Elixir of soprano, clarinet and piano

Music by Dankworth, Spohr, Bartók, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Schubert, Liszt, Bliss, John McCabe, and Estonian Songs

Elixir: Kate Lineham (soprano), Rachel Thomson (piano), Moira Hurst (clarinet)

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill Street

Sunday 29 May 2011, 3pm

Despite the beautifully calm, sunny day, and the lack of advertising on Radio New Zealand concert earlier in the day, a good-sized audience came to hear this rather unusual ensemble perform a novel and varied programme.

However, the opening item was not a good start. The song ‘Thieving Boy’ sat too low in the voice for Kate Lineham. The lower notes did not come over to the audience in this venue.

That very morning I heard William Dart on Radio New Zealand Concert in his talk on Reynaldo Hahn, quote someone saying that classical singers should go to cabaret to learn how to deliver words. Lineham’s words when heard, were very clear.

However, much of the time, as elsewhere in the programme, the clarinet was too loud, and it was a struggle to hear the voice because of it. For the second half of the programme, I removed to the cushion-less rear of the church, and found the sound and the balance much better. I have traditionally sat in this position at Sacred Heart, for enhanced seeing and hearing, but of late have been seduced by the beautiful new seat cushions. Sunday’s experience taught me that beauty is to be preferred over comfort – even if I could not now always hear the informal spoken introductions, which were sometimes far too long and discursive, and at times repeated what was in the programme notes.

Things picked up with the gorgeous Spohr songs. We do not hear enough of this composer who, although he lived longer, was a contemporary of Beethoven, and famous in his time. Presumably the clarinet of his day was a quieter instrument than today’s model; likewise the piano. Perhaps the latter’s lid could have been on the short stick rather than fully open. The acoustic of the church is very lively, but tends to amplify the instruments more than the voice. Nevertheless, the four songs from the composer’s Six German Songs were beautifully sung, but at times it seemed like an unsuccessful fight with the instruments.

The voice needs to be the pre-eminent part, because it is delivering the words and thus the meaning of the songs, and the basis for their interpretation. There were excellent programme notes, but it would have been an added bonus to have had the full texts of the poems.

The Three Hungarian Folk Songs from Csík were in fact piano pieces based on folk songs collected by the composer. These were delightful short pieces, played with taste and subtlety. In the third, Poco vivo, there was a loud section; which again, reverberated rather too much in this building.

Next up were Three Vocalises by Vaughan Williams, composed in the last year of his life. It is interesting to consider how to perform songs with no words, as Moira Hurst said in her introduction – what is being expressed? There was magnificent interweaving between voice and clarinet; the composition of these pieces was deft indeed. As with the Spohr, these were pieces I had not heard before, yet were well worth hearing. The balance seemed better in these items – and one was not having to try to hear words.

The final of the three, ‘Quasi menuetto’, contained bird-like passages; perhaps not unexpected from the composer of The Lark Ascending.

Britten’s Four Cabaret Songs to words by W.H. Auden I had heard before, a number of times. While it is only fair to point out that the other singers I have heard perform them live were older and more experienced, I did feel that though the songs are brilliant and the singing was lovely, with great facial characterisation, the je ne sais quoi of cabaret was missing. The venues of the former hearings may have been a little (but not much) more conducive to that atmosphere.

The well-known ‘Tell me the truth about love’ earned its own applause which was then provided for each song in the group), though I found it over-pedalled in the piano part; the piano should surely echo the sparkle of the voice.

I felt ‘Johnny’ needed even more vocal contrast between the excited and the doleful verses, not only a dynamic contrast. This factor improved as the song went along – perhaps that was deliberate, to gradually change and deepen the realisation that Johnny was not going to stay around. Lineham has a pretty voice, but it is not especially powerful, except at the top. Again, words were very clear – but is this voice really right for cabaret songs?

The accompaniments were beautifully handled. Since the clarinet was not involved, Moira Hurst revealed the variety of her wind instrument accomplishments by playing a whistle, acting as the station-master at the conclusion the last song, Calypso, which uses train noises. She dashed through the audience while blowing, wearing an appropriate peaked cap.

After interval, we were treated to what is probably the most famous song for this combination, Schubert’s lovely Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock). The balance and ensemble seemed to be a lot better – or was it because of my new position towards the rear of the church? A few small intonation wobbles couldn’t detract from a very accomplished rendition of this extended song with its ravishing melodies for both singer and clarinet.

Liszt’s Petrarch sonnet no. 123 is a very contemplative piano piece, yet has a passionate middle section, and was played with feeling; the pianissimo ending was exquisite. Again, there was too much pedal for my taste, but otherwise the work was attractively played. The programme note told us that ‘…[the] poetry is essential to understanding the music’, so why was the sonnet not printed for the audience’s added understanding?

Sir Arthur Bliss was represented by Two Nursery Rhymes, settings of ‘The Ragwort’ and ‘The Dandelion’ by Frances Cornford. Featuring quirky clarinet and piano writing, these were fun. Apparently the clarinet was being a seagull in the first song, and, more obviously, a donkey in the second. These songs suited Lineham’s voice and style very well.

A group of Estonian songs were preceded by the story of how the trio obtained these songs; a piece of real New Zealand networking and ‘who knows whom’. They proved to be very pleasing songs, though again, the lower register of the voice employed in the first song could not be heard well. The second, The Singer’s Childhood began with a very lovely unaccompanied first verse; then the clarinet joined in. It was an attractive song, the singer expressing its nostalgia feelingly.

The final song, Shepherd’s Song, with piano and clarinet, was brief and touching.

The programme ended with Three Folk Songs by John McCabe. These were settings of traditional songs: ‘Johnny has gone for a soldier’, ‘Hush-a-ba birdie’ and ‘John Peel’. All three perfomed well in these attractive songs, that gave both clarinet and voice plenty of melody, with lively, even humorous writing.

For an encore, the trio performed very effectively Stephen Sondheim’s well-known ‘Send in the Clowns’, but again the low pitch of the opening mitigated against a thoroughly satisfying performance from the singer, though the instruments gave a fine rendition.

I was a little surprised that the singer used the sheet music for all her items (as did the pianist for her solos) even following an extensive tour for Chamber Music New Zealand, during which, presumably, much the same music was performed; communication between singer and audience was good, but would have been even better without that barrier between.

Nevertheless, this concert gave its audience an interesting programme of pleasing and mainly unfamiliar songs, and demonstrated that here we have three very competent musicians.

Pangea Piano Project – double the pleasure

Pangea Piano Project

Ya-Ting Liou and Blas Gonzalez (pianos)

Music for Four Hands and Two Pianos by New Zealand Composers

Kenneth Young, Jack Body, Edwin Carr, John Psathas

The Hunter Concert Series (presented by the NZ School of Music)

Hunter Building, Victoria University of Wellington

Thursday 26th May, 2011

Every concert has its own intrinsic qualities and unique merits; but this one was exceptionally memorable. I found it a life-enhancing experience, and in fact couldn’t trust myself to write a review until I’d returned to earth, somewhat. Now, with feet firmly back on the ground, I’m ready to re-savour the pleasures and excitements of what I heard and saw at the Hunter Building, on a late May evening.

The Pangea Piano Project consists of two gifted young pianists, Ya-Ting Liou from Taiwan and Blas Gonzalez from Argentina, who have joined forces to, in their own words “combine standard piano music with less conventional repertoire for solo, duet and duo”.  The duo has commissioned, premiered and recorded many works by composers from all around the world, and obviously considers the New Zealand repertoire for the piano eminently worthy of attention – in fact “wide and varied”, and characterized by “imaginative innovation”, according to the duo’s programme note.

Works by four New Zealand composers, two of whom were present at the concert, made up the evening’s music, and to my ears readily endorsed the opinions of the duo. The first half featured items for four hands at one piano, by Kenneth Young and Jack Body, while two pianos were brought into play after the interval, for music by Edwin Carr and John Psathas.

Naturally. the performers took advantage of the “composer-presence”, inviting first Ken Young and then Jack Body to speak about their respective pieces. Young’s work, entitled Variations on a Prayer, written in 2010, was inspired by both Beethoven’s and Brahms’ approach to variation form, whereby themes are not just ornamented but transformed – Young likened the process of transformation to “the struggle between faith and doubt”, speaking about how the act of prayer itself is multifaceted in a way that itself suggested variation form. The music’s meditative opening evoked spaces that seemed to encourage self-examination, with mirror-like treble-and-bass interactions. Conversely, the variations make a rhapsodic, almost quixotic impression, with canonic figurations again suggesting self-awareness, the pianists all the while expressing the differing moods beautifully with their keyboard choreographies. More agitated episodes featured a toccata-like hammering above and below intertwining linear themes, and rapid unisons imploding to form a violent waltz, the irruptions gradually lessening as the opening theme returns, beautiful and prayerful, suggesting a kind of processional towards what seems like a state of reassurance – a heartfelt and moving work.

Jack Body’s Three Rhythmics (written in 1986) was commissioned originally by the New Zealand Music Federation, but was pronounced as “too difficult” by the performers who had been assigned to the piece. Body himself ascribed the piece’s difficulties to his own youthful confidence, stressing that he was “a bit younger then”, and  admitting also that “at certain times in one’s life one feels the need to do or create something flashy”. He calls the kind of virtuosity required of the performers “mechanistic rather than Lisztian” , and observed wryly that that even the performers who subsequently tackled the work more-or-less successfully complained about its difficulties. However, he emphasized that the live performances he’s heard of the work have all produced an exhilarating effect – so that demands, after all, perhaps do bring rewards.

He would have been exhilarated all over again by this performance – right from the Stravinsky-like opening of the first movement “Drumming”, with its wonderfully jagged accents and rhythmic patterning, and with the textures spiced by occasional hand-clapping, the duo kept the pulse of the work alive and buoyant. What a change with the “Interlude” movement, in which all notions of conscious time seem to have been dissolved into a Dali-esque “melting-clocks” kind of scenario at the beginning, the duo gradually goading the “parlando” declamations back into metered divisions . And I loved the pair’s choreographic interactions during the final “Ostinato”, enacting for us in sight and sound an almost ritualistic clashing of lines over a dancing bass. We heard left and right figurations occasionally spreading themselves, fragmenting the symmetries with angular accents and dealing with the remorseless bass line as best they could, the argument breaking off boldly and abruptly by way of solving the music’s impasse. Breathtaking playing!

Edwin Carr’s suite of dances from his ballet score “Elektra” represented an earlier era of New Zealand composition, but one whose boldness, vigour and austerity seemed as “contemporary” as any of the other works. This music marked the duo’s switch to the two-piano medium, giving the concert ample variety of texture and spatial ambience. Carr’s work dates from 1955, and his time studying in Italy with composer Goffredo Petrassi, who was an advocate of the neoclassicism whose influence, thanks to the likes of Stravinsky, was very much in vogue. Carr actually took the directorship for a short period of Il Nuovo Balletto d’Italia, who performed his ballet a number of times on tour. This two-piano version of a suite of dances from the score stresses what the programmme notes describe as “vigorous rhythms, percussive piano writing, concise formal design and rugged polytonal chords”. I thought Carr’s music triumphantly spanned the centuries over which the inspiration had cast its shadow, the textures at once lean, spare, and energetic in a modern manner, but also presenting a cold, marbled finish in places that suggested an antiquity of centuries. Each of the four pieces had something of this Janus-faced aspect, the performers ringing out their tones across the two-piano vistas, and evoking a dark and compelling ambience of human interaction and emotion.

John Psathas’s work, Zeal, from 1992, concluded the concert. The work has five movements, the first, Lulling Imagination to Sleep, beginning with murmuring bass figurations that readily recall his earlier (1988) Waiting for the Aeroplane – there are similarly vast spaces conjured out of the sounds, underlined by the antiphonal placement of the pianos. The music’s ambient capacities gradually build to something of an elemental roar, before retreating as enigmatically throughout a long-breathed epilogue.The following Ghost Hunting is quixotic and fragmentary, featuring tingling exchanges between the instruments with occasional biting sforzandi, the playing by turns whispering, wailing and laughing – one senses ghosts being laid to rest. The title-movement, Zeal, features monumental, pagan-like gestures, energetic and deep-throated, the sounds breaking away and reforming, reinventing themselves in the process, and contrasting markedly with the following Amalgam, a world in which sharp angularities play jabbing, poking games of hide-and-seek in the nocturnal mists. Finally Unstoppable Forces: Immovable Objects brought forth driving, syncopated energies from the tireless pair towards tremendous, Mahlerian outpourings of tone, whose climactic moments Baz Gonzales described in his program notes as “romantic grandeur”. Like all of Psathas’s music, its direct emotional impact is the most striking immediate feature, though deeper layers of impulse driving things like the larger-scale organization of the material make for interesting explorations of one of this country’s most interesting composers.

It would seem that there is a recording of these and other works planned with the duo, for release on the excellent Waiteata Music Press label – in my book, already a sure-fire winner, judging by this remarkable concert’s music-making from the Pangea Piano Project.

Four fine musicians compete for NZSM Concerto Competition

New Zealand School of Music Concerto Competition

Competitors: Nick Price (guitar) – Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez; Reuben Chin (alto saxophone) – Pierre Dubois’s Concerto for alto saxophone and string orchestra; Kate Oswin (violin) – Mozart’s Violin Concerto No 5 in A; Sunny Cheng (piano) – Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G
Adjudicator: Vyvyan Yendoll

Adam Concert Room, Victoria University

Wednesday 25 May, 7.30pm

This was the final round of the School of Music’s annual concerto competition, reduced now to four finalists. Each is accompanied by piano – a pianist of their choice.

First, I was impressed by the musicianship and accomplishment of all four contestants, and the way in which the finalists had emerged produced a concert of good variety.

The first contestant was guitarist Nick Price who played the obvious concerto by Rodrigo. Though I found his demeanour a little less than engaging – he made no eye contact with the audience, his head turned down most of the time towards his left hand – the music was there in a most attractive way. He played from memory.

He opened with bold, clean chords, paced resolutely: it established at once an expectation of an interesting journey through the music (which ended after the second movement). The gorgeous Adagio was played beautifully, easily paced, in a relaxed manner, as if every note had to be savoured to the full: dynamics sensitively handled, with discreet rubato that let the music breathe. He was fortunate in his accompanist, Douglas Mews, who managed to re-create the score with remarkable quasi-orchestral colouring.

Saxophonist Reuben Chin’s contest piece was Pierre Dubois’s Concerto for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra which he played with the music in front of him, not that it detracted from an air of spontaneity and total mastery of the score. Though he opened with a slightly imperfect, breathy note, articulation thereafter was pretty flawless, shown strikingly in the big cadenza where his breath control was impressive, through some very fast, virtuosic passages. A contrasting tone of melancholy coloured the slow movement, where his highest register was admirable. The last movement revealed the composition’s French descent most conspicuously and l’esprit français was accurately captured.

Chin was very capably accompanied by Claire Harris at the piano. He was the winner: one of the two contestants I had guessed as most likely.

Kate Oswin, who had her early training and competition awards in Christchurch, as well as playing in the Christchurch Symphony and now in the Wellington Orchestra, played Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto. She played without the score and was accompanied by Matthew Oswin. There was a slightly casual air about her playing, and at least in the first movement I thought her phrasing was not very interesting. Technically her playing was excellent however, and she certainly showed a high level of accomplishment, including effortless double stopping, in the cadenza of the second movement. She played only the first two movements.

The Ravel Piano Concerto was the choice of Sunny Cheng who came to Wellington from Beijing aged 15. Accompanied at the piano by Douglas Mews, she played from memory all three movements. This concerto suffered more than the others from the fact of being accompanied by a second piano whish detracted somewhat from the audience’s ability always to distinguish the two, especially when the keyboards were not visible – though the two pianos were distinctive enough in tone. She gave off an air of complete mastery of the work, handling rhythms and phrasing in a comfortable manner, and sounding at home with syncopations and jazz-influenced passages. Her second movement was limpidly beautiful, with just enough emotional feeling to make contact with her listeners. The two pianos created an almost competitive spirit in the last movement; equally in control, generating a sparkling, motoric excitement as it raced to its conclusion.

Reuben Chin, the winner of the competition, will play with the NZSM Orchestra in a concert at St Andrew’s on The Terrace at 7.30pm on Friday 12 August.

NZSM Saxophone orchestra, quintet and quartet beguile at lunchtime

New Zealand School of Music
Fugue in G minor “Great”, BWV 542 for saxophone quintet (J.S. Bach, arr N. Woods)
Cantilene  for saxophone quintet (Ida Gotkovsky)
PR Girl for saxophone quintet         (Andrew Tweed)
Saxophone Quartet (Alfred Desenclos)
Toccata and Fugue in G Minor(?) (D minor, BWV 565) (J.S.Bach, arr. Guy Lacour for saxophone orchestra)
Tango for saxophone orchestra (Stravinsky, arr. J van der Linden)
Slava! for saxophone orchestra (Bernstein, arr. J van der Linden)


Conductor: Simon Brew, Leader: Reuben Chin, Artistic direction: Debbie Rawson. 


St Andrew’s on The Terrace


Wednesday 25 May, 12.15pm


At the New Zealand School of Music, Deborah Rawson attracts a lot of students to the saxophone. And her success in getting skilled performers into the community, as well as in the periodic concerts given by students and others, such as her long-standing ensemble, Saxcess, is slowly bringing a realization of the place of the instrument(s) in the classical music sphere.


While the jazz world was almost entirely dominated by the alto and tenor saxes, with one or two notable exceptions like baritone player like Gerry Mulligan and sopranist Sidney Bechet, the classical genre has become more accustomed to the whole consort of saxes which, on the showing of this concert, numbers at least six.


No details of either the pieces (only composers’ names, not in order) or the players was available at the concert, which led to a guessing game, in which I scored poorly. I got marks only for Bach and Stravinsky; I obtained details later.


Two of the most successful pieces in the concert were Bach’s ‘Great’ fugue in G minor played by the quintet, and the Toccata and Fugue in D minor played by the orchestra. The latter, particularly, created a rich sound that did justice very interestingly to the character of the original. The fanfare elements in the Toccata were splendidly arresting while the differing ranks of instruments allowed the various fugal passages to be heard distinctly.


I thought it worked a little better than the Fugue, which was arranged for quintet (Reuben Chin – soprano, Emma Hayes-Smith – alto, Annelise Kreger – alto, Katherine Maciaszec – tenor, Geraint Scott – baritone). It was played fairly quickly which seemed to make it harder to achieve variety of colour; but I enjoyed the way the soprano soared above the others, and it was the one, like a soprano voice carrying an aria, that allowed touches of a humanizing rubato to surface. 


Ida Gotkovsky was born in 1933 and is Professor of Composition at the Paris Conservatoire. She has composed for all main genres, including many solo and chamber pieces for saxophone.


Her Cantilene for quintet opened in deliberate manner, led by alto then tenor in plaintive tones. A second phase developed a lighter character, with arresting ostinati from tenor and soprano saxes. I was safe to have guessed this as post-Messiaen French: I hadn’t heard of the composer.


Andrew Tweed’s PR Girl was introduced by fast didgeridoo sounds (so I suspected he might have been Australian, though I find he is a British saxophonist/composer, born 1963) on baritone sax, followed by lively, entertaining jazz strains, modulating to satisfying effect towards the end.


The major work of the concert was the saxophone quartet by Alfred Desenclos, a major figure in the saxophone world, played by the quintet members minus Annelise Kreger. Written by the 50-year-old Desenclos in 1962, it could have come from no other national school than that of Françaix and Poulenc  A website comment reads: “it is one of the very few really substantial sonatas in the saxophone repertoire… technical and artistic challenges abound.”


In three movements: Allegro non troppo, Andante poco largo, Allegro energico, it immediately created an air of expectation, as the introduction ended in a string of evanescent rising scales, and the movement continued in vivacious spirit. The second movement rose slowly from a somnolent state to a mood of peaceful dreaminess. The third movement set off with little fanfare motifs which accelerated in syncopated rhythms, and the four parts entered into a somewhat fugal episode which became quite excitable. But I was somewhat disconcerted as it approached its end to become aware of a certain tonal monotony in the patterns of the four instruments; would I have had a similar reaction to the music if it had been played by four stringed instruments? I don’t know.


Nevertheless, the performance brought it to life with a variety of thoughful expressive colourings and dynamic contrasts.


Then the saxophone orchestra emerged from the vestry: eleven of them: the quintet plus six non-students (David McGregor – sopranino, Debbie Rawson – soprano, Lauren Draper – alto, Hayden Sinclair – tenor, Will Hornabrook – tenor, Graham Hanify – bass), plus conductor Simon Brew.


Their first piece was Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565.  As I remarked at the beginning it was a very striking arrangement, replicating organ sounds most convincingly. I was impressed too by the conductor’s decisive guidance and his ability to hold a lively pulse, dramatic energy and to command excellent ensemble. It was followed by Tango by Stravinsky, one of the first pieces he wrote after arriving in the United States in 1940. It proved a colouful, effective piece that the orchestra played carefully, with some fine comic gestures.


Finally came a short party piece that seemed to come out of Sousa, Ibert and Chabrier. I was surprised, on getting the complete list of music, to find it was by Bernstein, called Slava!; the name Sousa had occurred to me at the time without imagining it to be American. 


All the players did a splendid job in all phases of the concert, in persuading us of the saxophones’ legitimacy as solo, chamber music and orchestral instrument.


Tasmin Little clothed, with naked violin, in diverting recital

The Naked Violin

Playing and talking about the violin: Luslawice Variations by Paul Petterson; Bach: Solo Violin Sonata No 1, BWV 1001 and Partita No 3, BWV 1006; Eugène Isaÿe: Sonata in D minor, Op 27 No 3 ‘Ballade’

Tasmin Little (violin)

Ilott Theatre

Sunday 22 May, 3pm

Tasmin Little is in New Zealand as one of the adjudicators for the Michael Hill International Violin Competition, but she has also played the Sibelius Concerto with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and a solo concert in Christchurch in the place of a concert with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra since the earthquake damaged the Town Hall.

Her Naked Violin performances was arranged in Hamilton and Wellington through the chamber music societies in each city.

It is encouraging that eminent musicians such as Little are more often being invited to perform in contexts additional to the main purpose of their visit, in other places around the country. Too often in the past, players of international renown come to play a concerto with an orchestra, but no effort is made to set up solo recitals for them, even in the city in which they play.

Interviews on both National Radio and RNZ Concert during the past week revealed an engaging and sparkling personality and they may well have led to a full Ilott Theatre. Her routine involves no comedy one-liners or risqué gags – ‘Naked’ was clearly sufficient enticement.

After explaining what she aimed to do she took us step by step through the first piece, named for the place of a Polish chamber music festival, by English composer Paul Patterson. By the time the performance arrived the themes that she’d laid out sounded like old favourites (almost). It was no doubt chosen for the range of violinist playing devices that it demands, from left hand pizzicato to spiccato and false harmonics through the length of each string.

Parts of two Bach solo violin pieces followed. Two movements each from the Sonata No 1 in G minor and the Partita No 2 in E minor. Her playing is personally undemonstrative; rather, its impact on the audience came from its obvious and straightforward urge to make contact musically with the audience, just as she had through her open and self-effacing dialogue with them.

In the middle of the programme Tasmin invited questions from the floor about anything relating to the violin, the music or to her own experiences and intentions. That resulted in some interesting questions, and answers, about ‘historically-informed’ performance, how Bach would find performances of his music today, the way the performer might alter what the composer had in mind, how she managed to achieve success as a performer. Her reply to the small girl’s question, what was ‘her favourite song’ when she was young, might not have meant a lot to her (a piece by Delius).

Her last piece was the third solo violin sonata by Eugène Isaÿe; though I’ve heard it played several times and admire many aspects, it still sounds more like a very elaborate cadenza which I expect to end with the awaited ‘cadence’ that allows the orchestra to re-enter the fray. However, the performance was, like all her other playing, marked by an unostentatious mastery and a musicality that drew attention simply to the musical qualities of the piece.

Aeolian Players play for mulled wine at Paekakariki

Hotteterre: Suite no.3 for oboe and basso continuo, Op.5
Bach: Sonata for viola da gamba and harpsichord in G, BWV 1027
Telemann: Trio Sonata for oboe, viola da gamba and basso continuo in G minor
Forqueray: “La Sylva” and “Jupiter” from Pièces de Clavecin
Bach: Trio Sonata, BWV 528
Buxtehude: Passacaglia from Sonata IV

Mulled Wine Concert
The Aeolian Players (Ariana Odermatt, harpsichord; Margaret Guldborg, cello; Calvin Scott, oboe; Peter Garrity, viola)

Paekakariki Memorial Hall

Sunday, 22 May 2011, 2.30pm

The Memorial Hall was not completely full, but there were probably over 100 people present to hear this concert of baroque music. Despite all the music being from the same era, there was considerable variety both in the music, and in the size of ensemble playing the various works.

Another matter of interest was the marvellous ‘Fishart’ exhibition on the walls. Many items were highly detailed illustrations of fish, some in the form of multiple small fish together making the shape of a whale’s tail, or a seahorse or other form. Others were punning assemblages of drawings and cogs in the various situations dogs might find themselves in (and indeed, most of the cogs were in doggy shapes), and other humorous art works made from found materials.

All this was the work of former Dominion cartoonist, Eric Heath. The wide scope of the exhibition and the skilled, colourful and accurate representations of fish were quite breathtaking.

The prelude of the first work on the programme immediately revealed what good acoustics the hall has for the oboe – and for the other instruments too. Unlike the case with other concerts I have attended at the Memorial Hall, this time the players were placed alongside the long wall on the sea side of the hall, the chairs for the audience being arranged in a semi-circle facing them. Hence it was much easier for the audience to see the performers than at previous concerts, when the musicians have been at the end of the hall. This siting seemed to improve the sound, also.

The five-movement suite was beautifully executed. There was robust cello playing, and plenty of contrast between the movements, with the lively Gigue ending a thoroughly committed performance.

In the Bach sonata, the viola was used in place of viola da gamba. The problem was that the superbly full, rich sound of the viola in Garrity’s hands was quite different from the sound of a viola da gamba, and did not fit well with the harpsichord sound, which was somewhat overwhelmed. Odermatt’s harpsichord playing was excellent. If here and elsewhere she sometimes lacked the flair of more mature harpsichord players, that may be something that will come in time. To be fair, these were mostly fully written parts as distinct from basso continuo parts. However, the Buxtehude Passacaglia at the end perhaps gave scope for more individual interpretation and variation, since the harpsichord part was endlessly repeated.

Telemann’s sonata employed all four instruments. Again, the oboe sound was mellifluous, while the viola sounded more baroque than it had in the Bach sonata. This was a delightful and most satisfying work.

It occurred to me, reading the details of the composers and the excellent programme notes, that we are fortunate that all these composers were long-lived; Bach the least so, since he died at 65; still a good life-span for his time. Hotteterre made it to 89. Thus there has been passed down to us a great body of compositions to enjoy. When we come to the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there are the untimely early deaths of Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin and Schumann who, though prolific, never survived to the ages of their baroque predecessors, and thus we do not know what they might have written as they matured.

An aim of Mary Gow, who promotes these Paekakariki concerts, is to provide performances with unusual combinations of instruments, and that was certainly true this time. The oboe-playing of Calvin Scott was quite superb. His phrasing, and that of the other players, was very good, although there was not always a feeling of complete ensemble. Inaccuracies of intonation were few and slight, in the Buxtehude work only.

Forqueray’s “La Sylva” piece was a very graceful and appealing item for solo harpsichord. “Jupiter” was played with the manuals coupled (hence much louder) alternating with use of the upper manual only. This was much faster than the other piece. The contrasting sections and use of the lower register of the harpsichord made it most interesting. These were delightfully varied and imaginative pieces.

Bach’s trio sonata is probably more familiar as played on the organ. Hearing it on four separate instruments, with their distinctive timbres was stimulating. After the very short, very slow opening adagio, there was a gutsy vivace, that nevertheless had refinement too. After a smooth andante, the allegro was exciting and very intricate in places. Again, I felt the viola had too much vibrato; the oboe once more was impressive.

All four performed in the Buxtehude also. There was fast interplay between oboe and viola, while the harpsichord played her bass line over and over (how did she know when to stop?)

The concert was relatively short, and none the worse for that, on a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon – and much appreciated by the audience.

Antoni Wit and cellist Hurtaud score in wonderful NZSO concert

Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (Penderecki); Cello Concerto No 2 in D (Haydn); Symphony No 3 in E flat ‘Eroica’ (Beethoven)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit with cellist Sébastien Hurtaud

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 21 May, 8pm

Though Antoni Wit had recorded a couple of highly-praised CDs with the NZSO four years ago, he has never conducted a public concert with the orchestra. It is perhaps a timely moment to reflect on the number of performances that the orchestra has recorded with a number of distinguished conductors whose work has not been heard in public concerts. This has long seemed a strange policy, and a great pity.

And this was his only concert, which is being presented in five cities: but why only one programme? Penderecki’s Threnody is hardly a typical or useful representative of Polish orchestral music in the past century, and in any case, it has been played by the orchestra in recent years. There’s so much other rewarding Polish orchestral music; a concert featuring a Szymanowski symphony or violin concerto, symphonies and other works by Panufnik, Lutoslawski, Penderecki would have been a most interesting departure and Wit on the podium would ensure a good reception.

Nevertheless, Antoni Wit’s emergence in the Michael Fowler Centre was a very conspicuous success. There was a a full house, a not very frequent occurrence these days. And the reception given to the orchestra and conductor at the end of the ‘Eroica’ was almost ecstatic. The audience clearly recognizes a conductor with that special gift and whose virtues flow in part from his adherence to the old school of Central European conductors.

The first thing to be noticed after the interval, as the ‘Eroica’ began was the unusual rearrangement of the orchestra. In the first half, strings were in the normal pattern, rising pitch from right to left. But here, double basses were on the far left, cellos in the second violins’ usual place, while the latter were front right. Where I was sitting, facing cellos and basses, the sound was certainly wonderfully enriched from its foundation of low register instruments.

Wit’s gestures are expressive, using an interesting variety of hand movements, particularly of the left hand; but the real secret of the conductor’s magic is much less definable and those in the choir gallery might have had a more interesting visual experience, observing the face which is where most of a leader’s magic resides. The result was constantly arresting music with exciting and finely tuned dynamics that allowed details of the scoring such as clarinet adornments and the middle harmonies from second violins and violas more than usual clarity.

It was Robert Orr’s oboe whose plaintive beauty was most conspicuous in the Marcia funèbre, grave and dignified. It was here, in particular, that Wit created the most deeply-felt grandeur, which tempers the heroic and hopes for the betterment of society with the ever-present awareness of life’s transience and individual weaknesses that bedevil man’s greatest ambitions. A great performance can raise such feelings that lie quite outside any verbal description of the way in which it is achieved.

The ‘Eroica’ is not the sort of work whose later movements become less profound or more light-hearted. And this performance did no such thing. The pulsing force of the Scherzo, often driven from the bottom by powerful timpani and basses, carried on the argument while Wit recreated the great Finale , manicured every phrase with a tireless care for dynamics and moved from one variation to the next with astute tempo changes.

The concert had begun with the Threnody; a typical example of a 1960s composition at the then cutting edge. Basically, like so much of its genre, it mistakes the creation of a powerful emotional state through certain kinds of noise, for music. Unfortunately, the job of a composer of music is to transmute the emotion that might underlie a wish to create a work of art in sound into a fabric of melody and rhythm – music.

The dense tone clusters, better defined in the excellent programme note as ‘sound mass’, worked as intended, with brilliant impact by a conductor and orchestra that brought the piece compellingly to life.

The Haydn cello concerto generally seems to transcend what one is often led to believe about it: an attractive, somewhat light-weight piece. It’s rather more than that, and the beautiful performance by young French cellist Sébastien Hurtaud, limpidly lyrical, mellifluous, and of course singularly virtuosic, would have banished any tendency to dismiss it lightly. I heard some comment about the lack of baroque sound from the orchestra which, from other than eager young students out to demonstrate their critical acumen, is a bit tedious. It was comforting to hear the sensible comments of violinist Tasmin Little at her Naked Violin concert the following afternoon about period instrument practice.

In other words, this performance from a suitably reduced body of strings, and winds as prescribed in the score, was admirable, suiting perfectly music that Haydn had written for the baroque beauties of the 400-seat theatre at Esterháza. Hurtaud’s performance, while well gauged for the acoustic, suggested chamber music sensibility and on this showing, gets his results not through biting attack or conspicuous bravura. Even in the liveliest passages his playing is essentially legato, the notes seem to have no sharply delineated beginning, but rather a continuous song line.

The slow movement is one of the loveliest things that Haydn wrote, much anthologized in students’ albums. It seemed to be where Hurtaud’s soul really dwelt. Yet, in the Rondo finale, he revealed a wonderful energy and breathtaking agility in the handling of the more that usually elaborate and brilliant ornaments with which he so judiciously peppered his playing. The audience virtually demanded and encore and he played the finale from a Cello Suite by great Spanish cellist Gaspar Cassadó.

There was an air of great delight at the Interval after Hurtaud’s performances, just as there was prolonged applause after the ‘Eroica’, at the end of the evening.

Stravinsky from the Royal New Zealand Ballet



MILAGROS (after Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps”) Choreography – Javier De Frutos

SATISFIED WITH GREAT SUCCESS (after Stravinsky’s “Scenes de ballet”) Choreography – Cameron McMillan

PETROUSHKA – (music by Stravinsky) Choreographer (after Michel Fokine)  Russell Kerr / Designer (after Alexandre Benois) Raymond Boyce

Royal New Zealand Ballet Company

Vector Wellington Orchestra

Marc Taddei, conductor.

St.James Theatre, Wellington

20-21 May 2011

Opportunities both gloriously taken and frustratingly unrealized – that was my immediate reaction to the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s “Stravinsky traversal” during which we saw and heard settings of the music for two of the composer’s ballets, (including the infamous Le Sacre du Printemps) and a full-scale production of Petroushka, both works among the most famous of their kind of all time. Allowing time for my feelings to settle somewhat before writing this review hasn’t greatly altered my reactions, though I’m wanting to point out that I thought the evening’s successes spectacular ones, and that the rest was never less than interesting and absorbing.

Heretical though it may seem to balletomanes, I tend to sympathize with Stravinsky’s reaction to choreographers and dancers who wanted the composer to write music and conduct his scores to suit their needs. The veteran choreographer Russell Kerr, in part of an interview printed in the program, related an incident involving the composer conducting a production of Petroushka in the United States in which Kerr was dancing. “I do not conduct for the dancers; they dance to my music!” the composer retorted, when asked to delay a section of his score to fit in with some stage business. If that attitude seems like the music is put first and foremost, its principle is a welcome corrective to a lot of choreography I’ve encountered which appears to take little notice of aspects of the music to which the dance steps are allegedly set.

I thought it interesting with this idea in mind to compare the opening item on the program with the full production of Petroushka which concluded the evening. The former was Milagros, a work which had been performed before by the Royal New Zealand ballet, on tour of the UK in 2004. It was impressive to read of Javier De Frutos’s award-winning status as a choreographer – certainly his movement scenario seemed brimful with ideas, and in places resulted in powerful and memorable theatrical imaging. Nevertheless, I thought his over-wrought modulations of the dance’s ebb and flow ran counter in many places to the primitive, rawly-focused nature of Stravinsky’s score (played, incidentally from a pianola roll made in the 1920s, one whose tempi had been supervised directly by the composer, and was here realized in a recording by player/pianist Rex Lawson).

It was as though De Frutos was trying to do too much, blunting his moments of connection with the music’s rhythmic thrust with unfocused superfluous movement that, for me, didn’t match the tones and pulsations of what we were hearing. There were times when the archetypal impulses of the music reflected themselves all too tellingly on the stage (some of the interactions I found quite disturbing, in fact – a friend of mine at the interval used the word “misogynistic”, which feeling in places I agreed with, though the occasional savageries were gradually developed in both gender directions). But whatever rituals were being enacted (and some of the imagery was stunningly presented – the head-stacking, for example) I felt it was as if the choreographer had allowed too many echoes of previous settings (his fourth of this music, if the program note is to be believed) to blur the focus. Whatever the theme, setting or prevailing current, the music unequivocally gives all the clues – and these oft-swirling masses of bodies didn’t consistently and coherently hold my sensibilities in a tightly-concerted enough grip throughout.

There was no doubt as to the commitment of the dancers to the work, particularly in the individual characterizations and teamwork of Abigail Boyle and Brendan Bradshaw, with Lucy Balfour contributing an eye-catching solo, all of whom communicated plenty of energetic conviction, however equivocal the expressive results.I’ve heard and read enough opinions regarding the work and its performance to freely admit my own inadequacy of response. I only wish I could testify to my having more connection-points with what I saw.

After this (leaving aside the second work for the moment), I couldn’t help but feel the difference in both focus and intent coming from the stage with Petroushka, which took up the evening’s final performance segment. Suddenly here were dancers who seemed completely energized and driven by the music, just as if they were stunningly-realised visualizations of what Stravinsky’s themes, rhythms and textures were actually doing. In this case the choreography had been supervised by Russell Kerr, following the original dance-plan of Michel Fokine, but of course with the New Zealander’s “take”  on the proceedings. In fact Kerr had first choreographed and designed Petroushka with his colleague Raymond Boyce as long ago as 1964. What I found remarkable was the ability of each of the dancer to “personalize” his or her character on stage, even when acting in concert with others, so that the crowd scenes had a naturalistic quality in parallel with the stylishness of the dancing and movement. It was mightily impressive to look at, and astonishing to reflect on there being not a single trace of self-consciousness in evidence from any movement, gesture or expression.Normally the “character” parts in ballet steal the theatrical thunder, but Sir Jon Trimmer as the Charlatan was by no means acting and moving in a vacuum, in his engrossing portrayal of cynical enslavement of his performing puppets – his character and aura found ready responses from members of the company, as did the dysfunctional antics of his three marionette charges.

As with Russell Kerr’s performing lineage and its links to both Stravinsky and his inspirational impresario Serge Diaghilev, designer Raymond Boyce’s formative experiences were with comparable traditions. He studied at London’s Slade School of Fine Arts, where one of his tutors, Vladimir Polunin, had been a scenery-painter for Diaghilev’s Company, and from him Boyce learnt the Russian scenery-painting style. From 1959 to 1997 Boyce designed productions for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company, working with the company’s founder, Poul Gnatt, during those early days. In this latest Petroushka the focus of the setting was very much on unity – while the painted sets projected a kind of artificiality very much of their time, the designs served to focus upon the illusory nature of the story-line, reminding one of Lady Macbeth’s reference to a “painted devil”. In only one place I thought more pro-active lighting might have advanced the story’s cause, which was the hallucinatory effect of the charlatan’s picture in Petroushka’s room – more aggressively-focused spot-lighting on the image and momentarily darkened surroundings would have heightened the nightmarish aspect of the moment and imparted some edge to the somewhat naive-art, two-dimensional comic-book reproduction.

Besides Sir Jon’s wonderfully disturbing Charlatan (some of his expressions the stuff of nightmares for susceptible sensibilities), the three principal dancers gave thoroughly absorbing portrayals of their roles, each straddling the worlds of reality and make-believe with disarming alacrity. Medhi Angot’s Petroushka caught all of the character’s awareness of his plight as a puppet with a human heart, conveying for us his tragic despair at his loss of love and life, before reappearing, ghost-like at the end, to tease our sensibilities. Both Tonia Looker as the Ballerina and Qi Huan as the Moor brought plenty of skilful motoric impulse to each of their characters, contrasting their somewhat cardboard cut-out personas with Petroushka’s more complex and vulnerable consciousness.

I’ve left until now my ruminations regarding the middle ballet Satisfied With Great Success because I found it something of a puzzle, as much for what wasn’t done as for what we saw. Firstly I think the expectation created by the advance descriptions of some kind of interaction between historic footage of the composer in New Zealand and live stage action would have, in the event, left some people nonplussed. Whether previous or subsequent performances of this work used more of this much-touted “50 year-old film footage” I’m not sure, but I thought the juxtapositioning between the film and the live performance lame in effect, to say the least. I’m presuming that the film’s (a) slow-motion quality and (b) reverse continuity and imaging (the composer walking backwards through an orchestra whose members were positioned as if in a mirror-image) was in aid of imparting some kind of dream-dance ritualization to the scenes thus caught – well,maybe.  As it turned out (and contrary to my expectations), the film sequences proved to be mere clip-ons, with little or no interactive relationship between the footage and what the ballet actually did – and so, what was the point of it all?

Here was part of a visual record of the twentieth century’s arguably most important composer conducting some of his music in New Zealand – why couldn’t the ballet sequences have played out their “deconstruction, visual imagery and complex relationships” (the choreographer Cameron McMillan’s own words) as a series of connective impulses acknowledging these visuals? – whether fast, slow, forwards, backwards or still-framed, recording a significant aspect of our musical past? As a tribute to Stravinsky what was shown was somewhat less than token, and as a depiction of the composer’s relevance to “today’s world of creation and performance”, well, the exercise for me was practically a non-starter.

Regarding the ballet itself, there were some lovely moments, both solo and concerted (I liked the diagonal lines of bodies moving in accord, as well as various manifestations of strong duo work) but I thought some of what was presented only intermittently in accord with Stravinsky’s music (Scenes de Ballet). An example was a glorious Copland-like orchestral outburst of intense emotion at one point, superbly delivered by Marc Taddei and the Wellington Orchestra – but for all the reaction on stage, the music may as well have not been there – as was the actual case with another episode, where the dancers stepped intriguingly through uncannily silent vistas. Even more than with Milagros I had difficulty discerning an overall choreographic focus to Satisfied with Great Success, and wondered what the composer might have thought of his title-quote applied to the work in hand.

Back to the evening’s “Great Successes” – the overall conception and realization of Petroushka, the amazing sonic impact of that  pianola recording of Le Sacre du Printemps, the few glimpses we got on film of Stravinsky here in New Zealand, the musical direction of Marc Taddei and the playing of the Wellington Orchestra for the second and third ballets (a few brass “blips” here and there in Petroushka notwithstanding), and the chance to experience at first hand something of the excitement and commitment of those early ventures into ballet production via the presence and efforts of Russell Kerr and Raymond Boyce – for me THIS was the most telling manifestation of (I quote the program notes once again) “the relationship between past and present through 21st century eyes”. For that alone, thank you, Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Anniversaries of 2011

The year 2011 is not quite as rich in musical anniversaries as was 2010, but delving a little deeper and more obscurely, there are a number of interesting ones.

The reason they are of interest is the way in which, at least for those with a certain sort of mental condition, they lead one to follow paths that look curious, that ring bells of recognition in a lateral sense.

The following, starting in the Renaissance, might lead you to follow up by reading or by seeking out recordings that will enrich the depth and range of your cultural equipment. We include a number of non-musical anniversaries, perhaps guided by personal interests in other spheres.

We begin in 1511 with the publication of Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly. (1511)

Then in 1561, again in the realm of thinkers/writers – seminonacentennial (450th) of the birth of the English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon (1561-1626), one of the claimants, by the weird race of Shakespeare-deniers, as author of the plays and poems.

1611 saw the death of great Spanish Renaissance polyphonic composer Tomás Luis de Victoria (born in 1548).

It was the year of publication of a collection of keyboard music by Bull, Byrd and Gibbons called Parthenia.

It was also the year of the publication of the King James Bible, the year’s most famous event in the English-speaking world, and arguably the most powerful influence on English prose style.


In 1661 we encounter the first musical anniversaries with the death of Louis Couperin, not quite as gifted as his nephew François Couperin (who was born in 1668).

Georg Böhm was born in 1661.

Opera was flourishing by now. Cavalli was the most important figure around 1661 – his Ercole amante premiered in 1662.

But his lesser contemporary, Cesti, produced his La Dori in Florence in 1661.


A very important opera premiere took place in 1711: Handel’s Rinaldo, his first in London.

William Boyce was born in 1711: the greatest English composer, with Arne, of the 18th century.

And the slightly less known Jean-Joseph Cassanea de Mondonville, violinist and opera composer.

David Hume, Scottish philosopher and historian was also born in 1711.


1761 saw the start of Haydn’s career, with his appointment in this year to the Esterhazy court.

The last phase of Gluck’s career, his association with librettist Calzabigi, was about to start, though this year he produced his famous ballet, Don Juan. His first reform opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, came in 1762.

However, another Armida was premiered in 1761 – by Tommaso Traetta, one of the most important composers of the period. (Gluck’s Armide was not till 1777, in Paris)

Artaserse – not the one by Arne of 1762 that has recently become famous – but by J C Bach, was first performed in Turin.

Novelist Samuel Richardson (Pamela) died in 1761.


1811 yields a fairly interesting collection with the birth of Liszt and of Ambroise Thomas, whose Hamlet has been seen recently in the Metropolitan Opera HD in cinemas. (Hamlet was staged in 1868).

Ferdinand Hiller was born. Perhaps he’s more famous for Reger’s ‘Hiller Variations’ for orchestra.

Rossini’s second opera, L’equivoco stravagante, was produced in Bologna.

And Weber’s Abu Hassan. in Munich.

Novelist William Thackeray was born in 1811.

And so was poet, music critic and Romanticist par excellence Théophile Gautier (Berlioz set his poems in his Les nuits d’été).


1861 just misses important births on either side – Mahler, Albeniz, Delius, Debussy.

There were three lesser figures:

Charles Loeffler, violinist and composer, born in Alsace in 1861.

Marco Bossi was born at Lake Garda, one of the chief Italian composers seeking to revive non-operatic music after a century of opera domination of Italy.

And Anton Arensky, born at Novgorod, and much influenced by Tchaikovsky, best known for a fine Piano Trio and Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky.

Notable operas seem scarce in 1861, though there are important ones on either side such as Ballo in maschera, Faust, La forza del destino.

However, Offenbach was riding high; he produced five operas-bouffes in the year, including M. Choufleuri restera chez lui and Le pont des soupirs.

1861 was the year of Melba’s birth.

Brahms wrote his Op 24 (Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel), and the two piano quartets, Opp 25 and 26.


Great Expectations was published 1861 and poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Robert’s wife), born in 1806, died.


1911 saw most famously, the death of Mahler.

It was also the year of the births of Menotti, Armenian-American composer Hovhaness and film composer Bernard Hermann.

Also, for francophile organ-afficionados – the brilliant French composer/organist Jehan-Ariste Alain was born; he was killed in the war in 1940.

That links major interests for this reviewer. Please forgive this quote from Wikipedia:

“Alain became a dispatch rider in the Eighth Motorised Armour Division of the French Army. On 20 June 1940, he was assigned to reconnoitre the German advance on the eastern side of Saumur, and encountered a group of German soldiers at Le Petit-Puy. Coming around a curve, and hearing the approaching tread of the Germans, he abandoned his motorcycle and engaged the enemy troops with his carbine, killing 16 of them before being killed himself. He was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre for his bravery, and according to [musicologist] Nicolas Slonimsky was buried, by the Germans, with full military honours.”

Jehan was the brother of distinguished organist Marie-Claire Alain. He received musical tributes from admiring contemporaries Dutilleux and Duruflé.

1911 is famous for the premieres of Der Rosenkavalier and the ballert Petrushka.

There were a few other opera centenaries: Saint-Saëns’s Déjanire, Ravel’s L’heure Espagnole, Debussy’s Le martyre de Saint Sébastien, Mascagni’s Isabeau, Zandonai’s Conchita, Wolf-Ferrari’s The Jewels of the Madonna. Most are awaiting modern revivals.

There were three significant deaths in 1911.

I encountered the Lithuanian composer, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, on a visit to Vilnius ten years ago, and was quite impressed by his music. He was born in 1875; he was also an important painter whose works can be seen in the M. K. Čiurlionis National Art Museum in Kaunas. He was a ’synesthete’; that is, he perceived colors and music simultaneously. Many of his paintings bear the names of musical pieces: sonatas, fugues, and preludes.

The notable organ organist and composer Félix-Alexandre Guilmant, born in 1837, died in 1911.

So did Norwegian composer Johan Svendsen (born in 1840).


Percy Grainger (born in 1882) died 1961. So did Thomas Beecham (born 1869).

Ernest Hemingway, born in 1899, died in 1961.

Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony was premiered.

The only opera I can see premiered that year was Hindemith’s The Long Christmas Dinner, based on a short story by Thornton Wilder, written in English; but it had its premiere in Mannheim in German translation in 1961. It was performed some years ago by the then Wellington Conservatorium of Music.

Waikanae presents Michael Endres, German pianist

Schubert: Four Impromptus, Op.90
Gareth Farr: Sepuluh Jari
Liszt: Sonata in B minor
Gottschalk: Bamboula, Souvenir de Puerto Rico, Souvenir d’Andalousie

Waikanae Music Society: Michael Endres (piano)

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 15 May 2011, 2.30pm

A large audience greeted Michael Endres, a German pianist who is Professor of Piano at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. He presented a varied and ambitious programme of quite lengthy works, including one by Gareth Farr, dating from 1996.

It was a delight to have the Schubert Impromptus on the programme. Rhythm was strongly emphasised, and there was never too much pedal. Endres had great dynamic control. Altogether, it was hard to imagine these pieces being played better, among contemporary pianists. Endres’s formidable technique was always at the service of the music. He does not move excessively at the keyboard, thus there is not the distraction one occasionally sees.

The first impromptu was like a plaintive song, as are so many in Schubert’s great songs: the ‘Wanderer’ songs, and Winterreise song cycle. Alongside this was a march-like quality, and then a dance-like second section. It was played with great delicacy, yet firmness.

The second had a totally different character – very fast and virtuosic. There were gentle episodes, but a fast and furious ending, while the well-known third was a joy to hear. The fourth, also familiar, was played probably faster than usual, but did not lose its lyricism or contrasts.

Rushing forward 170 years, we were confronted with Gareth Farr’s humorous and distinctive Toccata Sepuluh Jari (the title means ten fingers), which he attributes to J.S. Bach, quoting an imagined letter from the master, from the Island of Bali. As the programme note states, the ‘piano is partly used as a percussion instrument’, which most Balinese instruments are. However, it is important to note that percussion is not always loud. This was an inspired piece, and very musical and playable – by someone as skilled as Endres. It was very demanding and incessant, but an impressive piece of writing and playing. It was both melodic and dramatic, and occasionally even explosive.

Liszt’s monumental sonata is a tour-de-force to play from memory, being close to 30 minutes long. There is much dynamic contrast, even at the beginning. In places, the work is almost orchestral, while in others, delicately melodic, and yet others, blatantly theatrical, especially the ending. It features a motif repeated in various forms throughout the work, interesting rhythmic patterns and cross-rhythms; these are quite magical in places. The mood changes frequently; sometimes contemplative, at other almost aggressive, all based on a limited amount of musical material.

Endres brought variety and subtlety to this mighty sonata, which gave Waikanae’s new Fazioli piano a good workout, showing off its delicacy of timbre as well as its capacity for triple forte playing. Only once was I aware of a note failing to meet the challenge. Liszt was extremely well served.

For something completely different, Endres played Gottschalk’s three pieces. The sparkling Latin-American rhythms appropriately received much less sustaining pedal than did the previous two works.

The first began in a minor key, with an attractive, tender melody. The lyrical middle section was followed by a rousing ending. The second piece (sub-titled ‘Marche de Gibaros’, or March of the Peasants) had much charm as well as delightful rhythms. The final piece was full of fire – a virtuosic ending with powerful bravura. I must admit to thinking that pieces like this are designed to show off the skills of the performer rather than give vent to real musical expression (American Gottschalk was a virtuoso pianist). Nevertheless, Endres gave a persuasive reading as well as fulfilling all the technical demands.

An utterly charming encore, played in the top register of the piano was a piece that sounded like a musical box. After many beautiful arabesques, the mechanism gradually wound down, and then had a final flourish. It was Boîte à Musique, by Pierre Sancan, a French composer who died in 2008 (born 1916).

Michael Endres is a formidable yet refined pianist, and fully deserved the enthusiastic applause with which he was greeted after his encore.