Tudor Consort sings Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories

Music for Holy Week

The Tudor Consort directed by Michael Stewart

Tenebrae Responsories by Tomás Luis de Victoria with plainchant interludes from Pange Lingua by Venantius Fortunatus; De Profundis by Pizzetti; Three Motets, Op 110 (Brahms); Crucifixus à 8 by Lotti

Cathedral of St Paul

Good Friday, 22 April, 9pm

When I starting writing reviews for The Evening Post in 1987, I was not particularly au fait with very much liturgical music and even less with its technical vocabulary, having not been brought up in a religious family. Coming to grips with the significance of parts of the liturgy like the Tenebrae responories and their use in the church was interesting….

Let me assume that fewer today, even the nominally Catholic, are very familiar with some of the more arcane areas of the liturgy.

Holy Week is the busiest period in the calendar of the Christian church, and the commemoration of the events surrounding Christ’s crucifixion supplied the church with the opportunity for an extensive and complex variety of rituals most of which involved, from the earliest times, the speaking, chanting or singing of texts from the Bible; at Easter, that was mainly from the Gospels. And the events in the story provide for the expression of emotions of every kind, of betrayal, persecution, grief, experience of death both by the victim and by others, and the mysteries of the resurrection. The ceremonies that evolved very early to symbolize and represent the story involved extinguishing candles in gathering darkness (though there was no enactment of that in this concert), accompanied by chant and, from the 16th century, polyphonic choral singing of some of the most richly and emotionally charged compositions in the western musical tradition.

The best, straightforward account of the Tenebrae is from the New Grove Dictionary of Music: I paraphrase: the combined offices of Matins and Lauds on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday of Holy Week. The service is marked by the extinction of 15 candles, one after each psalm. At the end of the canticle Benedictus Dominus all the candles are extinguished and what follows is said or sung in darkness – ‘in tenebris’. The musically significant parts of the ceremony are the first three of the nine ‘lessons’ of the Matins, taken from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and the responsories that follow each.

The Responsories are just that – responses to each of the readings of lessons at Matins (the equivalent after readings at Mass is the Gradual). It was in the late 16th century that polyphonic settings of the Tenebrae responses became common. Out of the full 27 responsories to the Tenebrae ceremonies, Victoria set 18 of them and just six of those were sung on Friday evening. Each response consists of two parts – the respond and the verse – and the distinction in this performance in terms of voices used and the more hortatory character of the settings, was dramatically rendered.

The choir, positioned between choir stalls and sanctuary, while the audience occupied the choir stalls and seats between, sang with remarkable musical, though less verbal clarity: consonants were often allowed to pass unattended. But the deeply contemplative and grieving mood was wonderfully sustained and the singers grasped every expressive opportunity. In ‘Unus ex discipulis’, dealing with the betrayal by Judas, the descending lines and the highly charged singing described the event and its impact far better than any explicit expression of condemnation or outrage could.

Interspersed between parts of the Responsories and other pieces, were plainchants from the 6th century ‘sequence hymn’ by Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers, Pange lingua gloriosi proelium certaminis. They are chanted during the Adoration of the Cross on Good Friday and so were actually more exactly appropriate to performance on the evening of Good Friday than the Tenebrae Responsories themselves.

This concert included from Pange lingua, the ‘Crux fidelis’, ‘De parentis protoplasti’, ‘Hoc opus nostrae’, ‘Quando venit ergo sacri’, ‘Sola digni tu fuisti’ and ‘Aequa patri filioque’. Long stretches of plainsong I sometimes find tedious, but these were quite brief and, in any case, sung so exquisitely, shared between male and female voices and then together, that they were highly satisfying intercepts.

In addition to the selections from the Tenebrae Responsories and punctuating plainsong from the Pange Lingua, was one of the most remarkable pieces of modern polyphony reflecting the Renaissance style: The De Profundis of Pizzetti. (Pizzetti, 1880 – 1968, 20 years or so younger than his more famous operatic contemporaries, wrote mainly orchestral and vocal music, though he did have some operatic success, for example with his setting of T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral Assassinio nella cattedralae).

De Profundis, composed in 1937, is drawn from Psalm 130. It emerged as a religious expression of great integrity, bearing essential marks of 16th century liturgical music, but with harmonies and colours clearly post-Brahms, and recognizably of 20th century sensibility, and handling of voices. It was a superb performance; one of those that will drive me to explore more of Pizzetti’s music (though I did see Assassinio nella cattedrale in Rome a few years ago).

Then there was the group of three motets of Brahms, late works. The first and third could be compared with the Pizzetti motet, composed lineally in flowing counterpoint, while the second, ’Ach, arme Welt’, had a clear German chorale character, with vertical harmonies. The choir’s adroit stylistic shift was a further mark of its versatility. 

Another composer was called in to end the concert. Antonio Lotti, who lived from 1667 to 1740, about a hundred years after Victoria, continued to compose in the Renaissance style. Music had changed very considerably from the time of Victoria. As well as writing liturgical music (he was maestro di cappella at St Mark’s Venice), he wrote some 24 operas (though only eight survive) and he spent two years as opera composer for the Elector of Saxony, Friedrich Augustus I at Dresden.

The Crucifixus for eight voices from a Credo in F is a famous and popular piece; in turn it comes from his Missa Sancti Christophori, which was written while Lotti was at Dresden.

For this final piece, the choir was spread out across the full width of the sanctuary; it lived up to its promise, melodically interesting with women’s voices in long descending lines against varied accompaniment by male voices. Though the mass itself is written with instrumental accompaniment, in this section only a continuo line remains, and that was of course dropped from the performance, no doubt making the maintenance of pitch rather more difficult.

It brought a thoroughly enrapturing concert to an end, neatly affording a view of the high Renaissance from a beautiful, backward-looking work of the Baroque period. Once more, this superb, world-class choir which is far more than simply an ‘early music’ ensemble, delivered performances of warmth, precision, wide-ranging expressiveness, beauty and impressive ensemble.

Rewarding concert of choral works by two French organ composers

The Bach Choir of Wellington conducted by Stephen Rowley

The Seven Last Words of Christ and Toccata No 3 in G by Théodore Dubois; Messe Solennelle in C sharp minor, Op 16 , Naïades from Pièces de fantaisie, Op 55 No 4 and Berceuse from 24 Pièces en style libre, Op 31 by Louis Vierne

Organists: Douglas Mews, Christopher Hainsworth and Emmanuel Godinez
Bryony Williams (soprano), Thomas Atkins (tenor), Kieran Rayner (baritone)

Church of St Mary of the Angels

Sunday 17 April, 7pm

Two days after Richard Apperley had played Haydn’s account of the Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross on St Paul’s Cathedral organ, an choral version of the story by Théodore Dubois was sung in St Mary of the Angels. If Haydn’s version saw the New Testament story as offering hope and spiritual renewal for mankind, Dubois’s account of Les sept paroles du Christ, only 70 years later, seemed to remove it from the divine world to a bourgeois world where spiritual ideas and emotions are filtered through a style of music more reminiscent of the theatre and drawing room.

That is not to say that in the eight movements (an Introduction and the seven verses that were compiled in early Christian times from various Gospel sources), there were not episodes in which the composer captured the sense and the emotions of the words and the meaning behind them. ‘Mulier (woman or mother), ecce filius tuus’, is the equivalent of the medieval poem Stabat Mater, set by many composers, and part of which used as the following gloss, there was, through baritone, tenor and soprano soloists, an affecting representation of grief in descending phrases. It was perhaps a pity that the two male singers had voices that were rather similar in timbre so that it was often only when singing at the extremes of their registers that I was absolutely certain who was singing.

All three voices, of current students or recent graduates of the New Zealand School of Music, were bright, splendidly produced and fitted the roles they depicted admirably.

And in the fourth Word, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’, perhaps the most challenging theologically, the feeling may not have been utterly despairing and uncomprehending, but its intensity created a small tour de force. It so happened I heard Stainer’s setting of these words in his Crucifixion on RNZ Concert on Wednesday morning (as I was finishing this review). And though I find the work pretty glutinous and religiose, Stainer captured the words with simple honesty.

The entire concert was performed from the choir gallery which proved most congenial in terms of sound projection, detail and balance. Solo voices seemed less subject to any undue reverberation, and the choir’s first entry after short verses from tenor and baritone, was surprisingly powerful; I suspect that both the supportive acoustic and the entire ambience stimulated the Bach Choir to perform at a level of distinction that it has been regaining steadily under the leadership of Stephen Rowley in the past couple of years.

Dubois’s work consists of the ‘Words’, sung generally by one of the soloists, followed by an enlargement of the verse with appropriate liturgical texts, all in Latin and sung by the chorus and/or the soloists. The organ, in Christopher Hainsworth’s hands, added very importantly to the interest and liveliness of the whole work.

The first half of the concert was in Hainsworth’s hands for, as President of the Dubois Society, he had grasped an appropriate opportunity to advocate for him. The society is dedicated to the revival of attention to this neglected composer, as much in France as other countries. He had chosen his exhibit for the court very well. It is interesting to recall that Dubois had been director of the Paris Conservatoire during the time that Ravel was being repeatedly failed for the Prix de Rome, though he actually resigned just before Ravel’s last (unsuccessful) attempt.

He played Dubois’s most familiar organ piece, his Toccata in G, having warned us not to imagine that Dubois had merely imitated Widor: Dubois’s toccata came first. It was a splendid display, employing the organ’s brilliant capacities with a sure instinct for effective registrations.

After the interval there were another two organ solos – by the concert’s ‘other’ composer, Louis Vierne. Thirty years younger than Dubois, Vierne’s music is far removed from the theatre-dominated music of his predecessor: impressionism and fastidiousness are the hallmarks. Douglas Mews played the much anthologized Naïades, aqueous and luminous; and then the Berceuse from Op 31 was played by Emmanuel Godinez, still at secondary school – St Patrick’s College, who was last year’s Maxwell Fernie Trust scholar. His performance of this quiet piece was of course no spectacle, but sensitive and poetic.

Vierne’s Messe Solennelle, written around 1900, was accompanied at the organ by Douglas Mews; it does not include the ‘Credo’. Again, the organ’s part was distinctive and refined, but not without dramatic moments, in which some of the more colourful, occasionally ‘peasant’ registrations, lent interest to a work whose refinement and subtlety might otherwise have deprived it of variety and drama. The choir’s performance was again remarkably confident and robust, though when necessary, as in the ‘Benedictus’ and in the undemonstrative ‘Agnus Dei’, the singing was of a delicacy and calm that brought the concert to a moving conclusion.

If Dubois’s life was fairly untroubled, Vierne’s was a tale of loss and misfortune. He was born near blind; he was deeply distressed by a divorce from his wife; his brother and son were killed in the First World War; he injured a leg in a street accident which took a long time to mend, and he had to relearn his pedal technique at the organ. And though he held the presitigous post of organist at Notre Dame Cathedral, the organ was in a state of serious disrepair through most of his time. And the story of his death during his 1750th recital in the cathedral rests among the strange semi-myths of music.

His recital was to end with two improvisations on submitted themes; he read the first theme in Braille, then selected the stops he would use; he suddenly pitched forward, and fell off the bench as his foot hit the low E pedal of the organ. He lost consciousness as the single note echoed throughout the church, and the story goes that the congregation only realised something was wrong as the note continued to sound. The latter is apocryphal however as his friend Maurice Duruflé was beside him at the time. But he had thus fulfilled his oft-stated lifelong dream – to die at the console of the great organ of Notre-Dame.

Wellington Chamber Orchestra interprets Michael Vinten’s orchestral disinterments

Wellington Chamber Orchestra conducted by Michael Vinten with Linden Loader (mezzo soprano) and Roger Wilson (baritone)

Sibelius: Scaramouche Suite, Op 71 (re-arranged by Michael Vinten); Mahler: Nine early songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (orchestrated by Michael Vinten); Schubert: Symphony No 10, (completed and orchestrated by Michael Vinten from D 936a and 708a)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 17 April, 2.30pm

This will go down as one of the most unusual concerts of the year. An orchestral concert entirely of works completed and/or orchestrated by the conductor. Few would claim all three exercises to have been an unmitigated success, but all three had singular virtues and elements of great interest.

In terms of musical content I suppose that the Mahler songs should rank high – they should recommend themselves to singers everywhere. There are not so many Mahler songs that the addition of another group, juvenilia to be sure, would not be welcomed. In any case, most were very attractive compositions.

Then the Schubert Symphony: I was curious to discover, first of all, whether the material Vinten drew on had not already been edited, completed, orchestrated. And of course it has been, as I discovered courtesy of Wikipedia when I started to write this review. It has been orchestrated by one Brian Newbould, performed and recorded; but as a three movement work, not in the four movements that Vinten created using a Scherzo movement from another incomplete symphonic piece (D 708a). Newbould had concluded that the finale, Rondo, was marked ‘Scherzo’ because it combined the functions of a scherzo and a finale.

Vinten, on the other hand, was presumably not convinced that the word ‘Scherzo’ at the top of the first page of the Rondo pertained to that movement, and surmised perhaps that it indicated where a Scherzo would go.

The Scherzo movement from D 708a did, however, fit admirably in the sequence following the Andante movement, both in D major. On the other hand, you don’t have to look for a suitable movement in the same key. In Schubert’s time it was not the rule that each movement in a multi-movement work should be in the same key: look at any number of symphonies and concertos from the classical period on.

However, the exercise was very convincing. One could be picky about the instrumentation chosen by Vinten; sometimes textures sounded a bit too fussy, sometimes a woodwind combination sounded unSchubertian; there is any number of permutations possible. But the general result sounded like a symphony, and there was possibly some virtue in Vinten’s inclination to vary his instrumentation more than Schubert typically did, for it overcame Schubert’s tendency to repeats themes in virtually unchanged dress many times during a long movement.

The second theme of the first movement sounded like the real thing, as did the somber theme of the second movement, imaginatively developed and engagingly orchestrated.

Vinten scored for double winds (including trumpets and horns) and three trombones; one must add that some of the woodwind playing was less than lovely and the strings had moments of uncertainty, but generally the orchestra handled the work well; timpanist Alec Carlisle was well-placed (forward of the chamber organ) and his playing was admirable.

The Mahler songs, as Roger Wilson explained, contained ideas that occurred in later symphonies and songs. Des Knaben Wunderhorn was an extraordinary treasure-trove for the German Romantic movement in both literature and music. As a student, I understood there were doubts about the ‘folk’ authenticity of these songs and ballads ‘collected’ by Arnim and Brentano, but they certainly had greater integrity than McPherson’s Ossian of forty years earlier. They were the usual mixture of quasi-tragic, touches of the risqué, the impact of military service and war, death… Few composers have actually captured the irony, drollerie, cruelty, mindless carelessness of some of the behaviour illustrated in these folk poems, as well as Mahler. Roger Wilson and Linden Loader sang them with a vigour, sensitivity, insouciance that exhibited their emotion and their character vividly and often with humour. The orchestrations were very much in Mahler’s style, with piquant use of instruments such as bassoon, horn, trumpet. Characteristic was Selbstgefühl, with its use of horn and woodwinds, a portrait of a selfish, self-pitying fool: hints of the music of Baron Ochs (though the influence would of course have been in the other direction), sung by Wilson.

Less persuasive was Vinten’s arrangement of music Sibelius had written for a Danish play about the comic/nasty commedia dell’ arte figure Scaramouche. (whom you’ll be familiar with from the Milhaud suite). Quite varied in mood, it was easy to hear it as effective incidental music in the theatre, and some of it was quirky and unusual. There was a nice waltz and a slightly dry love scene, all good for twenty minutes of diversion. Vinten had succeeded in distinguishing and giving some life to the characters on the play, and we could indeed sense and smell them. 

Waikanae hugely enjoys Amici Ensemble

Mozart: String Quartet in C, K.157
Hugo Wolf: Italian Serenade in G

Anthony Ritchie: Clarinet Quintet, Op.124
Brahms: Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, Op.115

Amici Ensemble (Donald Armstrong and Cristina Vaszilcsin, violins; Julia Joyce, viola; Rowan Prior, cello, Philip Green, clarinet)

Memorial Hall, Waikanae

Sunday, 17 April 2011, 2.30 pm

As always at Waikanae, there was a well-filled hall, and as usual when Donald Armstrong is involved, items were given spoken introductions: by him, to the Mozart and Wolf works, and by clarinettist Philip Green to the two clarinet quintets. This was in addition to excellent programme notes.

Of the Mozart, Armstrong said it was ‘good-natured… [it] has the greatness without the complexity of his later works. This quartet was written when Mozart was aged only 16.

The players were not quite together at the beginning, but soon settled down. The tone was blended best in the slow movement, and the bright and lively presto finale. There was good playing from the cello throughout the attractive piece.

The version of Wolf’s Italian Serenade for string orchestra is perhaps more often played than the quartet original, but the latter is, I think, to be preferred for its clarity, which is particularly important for the unusual harmonies and modulations. At times, they sounded like those to be found in Noël Coward songs. As the programme note said, this is a delicious miniature.

Anthony Ritchie has written a most interesting clarinet quintet, commissioned by Christchurch’s musical philanthropist, Christopher Marshall, in 2006. The music begins very quietly, the bird-song-like clarinet along with the strings playing softly on the bridge (ponticello). There was some very striking writing here, especially for the clarinet.

After the slow opening, the allegro first movement, had some marvellous passages for the viola and the clarinet; it ended abruptly. The slow movement began in unison for second violin, viola and cello – a very telling device. Then it returned to ponticello. The fast finale was agitated, even unsettling. Philip Green’s clarinet playing was superb throughout the work. It was a most effective work, if somewhat dark and mournful in the main.

The major work on the programme was Brahms’s Quintet. Composed in 1891, a few years after the Wolf work but vastly different in character, it has ‘an atmosphere of serenity coloured by warm melodies, as well as a wonderful interplay amongst the five players’, as the programme note stated.

Again, Philip Green’s playing excelled, though sometimes the string sound overwhelmed him. Whether a different seating plan would have helped, I don’t know. Mostly, his playing sparkled with brilliance and sensitive interpretation.

The adagio featured the splendid muted first violin of Donald Armstrong, particularly. Ensemble was excellent otherwise, and pianissimo playing was exemplary from all the performers – helped by some alterations to the ceiling of the small platform.

In the Presto third movement, the viola produced some wonderful pizzicato. There was a magical range of dynamics and well-controlled crescendos and decrescendos. The quintet’s wonderfully mellifluous ending was beautifully handled, with perfect phrasing.

A stamping, applauding audience obviously enjoyed the concert hugely, especially the Brahms. It was a superb programme from a highly skilled group of players.

Wellington Orchestra set for another triumphant year: a superb concert

Debussy: Nocturnes; Mozart: Piano Concerto No 23 in A, K 488 (with Diedre Irons); Borodin: Symphony No 2 in B minor

Vector Wellington Orchestra conducted by Marc Taddei

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday, 16 April, 7.30pm

Perhaps it was the controversial issues involving Creative New Zealand’s funding of the orchestra, as well as the interesting character of the concert that drew a pretty full house at the Town Hall. Both were excellent reasons for being there.

In brief, not to denigrate the achievements of the orchestra with conductor Taddei in the past few years, this was a stunningly successful concert, with playing that in energy, subtlety, freedom of expression and instrumental virtuosity might even have bettered what we often hear from the NZSO.

The centerpiece was no doubt the Borodin symphony. I can’t remember when I last heard it played live; it is regarded by many as one of the greatest symphonies of the 19th century after Beethoven. In any case, it must be one of the most neglected real masterpieces in the symphony repertoire.

After the interval it found both orchestra and conductor totally ready for a performance that exuded huge confidence, familiarity (Taddei had no score before him) and where it mattered, a fine sense of heroism, folklorish colour and abandonment. The orchestra took great pains with distinctive phases of the music, giving full value to the arrival of a sudden stillness, galloping passages, accelerations and rallentandi, emphatic brass ejaculations. The second movement took liberties with the traditional notions of that sort of movement, with its variety of style and tone, evoking the Russian magical world. The third movement teases the audience with an expectation of a big ‘Kismet’-like tune, but it is the richer and more engrossing for its melodic restraint. Here there was plenty of opportunity for the orchestra’s quality in every department to be heard. The last movement follows without pause, no hint of any loss of momentum, this was a performance of huge confidence, possible only when conductor and his players have got it totally under their belts.

Taddei had noted in his short introduction that the performance now was appropriate since the orchestra is to accompany the ballet Petroushka later in the year; and he suggested strong influences in it from the Borodin symphony.

But the first half was no less successful.

A performance of Debussy’s first large-scale orchestral work opened the concert. The beginning of Nuages, with beautifully modulated winds and, soon, its lovely cor anglais solo, said everything about the maturity and sheer refinement of the orchestra. It was obviously a thoroughly studied achievement; not only were the winds elegant and subtle, but the gleam of the string sections that introduced the second part, Fêtes, might have surprised an audience in Vienna’s Musikverein. The muted trumpets in the middle created a mystical, remote magic; Debussy’s orchestra sounded sometimes is if the Ravel of Daphnis et Chloé, a decade later, had been helping with the orchestration.

During Fêtes, it had occurred to me to wonder about the singers for the next part: where were they? Perhaps off-stage? Perhaps replaced by a synthesizer? As Sirènes began they materialized from behind the woodwinds, in front of the brass (I was sitting in the stalls – not a good place if you’re a musician spotter). The women of Cantoris were magical, exemplary; a delicate harp seemed to bring the singers’ gentle lyricism into focus.

And perhaps as an aside, Thomas Guldborg is one hell ’v a timpanist.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 23, in A, was in the pre-interval slot.

In truth, its orchestral introduction seemed a bit routine, and Diedre Irons’s first phrases were just a little uneasy. But it settled into a performance that was robust and enjoyed a sense of freedom; yet the cadenza at the movement’s end seemed to have little to say.

The slow movement of the C major concerto, K 467 (‘Elvira Madigan’), is perhaps the most famous, but this one is really more beautiful, and the gloriously easy pace that was adopted by soloist and orchestra allowed all the time we wanted to wallow in its beauties, the ebb and flow of the piano’s dynamics, the love shown for every phrase, delicious clarinet scales, delicately planted string suggestions. But the orchestra’s contribution, while exquisite, is almost casual; it’s really little more than an adagio for piano, and Irons made it her own with all the sensitivity and insight of which she can be mistress.

The same flowing ease carried things through the joyous last movement, again, not too quick, with the orchestra now making a more significant contribution.

It’s music that seems so perfect, so inevitable in its shape and its melodies and their endlessly inventive transformations, that it must always have existed. What could the world have been like before 1786?

Paul Rosoman prepares for his Polish tour at St Peter’s

Organ Concert: pieces by Buxtehude, John Stanley, J.S. Bach, Théodore Dubois, Jan Zwart, C.H.H. Parry, Nicolaus Bruhns, Noel Rawsthorne and C.V. Stanford

Paul Rosoman

St. Peter’s Church, Willis Street

Friday, 15 April, 7pm

It was a pleasant change to be at an organ recital that was well attended; perhaps opportunity to hear again the recently-restored St. Peter’s organ was part of the draw, and maybe the time was convenient to more people than that of many organ recitals. The music was well played, the programme interesting, and we were in the hands of a capable and experienced organist. The programme was sufficiently diverse to demonstrate much of the sound variety and capability of the instrument.

This organ, of three manuals and pedals, is beautiful to look on, with its decorated pipes, and good to hear. It suits the building admirably and has a magnificent range of ranks of pipes.

Buxtehude’s Praeludium in C is an intriguing piece of writing. Although the printed programme had excellent notes, those for this work, written by Professor Hans Davidsson, were perhaps a little abstruse in places. The work is known in English as ‘Prelude, Fugue and Chaconne’, and this title makes the structure a little clearer, though it is not the original title. However, it was good to have the titles of the episodes of Kühnau’s first Biblical Sonata printed; Buxtehude used the opening of that work to open the Praeludium. Kühnau’s sonata outlined the story of David and Goliath, and so it has been suggested that Buxtehude had this in mind. The nine titles, as used by Kühnau follow the course of this story, including the Israelites reaction to what is happening.

Buxtehude’s splendid writing was well exploited by the organist, with contrasting and varied registrations resulting in a dramatic performance.

Compared with Buxtehude and Bach, John Stanley’s writing is not very interesting, However, in his Organ Voluntary Op.5 no.1, the splendid reed pipes got a good work-out, and there was a brilliant final section on the flutes.

Bach’s Partita ‘O Gott, du Frommer Gott’ (in which title occurred one of a number of unfortunate misprints in the programme) is a set of variations on the chorale, the original hymn being by one Johann Heermann. It is thought to be a very early work of Bach’s. The opening statement of the chorael was a bold forte; the eight following variations illustrate musically the words of the hymn. The first variation contrasted the great and swell manuals very engagingly, while another employed the delicious flute pipes. The final variation began with a bright forte and featured diapasons and reeds, the music contrasting the two manuals.

While the printed programme gave the dates for some of the compositions, the dates for the composers were not given, which was a pity. With so many composers’ works being performed, it would have been interesting to compare the styles and settings from different periods.

After Bach, there was a great leap forward, to Théodore Dubois (1837-1924), whose Adoratio et Vox Angelica was played. A quiet opening on the swell manual presaged a mainly quiet but charming piece, with little use of the pedals. Both vox humana and tremulant were employed in this attractive music.

Another jump in time brought us to Dutch organ composer Jan Zwart. Thanks to an organist friend (he who introduced Paul Rosoman to Zwart’s music), I have discovered his dates were 1877 to 1937. His Een Vaste Burg is Onze God (the Dutch version of the well-known Lutheran hymn ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’) began as a very straightforward piece, employing bright sounds and fugal passages on the pedals throughout the delightful working out of the hymn melody; at other times the music was pungent. The melody was always apparent, though occasionally it needed a little more phrasing. The final variation on the tune was grand and brilliant. The friend described it aptly as in ‘a romantic style for the twentieth century’.

Elegy for 7th April 1913 by Hubert Parry was thus named because it was written for the funeral of the 14th Earl of Pembroke on that day. One would hardly have believed that Stravinsky had written Firebird three years earlier when listening to this slushy piece of Victoriana. As mentioned in the programme notes, Parry also wrote the famous Jerusalem, and the coronation anthem I was Glad, both of which have much more character than this little elegy.

Nicolaus Bruhns lived from 1665 to 1697, in Schleswig-Holstein. His Praeludium in G was a brilliant piece, with solo pedal passages throughout. Based on alternating toccata sections and fugal sections, it called for considerable technical dexterity, which it received.

Contemporary British composer Noel Rawsthorne was featured next. Like the vast majority of composers for the organ, he is an organist himself. His waltz from Dance Suite was described by Paul Rosoman as a tongue-in-cheek little piece. The Suite was commissioned for a concert celebrating the completion of the restoration of the organ in Huddersfield Town Hall in England, so it was appropriate to play it here, to cele-brate the completion of the restoration of the St. Peter’s organ. Probably because of the motive for its composition, it used a variety of registrations, including tremulant.

To end the recital, Rosoman played the composition of another Englishman (making a total of four English composers, three German, one French and one Dutch), viz. Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924). Postlude in D is a fine piece, and not too Victorian in character, despite having some of the grandeur of that era, combined with ‘echoes [of] the Irish folk idiom in its modal language and melodic contours’, as the programme note had it.

The programme presented a span of historical periods and of nationalities, all played with taste, authority, variety, and an excellent technique.

Paul Rosoman is shortly to play in Poland, including at the 13th International Organ Festival. Friday’s appreciative audience would all wish him well for this well-deserved engagement, and others he will fulfil in Europe.

Haydn’s Last Words from organist Richard Apperley at St Paul’s

Great Music 2011: Organ recital series

Haydn’s Seven last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross (Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze)

Richard Apperley (Assistant organist, Cathedral of St Paul)

Cathedral of St Paul

Friday 15 April 12.45

The great days of a flourishing market for transcriptions of symphonies and opera chunks for the organ, or the piano, might have passed, but there remains a lingering suspicion of the practice, and an almost automatic disposition to find them improper and tasteless.

But famous successful cases must make it dangerous and silly to denigrate them as a species.

Certainly, this was an example that called for open ears and a readiness to be delighted; for that is what I was.

There are several versions of the work that was written in 1786 to a commission from the Bishop of Cadiz for performance in the Grotto Santa Cueva near Cádiz. The original was for orchestra, and Haydn later arranged it as an oratorio with both solo and choral vocal forces, and there are reduced versions for string quartet and solo piano. There is some doubt about the authenticity of the string quartet version, which is the most commonly played. Incidentally there is a version on CD from Jordi Savall’s Le Concert des Nations recorded in 2006 at the church of Santa Cueva in Cádiz.

I don’t know which source Apperley used for his arrangement. It was not the longest version as the entire performance lasted only about 45 minutes; it can otherwise take over an hour.

It’s a work comprising an introduction and seven ‘sonatas’, plus (for the orchestral version) a postlude depicting an earthquake

The introduction and seven sonatas are as follows:

Introduzione, D minor, Maestoso ed Adagio 

Sonata I (‘Pater, dimitte illis, quia nesciunt, quid faciunt’; Father forgive them for they know not what they do), B flat, Largo  

Sonata II (‘Hodie mecum eris in Paradiso’; Today you will be with me in Paradise), C minor, Grave e cantabile, ending in C major

Sonata III (‘Mulier, ecce filius tuus’; Behold your son, behold your mother), E major, Grave

Sonata IV (‘Deus meus, Deus meus, utquid dereliquisti me’; My God, my God, why have you forsaken me), F minor, Largo

Sonata V (‘Sitio’; I thirst), A major, Adagio

Sonata VI (‘Consummatum est’; It is foinished’), G minor, Lento, ending in G major

Sonata VII (‘In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum’; Father into your hands I commit my spirit), E flat, Largo

And the original orchestral version had a final movement – an earthquake, not inappropriate after the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 30 years earlier.

Il terremoto, C minor, Presto e con tutta la forza

(For which I am indebted to Wikipedia)

Wikipedia also contains interesting material on the sources of the seven ‘Words’ under ‘Sayings of Jesus on the Cross’ and much other related scholarship, via links.

I have only been familiar with the string quartet version. This arrangement came as a surprise on account of the variety of colours that are available on a large organ and which Apperley applied with great skill and taste. The Introduction was immediately arresting, shifting from bold diapason pronouncements to lightly articulated passage in high registers. There was a clear Bachian quality, but that was always coloured by sounds possible only on a post-19th century organ distinctly influenced by Franck and Vierne and Reger and so on.

The first sonata was lit with beautiful high-lying melody in delicate, sensitive arrangement. The second is more serious in tone, yet there is light in the depiction of Paradise in thoughtful little phrases on celestial flute stops.

The surprising thing about the piece is the absence of any particularly tragic or gloomy episodes. Haydn’s view of the Crucifixion seems to be of an event that should have brought a new era of enlightenment and improvement in the behaviour of men and nations. And Haydn, for the sake of the music, could forget that nothing of the sort had happened.

The third sonata, ‘Mother, behold your son’ (misnamed in the programme leaflet) is depicted through soft, sustained chords, interrupted by short phrases, and underpinned by a beautiful melody. A far cry from the expression of this episode in the multiple settings of the Stabat Mater.

Even in the most heart-rending words, in the fourth sonata, the writing is dominated by ascending scales and arpeggios, suggesting hope. The fifth sonata displayed the most imaginative range of registrations, for which the cathedral organ seemed ideally designed. Though not regarded by the experts as the finest organ in the city, its clarity, brilliance and variety are always a source of delight, to me at least.

Most impressive was the way the organ captured the quite beautiful, subsiding, moving phrases with which the last sonata ends.

As if to denigrate the work, the fact that it is a series of adagios and largos is sometimes used against it, but tempo is only one of many elements in music, and the over-riding feeling of humanity, hope and sanguinity that infuse the whole work give it an emotional depth as well as a lightening of the spirit.

And this organ arrangement and Apperley’s playing really surprised me by the way all of that was so brilliantly and musically captured. The recital was simply a great delight. How sad that so few were there!

Orpheus Choir triumphs with the St Matthew Passion

JS BACH – St. Matthew Passion

Paul McMahon – Evangelist; Michael Leighton-Jones – Jesus; Jenny Wollerman – soprano; Claire Barton – alto; Andrew Grenon – tenor; Daniel O’Connor – bass
Choristers of Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul; Orpheus Choir of Wellington
Douglas Mews – continuo / Robert Oliver – viola da gamba
Vector Wellington Orchestra
Michael Fulcher – conductor

Wellington Town Hall

Sunday, 10th April, 2011, 6.30pm

From a mere listener’s point of view I invariably approach the prospect of attending a performance of Bach’s most monumental undertaking with keen anticipation tempered by feelings of mild anxiety. The work always astonishes with its capacity (as observed by the redoubtable Professor Frederick Page, quoted in the program notes) to furnish “a glimpse into eternity”; though performances can sometimes suggest eternity in more uncomfortably temporal ways, more especially in church settings where the seating seems designed for the infliction of on-going penance upon listeners, ahead of repose and solace. I’m therefore happy to report that this was a performance whose beauties, energies and overall focus made for an enjoyable and involving musical experience throughout.

Michael Fulcher’s direction of the work’s ebb and flow seemed to me a key element – in his hands the music unfolded with a naturalness of utterance that enabled the music’s essential character at any given moment to shine forth to its advantage. There were two or three moments that I felt worked less well than they might, but in the overall scheme so much seemed right, that our engagement in what was being played and sung never faltered. The work’s very opening, ‘Komm, ihr Töchter’, was splendidly launched by both orchestra and choir, Fulcher’s lilting direction enlivening the lines and textures while encouraging from the musicians plenty of pointed phrasing, the sound-picture both focused and beautifully transparent. Only in the difficult Aria for Alto and Chorus ‘Ach! nun ist mein Jesus hin!’ that opens the second part did I catch a sense of things being slightly out-of-sync, the music’s different elements working hard to try and gell, the various dove-tailings of the lines a truly precarious business.

Above all, there’s a story being told by this music, and in this respect the performance delivered splendidly – I thought the Evangelist Paul McMahon excellent in his dramatic focus, so alive to the text’s possibilities and so fluent a technique as to do his interpretation full justice. The other soloists, including several from the body of the choir taking minor but still significant roles, played their part in realizing the drama and pathos of the story. Perhaps not as visceral and graphic as the exchanges in Bach’s other great Passion, that of St.John, these nevertheless came resoundingly alive throughout the recitatives, giving us a real sense of the work’s inexorable progress towards that mystical fusion of death and fulfillment that accompanies godly sacrifice in Christian and non-Christian cultures alike.

Each of the soloists “entered” his or her roles in complete accord with the proceedings – soprano Jenny Wollerman, though over-tremulous of voice in places, brought her dramatic instincts marvellously to bear in episodes such as her recitative ‘Er hat uns allen wohl getan’ and aria ‘Aus Liebe’, whose sequence, together with some beautiful wind-playing at the beginning made a truly affecting impression. I was also much taken with the voice of the alto, Claire Barton, whose bright, slightly plangent tone-quality gave life and meaning to her utterances, despite some slightly ungainly moments in passagework here and there – obviously a voice to listen out for in years to come. Right from her opening recitative ‘Du Lieber Heiland du’, leading into the aria ‘Buß und Reu’, her tones struck the lines squarely and resonantly, to memorable effect, again supported by on-the-spot instrumental duetting and continuo playing (flutes and solo ‘cello).

Of the men, baritone Michael Leighton-Jones, long-time resident in Australia, made a welcome return to Wellington as a sonorous, dignified Jesus, never over-playing the drama (as befits the role’s god-like dignity of utterance), but often touching this listener with the resonant simplicity of his tones, emphasizing the text’s and music’s humanity and vulnerability. Promising performances came from his two younger colleagues, tenor Andrew Grenon, and bass Daniel O’Connor, each of whom had taxing arias to grapple with, and in both cases emerging with considerable credit. Despite the occasionally strained note, Grenon took to his recitative ‘O Schmerz!’ and aria ‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’ with real commitment, making something truly heartfelt out of ‘Er solo vor fremden Raub bezahlen’, and bringing real “point” to his interaction with the choir throughout both recitative and aria. I loved the vivid “plodding” quality of the accompaniment to Grenon’s recitative ‘Mein Jesus schweigt zu falschen Lügen stille’, the combination of organ and viola da gamba here and throughout the aria most affecting.

Daniel O’Connor did well negotiating Michael Fulcher’s urgent speeds during the bass aria Gerne will ich mich bequemen, after delivering a well-rounded and sonorous recitative ‘Der Heiland fällt vor seinem Vater nieder’; and again survived the bluster of a spanking pace for ‘Gebt mir meinem Jesum wieder!’
He demonstrated a fine feel for line during all of his recitatives, relishing the beautiful Vivaldi-like pictorial writing for both voice and instruments of ‘Am Abend, da es kühle war’ (a kind of Bachian ‘In the cool, cool,cool of the evening…’!), even if both soloist and orchestra struggled a bit with the ensuing aria ‘Mache ditch, mien Herze, rein’, trying to do justice to the syncopated figures and getting a just voice/instrumental balance. Of the solo voices from the choir, special mention needed to be made of Kieran Rayner’s true-toned Pontius Pilate, and Thomas Barker’s angst-ridden Peter, the disciple who denied his Master three times.

True-toned and eagerly responsive throughout, the Orpheus Choir sang like angels, whether divided into two antiphonal groups or en masse, completely at one with Michael Fulcher’s overall conception of the music. At first I thought the more dramatic choral interjections were going to lack sufficient urgency and bite, as with the choir’s contributions to the soprano and alto duet ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen’, but the immediately subsequent ‘Sind Blitze, sind Donner’ had all the vehemence one could want, as did the accusatory cries of ‘Er ist des Todes schuldig!’ in response to Kieran Raynor’s vengeful High Priest. Elsewhere, the voices brought just the right amalgam of radiance and gravitas to the chorales, as exemplified by the wonderful ‘Wie wunderbarlich ist doch diese Strafe!’ in the “Jesus before Pilate” section of the work; and a winning tenderness to the exchanges with the soloists in the penultimate recitative ‘Nun ist der Herr zur Ruh gebracht’. It was fitting that, in tandem with the orchestra, the choir had the last say, delivering the words with the same focus, fervor and vocal splendor with which the same voices had begun the journey a couple of hours before. Contributing with bright, bell-like tones to the choral sonorities as well were the Choristers of Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul, dressed as for a church service, and contrasting as such with the secular severity of the main choir’s black attire.

Yet another bastion of the performance was the Vector Wellington Orchestra, its playing for Michael Fulcher unfailingly stylish and characterful, whether from the groupings of strings spread across two antiphonally-placed orchestras or among the various combination of winds whose tones enlivened many a texture along the way. Further interest was generated by fine solo continuo playing from both ‘cellist Paul Mitchell and viola da gamba specialist Robert Oliver (though the conductor’s rapid tempo for the bass aria ‘Komm, süßes Kreuz’ resulted in Robert Oliver’s viola da gamba accompaniment sounding uncharacteristically breathless). Organist Douglas Mews as well contributed unfailingly secure support in the continuo role. In sum, the performance was of a concerted splendour, with the music-making’s refulgent glow warming hearts and satisfying intellects alike – an achievement of which the Orpheus Choir and its various cohorts can, in my opinion, be justly proud.

Kapiti choir’s farewell to Guy Jansen: Serenade to Music

Kapiti Chamber Choir’s Farewell to musical director Guy Jansen

Soloists: Janey MacKenzie, Linden Loader, Michael Gray, Roger Wilson and an orchestra, with Jonathan Berkahn – organ

Haydn: Te Deum; Bruckner: Ave Maria; Duruflé: ‘Kyrie’ from his Requiem; Debussy: ‘Dieu, qu’il la fait bon regarder’; Stravinsky: Pater Noster; Franz Biebl: Ave Maria; Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music; Handel: three choruses from Messiah (‘Hallelujah’, ‘Worthy is the lamb’, ‘Amen’)

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 10 April, 2.30pm

Guy Jansen took up the post of musical director of the Kapiti Chamber Choir after founding conductor Peter Godfrey retired in 2007. Now, having become chairman of the New Zealand Choral Federation and becoming more involved in educational activities, he was giving his last concert with the choir.

The hall, which is designed basically for indoor sports, with a high roof, presents difficulties for music, though the recent construction of a recessed stage for chamber groups has been an improvement, at least for those near the players. But it was of no use to a 40-voice choir,  raised on benches, and a 28-piece orchestra, all on the floor; and it wasn’t helped by a curtain that covered the recess, absorbing some of the sound.

The concert opened with Haydn’s Te Deum, employing the orchestra. It comes from late in Haydn’s career, the period of the last half dozen masses. Though it’s not the equal of the best of those masses, the effects of careful rehearsal were evident and it was an arresting start to the concert. Even though one was grateful for the presence of an orchestra instead of an organ, it was the vocal part that was generally more polished and energetic than the orchestra: the brass instruments were not entirely integrated either with the strings or the choir.

In Bruckner’s Ave Maria, an a cappella piece that opened with women’s voices alone, the choir was spread, in groups, out across the full width of the hall, illuminating parts very nicely, and it offered the singers perhaps a better opportunity to shine.

Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem has become popular in recent decades, and it gave the choir the double opportunity – to demonstrate its skill in quasi-plainchant and in a 20th century French idiom; rather restrained at the start, the singers became more lively as it moved along.

One of Debussy’s three unaccompanied choral songs, ‘Dieu, qu’il la fait bon regarder’, might have seemed an odd choice, but it was Guy Jansen’s obvious aim to demonstrate his choir’s versatility. With careful French pronunciation, and conducted by Bridget O’Shanassy, the singing nevertheless showed quite understandable signs of intonation shakiness at certain moments, such was the choir’s conspicuous exposure in this difficult piece.

There was no let-up from the challenging music with Stravinsky’s Pater noster, a coldly powerful piece delivered without much dynamic variation; it had the character of chant in spite of its somewhat stark harmonies.

The conductor introduced the Ave Maria by Franz Biebl, an Austrian-born American composer, as his only composition to have found favour. Its melodic character was clear and the solo parts, beautifully sung by all three – soprano, tenor and bass (Janey MacKenzie, Michael Gray and Roger Wilson) – gave it interesting variety.

If there was some diffidence in the performances in the first half, Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music which opened the second, was a more striking demonstration of what they could do. The orchestra opened with very encouraging confidence and good ensemble, and the choir (the piece was originally for sixteen solo voices, but we heard the composer’s arrangement for four soloists and choir) sounded well rehearsed and filled with affection. Here, the soloists were occasionally a bit stretched, but all four, now including mezzo Linden Loader who sang the phrase from ‘Music! Hark!…’ comfortably with special warmth, were individually striking as well as integrating beautifully with the choir and the orchestra. The charming violin solo was beautifully handled by Sharon Callaghan.

The three choruses from Messiah were also vigorous and well sung, particularly the ‘Allelujah’ in which the audience was invited to join. As Guy Jansen stepped aside after long applause, baritone Rodney Macann came forward to sing a spiritual, unaccompanied apart from some gentle intoning from the choir, ostensibly a spontaneous gesture. It brought a very appropriate occasion to a nice conclusion.

Colours rich and strange, from the SMP Ensemble

SMP Ensemble presents: XPΩMATA – Colours

Music by Tristan Carter, Jack Hooker, Carol Shortis, Anton Killin, Iannis Xenakis (Greece), Pauline Oliveros (USA), Michael Norris, Ewan Clark, Robbie Ellis, Andrzej Nowicki

The SMP Ensemble

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Saturday 9th April 2011

Continuing its work on behalf of classical music’s contemporary voices, the SMP Ensemble produced yet another absorbing and thought-provoking line-up of works from home and abroad with its program XPΩMATA – Colours. Without resorting to mega-anarchic practices, the group seems always to manage (via its own version of an incredible lightness of being) to blow invigorating gusts of fresh air through normal concert procedures and presentations, making each event a unique delight.

Darkness giving some of its space to candlelight set an expectant scene for the opening item, Tohoraha, by Tristan Carter. Away from the program note one might guess the players who had assembled and were delicately activating different acoustical properties of their instruments were concerned with representing either a subaqueous or a stratospheric state of being – these were sounds I reckoned to be outside of my direct biospherical experience! The coalescence of these sounds generated a micro-excitement which prepared the scene for something of a give-away conch-shell set of signals – very spectacular, if irrevocably conjuring up an oceanscape. A cursory knowledge of Te Reo Maori would have by this time alerted most people to an association of the piece with whales, and the connections readily translated into the idea of some kind of “dialogue among higher beings”, here, for all kinds of reasons, acoustical, environmental and emotional, a “transporting of the mind” experience, rich and strange, in any case for this listener.

Jack Hooker’s Field Murmur, ambiently titled, used electroacoustical means to evoke its world, arresting and splendid at the very beginning, as well as disconcerting, with something like a door or cupboard opening and shutting. I imagined animal or bird or even insect activity, though my carefully-constructed soundscape was peremptorily shut off by a revereberation-less halt to the sounds, which was presumably intended, as the effect was repeated with different kinds of evocations – it generated a kind of schizoid response to the medium as opposed to the message, the uncertainty of imminent closure creating its own set of tensions.

Carol Shortis’s The Riddle of Her Flight was a setting for soprano, piano and vibraphone of part of a poem by Mike Johnson. The music readily courted both pictorial and emotional responses, grumbling bass notes on Jonathan Berkahn’s piano at the beginning stimulating shafts of light from deft touches upon the vibraphone criss-crossing the soundscape. The sound of the soprano Olga Gryniewicz’s voice was perhaps siren-like, or maybe that of a wood-nymph’s, haunting and pleading. The singer emphasized the idea of “sanctuary”, aided and abetted by the instrumentalists, Takumi Motokawa’s vibraphone occasionally bowed as well as struck, producing lovely tintinabulations, and stimulating bell-like diction from the singer at the words “You must find the island”. At the end of a richly-extended lyrical episode, the final cadence following a culminating high note felt like a real homecoming. The music couldn’t help but repeatedly take my sensibilities to what seemed like “other realms” associated with Shakespearean fantasy, such as Prospero’s Island, or the Magic Wood of Oberon outside Athens.

Andrzej Nowicki was the clarinettist in tandem with his own pre-recorded playing of fragments from the same work, for composer Anton Killin’s absorbing Absence; Primes. The soloist listened at first to the recorded performance, then began a dialogue with the original, fascinatingly exploring the idea of feedback, discussion and even “second thoughts” regarding one’s own creative impulses. At first ruminative, Nowicki’s “live” clarinet-playing animated the textures, the discussion a “brightly-lit” affair until a brusque declamatory statement brought the dialogue to a sudden end.

The programme’s first “offshore” work was Yannis Xenakis’s Echange, in effect a bass clarinet concerto, bringing the first half of the concert to an end with plenty to engage the thoughts. The composer called the work “terrifying and mysterious”, and indeed, the single-note clarinet opening brings forth a disquieting subterraneous soundworld from trombone (Xenakis wanted a tuba, but…) and bassoon into which the cello oscillates and over the top of which the soloist exuberantly barks – perhaps a European manifestation of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’s “gods of the middle world” flexing their might and muscle into a colour-change chord irreverently “curdled” by the soloist’s contribution. The clarinet ruminates deeply as its ambient surroundings ring changes of tempo, texture and articulation, creating memorable vignettes of incident – a wonderfully seismic “wobble-chord”  from the ensemble, and a “blues in the night” response from the soloist, very jazzy and lively playing, which, however develops into a kind of ritual of attempted domination on both sides, the impasse declared by implacable brass against whose black tones the soloist slashes and stabs. We fear for the safety of the music itself, at the point of dissolution the sound-world’s resonating voices asking questions we can only numbly acknowledge. A good place for the interval!

We were prepared even less for what was to follow – audience participation! – fortunately, humming was all that was required, the SMP ensemble members walking around the auditorium antiphonally encouraging us to add our unique vocal vibrations to Anton Killin’s realization of Lullaby for Daisy Pauline by the American composer Pauline Oliveros, one of the composer’s “Sonic Meditations” aimed at engendering a focus among listeners on “the intimate reality of sound”. Philosophically, Michael Norris’s work which followed, Blindsight, explored the antithesis of Oliveros’s shared ambient construct, describing his work in a context of fragile individual sensory reality. Norris’s work translated this “process of sensory faith” into a musical work involving strings and winds, with the piano as a kind of intermediary. The winds played chords using halftones, to which the piano and strings responded in a kind of instinctive manner, “feeling” their way towards a kind of kinship with the original sounds. The piano seemed then to take the lead, the winds responding to the instrument’s chords and patterning with characteristic sonorities (a kind of “opening up’ of an essential sound-nature for both groups, the winds sostenuto, the strings oscillating and flurrying melismatically. Whether growing in confidence or in desperation, the responses by both groups to the piano reached a fever-pitch of animation before sinking, exhausted. The piano maintained a dispassionate “devil’s advocate” kind of stance, allowing the winds to blow themselves out, leaving the strings fulminating amongst themselves, then relinquishing their voices with a last sotto-voce gesture – I was given the feeling of micro-processes continuing, after the overt activities had ceased…..

Reversing the program order, Robbie Ellis’s Maeve set recorded voice against solo piano, to the former’s disadvantage, unfortunately, the piano’s declamatory style in places obscuring the speaker’s tones (the loudspeaker would have been better-placed in front of the piano, eliminating the “competitive” aspect which seemed to be set up regarding the soundspace – a pity we were thus distracted, because the piano-part was gorgeous-sounding in places, Debussy-like in its focus and delicacy, while Leila Austin’s story, read by the author, would have filled out its place in the sound-tapestry in a much more balanced and contextual way – a further performance needed, I feel. Following this, Ewan Clark’s Reverie set parts of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’s Elegy for soprano, clarinet and piano, Olga Gryniewicz’s clear and pure voice making the most of the vocal line’s beauties at “Sweetness to the root – may the tree climb high against the sun”, while Andrzej Nowicki’s clarinet-playing conjured up whole eternities of bird-song underpinned by Jonathan Berkahn’s rich and  resonant piano realization. A lovely performance of a beautiful work, capturing the lonely beauty and desolation of the poet’s evocations.

Concluding the generous program was a work by the group’s director, Andrzej Nowicki, appropriately entitled Unknown Realms, the ensemble (strings, organ, piano and winds) conducted by Karlo Margetic. We expected a kind of “road” piece, with much and greatly varied terrain covered, and weren’t disappointed. A nascent, almost tentative piano presence at first addresses only dark organ tones and subterranean bass clarinet sounds – forces of darkness holding sway, almost daring other, brighter impulses to ignite and energize the textures towards the light. The clarinets stimulate the strings’ awakening, the latter holding steadfastly to their notes as the drama unfolds, the clarinets having a “field day” both instigating and repelling various agitations, the organ joining in with weighty presence, provoking the conductor’s patience to breaking-point in the face of such concerted anarchies – a marvellously petulant “Will you stop it!” ejaculation from the podium restores order amid chaos. Great fun, nicely “placed” amid the trials and tribulations.

The group’s director, Andrzej Nowicki was warmly and ceremoniously farewelled by all at the concert’s conclusion, on the eve of overseas explorations – the best of all possible send-offs, one would think, via this musical feast from the SMP Ensemble.