Gilbert and Sullivan double bill a delight…..

W.S.GILBERT / ARTHUR SULLIVAN – Trial By Jury / H.M.S.Pinafore

Wellington Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra

Music Director – Matthew Ross / Stage Director – Gillian Jerome

Wellington Opera House

Thursday 30th June 2011

“I do my best to satisfy you all” sings Captain Corcoran to the crew of H.M.S.Pinafore – and we in the audience at Wellington ‘s Opera House could well have, at the end of the evening, echoed the crew’s reply, regarding the production, “And with you we’re quite content!” For this was a rollicking good night in the theatre – the stage spectacle entertaining and colourful, and the music elegant and captivating. To be sure, in the wake of previous encounters with this company, one came fully prepared to make certain allowances regarding the quality of the solo singing and fluency of the stage production, but any such discrepancies had little debilitating effect on the evening’s pleasure and delight. Having heard neither “Trial By Jury” nor “Pinafore” for some time, I was delighted to have my enthusiasm for Sullivan’s music and Gilbert’s elegant and witty satires reawakened so wholeheartedly.

Pivotal to the success of the evening throughout both productions were chorus and orchestra, and in each case there was a strong and secure focus, with many felicitous touches. This was particularly so in “Trial By Jury” where the choruses are positively Greek-like in character, declaiming as one, but with the added strength and persuasion of numbers, and often interacting with individuals as such themselves. Particularly telling were the jurymen’s rapid mood-swings, ranging from utter besottment with the female plaintiff ‘s allure to savage condemnation of her ex-partner the defendant, depending upon whichever protagonist was in their immediate sights. Both jurymen and spectators in the courtroom were, in fact, splendid in every way, the singing and acting strong and purposeful.

In “Pinafore” which followed, both groups, as sailors on board the ship, and as the First Lord of the Admiralty’s accompanying bevy of “sisters, cousins and aunts”, again relished their roles, though I thought the sailors every now and then too static and deck-bound, needing to respond with more energy to what the music was doing, as with the work’s opening chorus, “We sail the ocean blue”. The First Lord, Sir Joseph Porter’s “sister’s, cousins and aunts” were nicely “contained”, bubbling onto the ship’s deck like eager schoolgirls on a Bank Holiday outing, and amusingly irritating their illustrious benefactor and patron with their attentions. Musically, though, each group put across its music with great vim and conviction, and things came together nicely in places such as the “conspirators” scene, at the end of the first act, with stage movement and vocal energy strongly conveying the scene’s power and purpose – an amusing touch was the unexpected despatching of the rogue sailor Dick Deadeye overboard, with a Goon-Show cry of “He’s fallen in the water!”

Throughout, I was much taken with the work of the music director, Matthew Ross, in a role I hadn’t seen him perform before. Apart from a mix-up during “Pinafore” between stage and pit over Sir Joseph Porter’s pointed hesitations for his refrain, “I thought so little – they rewarded me…” this was a nicely spic-and-span orchestral realization, by turns spirited and sensitive throughout both operettas, the playing so often mirroring the theatrical action aptly and vividly. Ross couldn’t keep the solo voices ideally together during the near-polyphonic strains of “A British Tar…” but in tutti things fairly crackled along. I would have insisted on a bigger NOISE from everybody, on-stage and off with each whiplash disturbance of the lovers’ intended flight, allowing the “Goodness me…..why, what was that?” interjections to have more hushed point and menace. But in general things were beautiful judged and nicely paced, the “For he is an Englishman” having plenty of proper Victorian gravitas (with a touch of colonial humor spicing the comparisons – “…or perhaps Aus-tray-li-yan!” which brought a ripple of laughter from the stalls).

The leading roles in both works were all nicely characterized, one or two vocal insufficiencies hardly mattering in the context of the whole, even if one did long for more honeyed tenor tones in places from both lead tenors, Peter King’s somewhat papery-voiced, if charmingly-acted Defendant, and Christopher Berentson’s effortful but commendably whole-hearted Ralph Rackstraw. And David Skinner’s Learned Judge was also notable more for his compelling stage presence than clearly-focused voice production, though his portrayals by turns of bastion of justice, raconteur and opportunist all rolled into one were amusing and convincing. John Goddard as Captain Corcoran survived an awkward first entrance as a prelude to his “My gallant crew! – good morning!” – which was surely written to be declaimed from the top deck, or at the very least, the quarter-deck, instead of from somebody crowded in on the same level as his crew right from the time he opened his cabin door. He seemed more comfortable with the jollier, more robust aspects of his role, though his understanding of the poignancy of his Serenade to the moon was evident enough.

His rapport with Stephanie Gartrell’s Little Buttercup was heartwarming, to say the least. Hers was a rich and beautifully-delivered assumption, warm and sympathetic as her boat-woman character, but able to suggest by gesture and expression sufficient exotic mystery to make good her prophetic words to the Captain, “There is a change in store for you!”. Their duet “Things are seldom what they seem” was a highlight of the evening. Malinda di Leva’s Josephine was suitably bright-toned of voice and nicely poised of aspect, ready to suggest and activate the character’s depth of feeling beneath the reserve – her wholeheartedness made a marvellous contrast with the attractive kittenish vacuity of Lynley Snelling’s dolly-bird Plaintiff in “Trial”, nicely plausible and beautifully sung. Two tenors who each took to the law, with markedly different outcomes, were Kevin O’Kane, eloquent and pleasing as Counsel for the Plaintiff, and in “Pinafore” Colin Eade as the shamelessly opportunistic First Lord of the Admiralty, a colourful and successful portrayal. Derek Miller also impressed right from the outset with his sonorous tones as the Usher in “Trial” and his gift for characterization without caricature as the unfortunate sailor, Dick Deadeye.

So, with talent enough among the performers to burn, the traditional double-bill was a great success, reminding one of a number of things – the genius of the work’s creators (too readily taken for granted), the renewability of great music (able to enchant at each hearing), the excitement of live performance (with attendant thrills and spills), and the stunning clarity of the Wellington Opera House’s stage acoustic (every word sung with good diction as clear as a bell – such a joy!). The G&S Society can, in my opinion, be proud of their “latest” – moments in time well worth the shared enjoyment!

Felix the Quartet opens the Sunday series emphatically

Psathas: A Cool Wind; Sibelius: String Quartet in D minor, ‘Voces intimae’; Beethoven: String Quartet in F, Op 59 No 1

Vesa-Matti Leppänen and Rebecca Struthers (violins), Andrew Thomson (viola), Rowan Prior (cello)

Ilott Theatre, Town Hall

Sunday 26 June, 3pm

Felix the Quartet, which is drawn from string players of the NZSO, has been going for more than a decade. Former concertmaster Wilma Smith was a founding member and her place was taken by incoming concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen. If players of this calibre had been playing together as a full-time quartet over that time, I suspect the impact of their performances would be a little more uniformly well integrated and arresting then it sometimes is.

The first half of the concert, comprising Psathas’s A Cool Wind and Sibelius’s only mature quartet was somewhat unexciting, due partly to the music itself. Psathas’s piece is a subdued piece, inspired by the player of an Armenian wind instrument, the duduk. It inspired a meditative strain which persisted throughout both its sections, apart from a modest call to attention at the end of an introductory passage.

A modal character coloured a good deal of the writing, though the nasal quality of the duduk, mentioned by the composer, was scarcely audible. Hints of a Balkan melodic flavour, which may well be characteristic of the Caucasus region too, lent it an air of serious melancholy. A melody of sorts that first appeared on the first violin, passed from one instrument to another, over a pervasive rocking, two note motif; it found its most distinctive expression briefly on the viola. After the ‘call to attention’, the textures became more complex in an imperceptible, unobtrusive way, and led the listener onward without effort. I half expected the second movement to introduce a new tone, but the mood and the motifs and their accompanying devices recurred in substantially similar character, perhaps with certain modifications to the melodic ideas. Nevertheless, it provides cheering evidence of a Psathas other than a master of percussion-strong orchestral scores.

The shifting of the Sibelius quartet to the first half meant, as I remarked above, a too unrelieved melancholy quality throughout. Only the end of the last movement really raises the temperature from its series of varied but dispiriting and not very memorable melodies. That is in spite of the expectation in the scherzo-like second movement and the fourth movement, Allegretto, of greater liveliness, through their more emphatic rhythms. But the austerity of the music itself makes that difficult to achieve in spite of playing that was often on the verge of introducing more emotionally involving episodes. The heart-warming experiences of evolving, modulating ostinati that bring excitement and drama to most of the symphonies are sometimes hinted at but never realized.

The Allegro finale does inject a rather splendid stretto-style accelerando which perhaps leaves listeners with a happy impression, but for me it is too little, too late. However, I heard some appreciative remarks about the piece, and particularly about its performance, which was indeed a thoughtful and well-studied interpretation of this product of one of the more somber periods in Sibelius’s life.

The first of the three Razumovsky quartets filled the second half and seemed to me, at least, fully to have justified the whole concert. The opening bars from first violin and eventually more important cello set the tone of the entire performance, driven by high spirits, optimism, energy, and played with singular attention to detail, to dynamic nuances. The viola managed to secure some of the focus with the second subject, but that was only a passing phase as the principal theme again dominated the coda.

Though Rowan Prior’s lovely cello also opened the second movement, a more equitable distribution of responsibility followed as the first theme passes to second violin, then the viola to first violin: this is a most intriguing movement which Felix brought splendidly to life. The slow movement, in F minor, though essentially desolate in tone, the players never allowed to become less than deeply moving; at its end the first violin surreptitiously leads in to the finale. To me, the entire last movement seems to be a coda to the Adagio, never quite insisting on its own independence in spite of its sonata-form structure; it’s like a series of perorations that the composer cannot bear to allow to wind up.

For all the revelations and subtleties that the players brought to the two works in the first half, it was the Beethoven that, inevitably I guess, was the most persuasive, both as a musical masterpiece and in its performance, and it left the audience with a sense of complete fulfillment.

Romeo and Juliet – beautiful but cool from Inkinen and the NZSO

ROMEO AND JULIET – Music by Tchaikovsky, Berlioz and Prokofiev

Pietari Inkinen (conductor) / New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, June 25th, 2011

British comedians Michael Flanders and Donald Swann penned a number called “A Friendly Duet” for their successful 1960s revue At The Drop of Another Hat, a song containing references to various famous pairs of lovers in history and literature – including, of  course, Romeo and Juliet :

No romance, said Juliet,

I haven’t left school yet,

We’re friends – just friends!

Throughout much of the first half of the NZSO’s Romeo and Juliet concert, which featured the music of Tchaikovsky and Berlioz, I couldn’t help thinking of the Flanders-and-Swann song – the clean-cut, beautifully-modulated and expertly-delivered orchestral playing presided over by maestro Pietari Inkinen impressed on a great many counts, but seemed to me to keep at arm’s length what the publicity associated with the concert emphasized as its essential component – that sadly “done-to-death” concept, passion. True, the right instincts seemed to be closely associated with the venture – the programme notes for the concert spoke of “frenetic music” and “burning passion” (Tchaikovsky), and “unbridled energy” (Berlioz),  while Inkinen and the orchestra achieved in both pieces miracles of evocation and atmosphere with certain episodes, passages that took away one’s breath with the beauty and subtlety of the sounds. However, both Tchaikovsky’s and Berlioz’s music, for me, exemplify romantic expression in its totality, where beauty and subtlety vie with full-blooded extremes of feeling – and I didn’t feel those extremities were sufficiently explored. In quoting Flanders and Swann I’ve obviously exaggerated the touches of inhibition throughout the performances, but for whatever reason, the impression remains of emotion contained rather than given sufficient expressive rein.

I must say, at this point, that in the wake of the conductor’s and orchestra’s recent overwhelming performances of the Mahler Sixth Symphony, I was hoping for more along the same lines with Tchaikovsky et al., playing that expressed the music’s innate volatility and passion (that word, again!). Sadly, it didn’t fire on Saturday night in the way that the Mahler did for me – though I’ve been wondering whether Inkinen’s success with the latter work reflected more his (laudable) punctilious care regarding detail and his players’ strict observance of Mahler’s detailed directions in the score, and less any deep-seated emotional connection on his part with the music. If so, it suggests a cerebral approach to music-making – not a bad thing with music whose appeal stems mostly from its structure, logic and precise detailing, but more problematic with works that make their impact via emotional heft. That’s not to say that the thinking interpreter’s Tchaikovsky or Berlioz can’t work – but in place of the searing “muse of fire” there needs to be, in my opinion, equally razor-sharp focus of thought and action, however unromantic. That’s what I felt we got with Inkinen’s Mahler, but, sadly not sufficiently in evidence here.

What did work during the concert’s first half were a number of extremely focused moments – the fine gradations of tone and colour in the opening “Friar Laurence” section of the Tchaikovsky overture, the beautiful blend of strings and cor anglais (Michael Austin) for the first appearance of the famous “love-theme” (winds doing an equally heartfelt job of the tune’s songful repetition), and the strings” full-throated recapitulation of the theme just before the death-throes of the “star-crossed lovers”. But, expertly drilled though the fight music was, I didn’t think the orchestral flare-ups angry and incisive enough, so that the bitterness and hatred between the warring families didn’t sufficiently presage the tragedy. As for the Berlioz, I thought it odd that the selection of orchestral exerpts made here almost completely avoided the two salient themes of the story – the conflict between the families, and the lovers themselves. So instead of Berlioz’s furious and tumultuous introduction, we began with Romeo alone just before the Capulet’s Ball, and ended with one of Berlioz’s most amazing orchestral evocations, the Queen Mab Scherzo. This actually was the performance’s highlight for me, with Inkinen and his players weaving patterns of gossamer magic through which the most delicately-voiced rhythmic impulses darted this way and that, beguiling the senses with the elfin transparency of it all – a treasurable episode of pure orchestral alchemy. And what a telling evocation towards the end of the soldier’s dream of “drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes…” with deep, menacing sounds louring out of the dark! It was playing whose delight all but made amends for what I thought was a somewhat dull Capulet’s Ball, lacking that last ounce of sheer momentum, of youthful exuberance in the performance that would have readily conveyed that “unbridled energy” cited in the program notes.

In general, the Romeo and Juliet of Prokofiev fared better in Inkinen’s hands, even though the famous pungent crescendi and jagged chords introducing the Dance of the Capulet Knights were despatched quickly and sharply, the effect being taut and terse, or short-winded and literal, depending upon your point of view. I liked the savage tread of the Knights during their dance, however, magnificently underpinned by the heavy brass, and in particular the tuba (superbly played by Andrew Jarvis). The contrasting episode had little mystery and atmosphere, though – more a dancer’s than a listener’s performance. Happily, Young Juliet, which followed, was quite lovely, with solo playing to die for from clarinet (Phil Green), flute (Bridget Douglas) and ‘cello (Andrew Joyce). In fact the solo playing throughout the concert was near-impeccable – deft trumpet and oboe solos from Cheryl Hollinger and Robert Orr in the street scenes come readily to mind as do Nancy Luther’s silvery, nostalgic piccolo echoings at the very end. Again, it was the lighter, more graceful and lyrical aspects of the score that inkinen and his players more readily and successfully brought out, whereas The Death of Tybalt, though rumbustious and exciting at a certain level had no real cutting edge – more like children excitedly playing at war rather than the real, deadly thing. And what is the point of music such as this if it doesn’t convey “hurt” in the playing and listening?

Mention of the marvellous work done by the orchestra’s stellar line-up of soloists brings me to the sadness of acknowledging the last appearance on the NZSO platform of one of the greatest of them all – principal horn Ed Allen. He was appropriately farewelled by a speech from orchestral leader Vesa-Matti Leppänen which brought forth tumultuous audience applause accompanying a standing ovation for Allen, a kiss and a bouquet presented by his double-bass player partner Vicki Jones, and an affectionate hug from his conductor Pietari Inkinen. He will be greatly missed.

Medlyn and Greager Liederabend at St Andrew’s

Liederabend: A recital of Schubert, Wolf and Strauss

Margaret Medlyn and Richard Greager, accompanied by Bruce Greenfield

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University

Thursday, 23 June 2011, 7.30pm

An enthusiastic and appreciative, though not large, audience greeted these three very experienced and accomplished musicians.  It was a treat to have a substantial lieder recital like this – and only a day after senior students of the New Zealand School of Music performed lieder at St. Andrew’s on The Terrace.

The programme began with Richard Greager and Bruce Greenfield performing six of Schubert’s songs: some well-known, such as the opening An Sylvia and others less familiar.

In the carpeted Hunter Council Chamber, and with such experienced performers, the piano could be played with the lid on the long stick, in contrast to the different situation at St. Andrew’s on The
Terrace the previous day.

Greager sang An Sylvia apparently effortlessly, in most a musical performance, though perhaps lacking a little subtlety in this German translation of Shakespeare’s incomparable words.

The next song, Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren (Boatman’s song to the Dioscuri) featured the lovely darker colours of Richard Greager’s lower notes, while Greenfield brought out much in the marvellous accompaniment.  It was interesting that this and three others of the six songs featured water, a point of comment in regarding the Schubert , the previous day.

Im Frühling sounded a little prosaic – as if the singer had seen many springs.  In contrast, I found latter part of the performance a little too operatic at times for an innocent song such as this.  Nevertheless, Greager demonstrated amply how to use words as part of the musical expression, yet not interfere with the flow of the music.

Fischerweise (Fisherman’s ditty) had both performers (Greager and Greenfield) giving a thorough exposition of the words, as set by Schubert, of another watery song – in subject, not in presentation.

Auf Der Bruck (At Bruck), being about a ride on a horse, naturally had the clip-clop of horses’ hooves in the accompaniment.  It was a strong and vigorous interpretation of this demanding song, from both musicians, who reached a considerable volume, compared with some of the more contemplative songs, such as the final Schubert one, Der Jüngling an der Quelle (The youth by the spring).  This was a real contrast.  Although the tenor’s voice is perhaps not what it was, the song was performed with real artistry.  The accompaniment, as elsewhere, was very descriptive and quite beautiful, though apparently simple.

After the break we moved to Hugo Wolf’s settings of Eduard Mörike’s poems.  Wolf was far from being the only composer to set his perceptive and sensitive poetry. The music entailed a considerable change of character from that of Schubert.  Expressiveness poured from every syllable of Margaret Medlyn’s performance of Der Genesene an die Hoffunung (A convalescent’s address to hope). The clarity of the piano part was particularly notable.  Medlyn employs more facial expression and gesture than does Greager, and it seemed to me that this did not suit the songs well, nor did these songs suit her as well as did the later Strauss lieder. Richard Greager sang the following
Auf eine Wanderung (On a walk) with great liveliness.  The modulations in the piano part were largely responsible for making this a very varied song.  It was a wonderful, accompaniment,
walking quickly along with the singer; both introduced a variety of different colours.

The words of Gesang Weylas (Weyla’s song) spoke of radiance. Medlyn’s voice summoned that radiance as much as the arpeggio accompaniment did. Greager sang Der Tambour (The drummer boy); a highly wrought song that made me wonder if Wolf did not rather over-modulate, creating a fevered effect.  Greager sang the words so meaningfully that the audience was drawn in – a sign perhaps of his long experience as an opera singer.  He continued with Gebet (Prayer), which created a wonderful atmosphere through its solemnity, stillness, and four-part harmonies.

Margaret Medlyn returned with An den Schlaf (To sleep), in which the accompaniment pointed up the ambiguity of the words about sleep, dying and living.  She followed this with Elfenlied (Elf song), which featured rapid elfin-like steps in the piano part, requiring a lot of rapid finger-work.  Medlyn made the humour of the song very clear: the elf’s foolish mistakes because he had not had enough sleep.

Richard Greager’s Neue liebe (New love) in its contemplation of a relationship with God, I found rather too loud in the relatively small auditorium.

A very dramatic presentation by Margaret Medlyn of Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchens (A girl’s first love song) seemed rather too biting for a first love song; I thought it should have been rather more innocent.  Granted, it had a startling accompaniment. Questioning innocence in both the
accompaniment and in Richard Greager’s eyes featured in Peregrina I, while in Peregrina II, there was the same questing figure in the dreamy accompaniment.  The singer used his breath as an expressive device to good effect.

The final song, Im Frühling (In the Spring) had an interesting piano part, easily as important as the voice’s music.  Medlyn was in great vocal form, the subtlety of her singing matching the
subtlety of the words and music.

Now for something completely different: Richard Strauss songs, all sung by Margaret Medlyn.  As her programme note pointed out, the piano parts seemed to be ‘conceived with an orchestral palette in mind.’  Who better than Bruce Greenfield, accustomed over many years to playing orchestral reductions of operas, to be the accompanist? Befreit (Release) had the singer carry the lines forward most beautifully.  The third verse, about being freed from sorrow at the death of the spouse, was very emotional, and very well sung.  The next was a more straightforward song: Gefunden (Found).  Like the other Strauss songs, this suited Medlyn.  This one gave lovely opportunity for her to journey through her vocal range.

In Blindenklage (Blind man’s lament) a dramatic song, I found Medlyn’s acting out the drama with gesture a little hard to watch; I would have preferred less gesture.  Greenfield displayed masterful playing of these difficult Strauss scores.

Mit deinen blauen Augen (With your blue eyes) was sung quite beautifully, and was a welcome pause between the two highly dramatic and fervent songs around it.  It was much simpler melodically and in the piano part, but quite delightful.  As elsewhere, Medlyn sang with emotional generosity.

Finally, we had Frühlinsfeier (Spring celebration).   The conflicting emotions portrayed were emphasised with switches between major and minor tonalities.  This made for complicated music, and operatic-style anguish.  The final sensational lines on the death of Adonis was an appropriate point of finality at which to end the recital.

This was a beautifully put-together programme of contrasting composers’ settings of fine poetry.  The singers used the printed scores for the most part.  But this in no way inhibited their fine performances.  The printed programmes contained translations of all the songs – and it was good to see the translators credited as well as the poets. 

The singers had also provided interesting notes about each of the three composers and their songs.  Illustrations comprised portraits of the three composers, and two apt paintings by Caspar Friedrich (1774-1840).  The recital represented  a tour de force on the part of accompanist par excellence, Bruce Greenfield.




















Talented students in wonderful Lieder recital

Lunchtime Lieder : a concert of German Romantic songs by Mendelssohn, Schubert, Brahms

Bridget Costello and Amelia Ryman (sopranos), Kieran Rayner and Thomas Barker (baritones), Martin Ryman (piano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 22 June 2011, 12.15pm

With an interesting programme, this concert had added appeal for the opportunity to hear and see students from the New Zealand School of Music performing lieder.

So much the better that the singers were accompanied by an accompanist marked by sensitive and musical playing; the piano lid being on the short stick seemed just right when the accompanying was in the hands of Martin Ryman.

A first impression from the opening Mendelssohn duet, ‘Gruss’, sung by the two women, was the good projection of the voices and the excellent German words. I have an old and treasured, recording of Victoria de los Angeles and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing this duet with Gerald Moore accompanying. It would be hard to say that these young women were inferior!

The men sang ‘Wasserfahrt’ by the same composer as their duet. This introduced the subject of water, which was the theme of about half the songs on the programme. Rayner and Barker both have robust, well-produced voices. They made both these songs really alive.

We then turned to Schubert, beginning with the well-known ’Wohin?’ (surely ‘Whither?’ is a more poetic, if slightly archaic, translation than ‘Where to?’?). Kieran Rayner’s excellent diction and projection were complemented by lovely dynamic shading. A couple of times he sang a tiny bit sharp, but overall it was a great performance; he could teach some more experienced singers about enunciation.

I was pleased to find such an emphasis on getting the words over, and providing the meaning to the audience from very good programme notes, written by the performers. Some lieder singers (and audiences) think it’s all about music and melody, whereas lieder is a marriage between poetry and music. The music conveys the meaning of the words; it is not there just to make a lovely sound. Hence my dislike of being plunged into the dark, or semi-dark at some concerts, so that the words or the programme notes cannot be read. It would have been great to have had the words printed in full, but good programme notes are the next best thing.

‘Am Feierabend’ (not ‘Fierabend’ as in the programme) was Rayner’s next song. He characterised well the young apprentice lad, and then changed his tone and mode of delivery to be the master miller, most effectively.

Amelia Ryman sang ‘Im Frühling’ very feelingly. She has a clear voice and varies her expressiveness appropriately.

Thomas Barker followed with ‘Der Schiffer’ (The Boatn’), with great vigour. This was the only song where the performer had to rely to some extent on the printed music. Martin Ryman brought out the busy accompaniment superbly, as elsewhere.

Bridget Costello returned to sing the beautiful ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’. This was not quite so satisfactory. The note couplets were frequently rushed, and not made distinct as in the accompaniment. It’s great to get the consonants over clearly, but they should not cut up the legato of a song as they did here.

‘Am bach im Frühling’ was given very characterful singing by Thomas Barker, and his German pronunciation was excellent. Consonants were given their place, but they were not overdone.

The singers took a break while Martin Ryman played Brahms’s Intermezzo Op.118 no.2. It was delightful to hear one of these shorter piano pieces – and one of such charm; piano recitals tend to be made up of more substantial works.

Now we were in Brahms territory, and Bridget Costello was next up, to sing his Lament ‘Ach mir fehlt’. Consonants were not a problem this time. Some movement of the arms and legs seemed unnecessary to me (I known there are more than one school of thought about this semi-acting of lieder.) Altogether, the song was tellingly performed.

Now for a really humorous song, which could take its little bit of acting from Amelia Ryman: ‘Vergebliches Ständchen’, translated here as ‘The vain suit’. Nevertheless, most of the meaning and characterisation came through the voice. There was occasional variability of intonation, but it was slight, and the voice itself was very secure.

The concert ended with a quartet by Schubert: ‘Der Tanz’. It was a vigorous finale to a wonderful programme.

The voice students of the New Zealand School of Music seem to get better and better each year. They obviously have talent and work hard, and show what first-class teaching they receive.

The good attendance demonstrates that audiences want to hear lieder – many of the people were not St. Andrew’s ‘regulars’. Let’s have more!

Top German Youth Choir on tour – revelations

Youth choir concert: Christophorus-Kantorei from Germany

Tawa College Hall

7.30pm, Monday, 20 June 2011

Christophorus Kantorei is a choir from a high school in Altensteig in the Black Forest in Germany. The choir has become renowned for its excellence, and the singers tour overseas every four years. Our good fortune was that at present two of the 60 singers are from Tawa, while their father, who organised this tour, works in Germany.

The conductor, Michael Nonnenmann, is a tall, genial gentleman, who had the singers at the tips of his fingers. With the choir and their conductor (all of whom are billeted locally while on their New Zealand tour) were their voice trainer, a tenor, and his wife, a pianist and organist. As well as these tours to other countries, the choir sings many times each year in Germany, has won many international competitions and made numerous CDs.

The choir has a large and very varied repertoire; out of an extensive list of works in the printed programme, in which the German items were translated into English, a selection of 19 was performed, all a capella.

First up was William Byrd’s ‘Sing Joyfully’, one of quite a number of items in English. (As well as German and English, we heard items in Latin, French and Maori). Immediately one was struck by the very clear but full-toned sound, the immaculate rhythm and how all the singers started and stopped absolutely together. The voices were well produced and resonant.

After a short item in Latin by Viadana, we heard a very effective and dramatic piece by Rudolf Mauersberger, written after the destruction of the beautiful city of Dresden toward the end of World War II. The words were taken from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, but were utterly apt for the desolation left by the bombers. The choir began with an appropriate covered, mournful tone. The singing was very precise, and there were some very fine solo verses.

‘Laudate Omnes Gentes’ by Jacques Berthier, who died in 1994, followed. For this piece the singers were spread round the perimeter of the hall. A solo soprano started and others joined in, part by part, from memory. Its simple repeated phrases led my companion to surmise that it was a Taizé chant, and Wikipedia confirms that the composer wrote much for the Taizé community. It was followed by a very gentle ‘Notre Père’ by Maurice Duruflé, also sung from memory. The singing was well forward in the mouth, and the balance, as elsewhere, was splendid. The piece featured delicate pianissimo singing of great beauty.

I did not know the name Z. Randall Stroope, but he is a contemporary American composer, and ‘The Conversion of Saul’ is a very recent work. The choir rearranged itself for this song, and for many of the items; sometimes this was done in less than a smooth, well-organised way. The piece’s words described Saul’s mission before his conversion “Murder, harass, bind into chains”; these were set in most dramatic fashion, at first in what sounded to me like mediaeval Latin (reminiscent of language in Orff’s Carmina Burana.) There was plenty of fortissimo and emphasis.

This was followed by a ‘Kyrie’ not found in the printed programme. It was apparently by a modern composer, and demonstrated well the choir’s great control of dynamics, and its exquisite tone. Here, the wonderful blend of the choir was especially on show, and the strong movement between chords, which included many discords. The unanimity of sound was achieved by all vowels being absolutely matched; never tight, but open sounds. This was not through unnecessarily wide open mouths, but by the careful shaping of sounds and the use of resonance.

Not every choir sings so well when singing loudly, but here it was excellent, as in the next item ‘Daemon Irrepit Callidus’ by György Orbàn, a Romanian contemporary composer. This started with staccato singing, later alternating with legato. In the men’s solos I heard almost the only slight lapse from good tone and intonation. Generally, the excellence, liveliness, and total commitment of the choir members were exemplary, given that this was their eighth concert around the North Island in nine days. There will be one on each of the next three days; one day off, then three more!

One of the longer pieces came next: ‘Warning to the Rich’ by Thomas Jennefelt, a Swedish composer, written in 1977. This was in English, but it was very useful to have the words printed. It employed sprechgesang (ironic to use a German term for a performance in English by a German choir!) or speak-singing. At the beginning, it was in whispered tones, becoming louder from the men, while the women changed to an Aw sound from their earlier humming. In the second verse all sang the words; later there was sprechgesang again. This was not the only item to make great technical demands, but the singers knew the work very well, and most glanced at their printed scores only occasionally. It was an extremely telling and thrilling work, based on verses from the New Testament: James chapters 4 and 5.

There was no interval as such (we could have done with time to stretch the legs, being seated on school plastic chairs), although the choir had a break. During it, the choir’s voice tutor, Eberhard Schuler-Meybier, a tenor, sang lieder, to his wife Susanne’s excellent piano accompaniment. It was wonderful to hear the opening few songs and a later one from Robert Schumann’s cycle Dichterliebe. Unfortunately we seldom hear lieder these days. I’m told it’s true of big cities like London also, not just Wellington. These songs were preceded by a German setting of ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, and followed by Schubert’s famous ‘The Trout’. The tenor has a fine voice if not the smoothest tone, and communicated the songs well, singing the words sensitively. The higher notes in ‘The Trout’ were a little strident at fortissimo.

Shorter items followed in the second half, which began with Ward Swingle’s exciting arrangement of ‘Pastime with good company’. One young man imitated a shawm while all processed in. All items in this half were sung without the scores.

Next was ‘Il est bel et bon’, a delightful sixteenth century piece which incorporated some ‘choralography’ (choreography for singers; a term I learnt at The Big Sing ten days ago), as did many of the items in this half.

Two German folksongs were similarly treated to actions, and were sung in very lively and interesting arrangements. ‘Als wir jüngst in Regensburg waren’ was very rhythmic, with tricky timing. The young woman from the choir who announced the items gave us the ‘low-down’ on the story of this song, which involved quite a lot of acting on the part of the choir.

Mike Brewer is a British choral conductor who has visited New Zealand many times; his intriguing arrangement of ‘Pokarekare ana’, was a pleasure to hear. Even if all the vowels were not quite Maori, the choir members all made them the same way, resulting in their usual purity of tone.

We then visited the USA for Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, which was sung in an authentic American accent and manner, solo and all.

Now for some humour: ‘Short People’ by Randy Newman, arranged by English choral conductor and former King’s Singer Simon Carrington (in New Zealand eighteen months ago for ‘Sing Aotearoa’ in Rotorua) was very slick, incorporating two male soloists, and entered into fully by choir and audience, thanks to very clear words.

The concert ended with some magic: ‘The magic paint brush’ by contemporary Danish composer John Høybye, a brilliant, intricate piece, superbly sung, incorporating a lot of clapping, slapping and stamping, and ‘Magic Song’ by Ray Murray Schafer (a prolific Canadian composer, born in 1933), which incorporated a lot of different techniques, both vocal and physical.

Finally, a hotly demanded encore: Moses Hogan’s quite complex arrangement of ‘Joshua fit the battle of Jericho’ sung with huge energy and style.

It is a pity there was not a larger audience to hear this superb concert, especially that there were not many more students from Tawa College, whose choirs did so well very recently in the Wellington Region Big Sing. They could have been inspired and educated by hearing such accomplished choral singers as the members of Christophorus-Kantorei.

If you are in Wellington and read this in time, do go to St. Peter’s Church on Willis Street Tuesday, 21 June at 7.30pm, when the choir will perform again. Or hear the choir in Nelson, 22 June; Blenheim, 23 June; Dunedin, 25 June; Timaru, 26 June; Christchurch, 27 June.

Diedre Irons – piano pleasures at Waikanae


– presented by the Waikanae Music Society Inc.

BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata in C Op.2 No.3

CHOPIN – 2 Nocturnes Op.27 / Fantasy in F Minor

WHITEHEAD – Tūmanako: Journey through an unknown landscape

RAVEL – Le Tombeau de Couperin

Memorial Hall, Waikanae

Sunday 19th June 2011

To describe Diedre Irons’ piano playing as “thoroughly engaging” might seem to some too much of an all-purpose, over-generalized comment, out-of-step with more serious analysis of the kind one associates with a “proper” review. However, I think this quality of engagement is intrinsic to any discussion of a musician’s work as a performer in front of an audience. Irons seems incapable of playing a mechanical or dissociated phrase, so that for me it seems to all flow like life-blood, activating and sustaining for the listener whole worlds of feelings, ideas, impulses and actions.

In my ideal world I would want to hear Diedre Irons play all the Beethoven piano sonatas – I know that the great Rachmaninov once said that he didn’t play many of these works because “the Beethoven sonatas contain everything, and no one pianist can play everything”…..but I’ve often thanked my lucky stars that musicians such as Schnabel, Kempff, Arrau, and Barenboim (and, of course, our own Michael Houstoun), to name but a few, have ignored Rachmaninov’s dictum and performed them all, both in public and on record. Yes, Rachmaninov was right, in the sense that, as Artur Schnabel famously said, “These are works that are better than can ever be played”, and any pianist who essays the complete set of them has to cover an enormous technical, intellectual and emotional range of responses. But it can be done most rewardingly, and on the evidence of Irons’ playing for us the delicious C Major Op.2 No.3 Sonata with what seemed like a comprehensive grasp of the work’s expressive possibilities, I would welcome hearing more from her – in fact, as many as she wants to play.

Within just a few measures of the music’s opening, Irons had generously given us as many shades of expression as would a gifted Shakespearean actor on stage in one of the plays. Each note took on a meaning of its own, the phrases enlivened, the paragraphs taking us on a journey whose course featured many details of continuity and contrast, as befitted the work of a young, and wanting-to-impress composer. Irons brought forth warm, enthusiastic accents rather than overtly muscular contrasts, so that the music often smiled, and the minor-key exertions sallied forth beneath a firm, but elastic touch. Towards the end of the movement, from the recitative-like passages came an adroitly-pedalled foretaste of both the Tempest and Waldstein Sonatas, the pianist bringing out the work’s connections within a more widely-spanned context in a totally natural and unforced way.

The remainder of the sonata similarly enchanted us – a guarded, somewhat understated second-movement opening grew towards a marriage of delicacy and resonance, the right-handed figurations dancing over the step-wise columns rising from the bass regions; while Irons nicely contrasted the third movement’s interplay of mischievous and vertiginous trajectories with those wonderfully rolling arpeggiations in the trio. Contrast was also the order of the day for the finale, the gentle playfulness of Irons’ delivery of the opening a perfect foil for the grand and heroic second subject – a case of humor and delicacy alternating with bigger-boned statements, culminating in a teasing coda and a grand-slam final payoff!

Chopin’s two Op.27 Nocturnes which followed gave an impression of being two different “takes” of a similar view, a night-and-day contrast, for example, the C-sharp Minor all half-lit suggestiveness under Irons’ fingers, a shade exotic in its lyrical character, the opening sharply brought into focus with urgent toccata-like chordings, whose impulses of energy dissipate almost as rapidly as they rise up, allowing a “homecoming” coda of great beauty to steal in over the final bars. No such exoticisms trouble the second Nocturne in D-flat, whose more overly vocal lines describe an archway of melodic beauty and intensity, echoed by a “dying fall” as affecting in its way as its companion’s. Both works were here brought to life, not only as companions but as entities in themselves.

Insightful programming had the great Fantasy in F Minor placed after the two Nocturnes, with the audience taking up its cue and allowing the pianist an unbroken path towards the new work’s first sounds – the expectant tread of the opening in keeping with the composer’s intention of taking his listeners to the heart of a world of spontaneously-conceived feeling and incident. Very much like a Polish version of the Hungarian “lassu” at the beginning, the Fantasy then sweeps into and through episodes of vivid storytelling, Irons revelling in particular episodes such as the “storm and stress” arpeggiated flourishes, some magical arabesques of transformation, and then a hymn-like, almost devotional rapture, the whole quite Lisztian in its range and scope, though still Chopinesque in accent throughout.

I’d heard Gillian Whitehead’s Tūmanako: Journey through an unknown landscape on a previous occasion, at the “Sounztender” concert in May of last year, played by the same pianist. In a concert with established classics, the piece took on a different “feeling” for me to what it did on the previous occasion when played alongside some of its contemporaries. This time round the music seemed to me more abstract in effect than before, the result, perhaps, of my bringing some kind of expectation to the performance of the “we’ve heard the sounds – now, how well do they cohere?” variety. At the outset there were vast spaces, created as much by wide leaps between resonating notes as by the frequent silences, from which came various impressions of fleeting encounters, cascades of bitter-sweet arpeggiations, chordal evocations, cries of birds and other nature sounds, both tumbling downwards and taking flight. In places I felt a sense of reverence and an awareness of ritual, a feeling advanced by full-throated, bell-like soundings of things paying a kind of homage to a state of being, and an activation of the spirit.

A different kind of evocation came from Ravel in his Le Tombeau de Couperin, a tribute from one French master to the work of another. It took me a while to get onto the performance’s wavelength, to my surprise – although Irons played the Prelude with suitably motoric impulse, the dynamic terracings for me somehow lacked light and shade, the hall’s lack of resonance perhaps to blame for an ambience more clear-eyed than atmospheric. Only with the deliciously bitter-sweet Forlane did I begin to make connections with it all, increasingly beguiled by the changing faces of the music’s droll, but suggestive “revolve”. Irons gave the Rigadoun’s opening plenty of jack-in-the-box energy, nudging the succeeding trio episode along, with its deliciously “limping” rhythms, before the opening orchestrally crashes back. And nowhere was Ravel’s wistful mix of artifice and feeling more beautifully conveyed by Irons than in the Menuet’s astringent strains, the mask hiding the composer’s true feelings never more apparent. I thought the pianist resisted the blandishments of sheer virtuosity with the concluding Toccata, her rhythmic trajectories instead enabling the piece’s tempo fluctuations to grow out of one another and have a cumulative effect of energy and brilliance.

A Debussy piece to finish help return us to our lives – the audience’s appreciation of and regard for Diedre Irons’ playing was, at the end, a pleasure to join in with.

NZSM viola students shine at St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

String students of the New Zealand School of Music – mainly viola students of Gillian Ansellof the New Zealand String Quartet

St Andrews’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 15 June, 12.15pm

The interest of these concerts from students rests as much with the experience of hearing gifted though partly-formed players, as with hearing music that is rarely heard at ordinary concerts. I sometimes hear somewhat condescending critical remarks from people who see concerts as opportunities to display their own knowledge and imagined refined taste and discernment.  The real pleasure however lies in the revelations that one can derive from listening sympathetically to performances that are a little less than perfect or ideal in terms of technique, style and interpretative overview.  They often throw more light on the nature of a piece than a performance that’s perfect.

One of the two familiar pieces on the programme was part of a Bach cello suite – the Prelude and Allemande from the Third Suite in C, arranged for viola. Naturally, the opening phrases arrived as a surprise, no matter how much one was prepared for it (and I had heard the suites played on the viola before).  For some reason, the tone was bolder and more strongly projected that I’d expected, a matter of the character of the instrument played by Vincent Hardaker, as much as his particular view of the music, which may have continued at a more uniform dynamic level and tempo than was ideal. However (he played from memory) it was polished, accurate pitch-wise and elegant in its articulation. He allowed a little more dynamic variety in the Allemande, which was also characterised by a feeling of determination, still displaying signs of the rigorous effort that lay behind its mastery.

There were a couple of concerto excerpts from Mozart contemporaries.  Hoffmeister was a friend of Mozart’s while Karl Stamitz emerged from the family that had created the famous Mannheim court orchestra in the middle of the 18th century and which Mozart hugely admired and whose orchestral characteristics profoundly influenced him.

Hoffmeister was not merely a musical friend of Mozart; his name is perhaps better remembered, attached to the K 499 string quartet that he published.  He composed many concertos for many instruments. Alice McIvor played the first two movements of his viola concerto in D, accompanied by Douglas Mews. With the score before her, her playing was fluent and the handling of ornaments relaxed and artless. Her cadenza was confirmation of her basic musical sense, where any slight intonation flaws were a small price to pay for a charming and proficient performance.

The piano introduction to the Stamitz viola concerto served to demonstrate the debt in terms of idiom and style that Mozart owed to his older contemporary, though not in sheer musical inventiveness and beauty. Megan Ward played only the first movement, with surprising ease, meeting its technical challenges stylishly.

The other familiar piece was the first movement of Brahms’s first sonata (for clarinet or viola) Op 120, No 1. I have tended to feel that these two beautiful sonatas of Brahms live more vividly on the clarinet, and here indeed, Leoni Wittchou’s viola sounded somewhat subdued alongside the piano part. Nevertheless, her playing was very engaging, emotionally varied, allowing its calm and languorous qualities to be relished.

The only item that was not primarily for the viola was Dohnanyi’s Serenade in C, Op 10, which has become somewhat popular on account of the rather small repertoire for the string trio, and its intrinsic qualities.   I seem to have heard it several times, most recently at the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson and from the Antipodes Trio during the St Andrew’s season of concerts in March (both reviewed on this website).

Alice McIvor returned, after Douglas Mews (without any assistance from students!) had rearranged seats and music stands, with violinist Lydia Harris and cellist Anna-Marie Alloway to play three movements. While the opening Allegro is a bit clunky (to use an unprofessional term), the Romanza and the fourth movement have considerable charm. Though the viola part was very competent and produced some lovely expressive playing in the Romanza, the player who caught my ear at many points was the cellist; in the opening passage her playing was surprisingly subdued, but when the cellist’s role was to lead, a player of great sensibility and easy accomplishment emerged.

The fourth movement is a Theme and Variations where all three players demonstrated technical skill, interpretive insight and impressive musical maturity.

No real allowances had to be made to enjoy the music in this recital, very much testimony to Gillian Ansell’s mentoring, on its own terms.

Innovative, impressive concert by Brentano Quartet

Chamber Music New Zealand

Renaissance pieces by Byrd and Gibbons (arranged for string quartet by Mark Steinberg): Haydn: String Quartet in D minor Op.103; Haydn: Chorale, Der Greis, Hob. XXVc:5 (arranged for string quartet by Mark Steinberg); Hartke: Night Songs for a Desert Flower; Beethoven: String Quartet no.15 in A minor Op. 132

Brentano String Quartet (Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violins, Misha Amory, viola, Nina Lee, cello)

Wellington Town Hall

Sunday, 12 June 2011, 5.00pm

The first surprise in this concert was that the quartet was to play arrangements of works for voices by Byrd and Gibbons. Never fear, this was no romantic send-up; the musicians played their instruments as if they were viols. The lack of vibrato and the method of bowing made them sound like authentic instruments of the composers’ time. As Mark Steinberg’s programme note pointed out, playing from a chest of viols was a pastime indulged in by Elizabethan friends, and vocal music must have often been played in this way in private homes.

The simpler, more austere plainchant-based Byrd works contrasted with the freer, inventive Fantasias of Gibbons. Their more active, dance-like quality was most enjoyable. It was delightful to hear these works in a ‘regular’ concert. They were tuneful, sprightly and thoughtful by turns.

An interesting facet was that Steinberg held his violin more like the usual way a treble viol is held, throughout the concert – but he gets a wondrous sound, in no way restricted or less than full.

The quartet as a whole makes a splendid sound. A quote form a review in 2010: “Their tones match perfectly, and they play seamlessly – handing off melodies to one another so that you can’t tell where one instrument stops and the next starts. They play as if listening to one heartbeat.” The most distinctive sound in the group was the viola, played by Misha Amory. His rich, bewitching sound had character and depth.

‘Der Greis’ (the old man), is a song that Haydn wrote late in his life. At the informative pre-concert talk by Kate Mead of Radio New Zealand Concert, we were told (also in the programme notes) that Haydn had recently had a line of the song printed on his visiting cards, saying that he was old and weak. The lines of the text were also printed at the end of the second movement of the Op. 103 quartet, hence their inclusion in tonight’s printed programme. Another symptom of his age was that he could not manage to write the more demanding first and last movements of the quartet, but we can feel very glad that he sent the two completed movements to his publisher, for they are inventive, and full of interesting and enjoyable music.

The slow movement of this quartet could be a Renaissance mass, played on the viola, while the menuetto featured agreeable contrasts, and both were played with gorgeous tone. The slow chorale that followed was magically still and quiet, with little decoration; instead it was spare and peaceful.

However, this is not the sombre music of an old man; it is mainly fresh and cheerful, like so much of Haydn’s music. These players found the essence of Haydn – robust and delicate by turns, with no nuance missed. Vibrato was used subtly. This was the complete ensemble, in every sense. It was a wonderfully satisfying performance of a thoroughly satisfying work of musical genius.

Hartke’s music is somewhat Messiaen-like. It is harmonically interesting and adventurous throughout, but always musical. While undoubtedly contemporary music, the piece was very accessible. It began with a very attractive high-pitched opening with flowing, intertwining lines. Indeed, much of the work was in the higher register for all the instruments.

The first movement, Madrigal (allegretto grazioso ed amoroso) used harmonics, first on the second violin contrasting with the low tones of the viola and cello. Later, there were harmonics on the viola, which had a wonderfully sweet tone, and on the other instruments. Here, as elsewhere, there was much sensitive playing.

The second movement was titled ‘Lament (mesto)’. The latter word means sad, sorrowful, dejected. It was a lament all right, beautifully played.

Next was ‘Intermezzo (lontano, dolcissimo)’ Lontano means distant, remote, as indeed desert flowers are for most of us. It began with a sublime cello solo. Nina Lee produced a lovely sound from her cello, not a deep and throaty sound, but one which blended beautifully with the other instruments.

Finally, there was ‘Réjouissance (allegro vivace)’, French for rejoicing. This was a technically demanding movement, with much use of ponticello (playing near the bridge) and col legno (playing with the wood of the bow – for which the musicians provided themselves with their second-best bows). These were not techniques for their own sake, but were part of the joyous dance that comprised most of the movement.

Despite the titles, the work was not excessively emotional in character, but delightfully attractive.

Beethoven’s late quartets are probably the mightiest in the whole chamber music repertoire. One of the first things I noticed was that the Brentano String Quartet are not afraid of pianissimo. The solemn opening of the first movement demonstrated their sensitive playing and their perfect ensemble. The viola particularly had a beautifully rich, intense sound in solo passages. But obviously all four are in great accord.

The second movement was played with clarity and distinction.

In the third movement, molto adagio, the music had reverential intensity – a quiet, still and slow chorale, austere yet rich, spare and ascetic yet monumental. There was little vibrato to relieve the direct message of this music in the Lydian mode, which made its long-drawn-out music harmonically interesting. Some phrases were almost sweet agony. It was sparingly impassioned; the players let the music speak for itself.

Despite the comparative brevity of the fourth movement march, there was a lot of contrast packed into it. A solo passage for violin was very impressive, revealing a very warm tone from Mark Steinberg.

The allegro appassionato finale was played with-energy plus, to make an exhilarating end to this marvellous work.

One does not always want an encore after something as magnificent as the Beethoven quartet, but on the other hand, the audience was eager not to let the musicians go. They gave us a Dvořák waltz, Op. 54, which was charming and lively.

We revelled in an impressive and satisfying concert.

Triumphant Mahler Six from Inkinen and NZSO

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen

Symphony No 6 in A minor by Gustav Mahler

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 10 June, 6 .30pm

The absence of a notable soloist usually leads to a less well populated auditorium, but clearly the name Mahler works like a famous composer and a star soloist rolled into one. There were a few gaps, to be sure, and I speculate that they would have been filled if the orchestra had not abandoned its ‘senior rush’, discounted late ticket selling policy.

Audience expectations were high, and they were not disappointed.

In brief, this was a magnificent, world-class performance that would have inspired a standing ovation in most of the great musical centres of the world. Wellington audiences are shy: fear of standing up, alone: but here a brave first one would have had the whole house up in a flash.

The orchestra had been augmented by additional players, some, I gathered, from Christchurch. About 116 in all; it is the biggest of all Mahler’s symphonies in terms of instrumental demands, not only in the range of instruments but also in player numbers: nine horns, six various trumpets, five flutes and piccolo, double timpani and harps; and I counted more in some strings sections than were listed in the programme. There were several less familiar items: celeste and tubular bells, a brace of cowbells that were carried through the aisles in stalls and gallery; Mahler’s use of percussion, though impressive in 1906, is hardly radical in comparison with their exploitation in recent times . The pièce de résistance was a specially acquired mighty hammer and solid wood drum that delivered the famous three strokes of fate in the last movement.

Such was the scene that greeted the audience – the entire stage and the raised levels behind the strings packed with players and equipment.

Apart from the scale of the piece, both in numbers of players and duration – almost and hour and a half – there are musicological matters. Mahler’s works were not subject to the numbers of published versions of his symphonies such as occupy the attention of Bruckner scholars studying the various published versions of many of his 11 symphonies, but Mahler’s Sixth had its birth difficulties.

In the course of rehearsals before the premiere at Essen in 1906, Mahler changed the order of the second and third movements, so the Andante came before the Scherzo. According to Wikipedia, he took that change so seriously that he had erratum slips inserted in the existing published score and ordered his Leipzig publisher to produce a revised edition to take account of the changed Andante – Scherzo order.

But the editor of the International Mahler Society’s edition of 1963 claimed that Mahler had again changed his mind, settling for the Scherzo – Andante sequence; and so there are two justifiable versions in use now. Michael Kennedy, in the booklet essay accompanying Simon Rattle’s 1990 account with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, says: “But no evidence to support this assertion has ever been presented”.

And it is interesting that the latest edition of New Grove Dictionary of Music simply states that the Andante was “originally presented as the third movement but subsequently relocated as the second”.

I have that Rattle recording in which the Andante is first, and have to confess that I find it more emotionally and structurally persuasive to hear the Andante straight after the first movement.

Wikipedia lists the performances by leading conductors using each edition. More have used the Scherzo-Andante version but many, including Abbado, Jansons, Ivan Fischer, Barenboim, Gergiev, Maazel and Slatkin have performed the Andante-Scherzo version. Inkinen is listed in the former camp (Wikipedia presumably listed him on the strength of the cancelled performance with the Japan Philharmonic earlier this year; this was Inkinen’s first performance of it). 

Kennedy also records the fact that Mahler had deleted the third of the three hammer-blows, at the end of the Finale: superstition that it might be prophetic – of his own death. But there is no musical reason for conductors to do likewise, and presumably few have.

Reviewers often allege that the Town Hall provides a more balanced and responsive acoustic for music of most kinds, and it’s possible that we might have had a more uniform sound picture there, but the general impact of this performance in the Michael Fowler Centre, no holds barred, left nothing to complain about. I can imagine no more arresting and full-throated opening: a complete vindication of the size and weight of the strings – well over the normal 60 – in which timpani, cellos and basses lent their vital power along with the lower brass and woodwinds. The onset of the throbbing rhythms of the opening march clearly presaged the irresistible energy that characterised the whole performance; nor were the beautiful lyrical passages less characteristic – the gentle portrait of Alma soon follows, after the strange subsidence from the sour brass chords.

There is no great contrast between the unrelenting Allegro energico, the first movement, and the opening of the second movement, Scherzo, which starts with a comparable heavy tread, now in triple time, soon plunges darkly into growling Fafner-like (Siegfried) bass sounds, but later offers brief oboe-led lyrical moments; though even these are punctuated by hard timpani. Here, with clarinets raised to cry to the farthest reaches of the hall, the orchestra caught marvelously the alternating gracefulness and ominous shadows which Alma took to represent the ‘unrhythmic games’ of their two little children (though the second, Anna, was born only in 1904). “Ominously,” she writes, “the childish voices became more and more tragic, and at the end died out in a whimper”.

In many ways, regardless of the underlying autobiographical nature of the narrative, the symphony is one of Mahler’s more formally traditional works, without voices and without an overt programme or philosophical subtext. But it is also a massive concerto for orchestra, and one could easily spend the hour and a half attending to nothing but the memorable and surprising flourishes and fanfares, defiant outbursts and agonized lyrical passages given to innumerable, arresting, individual and groups of instruments. No sooner is there a cry of alarm or some mark of the inevitability of fate than relief arrives from the flutes or celeste, or from an expression of nature in the shape of cowbells.

The scale of the music is so huge that when one first encounters it, and this was my early experience, it is easy to feel it as an incoherent series of motifs that seem to progress without much of a plan other than the composer’s momentary impulse.

Mahler wrote to a friend in 1904, as he was in the midst of composition: “My sixth will present riddles to the solution of which only a generation that has absorbed and digested my first five symphonies will dare apply itself”.

The Andante moderato needs no special insight perhaps, as it is much closer in spirit to the glorious slow movements of the fourth and fifth symphonies. Why, in spite of its pervasive melancholy, it has not been accorded the privileged position of the Adagietto of the Fifth mystifies me. The cowbells return; strings are at their most rich and opulent; Ed Allen plays rapturous horn solos, surrounded by magical flutes and oboes.

The last movement’s enigmatic opening, alternating calm beauty with flourishes by harps and the ominous murmurings by the tuba and low woodwinds set the scene. If I found the argument hard to follow at first hearing when I was young, there is now an inevitability that I find very clear, and the undulating dynamics and tempi of the shimmering orchestral colours as they were so vividly and excitingly laid out on Friday evening, had me spellbound for the full half hour.

Yet the score seems so full of graphic detail (Strauss suggested to Mahler that it might have been ‘over-scored’) that one must be forgiven for seeking the ‘meaning’ of many passages in this movement. The more clarity and energy that a conductor such as Inkinen brings to it, unusual sonorities from single harp strings, screaming trumpets, nasal oboes, the more likely are such questions to arise. This movement’s final peroration seems to start about seven or eight minutes from the actual end: it’s no mean feat for a conductor to convince his audience that every rise and fall in temperature, ever pseudo-climax, from which tactical retreat for regrouping is undertaken, all makes sense.

But it did.

And there was no avoiding the meaning of the three hammer blows, the last surrounded by the most real, despairing, defiant peroration of all.

How lucky we are to have an orchestra, built on over 60 years of commitment and experience, and well-enough endowed to permit the performance of such magnificent works that are so central to the understanding of civilization: not just of the west, but of all mankind.