from the compulsion for self-indulgent avant-gardism. That’s not to say it’s easy to play; lamenting that we could not have heard it all, I was told that if I thought this ‘slow movement’ was pretty challenging, I should have looked at the other two: the players didn’t have a spare year in which to master it. I thought too that the name Concerto didn’t suggest its character as well as a word like Sinfonietta or Sinfonia might have, reflecting better its impressive textures and evident formal structure. It was a most accomplished performance.  I had not heard of Ghidoni, but intend to follow him up: his website looks interesting.

The last piece was the entire sextet for piano and winds by Poulenc. Written in 1932, Poulenc became dissatisfied with it and rewrote it in 1939/40. Typically with Poulenc, the music is an interesting blend of certain contemporary styles such as 1920s Germany, along with his individual melodic and instrumental characteristics. Each part is scored for the instrument in its most attractive and rewarding register, where it is most at ease, and though that does not imply that it’s an easy piece, the players were conspicuously comfortable in all aspects. The opening phase, typical of the mature Poulenc, demands emphatic playing, and the piano – a fine instrument – sounded somewhat muddied in the acoustic, but was happier when the dynamics became more calm.  The first movement, the longest and most varied, moved from phase to phase with a fluency that evidenced intelligent and thorough rehearsal; and the central Divertissement movement became a particularly joyous affair.

In spite of publicity efforts however, audiences have generally remained shy for the excellent concerts that Sunniva Zoete-West and Caprice have promoted – no more than a couple of dozen were at St Mark’s – and she is threatening to abandon the undertaking. The concerts which have typically presented interesting contemporary music and music for wind instruments, of which there is a quite substantial and excellent quantity, fill a niche that other chamber music promoters tend to neglect.

It is well to remember that the Wellington Chamber Music Society’s Sunday afternoon chamber music series, now at the Ilott Theatre, began life (in the University Memorial Theatre) with the aim, in part, of employing young Wellington musicians in music that was ignored by the then Chamber Music Federation (now Chamber Music New Zealand), particularly wind ensembles such as the great Mozart wind serenades.

Pianist Nicole Chao in adventurous lunchtime concert

Bach: Toccata in C minor, BWV 911; Scriabin: Piano Sonata No 2 in G sharp minor, Op 19 – first movement; Chopin: Barcarolle, Op 60; Dutilleux: Sonata, Op 1 – third movement: ‘Choral and variations’

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 10 November, 12.15pm

This was one of the more arresting of recent lunchtime concerts at St Andrew’s, both on account of the interesting programme that Ms Chao offered, and the accomplishment of her playing.

One of the concert’s characteristics, whether consciously planned or not, was that all but the Chopin were very early works; yet all showed impressive evidence of their composers’ later greatness.

The Bach toccata is one of seven harpsichord toccatas that Bach wrote in his youth, though this one was probably from his twenties. A Bach scholar would probably find things that demonstrate the composer’s immaturity, but to one who does not lay claim to special perceptiveness in that field, the musical inventiveness and technical command of the keyboard and the music’s formal structure leave by far the greatest impression.

Elsewhere among Bach’s works, such a substantial piece would have been called a toccata and fugue – in fact two fugues, the second of which is a massive double fugue. Nicole Chao opened it powerfully, resolutely, making full use of the piano’s dynamic range, then dropping  suddenly to a quiet, delicate phase such as a harpsichord could not produce. The fugal sections presented an interesting range of keyboard colourings and articulations which Chao handled skilfully, never mind a slip in the second fugal secion. She turned it into a piece of some consequence, clearly the product of high musical intelligence.

Chao played the first movement – Andante – by far the largest of the two movements of Scriabin’s second sonata which he wrote aged about 20. In complete contrast to the Bach, this is high romanticism, wayward in spirit, its yearning melodic line ranging widely, employing already the intervals that are so typical of Scriabin. In playing of ever-changing colour and rhythmic variety, Chao evoked in its glittering hands-full of notes, the marvellous, moonlit seascape that Scriabin described in his notes about the piece.

Chopin’s Barcarolle, though the most familiar piece in the programme was the least successful in capturing the music’s complex, indefinable spirit, its sense of direction. With rather prolonged fortissimo passages, even with careful use of rubato,  it seemed not to capture the subtlety and tonal refinement that she brought to Scriabin and to the concluding Dutilleux sonata.

Dutilleux is now in his 90s, yet his oeuvre of major works is small. This sonata written when he was about 30 was the first to which he gave an opus number, so self-critical has he been throughout his life. Again, Chao chose to play the longest movement, the last; it stands on its own feet remarkably well, and Chao led an audience that was probably hearing it for the first time through a very able performance. Its opening rhetorical call to attention mirrored in a way the Bach Toccata (did that occur to her?), but there was no immediate fading to a pianissimo; instead the first and second variations drove forward with great speed demanding playing of impressive virtuosity. Only in the third variation does a meditative quality arise, and Chao demonstrated an appreciation of the structure, and the carefully thought-out evolution of the themes underlying the whole movement. A fine performance of the sonata was recorded by John Chen for Naxos about five years ago. It’s worth getting to know.

Nicole Chao however, gave an authoritative performance, persuading me that she might well reward us with further performances of music in the late Romantic and non-serial 20th century styles.