‘NZTrio’ at Paekakariki’s Mulled Wine concerts


Piano Trio in F sharp minor, Hob XV:26 (Haydn), Intaglio (Chris Gendall), Grooveboxes from Swing Shift (Kenji Bunch), Piano Trio in A minor, Op 50 (Tchaikovsky)

The New Zealand Trio (‘NZTrio’): Justine Cormack – violin, Ashley Brown – cello, Sarah Watkins – piano

Paekakariki Memorial Hall

Sunday 27 March 2.30pm (and also, in part, at the Lower Hutt Little Theatre, Monday 28 March)

The Mulled Wine concert series at Paekakariki has become an interesting and singular event in the pattern of music in the Greater Wellington region. Some of the concerts are indeed to be found repeated elsewhere in the region; some are not. The NZ Trio’s concert could have been heard again the following evening at Lower Hutt and I took myself there in order to get a different aural experience and to listen again to the pieces new to me. (I happen to live in a suburb roughly equidistant from Paekakariki, Lower Hutt and Wellington city).

I believe that this was the first visit by the NZ Trio at this series. They would have been charmed by the setting, both by the traditional small-town hall and it location by the sea. The dramatic variety of microclimates visited on the south-west corner of the North Island was dramatically played out too.

Just an hour or so after a phenomenal downpour that cause floods in the Porirua basin, here it was pleasant and partly sunny. Kapiti was moored offshore and the sound of the waves on the eroding beach were sometimes synchronised with the rhythms of the music. I’m sure the players would have been impressed at the enterprise and friendliness of the series organizers, led by Mary Gow, not to mention the mulled wine afterwards.

The players were seated about half way along the western wall with their backs to the sea, and so on the same level as the audience, so there were sight-line difficulties of some.

That placing may have contributed to the way the acoustic amplified the players’ sounds; as well as being too loud, it had the effect of somewhat flattening dynamic nuances.

All three musicians are bachelor graduates of the University of Canterbury and they have all done post-graduate study in the United States. The trio has been around since 2002 and it’s pre-eminent in its field here as well as having built up an impressive reputation overseas. Their present schedule shows over 30 concerts here and abroad this year.

They played two ‘classical’ pieces, one of Haydn’s 40-odd trios, and the only one that Tchaikovsky wrote; plus two shorter contemporary pieces.

No one claims to know all of Haydn’s music, and I hadn’t heard this one in F sharp minor (Hoboken catalogue number XV:26) before. It overflows with drama, colour and variety, making up for a certain lack of charm and memorable tunes. My only misgiving was that the players hadn’t quite got the measure of the hall, which probably affected the Haydn more than the other pieces. Nevertheless, Haydn would have enjoyed the robust and determined force of the performance, even in the more soulful slow movement.

Tchaikovsky’s only piano trio more than occupied all the second half. It’s so full of rapturous and voluptuous melody that it’s easy to understand how certain more ascetic listeners and critics might have considered it sentimental or saccharine; perhaps some still do. Not only did the trio exploit all its overflowing romantic qualities to the full, but they invested it with a facsimile of a full orchestral sound.  Sure, the volume control was still set too high, but it was a flawless performance of surpassing brilliance and power, that surely calls for a recording ASAP.

In between, before the interval, came two contemporary pieces, one of New Zealand, the other from the United States.

The first, by Wellington-based Chris Gendall, was called Intaglio – a term familiar to print-makers. A composition of the experimental kind, free of conventional melody, but rich in non-musical techniques and intriguing relationships between the instruments. It was to hear this piece again that I went to Lower Hutt the following evening. Though the theatre is reputed to have a difficult acoustic, it accommodated the trio’s performance more comfortably in the Haydn, and gave me a clear hearing of Chris Gendall’s piece; though I still failed to recognize any relationship between the musical character and the ‘intaglio’ printmaking process. If, as the composer writes, it refers rather to the process of its composition, its use seems a pointless gesture for the listener. However, a second hearing, as so often, offered a sort of recognition experience, even the seeming random, widely spaced piano hits. And I listened to it with some enjoyment.

It was followed by a part of a New York inspired piece called Swing Shift, capturing in relentless rap rhythms that would serve for break dancers, the nocturnal life of a city that never sleeps.I loved its energy and the powerhouse performance by all three players, employing engaging jazz pulse generated by what the notes describe as a DJ’s ‘beat box’ or ‘groove box’, of the nature of which this audience member is blissfully ignorant.

Possibly, the trio is mildly irritated with my pedantry in preferring to spell out their name. I never abbreviate the name of my country (or any other country) in anything I write. I have always been guided by what today might be becoming old-fashioned printers’ style, as is found in printers’ ‘style books’, such as of the former New Zealand Government Printing Office and The New York Times; they are generally very clear:“Don’t abbreviate!”. Acronyms are permissible when universally used, at least by your particular readership, like NZSO for us.Even stronger is my dislike of calling New Zealanders Kiwis and things pertaining to New Zealand, Kiwi. I find it demeaning, and as an editor I have always taken the liberty of eliminating ‘Kiwi’ from others’ copy.


NZSO’s first subscription concert fills the MFC

Apotheosis: Lilburn: Processional Fanfare, Beethoven: Emperor Concerto (no.5, Op.73), Mahler: Symphony no.4

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra: Pietari Inkinen (conductor); Saleem Abboud Ashkar (piano); Anna Leese (soprano)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday, 25 March, 6.30pm

The title ‘Apotheosis’ may seem dramatic, but as Peter Walls pointed out at the pre-concert talk, the two major works were lofty to the extent of being other-worldly.

It must have felt like a sort of black apotheosis in Christchurch a month ago; at this concert, money was collected for the Red Cross earthquake relief fund, and subtle red and black striped lighting was projected onto the back of the stage, behind the musicians.

While graduation from university is not usually quite an apotheosis, nevertheless it was good to hear Lilburn’s Processional Fanfare, originally written for organ and trumpets for the final congregation of the University of New Zealand (which comprised the Auckland, Victoria and Canterbury University Colleges, and Otago University: allowed the more prestigious name because it was the first in the country, but left out of the programme note). It has been used since then for Victoria University’s graduation ceremonies.

Although orchestrated by the composer after the ceremonies moved to the Michael Fowler Centre, the three trumpets were still very prominent, making a great sound. A solo from concertmaster Leppänen was notable, and the play on Gaudeamus igitur, the Latin song traditionally sung at graduations was brilliantly achieved by the composer. The performance was what an overture should be – a well-played, interesting introduction to a concert, that whets the appetite for more.

Beethoven’s mighty ‘Emperor’ concerto must be one of the most well-known works in the piano concerto repertoire, but that doesn’t make it in any way a tedious experience to hear it again; like other works of its calibre it can stand numerous hearings. There is always more to hear, especially at the hands of different soloists.

And what a soloist this was! A tall, handsome young man, with a hairstyle reminiscent of that shown in portraits of Robert Schumann, he appeared the epitome of the romantic pianist. However, there were no histrionic gestures, but a superb technique, exquisite delicacy, and close attention to all the subtleties of Beethoven’s magnificent score.

While Ashkar’s pianissimos were graceful, delicate and very quiet, at times in the first movement the orchestra was sometimes too restrained in comparison with the piano; Beethoven’s writing seldom gives extended passages to the piano alone, but usually has the two forces working together.

Beethoven’s inventiveness within the classical form always astonishes, as does his power. This pianist was equal to all the challenges.

The adagio’s wonderful muted opening on strings always ‘sends’ me, and it could not have been in better hands. The pizzicato cello sound, then the delicate piano entry stirred with their great finesse, yet nobility. The singing second subject was a delight.

There was some slight lack of cohesion at the transition from adagio to the rondo finale, where the tempo slows down and then changes, without a break.

The finale had a robust start but despite his beautiful piano technique, I found the pianist pedalled the runs more than I would have liked. However, there was nothing flashy about his playing, and no unnecessary bravura. The fast passages were certainly very fast, but Ashkar produced an attractive liquid sound.

The brass seemed rather weak in this movement, but overall the orchestra was in excellent form. Tumultuous applause, including from the members of the orchestra greeted the Palestinian pianist’s remarkable artistry.

Mahler’s symphonies are a major undertaking, not least because of their length. At 55 minutes, this was one of his shorter efforts. It was a challenge the orchestra lived up to.

As Peter Walls explained in his talk, there are songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the set of German folk poems published in 1806, in each of the four movements, not only in the final one. He paid tribute to Pietari Inkinen, whom he described as a genius in his excellent understanding and interpretation of Bruckner and Mahler.

After the wonderful opening of sleigh bells and flutes, the superb orchestration brings in the cellos and oboes, providing gentle moments. There was plenty of light and shade here, and as elsewhere, some of the string playing was magical.

Mahler’s delightful juxtaposition of timbres features again and again in this symphony.

The second movement was strong yet measured. Very fine solo passages from woodwind and brass gave emphasis to the music. This movement is notable for the scordatura tuning of the concertmaster’s violin, which makes a harsher and more ominous sound, introducing a devilish character to the solo, ably played by Leppänen.

Anna Leese was greeted with applause when she entered between the second and third movements. It made quite a long time for her to sit, unmoving, demurely, before she got to sing.

The third movement, Ruhewoll (peacefully) opens with an almost dream-like adagio song for cellos and violas alternating with oboe, cor anglais and French horn. This sublime music, with its pizzicato ground from the basses (that returns later, more ominously in the brass section) is a great introduction to the heaven depicted in the fourth movement. The violins join in, and then the wind band.

The gentle and folksy is interspersed with dramatic and even foreboding music later, and then a repetition of an anguished, upwards-rising theme already heard intervenes, prior to the initial theme on cellos and violas returning, altered. Mahler surely has his heart on his sleeve here.

There is a great outburst at the end of the movement, and then a peaceful ending.

Enchanting and at times almost mystical orchestration accompanied the song, interspersed with more violent outbursts accompanying the narrative about Herod the butcher killing the lamb, and St. Luke slaughtering the ox. The emphasis on food in the poem no doubt reflects the undernourished poverty of many in medieval Europe, thus the idea that heaven must be a place with food aplenty.

Anna Leese wore a white dress – perhaps symbolising the childish innocence she would sing about. It was good to hear a younger person sing this movement – too many recordings feature much older singers, who are too mature to sing about a child’s view of heaven, the subject of the song on which the movement is based.

The words of the song were printed in both German and English – but the people responsible for the lighting didn’t think to put the lights up to enable them to be read until about two-thirds of the way through.

Leese’s singing was clear yet rich, although not particularly characterful. Nevertheless, it was a most enjoyable interpretation. Some consonants could have been clearer. The lines towards the end about St. Cecilia and her relations making excellent court musicians were quite lovely, and could be applied to the singer herself.

At the end, Inkinen maintained the mood by holding his baton high for some time after the last, very quiet notes had faded away. The enthusiastic applause resulted in bows not only for the singer and the conductor, but for the oboist Robert Orr, violinist Vesa-Matti Leppänen, and horn player Edward Allen, who contributed much throughout the symphony.

An almost capacity audience was mainly very attentive through the long work, although the middle movements made one wonder about the number of people who don’t know to use handkerchiefs or sleeves when coughing, and insisted on adding percussive elements that Mahler did not score.

Excellent programme notes by Frances Moore aided understanding of the music of this memorable concert, although the programme’s cover, depicting cavalry in early nineteenth-century uniforms, was inappropriate. Beethoven hated the Napoleonic War, and certainly did not dedicate his concerto to the self-proclaimed ‘Emperor’.

Eggner Trio wins all hearts

The Eggner Trio

Chamber Music New Zealand Kaleidoscopes Concert Season 2011

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – Piano Trio in B-flat Op.11 “Gassenhauer”

IAN MUNRO – Tales of Old Russia

ANTONIN DVORAK – Piano Trio No.3 in F Minor Op.65

Georg Eggner (violin) / Florian Eggner (‘cello) / Christoph Eggner (piano)

Wellington Town Hall

Thursday, 24th March 2011

CMNZ’s 2011 Season couldn’t have gotten off to a better start with the return of the inspirational Eggner Trio from Vienna, being no less than the third visit by the Trio to New Zealand. Good also to read in the program a message of support from Carolyn and Peter Diessl, the latter in his role as Honorary Consul-General for Austria in this country, and as a major supporter of the arts in New Zealand – a kind of connection-making process that other organizations such as the NZSO could pursue more readily on certain occasions (I’m thinking of the orchestra’s Sibelius Festival last year, when there was not one iota of outside Scandinavian “presence” in this country acknowledged or referred to – by contrast, CMNZ was able to place this concert in a wider cultural context with a simple act of acknowledgement). Even closer to home in a sense was Chief Executive of Chamber Music New Zealand Euan Murdoch’s mid-concert spoken message of support from all associated with the organization to the citizens and chamber music-lovers of Christchurch, in the wake of the recent devastation experienced by that city.

As everybody knows, the trio consists of a group of brothers whose upbringing obviously laid the foundations for developing an enviable musical rapport – right from the first few phrases of the opening work on the program one got a sense of total engagement from the participants with both music and their interaction. On the face of things, communication seemed all to flow towards the violinist, Georg Eggner, with both brothers, ‘cellist Florian (his John Belushi-style spectacles bringing a touch of visual free-wheeling glamour to the music-making) and pianist Christoph, readily making eye-contact with their seemingly more circumspect violinist brother. However, proof of the pudding, as my grandmother used to say, was in the eating – and the trio’s demonstration of individual impulse brought together in a unified flow brilliantly exemplified that particular joy of interactive music-making which can make chamber music so rewarding an experience. Any performing group worth its salt can, of course, do this – but the Eggners were equally adept at drawing its audience into the world of the music. We seemed not merely bystanders, but participants in the ebb and flow of things.

All of this has been said before far more eloquently by others at other times and in other places – but I truly felt that this was music-making that didn’t get much better, anywhere. The Beethoven work which began the program was new to me, but it hummed and crackled with it’s composer’s characteristic fingerprints from the outset – an assertive unison statement at the beginning, a remote-key second-subject, at once hushed and full-bodied, a development section whose ideas shouldered and pushed one another about, and a wonderful “false ending” whose forthright final-chord cadence suddenly and unexpectedly turned upon itself and continued for a few more bars – a sequence delightfully brought off by the players. A beautifully-expressed Adagio (magical sounds from each of the instruments both in turn and together) was balanced by a theme-and-variations finale during which the composer’s “popular song” idea came to the fore in varying combinations, ranging in mood from the lyricism of duetting violin and viola, to the rumbustious stamping dance of all three instruments.

I had heard of Ian Munro as a concert pianist, but not as a composer; and was intrigued to discover the extent of his creative activities in this respect. His Piano Trio Tales of Old Russia suggests a fascination with narrative and drama, besides the exotic element which makes Russian art in general so attractive world-wide. Two of the three tales which particularly inspired Munro’s work are well-known – Vassilisa and the Baba Yaga, and the Snow Maiden, both partly by dint of association with other composers and their music. The third, Death and the Soldier, is an oft-repeated theme in European folk-literature, of the “wise fool” whose native cunning outwits the forces of darkness. Having witnessed the Eggner Trio’s capacities for characterization and narrative throughout the Beethoven work, I wasn’t surprised to find the musicians relishing the opportunities for evoking that sense of “a long time ago far away from here” in each of the tales. In particular, the macabre death-dance of the last story was launched with splendidly-controlled menace and ever-growing unease, reminiscent in places of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony. The sentimental waltz towards the piece’s conclusion marked the defeat of the devils and a triumph of well-being, the musical laughter of the story’s audience at the end as much from relief as pleasure in entertainment.

The work was a perfect foil for the Dvorak Trio which took up the concert’s second part – if the Eggners had thus far shown they could convey energetic high spirits and humor, the trio proved equally capable of addressing the Czech composer’s passionate outpourings, generating full-blooded responses to the music’s every mood. I thought the group’s fusion of energy and expression utterly compelling throughout, with phrase-ends by turns adroitly tailored to succeeding episodes, or pointing the contrasts for proper musical effect. Just occasionally the violinist reached the highest note of a striving phrase less than cleanly (noticeable against the otherwise technically impeccable playing throughout), though somehow it all added to the expressiveness of the music’s wanting to bring about something worthwhile. After digging into the trenchant moods of the first two movements the Eggners relished the Adagio’s tender moments, though remaining responsive to the osmotic thrustings of swirling energy released by the music in places. The finale returned to the earlier movements’ excitement, a wistful second subject along the way providing some necessary respite before the players brought all the strands together for a noble and rousing finish.

I didn’t catch the name of the film composer who wrote the wildly unbuttoned romp of a piece the Eggners gave us as an encore – it was straight out of a Keystone Cops-type thriller, beginning with a delicious horror-chord, and erupting with high-energy velocities, a brief swooning ‘cello theme allowing us but  a breath or two’s respite before whirling everything back into a vortex of abandonment and sudden oblivion. But it was, though, of a piece with the rest of the concert regarding the group’s all-embracing way with everything that was played, and as such sent us all out into the night simmering with pleasure.

Profane Bach at St Paul’s Lutheran Church

J. S. Bach: Harpsichord Concerto in A major, BWV 1055; Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041;  Coffee Cantata, BWV 211

Douglas Mews (harpsichord), Kate Goodbehere (violin), Rowena Simpson (soprano), John Beaglehole (tenor), David Morriss (bass), instrumentalists on baroque instruments

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, King Street, Newtown

Sunday, 20 March 2011, 5pm

Bach’s birthday is being celebrated at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in King Street, Newtown. Last Sunday there was a concert of concertos and a secular cantata; next Sunday there is more Bach, also at 5pm. Bach was born on 21 March 1685, so this was his 326th anniversary.

Bach’s secular cantatas are not heard very often, in this country at least, so it was refreshing to hear the humorous Coffee Cantata performed, and especially by such able musicians as these. It showed, in the composer’s birthday week, that he was not only a sombre composer for the Lutheran Church.

Approximately 40 people heard a fine concert of the master’s music. The printed programme gave the words in German and their English translation for the cantata; unfortunately it left out the names of two instrumentalists – Penelope Evison, baroque transverse flute, and Richard Hardie, baroque double bass (last heard in 2010 year with the visiting Wallfisch Band).

Throughout the concert various combinations of players accompanied the instrumental soloists, and vocalists.

The harpsichord concerto was familiar, though from less authentic recorded versions. Perhaps they were more like ‘bark’ to this concert’s Bach.

The allegro first movement was light and bright, with plenty of air in it; there were a few tuning aberrations near the beginning. The larghetto second movement was very slow and delicate, while the third, another allegro (ma non tanto) again had intonation wobbles near the beginning. Douglas Mews’s playing was always lively and very fine; it was almost non-stop playing for him.

The violin concerto was very well played, with soloist Kate Goodbehere always on top of the requirements. It, too, was familiar – cheerful, satisfying music. As well as many fine moments for the soloist, there were some wonderful phrases for the cellist, Emma Goodbehere. After an allegro and andante, there was a sprightly allegro assai to end.

In the cantata, the cellists swapped places; Julien Hainsworth took on the quite demanding role for that instrument.

After an opening recitative from the tenor, the first aria was sung by bass David Morriss. It was very good, Morriss varying the voice a lot. Top and bottom registers were best; the middle tended to be thrown away. Morriss, as the father, then sang a recitative with his coffee-addicted daughter (sound familiar?), sung by Rowena Simpson. With her hair in little pigtails, Simpson sang very expressively, and with some acting out by expression, gesture and movement, the dispute between the two was brought alive. This recitative was accompanied by cello and harpsichord only.

The daughter, Liesgen, then sang an aria extolling the virtues of coffee and her fondness for it, accompanied by cello, harpsichord and the excellent flute playing of Penelope Evison.

Two recitatives for the pair were next, with the father trying to introduce sanctions which would persuade the young woman to abandon coffee. Only when he thought to threaten that his daughter would not have a husband unless she gave up coffee did she say she would give it up.

However, her delightful aria revealed that she wanted a husband very much. With two violins, viola, cello, bass and harpsichord, this was sensitively sung with beautiful phrasing. Both singer and violins made the stresses appropriate to baroque music.

The tenor returned as narrator for a recitative in which he told of the father looking for a husband for his daughter. The latter managed to make it known that only a suitor who promised and contracted to allow her coffee whenever she wanted it would be considered. This part was acted out most humorously by Simpson, indicating men in the audience whom she was ostensibly considering (with suitable responses in some cases); Beaglehole entered into this miming also. Douglas Mews changed registration on the harpsichord at suitable moments, and the flute returned to give mellifluous poignancy to the story.

A small coffee table with the appropriate appurtenances was brought in and out at fitting moments in the dialogues.

The final movement had all three singers, and the orchestra, recounting how mothers and grandmothers drank coffee, so who could blame the daughters?

The music and story were thoroughly entertaining – a lively presentation, and fine singing and playing.

Brahms piano trio and Czech duos at St Andrew’s

Breaking free from the Chamber – van der Zee, Mitchell and Mapp

St.Andrew’s on The Terrace Season of Concerts 2011

Janáček – Sonata for Violin and Piano
Martinů – Sonata No.2 for ‘Cello and Piano
Brahms – Piano Trio No.2 in C Minor

Anna van der Zee (violin) / Paul Mitchell (‘cello) / Richard Mapp (piano)

St.Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 20th March 2011, 3pm

Many of my most memorable musical experiences come from unexpected encounters with either unfamiliar compositions or stunningly good performances. In Wellington, these days, one expects at most concerts certain levels of musical understanding and technical accomplishment, but that still leaves plenty of stratospheric spaces for performances which take the listener to those out-of-the-ordinary heights that can’t help but enlarge and enrich one’s view of existence in general. This was a concert with many such moments.

I don’t wish to give the idea that these musicians normally don’t impress with their playing, though I have to say that in ‘cellist Paul Mitchell’s case I thought his work on this occasion exceeded in overall terms of accomplishment anything I’d previously heard him do. I’d heard Anna van deer Zee’s work previously as a member of the Tasman String Quartet, and remember enjoying her musicality in that context, somewhat removed from the realm of a virtuoso violin sonata, as here. As for Richard Mapp, I’ve always had the highest regard for his piano-playing in different settings, be it collaborative or soloistic – which is not to say that I’m never surprised and delighted by what he’s able to achieve out of the blue, as it were.

But this, I thought, was a special concert, one in which the musicians infused their material with oceans of appropriate character – fiery energy and deep concentration (Janáček and Martinů) and robust strength and romantic warmth (Brahms). And what a stunning opening to the concert it was, with the Janáček Sonata’s fiery, volatile declamations hurled at us by both violinist and pianist, only for the music to revert to the most confessional and intimate utterances without warning – such tenderness sitting alongside blazing statements and searing lines! I thought the playing simply terrific, encompassing both strength and vulnerability, handling the composer’s characteristic sudden switches into contrasting moods with great aplomb. Van deer Zee and Mapp caught the second movement’s folksy lyricism, swapping melodic lines with wonderful dexterity and, in van deer Zee’s case, beautifully true intonation.

The scherzo-like third movement set an invigorating “stomping” character at the opening against a more heartfelt trio section (these players characterized everything so vividly), while the finale’s epic treatment of tragedy cast the instruments almost as protagonists in places – the violin occasionally savaging the piano’s more long-breathed music with brutal interjections, the music in between time creating a mood of desperate and uncertain yearning for peace and harmony, constantly under threat. The players achieved an intense, heartbreaking flow of feeling at one point, but one which the echoing of the movement’s opening quickly dissolved, as if waking us from a dream and returning us to a harsher reality.

Martinů ‘s second “Cello Sonata, written in the United States after the composer had fled the Nazi invasion of Europe, is a kind of “New World” chamber sonata, containing numerous echoes of his Czech heritage. The first movement has a slightly “haunted” quality, folkish lines punctuated by episodes of great agitation, with textures for both instruments richly wrought. Mitchell and Mapp played into each other’s hands throughout quite masterfully, the focus of the ‘cello line matching and mirroring the piano writing to perfection. Together these musicians made something special out of the funeral-like Largo, recreating a whole world of sorrow and disquiet, galvanized by some virtuoso playing from the pianist leading to a most heartfelt and desperate entry from the ‘cellist – fantastic playing, completely “inside’ the music. The finale’s opening, combatative exchanges between string pizzicati with “attitude” and jagged piano writing, never let up, fusing lyricism with rhythmic energies, the players readily capturing a sense of “flight”, of desperate movement towards a kind of freedom in sadness and anger.

After these heart-on-sleeve utterances, the Brahms Piano Trio seemed at first a model of classical decorum – as well, the composer’s writing (strings often in unison) tended in the opening movement to play down the inherent warmth of this instrumental combination, so that we got an athletic, sinewy sound, focused and lean-textured. Occasionally I found the piano a shade overpowering in this movement, and wondered whether the player or the acoustic was to blame. This wasn’t so pronounced in the subsequent movements, the slow movement’s songful variations bringing the players’ tones together in a beautifully balanced outpouring of melody. The Scherzo’s wonderfully delicate, slightly “spooky” opening tones were beautifully realized, the warmer, more relaxed second subject was given plenty of character by the players, rising to something approaching heroic utterance at its climax, and switching to a Mendelssohnian feeling at the return of the opening, much relished by the musicians.

Hugo Wolf once complained of Brahms, “he can’t exult” – a judgement that this music surely and triumphantly denies. The musicians captured the flow of things right from the start, enjoying the occasional chromaticisms and contrasting them with a more chunky and bucolic character in other places. Richard Mapp’s playing I found terrific, establishing the kind of momentum which swept everything before it, his fellow-players matching the excitement right to the music’s joyous conclusion. Altogether, the concert gave us music-making of a high order, reminding us all over again (if needed) of the depth of talent to be found among our local musicians – such wealth, and at the disposal of our pleasure.

Impressive recital by piano duettists at St Andrew’s

The Pangea Piano Project (Ya-Ting Liou and Blas Gonzalez: piano duet)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace Season of Concerts
Dvořák: Slavonic Dance, Op 46 No 1; Tolga Zafer Özdemir: Mesopotamia Suite; Liszt: Après une lecture du Dante; Ligeti: Sonatina; Guastavino: Romance del Plata; Jack Body: Three Rhythmics

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Friday 18 March, 7.30pm

What was revealed in the leaflet advertising this highly enjoyable series at St Andrew’s hardly covered the reality. The names of neither of the two pianists were familiar, nor were two of the composers, though the name Guastavino might have rung bells. The two pianists have played together for several years, and are currently staff pianists at the University of Auckland School of Music.

However, Liszt’s Dante Sonata should have been enough to draw a crowd – Ya-Ting Liou’s performance was highly impressive – and there was the pleasurable certainty of one of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, played in its original form.

But there was also real delight in the four other pieces, all of which demonstrated the pianists’ adventurous taste, but most importantly their ear for contemporary music with a human face.

Tolga Zafer Özdemir is a young Turkish composer who in his Mesopotamia Suite makes a successful and attractive fusion of Middle Eastern and western European musical traditions. In one of his several interesting spoken offerings, Blas Gonzalez suggested Anatolian musical references, though the title would seem at odds with that: I am in no position to compare the musical characteristics of the Turkish heartland (Özdemir was born in Ankara in 1975) with that of the Arabs in what is now Irak. This piece, for one pianist, played by Gonzalez himself, was a splendid demonstration of his musical sensibility, keeping easy control of the fast and irregular rhythms and the quick-silver dynamic changes. It’s a delightful and arresting piece: fast, with strong though irregular rhythms in the first movement; a pensive quality in the second, with sharp dynamic contrasts between calm arpeggios in the left hand and sprays of brilliant notes in the right, hints of Ravel and Bartók; and a strikingly attractive last movement with fast, repeated, staccato motifs.

Ligeti’s Sonatina, for piano duet, was the second piece in the programme involving both pianists (after the Dvořák Slavonic Dance) which confirmed the pair’s singular accomplishment and superb ensemble. It was written in his early years, still in communist Hungary (he escaped to Cologne in 1956) and in a style acceptable to the regime; regardless of the artistic restrictions, Ligeti produced a piece that could hardly be mistaken for music of an earlier era. Yet for today’s ears it comes as a refreshing relief from much of the avant-garde music that Ligeti was eager to immerse himself in. There were tunes; the three movements were quite short, employing a palette recalling the French neo-classicists.

Gonsález remarked that Carlos Guastavino (1912 – 2000) was probably the third best-known Argentinian composer after Ginastera and Piazzola. Though his music is tonal, relatively ‘conservative’, its flavour is nevertheless distinctly mid 20th century. Underneath the charm and ease of Romance del Plata lies an individuality and integrity, the last movement in distinctly Latin American rhythms. In three movements, it proved a highly effective piece for four hands.

Jack Body’s Three Rhythmics has become something of a calling-card for the duo and while they played from the score, it was the product of obvious painstaking and conscientious work, in which I’m sure the composer would have delighted, such was the brilliance and command of their playing.

I first heard this piece – I think it was the premiere – at the October 1987 Sonic Circus, the last of the Jack Body-inspired 12-hour marathons, midday to midnight, of around 60 concerts and recitals of New Zealand music in every corner of the Town Hall and Michael Fowler Centre. At the very start of my reviewing career with The Evening Post, I shared its coverage with my predecessor Owen Jensen; for me it was a fairly overwhelming introduction to much New Zealand music with which I was at that stage unfamiliar.

Three Rhythmics was played by the late Diane Cooper and Dan Poynton. I remembered it with some wonderment because it made such an impact then, and this performance by an Argentinian and a Taiwanese pianist astonished me again. It was a riot of complex rhythms delivered through twenty fingers working at lightning speed; it is an exciting minor masterpiece of which, above all, they made vivid musical sense.

The two main-stream works in the programme were Dvořák’s first Slavonic Dance, which emerged in illuminating and rhythmic clarity, sufficient to encourage one to seek out recordings of all 16 dances in original piano duet format.

And Liszt’s Dante Sonata (Après une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi una sonata; note the correct translation of lecture: ‘Reading’), as I said at the beginning, was a treat; sadly, not nearly as much played as the B minor sonata. From the very opening, Ya-Ting Liou’s playing was powerful and dramatic yet highly poetic; not too heavily pedaled but with all the density and force called for through the opening phase of this evocation of the Inferno from La commedia divina. Though described as ‘strange, confused and passionate’ (Searle) it can be a spell-binding piece; Liou handled the romantic, Chopinesque middle part with limpid clarity, showing a keen dramatic sense as the excitement grew through astutely handled crescendi and accelerations.

The Liszt was very much of a part with the entire recital, which could be regarded as an adventurous and highly successful exploration of some of the extremes of the Romantic piano world and some aspects of its survival in the present age.

Snell, Castle and Bryony Williams in opera recital at St Andrew’s

St. Andrew’s Season of Concerts and the New Zealand Opera Society

Sarah Castle (mezzo), Martin Snell (bass), Bryony Williams (soprano), Bruce Greenfield (accompanist)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace,

Thursday, 17 March, 7.30pm

A well-filled church greeted the performers; it was necessary for the latter to introduce the items, since programmes had run out. This introduced a level of informality as well as information.

Martin Snell opened the evening’s opera excerpts; his resonant speaking voice made a memorable introduction to the first aria, ‘Sorge infausta una procella’, sung by Zoroastro in Handel’s Orlando of 1733. Hearing the singer in this resonant church the night after having heard him in Xerxes made me realise how much we miss in a large theatre, even in a good seat and in the relatively good acoustics of the St. James Theatre (Rodney Macann says that the best sound is in the upper gallery there).

Enunciation of consonants really tells in this acoustic, as did the marvellous runs and plangent, characterful low notes the singer executed in this robust aria, and elsewhere. Snell did not use a score for this or any of the arias; only in the final item, the trio from Così fan Tutte, did he require the printed music. Neither of the women used a score at all.

It was grand to have Bruce Greenfield accompanying – the man who can sound like an orchestra. It was a hugely taxing programme for him, which he carried off with his usual assurance and brilliance; his technique, flair, and expressive powers are just astonishing.

The Opera Society and the St Andrew’s Season of Concerts organisers are to be thanked for getting such an outstanding concert together, to be performed while Martin Snell was in his homeland to sing in Xerxes. They are to be thanked, too, for providing printed translations of the arias, with titles and brief summaries of the situations in the operas giving rise to the arias.

Sarah Castle followed with one of Sesto’s arias from Giulio Cesare, an earlier Handel opera than the previous one. This was a trouser role – Sarah Castle explained the variety of roles which a mezzo could be called upon to fill. This aria was very fast – perhaps a little too fast. Castle proved to have a fine, rich, well-modulated mezzo voice, considerably developed from when I last heard her sing.

Snell returned to sing a lovely, lilting rendition of ‘Vi ravviso’ from La sonnambula by Bellini, in which he aroused, through the voice as well as the words, the feelings of longing that Count Rodolfo was experiencing.

‘Acerba volutta’ from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvrer was next, from Sarah Castle, who managed to portray a woman this time. This was powerful singing – and an accompaniment so full of notes that it was a spectacle to watch Greenfield play!

Snell’s next role was as a doctor, in ‘O tu Palermo, terra adorata’ from I vespri siciliani, by Verdi. This long aria demonstrated the singer’s excellent breath control. Unfortunately, a beeping watch (the audience had been asked to turn off such devices) distracted the singer, and he repeated the aria, looking over Greenfield’s shoulder towards the end. However, he was now too far from the microphones for the recording for Radio New Zealand Concert to be successful for this particular number.

We now moved from Italian to French, when Bryony Williams sang ‘Le coeur d’Hélène’ from the earlier French version of the same opera by Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes. Williams’s soprano sometimes has a rather metallic sound, especially in the upper register. She needs to open the throat and air passage more; the sound sometimes seemed stuck behind her teeth. Note: we never saw Martin Snell’s teeth! However, in all her items, Williams’s phrasing and characterisation were very good.

Verdi’s aria ‘Infelice, e tu credevi’ from Ernani gave Snell another opportunity to characterise the role of someone who was not just a black and white personality (should that be black or white?).

Sarah Castle returned to sing a lengthy Wagner aria (if those two words can be put together): Fricka challenging Wotan in no uncertain terms in ‘So ist denn aus’ from Die Walküre. The power and strength of Castle’s singing fully met the considerable demands of words and music.

Wagner was the composer of Martin Snell’s next effort, too: ‘Gar viel und schön’ from Tannhäuser. Snell explained that the story of this music drama was based on historical fact. It was sung in a powerful and noble manner, as befitted an aria in a singing contest. The richness of Snell’s voice is more apparent (naturally, perhaps) in the slower arias. There was another aberration here, between pianist and singer, but all was resolved. A tiny flaw was a slightly sharp final note to this stirring aria. His German was impeccable.

The last aria before the Interval was ‘Sein wir wieder gut’ from Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss. It was sung by Sarah Castle, whose voice was very flexible and dramatic in this demanding aria.

The second half of the concert featured several ensembles, the first of which was the opening duet of Der Rosenkavalier by Strauss, for Octavian (sung by Sarah Castle, as a boy) and the Marschallin (Bryony Williams, as a much older woman). A little acting, using a stately chair as a prop (and subsequently used by Martin Snell several times), added to the drama and helped this conversational duet along.

Another duet from the same opera followed, with Octavian again being sung by Sarah Castle, and Baron Ochs by Martin Snell. In this, Octavian is in disguise as a maid; thus Castle, a woman, is playing a man playing a woman. The interchange was very funny, with lots of facial expression from Snell. The duet ends with a waltz, tastefully danced by the pair.

The aria ‘Ebben? Ne andro lontana’ from La Wally by Alfredo Catalani (which I had heard on radio that very morning) was sung by Bryony Williams. Again the quality of her sound was variable.

For me, the high point of the performance was Martin Snell’s rendition of King Phillip’s aria in Verdi’s Don Carlos: ‘Ella giammai m’amo’ The tragic utterance of the King when he says that his wife does not love him, was the richest plum in a programme full of sweetmeats. Greenfield’s accompaniment was absolutely remarkable, almost orchestral, while Snell, seated in the kingly chair, gave us cavernous low notes in a superb portrayal of the tragic king. Every note was beautifully moulded and placed, while the words were enunciated flawlessly.

This was a hard act to follow; Kurt Weill’s Nanna’s Lied was characterfully presented by Sarah Castle, with an appropriate level of irony for Brecht’s words.

She continued with the English song ‘Here I’ll stay’ from Love Life by Weill, and then his French song ‘Je ne t’aime pas’. This one was extremely well portrayed through facial expression and the voice.

Bryony Williams sang ‘Ain’t it a pretty night’ from Susanna by Carlisle Floyd. This was effective and touching, but the voice changed its quality too much through its range.

Martin Snell followed with the aria that won him the Mobil Song Quest, back in 1993, and which he sang in the Opera New Zealand production of the opera in 2009: Prince Gremin’s aria from Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky. Sung in Russian, this was a delight.

The concert ended with the well-known trio from Così fan Tutte, ‘Soave sia il vento’. While it is always worth hearing this beautiful music, the trio was not very well matched or blended. It may have been that there was not much time for rehearsal, but this finale was disappointing.

The concert was a rare treat, celebrating the singers’ art, the accompanist’s versatility and expertise, and the opera composers’ brilliance and inventiveness. The singers were thanked with applause and flowers; the professional singers especially were generous for giving their time and talents free for this evening.

Handel’s Xerxes from New Zealand Opera in brilliant period orchestral setting

Handel: Xerxes, an opera in three acts, sung in the original Italian with English surtitles.

NBR New Zealand Opera with the Lautten Compagney conducted by Wolfgang Katschner, directed by Roger Hodgman

Xerxes: Tobias Cole; Romilda: Tiffany Speight; Arsamene: William Purefoy; Atalanta: Amy Wilkinson; Amastre: Kristen Darragh; Ariodate: Martin Snell; Elviro: Stephen Bennett; Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus (chorus master Michael Vinten)

St. James Theatre

16 March 2011 (season in Wellington: 15-16, 18-19 March)

It was very satisfying to see a fully-staged performance of Xerxes, unusually with two counter-tenors singing lead roles, rather than at least one being a woman, and to hear the arias at the original pitch.

A further bonus was to have an experienced and professional baroque orchestra accompany in the pit. There were some rumblings about using an imported orchestra when this was first announced, but it is unlikely that New Zealand has enough baroque players who could be available to play a professional season in both Auckland and Wellington. Certainly the decision to employ this orchestra (whose name means ‘company of lutes’) was fully vindicated, even if the lute and theorbo could seldom be heard.

While the stalls were almost full, and presumably the circle, I understand the upper gallery was less than half full that day.

The printed programme was careful on the point of this being the first fully staged professional production of a Handel opera performance in New Zealand (as opposed to concert performance). The newspapers and the Listener have not been so careful, referring to ‘the first fully-staged performance of a Handel opera in New Zealand’, which is simply untrue. Less than two years ago the New Zealand School of Music put on Handel’s Semele in a delightful production, as fully staged as you like. Several decades earlier, Victoria University School of Music performed a fully staged Julius Caesar of Handel, in the university’s Memorial Theatre. There were earlier semi-staged performances of Julius Caesar, Alcina, Ariodante and Rinaldo in Christchurch by Academy Opera. There may have been other staged productions of Handel operas of which I am not aware.

Another point about the printed programme was its readability. It was sumptuously produced with gorgeous photographs. But please, programme designers, don’t have white print on a black background! It is too hard to read, especially for that substantial portion of your audience that is over the age of 55. Even, worse, all the print was in Arial, or similar sans-serif font, which readability tests have shown is not nearly as readable as fonts with serifs. People think sans-serif looks modern; actually the serifs carry the eye forward and aid reading.

Now to the performance itself, on 16 March. The opening overture was a delight: the orchestra’s crisp rhythms, fast tempi and detached playing set an energetic mood that continued for the whole opera. A feature was lovely recorder playing.

The colonnaded set designed by John Verryt, with projected distant scenes behind, reminiscent of Italy, was most handsome, especially under the lighting by Matt Scott, with its frequently changing colours to reflect situations and moods (a little too frequently, I thought).

Costuming was a little more problematical. Xerxes, Romilda, Atalanta and Amastre (the latter as a soldier) wore gorgeous costumes by Trelise Cooper. But the other principals and the chorus wore extremely dull outfits. Why would a general in what appeared to be early nineteenth-century times, wear a khaki -coloured uniform? Surely camouflage hadn’t been invented then (whenever ‘then’ was)? And why did the chorus and those fulfilling acting rather than singing roles, and the remainder of the chorus, wear dull grey and black bits and pieces of body-clinging modern casual garments?

The opera was sung in very good Italian; the surtitles only occasionally moved too fast to read. Some opera-goers thought the translations should have had been repeated on the screens during the repetitions of the da capo arias .

Xerxes (Tobias Cole), in a costume featuring white trousers and a purple (kingly) jacket with a gold and be-jewelled peacock embroidered on the back, sang his famous ‘Ombrai mai fu’ beautifully, in a flexible, high counter-tenor voice. His was the less mellifluous voice of the two counter-tenors – appropriate for the nastier character. It seemed ludicrous to sing in praise of the shade and protection of the tree when the tree was tiny, sitting in a pot. Perhaps it was a token gesture, in irony. The stage business of Xerxes tending the tree, assisted by sundry silent servants, was good fun.

Soon we saw Arsamene (William Purefoy), surprisingly dressed in very dull costume, and with short hair, as opposed to Xerxes’s flowing shoulder-length ringlets.  One might have supposed that the royal brother would also look royal, but perhaps his more active life-style precluded that. Purefoy’s voice is different in quality from that of Cole  rather warmer, fuller and more mellow, but equally flexible.  His lower notes were beautiful.

Then Romilda arrived (Tiffany Speight) in a glorious bright pink floating long coat over a gold dress.  Speight’s voice is splendid, and carried even from the back of the stage (which wasn’t true of all the singers); naturally, it was even better from the front  clear and fluent.  Her wonderful aria about the brook flowing to the sea showed Handel’s skill with word-painting, trills describing the water.

Romilda’s sister Atalanta (Amy Wilkinson) revealed a rich, flexible, expressive voice, along with an expressive face, and excellent acting ability.

Next on stage was Amastre, Xerxes’s fiancée, dressed as a man. Although her attire was obviously military, she boasted white trousers and a red jacket – was this intended to show that she was of higher birth (a princess, indeed) than Ariodante, the general, in his sombre dress? Amastre was sung by Kristen Darragh, the first of the New Zealanders to come on stage. Her mezzo was not as strong as the other soloists voices, particularly from further back on the stage, but she carried off her role extremely well. In her suicide aria she was clearer, and the full beauty of her voice was revealed.

The General, Ariodante (Martin Snell), was next to arrive, and immediately his sonorous bass made an impression. His conversation with Xerxes had its funny side, since Xerxes’s apparently heavily jewelled crown did not inhibit small movements of his head at all!

A florid bass aria for Ariodante was splendidly sung, the low notes quite thrilling. The orchestral accompaniment varied between legato and staccato, maintaining interest, as did the excellent lighting, and the projected images.

An extended aria from Xerxes was well-sustained; the florid singing superlative. Just one or two shrieks at the very top, and the occasional flat top note here and elsewhere marred the performance. The humorous production details were enjoyable; acting was almost universally good.

The most humorous character was the servant, Elviro, who, not to be outdone by Xerxes and Arsamene, got to sing falsetto as well. Stephen Bennett invested this character with slapstick, particularly when dressed as a woman flower-seller, where his impersonation was achingly funny, as he switched between falsetto and his usual voice. His costume was a bright note.

Acts 1 and 2 were continuous, which made for a rather long first session, in which my attention occasionally flagged.

‘Opera Exposed’ in the interval consisted of Aidan Lang, the General Director of New Zealand Opera interviewing several of the participants in a light-hearted but informative way. Conductor Katschner talked briefly about the orchestra, and had the theorbo, lute and violin demonstrate their instruments – and the last, the baroque bow. Purefoy spoke about his role and his voice, with a few jokes about counter-tenors thrown in, and Kristen Darragh was interviewed about playing trouser roles.

Another attractive overture preceded the third Act, but the violins were too loud for lute and theorbo, which became indistinguishable from the harpsichord, though soon after I was able to hear the lute, accompanying Atalanta.

Purefoy gave us a lovely liquid sound in his aria in this Act. The chorus, which Handel allowed only a couple of outings, had a lively, fresh sound, and were perfectly balanced; their movement, too, was admirable.

Elviro entertained us again, demonstrating that Xerxes’s bridge across the Hellespont was not a thing of any permanence – accompanied by very jolly orchestral music. A very decorated aria for Romilda revealed Speight’s consistent excellence. Her characterisation and acting were always of a high order. She made singing Handel, even the many florid passages, seem so easy, not least in her duet with Purefoy.

Ariodante returned, delighted to have married his daughter (Romilda) to Arsamene (misunderstanding Xerxes’s intentions to have her for himself), and between delicious low notes, executed a couple of amusing jubilant dances.

Kristen Darragh had another opportunity to show off her attractive contralto register; with cello and recorder accompaniment, this aria was exquisite.

Tobias Cole again displayed the power of his voice, and showed that he is athletic both vocally and bodily. Not to mention his ability to express humour in both voice and acting, as well as the rage he delivers variously to most other principals. Some of his stage movement in ‘Soak me in the vile abyss’ echoed that of Atalanta when her deceit is found out. The third chorus number was very good indeed.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable production. Handel’s marvellous long lines in the arias were outstandingly performed by singers and orchestra, and the humour and fallibility of the characters endeared them and the music to the audience to the extent of a partial standing ovation at the end, and much applause greeting each aria and ensemble.

A String Quartet with a difference – the NZGQ


St.Andrew’s on The Terrace Season of Concerts 2011

ANDREW YORK – Lotus Eaters

PETER WARLOCK (arr.Owen Moriarty) – Capriol Suite


GEORGES BIZET (arr. Bill Kanengiser) – Carmen Suite


JS BACH (arr.James Smith) – Brandenburg Concerto No.6

NIKOLAI RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (arr.Bill Kanengiser) – Capriccio Espagnol

The New Zealand Guitar Quartet

Jane Curry, Cheryl Grice-Watterson, Owen Moriarty, Christopher Hill

St.Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 16th March 2011

As one can see from the NZGQ’s program, the evening consisted mainly of transcriptions, with a few original compositions. Given that two of these reworkings were of music originally for strings (JS Bach and Warlock) and the other two drew heavily for their original inspiration on music for Spanish guitar, the presentations seemed entirely apposite, and (with one reservation, humbly proffered by this non-guitarist!) were delivered with what seemed plenty of energy, sensitivity and stylistic integrity.

I’ve previously remarked in these pages on the uncanny ability of the guitar to bring its own characterful distinction to music written for other instruments; and the quartet of players certainly brought their skills to the fore, conjuring up and delivering a wide range of colour and dynamics to works whose textures responded well to the presentations. For me the only thing I found problematical (and only in one item, throughout the evening) was the circumstance in the final work, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, of frequent interruptions to the music for re-tuning – these hiatuses seemed to me to damage the atmosphere and sweep of the whole, and I was left thinking how “out-of-tune” the instruments would actually come to sound if left to their own performance devices for the sake of preserving musical continuity. I wondered whether a group of, say, flamenco guitarists delivering a larger-scale work which generated plenty of atmosphere, coloristic excitement and rhythmic impetus would similarly “sectionalize” the music to re-tune. I know that Rimsky wrote what seemed like “natural breaks” into his original score, but they’ve never seemed to me to be like those between symphonic movements, where there’s the usual concert-hall coughing and shuffling – one wants the music to press on, emphasizing the contrasts of the change of colour and impetus, and so on.

Interestingly enough, this was also the only work on the program in which I felt the performance lacked a bit of grunt in places. I found myself wanting to be more “transported” by it all (perhaps those “tuning breaks” were to blame) – I thought there needed to be more “schwung” to the rhythms during the final Fandango Asturiano, and simply a greater sense towards the end of of risk-taking and red-blooded abandonment (perhaps out-of-tune strings might have actually helped at that point!)…

Still, this is to risk nit-picking in the face of my overall enjoyment of an enterprising program! Delights there were aplenty – Andrew York’s attractive Lotus Eaters could have come out of a film similar to “Zorba the Greek” – I thought of the term “Mediterranean Road Music”, with, as Owen Moriarty reminded us in his spoken postscript, a very “LA” perspective. Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite was sheer delight, the opening Basse-Danse exploiting the antiphonal effects of change and exchange among the ensemble, and the jig-like Tordion featuring beautifully “covered” pizzicato tones, everything dying away to a whisper at the end. The players dug into the final Mattachins, with bristling flourishes of (in places) spiky harmonies, leading up to a satisfying “ole!” at the final chord.

A heart-stopping moment came for a young Wellington composer, Kaisa Beech, whose work The Storm was presented by the quartet, a vividly-presented picture of a passing thunderstorm, encompassing both calm and turmoil with telling impact. Another original work, from presumably a more seasoned composer, Scott Tennant (actually dedicated to guitarist Owen Moriarty’s parents) was Celtic Fare, a work which actually grew out of an arrangement the composer made of another composer’s work, and which formed the inspiration for two further original movements. Irish folk-melodies belled and echoed throughout the first piece, to be contrasted with hoe-down energies in the final movement. Pleasant, somewhat eclectic stuff, nicely turned by the ensemble.

In general, I thought the group gave the Carmen transcription a bit more edge than they did the Rimsky-Korsakov. Each section seemed to go with a swing, the opportunities for “layering” the texture with four instruments beautifully realized and nicely detailed in performance. Occasionally I wondered why the arranger chose to set the melody of a piece an octave lower that I would have expected (with the original orchestration in my mind’s ear), making for a less brilliant and clearly-etched effect than with the original. This happened with the Habanera, and the effect was of the tune being sung by a baritone at the outset – the change to a major key brought the melody up to its accustomed level – but it did seem strange at first, as with the Seguidilla, where the melodic lines sometimes got submerged in the surrounding textures – not the performers’ fault, assuredly! Throughout, the group’s rhythmic pointing caught the snap and lift of the music’s movement so beautifully, a slight rhythmic hiccup at the end of the introduction in the Gypsy Dance mattering not a whit, as the growing physicality of the dance caught up performers and listeners alike in ever-growing excitement.

But I couldn’t praise too highly the group’s realization of the sixth of JS Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti. In true Baroque fashion, the music translated into the new instrumental medium as if fitting a perfectly-tailored glove – and the ensemble’s rendition of the individual lines brought so many deliciously-phrased strands of delight together with impeccable balance and osmotic teamwork.  The best performances of Bach have a certain feel of a living organism simply doing its thing, expressing its existence in its own unique, multifaceted way – and such was the case with the playing of the ensemble throughout the concerto – a performance that gave the very deepest of pleasure. Especially (and surprisingly) good was the slow movement, where the songful lines expressed an even more poignant quality than usual, perhaps through the notes being plucked instead of bowed, and therefore more subject to decay, as with all things to do with this worlds joye…….

The group gave an encore, occasioning a bit of “musical malapropism” on my part, thinking as I did that I’d heard it introduced as “Surrey Overnight” – however,  I found out later that its correct name was “Sarajevo Nights”. I fear my resulting abashment inhibited my critical faculties somewhat regarding this piece, as I can’t seem to remember much about it, except that it had an attractive calypso-like feeling, like a sort of jazzy chaconne. I’ve added my slip of hearing to my own private list of musical howlers……..