Seven Strings by Candlelight: New Zealand String Quartet plus 3 at St Mary of the Angels

John Psathas: Kartsigar (2004); Dvořák: String Quintet in G, Op 77; Strauss: Metamorphosen for string septet

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman, Gillian Ansell, Rolf Gjelsten) plus Julia Joyce (viola), Andrew Joyce (cello), Hiroshi Ikematsu (double bass).

Church of St Mary of the Angels

Friday 30 September, 6.30pm

Imaginative programming can often bring surprising results.

Candlelight in a beautiful church is a certain winner through producing a spiritual atmosphere, especially if timed so that the evanescent sunlight through the stained glass fades in the course of the first half hour. As for the programme, all three pieces had been played before by the quartet; Metamorphosen at the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson in February this year, and Kartsigar at a 2005 Sunday concert from the Wellington Chamber Music Society (who had commissioned the work). The Dvořák String Quintet was played in a Sunday afternoon concert in May 2009.

Together they were an interesting collection of out-of-the-way chamber music, either on account of the instrumentation or the composer.

Psathas’s two-part piece has an unusual provenance – by origin a transcription of recorded performances by two Greek musicians, Manos Achalinotopoulos and Vangelis Karipis. (Psathas’s own programme note refers to the first surname which can be translated as ‘he who cannot be bridled’ – I find the adjective ‘achalinotos’,  in my Modern Greek dictionary, meaning unbridled or uncontrolled). That quality could hardly apply to this piece which is a very finely crafted composition with nothing outlandish or out of control.

Those, like myself, who have had a long love affair with the popular music of Greece, which I think pinnacled in the 1960s, would not have recognized those characteristics in this piece which has its roots, I imagine, in sources that may be much older, more primitive and at the same time more sophisticated than the music of Theodorakis, Hajidakis or Xacharchos.

It starts with deliberate cello pizzicato, quickly joined by second violin and viola playing a distinctly Anatolian, modal melody, in unison or at the octave. All four instruments soon become involved, each with a distinct role, and these distinctions were sharply delineated by the quartet, Gillian’s viola often throaty, suggesting a Greek folk instrument perhaps, Douglas Beilman’s second violin luxuriating in seductively warm sounds, each contributing a strand of the hypnotic, meandering chant that continued underpinned by Gjelsten’s cello throughout.

Psathas’s note points to an ostinato motif that opens the second movement, which in the hands of the violins floats higher and more freely than the first movement, free of the cello’s grip that had anchored the first movement.

Since my first hearing, the piece, through its performance, has gained a focus and conviction that I do not recall sensing before; the acoustic, too, offered a gorgeous background which did the music so harm at all and made it an altogether more enveloping experience than I get from the (excellent) CD of Psathas’s music, Helix, for Rattle Records.

Dvořák’s String Quintet – the only one that employs the double bass – is an attractive piece, but not one of his masterpieces. Its engaging handling of the five instruments, its quasi folk-song character, particularly in the first movement, forgives any lack of gravity.

That doesn’t altogether overcome the feeling that for all its lighthearted charm, the tripping tune of the Scherzo doesn’t return once too often. But the slow movement avoided that problem, and the performance captured its pensiveness. One might suppose that the double bass part, being unusual, might have led the composer to have highlighted its sonic capacities and whatever virtuoso skills might have been at the disposal of the first performer, that seems not the case. Its presence was always conspicuous however, and Hiroshi Ikematsu’s intensely musical contributions were always arresting and beguiling.

Strauss was moved to write Metamorphosen after Allied bombing destroyed the Bavarian National Opera in Munich in 1943 and so much else in the following years. Strauss’s first draft was discovered in 1990; it was found to have been scored at first for string septet. It was Paul Sacher, the famous Swiss musician and patron, who commissioned Strauss in 1945 to produce the version for 23 solo strings.  After the septet’s discovery Rudolf Leopold used the 23-string work as the basis for a re-creation of a version for string septet. Even for one who is very familiar with the big version, the impact of this, which I heard at the Nelson performance in February, was extremely persuasive; it expanded richly and opulently in response to the church’s acoustic which once again contributed very powerfully to the effect of this profoundly felt music.

Oddly, I do not hear this music as expressing unmitigated grief, and I find it extraordinary that the composer, in the face of such wanton and needless destruction, could have written music that is first of all so beautiful. But its character aligns very much with my own belief that tragedy, violence, cruelty, evil are most convincingly handled, not in music that is violent, abrasive, aurally disagreeable, employing distorting articulations, but through sounds that express pain or grief or even anger by using voices and instruments in orthodox ways that are above all beautiful.

Strauss does this by building a powerful climax which is easily heard as a sort of ecstasy of grief and which has a more profound impact because it envelops the listener in sounds that are moving and beautiful.

Often I’m uncomfortable drawing attention to individual performances in an ensemble, because like so much else in the arts, it draws attention away from the important thing – the music – and towards personalities; but the voice I heard most strongly and musically was that of cellist Andrew Joyce. All others emerged with distinction, either alone or in ensemble that was simply transcendent, and in which there could be no mistaking the anguish Strauss felt as he contemplated the destruction of a civilization that had been so remarkable.







Of conflict and tragedy – New Zealand School of Music Orchestra


BORIS PIGOVAT – Requiem “The Holocaust”

70th Anniversary Concert remembering the Babi Yar massacre

ANTHONY RITCHIE – Remembering Parihaka / ERNEST BLOCH – Schelomo – Hebraic Rhapsody


Donald Maurice (viola)

Inbal Megiddo (‘cello)

New Zealand School of Music Orchestra

Kenneth Young (conductor)

Town Hall, Wellington

Thursday 29th September 2011

I’d only recently been introduced to Russian-born Jewish composer Boris Pigovat’s Requiem, via a recording of a previous Wellington performance which also featured the solo viola of Donald Maurice – so it was with those sounds echoing in my ears that I eagerly awaited this anniversary concert. Of course, we in New Zealand have no comparable history of human tragedy to match the terrible Jewish experience, but the two local works chosen to complement this program presented different kinds of human conflicts in a New Zealand context, also resulting also in on-going grief and loss.

As I read through the attractively presented program (with what looked like a resplendent Ruapehu skyline adorning each page – though perhaps Taranaki’s distinctive contourings might have been even more appropriate), I couldn’t help thinking how surely and comprehensively the whole purpose of the concert’s presentation had been addressed by the NZSM – though a tad long, Professor Elizabeth Hudson’s welcoming speech certainly underlined the occasion’s gravitas and worldwide significance (the programme’s running-order suggested that the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, the Hon.Chris Finlayson would say a few words as well, but he didn’t appear on stage). We were left in no doubt as to the importance of the occasion – a process and outcome that other music performance organizations in the capital might well look at and learn from.

The attendance didn’t quite match the average Vector Wellington Orchestra concert turn-out, though the Town Hall “felt” to me reasonably well-peopled. Perhaps this was a concert whose contents were just that bit too far off the beaten track for some of the “regulars” at subscription concerts. Whether the prospect of listening to a performance by a “student orchestra” was another attendance-inhibiting factor, I’m not sure – as it turned out, no-one would have possibly felt short-changed by the skill and commitment of the young musicians (their ranks judiciously augmented by some  VWO and NZSO players) in bringing these wide-ranging, colorful scores to life, under the guidance of the inspirational Kenneth Young.

Anthony Ritchie’s Remembering Parihaka began the concert, music inspired by the story of a Taranaki episode of Maori resistance to the land-grabbing antics of the Pakeha settler-dominated NZ Government during the final quarter of the nineteenth-century. The “New Zealand Gandhi”, Te Whiti O Rongomai was, with a relative and fellow-protestor, Tohu Kakahi, imprisoned without trial as a result of each man’s passive protests, and tribal lands were confiscated. Ritchie’s music throughout the opening had a quality reminiscent of Shostakovich’s ability to generate tensions from lyricism – foreboding pedal-point notes alternated with lyrical string-and-wind choir lines, interrupted by warning calls from the flute and oboe. Pizzicato urgencies ushered in angular motoric percussion-reinforced energies, Young and his players keeping the textures jagged and sharply punctuated. I loved the music’s inclinations towards using  timbres, textures and colours to engender growing excitement rather than employing sheer weight and force – eventually the sounds did gather, and propelled themselves in the direction of a climax capped by cymbal crashes. The aftermath was elegiac and noble-toned, a solo horn surviving a brief stumble and nobly reaching the top of an echoing phrase of resignation – music, and playing too, I thought, of great understatement and subtlety.

Next came an old favorite of mine – Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo, for ‘Cello and Orchestra, subtitled a “Hebraic Rhapsody”. This was volatile, blood-coursing stuff, music that expressed the composer’s despair at what he considered the parlous state of the human condition. Inspired by the words of King Solomon from the Book of Ecclesiastes, the passage beginning “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity….”, Bloch was further moved to sorrow by the horrors of World War I, and sought to give voice to his feelings. After toying with the idea of writing for voice and orchestra he quickly took up the suggestion of the cellist Alexander Barjansky that the solo instrument could be just as expressive as a voice, and, working quickly, finished the piece in 1916. The piece is simply a wonderful outpouring of pure emotion – moments of brooding introspection ebb and flow throughout with full-blooded utterances, the argument tossed skillfully between soloist and orchestra.

Right from her very first note, I was held by the actual sound of Inbal Magiddo’s ‘cello – tight and focused, slightly nasal and exotic, extremely “laden”, with a distinctive “voice-quality”. Even if her attack on one or two of her high notes was slightly astray, the intensity of her sound I found gripping. In full support of her, Ken Young’s student orchestral players gave their all, producing at the first big-boned tutti a remarkably weighty body of sound, and remarkably keeping the level of intensities ongoing. Those big recurring lyrical climaxes I found most satisfying throughout, though equally compelling was the cello’s eloquent focusing, no prisoners taken, no difficulty shirked, everything gathered up and swept along irresistibly. I scribbled things down furiously throughout the performance, some of which I was able to read afterwards – words like “cinematoscopic!” and “incendiary!”, though lest the reader gain the impression of my being some kind of sensation-junkie, I also noted things like the lovely oboe playing of the chant-like figure which the other winds take up and exotically harmonise, and the rainbow-like radiance of the orchestra’s responses to the soloist in places away from the coruscations.

The string-players, I thought, did especially well, digging into those tremendous lyrical outpourings which well up from the depths of the composer’s soul at regular intervals. From where I was sitting I couldn’t help being taken with the contrast in styles and deportment of the two front-desk first violinists during the Bloch Rhapsody, the leader strongly upright, dignified and contained, her partner expressive, fluid of movement, choreographing the music’s every contour with her whole body. The pair, I thought, by turns mirrored their soloist’s vocabulary of intensities beautifully, the trio together expressing the overall flavour of the youthful orchestra’s fully-committed music making.

John Psathas’s Luminous was one of the Auckland Philharmonia’s Millennium Fanfare commissions. It’s not one of the composer’s rhythmically “charged” pieces, but understandably so given that Psathas wished to dedicate the music to the memory of a friend who came to live in New Zealand from China, but wasn’t able to survive the impact made on her by two very different sets of cultural and spiritual values. More like a meditation than a depiction of events, the music grew by osmosis, strings clustering their lines more and more intensely, until broken up by a chiming horn, after which solo winds led the way back to the strings and further deepening intensities – the music reminded me of Ligeti’s Atmospheres, its rise and fall of timbres and tones and intensities, leading to an enormous climax which suggested as much a transfiguration as a surrendering up of life.

It was natural that all of these things seemed but preludial to the evening’s raison d’être, Boris Pigovat’s Requiem “The Holocaust”. This performance of the work commemorated the victims of an event during World War II that had taken place at a place called Babi Yar, near Kiev, in Russia, 70 years ago to the very day when a systematic massacre of Kiev’s Jews by the Nazis left over thirty thousand people dead. Due to official Soviet anti-Jewish policy, the Babi Yar massacre wasn’t acknowledged until after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but in 1991 a lasting memorial to those Jews who had died was finally constructed on the site.

This was the Requiem’s second New Zealand performance, on both occasions with viola soloist Donald Maurice (who, incidentally, will take part in another performance of the work in Germany next month, the first in that country). Though I didn’t attend the earlier (2008) concert in Wellington, the recording made on that occasion by Atoll Records seemed to me to capture oceans of the work’s visceral and emotional impact, thanks to Donald Maurice’s strong and heartfelt viola-playing, and Marc Taddei’s no-holds-barred approach to the music, brilliantly realized by the Vector Wellington Orchestra. After listening to the recording my predominant memory was of the fearful coruscations of the second movement, the “Dies Irae”, during which the sounds seemed to rip apart the fabric of human existence and leave it in shreds. This latest “live” performance had a different focus, the “Dies Irae” episode being given by these young players rather more audible instrumental detail but less crushing overall weight at the climaxes, to my ears less “apocalyptic” in effect than the Vector Wellington orchestral response. This was the only aspect of the performance which I wanted to call to question, having found it difficult as a listener to establish a true point in the movement to which all perspectives ran and from which all energies dissipated.

The other three movements, Requiem Aeternam, Lacrimosa and Lux Aeterna, were, like the Dies Irae, all familiar titles to people accustomed to the standard concert requiems of Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi and Faure. The sounds of the opening Requiem Aeternam (Eternal Rest) evoked vibrant spaces into which were drawn various tensions, solo clarinet expressing an overall feeling of uneasy peace, together with the strings setting the scene for the solo viola’s appearance. chant-like lines at first eloquently ruminating, urging calm, faith and hope, while aware of darker, more threatening impulses.  Young got lovely orchestral detailings along the way, here, beautiful string sonorities, underpinned by brass both muted and warm-toned, with everything gradually curdling into weirdly-clustered string-and-wind grotesqueries, the music’s shadows looming threateningly and frighteningly, the menace all too palpable.

After the incendiary “Dies Irae”, whose last few pages brutally depicted the stilling of the composer’s “pulse of a human heart”, we were suitably transfixed by the Lacrimosa’s cry of anguish, the playing of both soloist and orchestra conveying all the bewilderment, anger and grief of the composer’s words; “It is possible to shout with strong anger or to groan powerlessly, or to go mad, and only then appear tears….” The viola rejoined the orchestra, helping to rebuild a context in sound from which a life-force could once again be heard to begin to flow – I noted the strings’ beauty of resignation, supported by bleached-sounding winds and secure solo horn-playing. Kenneth Young’s direction sure-footedly led the players through these osmotic rebuildings without a break into the transforming ambiences of the final “Lux Aeterna”, Donald Maurice’s instrument again “speaking volumes”, with dark tones and grief-stained astringent strands, but also with an encouraging surety, echoed and reinforced by an instrumental backdrop of heartfelt voices that maintained strength and purpose right up to the concluding phrases.









Brilliant recital of French organ music from Michael Stewart

L’Orgue Symphonique : French organ music in the symphonic tradition

Guilmant: Grand Chorus in G minor, Op 84; Widor: Symphonie Gothique, Op 70; Jehan Alain: Le jardin suspendu and Litanies from Three Pieces.

Michael Stewart at the organ

Church of St Mary of the Angels

Sunday 25 September, 2.30pm

I hadn’t adjusted my watch and as a result, missed the first item in the recital: Guilmant’s Grand choeur en forme de marche pour grand orgue, in G minor. Two of the three composers in the programme had been honoured as Radio New Zealand Concert’s Composers of the Week which had been introduced by Stewart himself (Guilmant died in 1911 and Alain was born in that year. Alain’s father had been a pupil of Guilmant’s). So this was a sad mishap, as my knowledge of Guilmant has been confined to several of the works played during the week plus a few pieces in the organ compilations in my CD collection.

However, I was in time fully to enjoy Widor’s Gothic Symphony (his No 9), one of his most successful works. It sometimes seems hard to fit the school of French organ composers into the pattern of other French composers, of opera, orchestral, chamber and choral music: Franck was really the only one to straddle both fields, though several well-known composers like Saint-Saëns and Fauré were fine organists.

Widor, born in 1844, was nine years younger that Saint-Saëns, two years younger than Massenet and a year older than Fauré. Though he lived till 1937, his composing life virtually ended around 1900. This symphony was composed about 1894, as Strauss was writing tone poems, Verdi’s Falstaff had just been produced, Mahler was working on his third symphony, Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune, Brahms’s last piano pieces and the two clarinet sonatas; Tchaikovsky had just written the Pathétique and had died.

Widor produced a large-scale work in this symphony (almost 30 minutes; actually, others would have called it a sonata, being for one instrument: Widor was obviously wanting to suggest the scale and variety of sounds available on a great organ). In the first movement, Moderato, over plunging, rotating pedal notes, the manuals mark out an insistent, almost hypnotic pattern, that could hardly be called a melody; yet it is arresting, slowly rising in pitch and seems to gather more and more stops into its dense and turbulent textures. I’m sure this was my first live hearing; it impressed me greatly, confirming my belief that the essence and force of most music is really grasped only in live performance. Though Stewart’s registrations, as offered by this fine French-style organ that Maxwell Fernie left to us, had great clarity and never overwhelmed through sheer volume, the music’s impact was stunning in a near literal sense.

The slow movement, Andante sostenuto, is one of Widor’s loveliest pieces and its calm, coloured by carefully selected flute stops, was an affecting contrast.

The third movement, a dancing fugue on the plainchant ‘Puer natus est nobis’, is far from the usual sombre character of organ music in a liturgical setting, with its dotted rhythms, though a splendid pedal appearance of the tune, in full diapason vestments, brings it to an fine declamatory end. The last movement, variations on the same tune, seems like a sequence of distinct moments musicaux, so individual are their various appearances, some in rather entertaining fugal form. Stewart held them together through his adroit handling of vivid, contrasted stops.

Jehan Alain, born in 1911, was 15 years older than his famous organist sister, Marie-Claire Alain; he was killed in the first year of World War II, in a heroic confrontation which the Germans themselves later honoured.

These two pieces proved a fine introduction to his work. The hanging garden was obviously an impressionistic piece, which would have been hard to ascribe to any particular orchestral composer who wrote music that carries that label. It was delicate and translucent, inviting the organist to explore an entrancing range of flute stops in high registers.

Litanies then came as a surprising, emphatic irruption, with its insistent theme of striking clarity and its comparably striking handling, evolving, investing with rhythmic energy. Its religious context comes as a surprise: Alain said that ‘in the obsessive rhythm of the work [was] released the irresistible gusting wind of prayer’ (perhaps a not very idiomatic translation of the French which I do not have to hand). All one could say was that Alain’s religion was of a powerful, muscular kind; and the music offered here through Stewart’s impressive medium would surely have caused the sadly small audience to go in search of more.



Celebrating the rugby, with Beethoven, without the violence

Kaitiaki by Gareth Farr; Choral Symphony by Beethoven

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen, with the Orpheus Choir and Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir.
Soloists: Madeleine Pierard (soprano), Sarah Castle (mezzo-soprano), Simon O’Neill (tenor), Jonathan Lemalu (bass baritone)

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 22 September, 6.30pm

A relatively short piece was needed for the first half of a concert that was to be dominated by the Choral Symphony. A new New Zealand piece using the same soloists as in the symphony was sensible, and the choice of Gareth Farr was unlikely to prove a deterrent for those allergic to music after 1900. With this in mind, Farr could actually have risked offering something a little more challenging, even more adventurous than what he was invited to do, in association with a text by Witi Ihimaera, which Farr described as ‘vibrant, patriotic and passionate’. Continue reading “Celebrating the rugby, with Beethoven, without the violence”

NZSO concludes its Sibelius Symphony cycle on Naxos

SIBELIUS – Symphonies: No.6 in D Minor Op.104 / No.7 in C Major Op.105

Tone Poem: Finlandia Op.26

Pietari Inkinen (conductor)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Naxos 8.572705

Sometimes, when listening to performances of music one knows and loves, one has to try to come to terms with interpretations markedly different to one’s own ideas. Common sense suggests that this is a healthy process to take part in – and, after all, to expect uniformity or even conformity of music-making or listening across different performances would be unrealistic, let alone undesirable. And music-making which goes against the grain of one’s expectations or particular tastes surely adds to the fascination of the whole business. 

So, am I writing a music review, here,  or some kind of philosophical rant? It’s just that, in as many instances as there are recordings, I’ve recently worked my way as a listener through performances of all of the Sibelius symphonies from Pietari Inkinen and the NZSO which have, by turns, delighted and frustrated me. Therefore, before inflicting yet another maddeningly ambivalent set of opinions upon Middle C’s readership, I think it’s about time I addressed the issue of the reviewer’s sensibilities before dealing with the intrinsic qualities of the music-making.

My own formative experiences with music criticism were with 1960s issues of the magazine Gramophone; and once I’d gotten over my period of unquestioning and unshakable faith in the opinions expressed throughout those erstwhile columns, I began to develop some independence as a reader and consumer of these opinions. There were some reviewers whose judgements I invariably trusted, finding instances where my experiences with recordings they reviewed seemed to me in accord with what they’d written. But I soon began to feel (youthful arrogance?) I could think critically for myself; and even reached the stage where, with two or three of the  reviewing “regulars”, I would unhesitatingly investigate the things they didn’t like and studiously avoid those they heaped praise on. In other words my sensibilities seemed attuned to some opinions, and in conflict with others.

But, like Pontius Pilate in the Gospel stories, who declared to Jesus Christ at one point, “What is Truth?”, I’m now inclined to shy away from absolutes – any comment I might dare to make as a critic is assigned no more status than that of “opinion” regarding music performances – and so it is with my remarks concerning these Inkinen/NZSO Naxos recordings of Sibelius. As for the particular disc under review, containing the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies of the Finnish Master, as well as his considerably earlier work Finlandia (Naxos 8.572705), I find myself, as with the others in this series, liking most things about the performances, but having to scratch my head and ponder the reasons for the music being expressed in certain ways at particular points.

By way of making further confessional gesturings, I ought to declare that I’ve been violently in love with the Sibelius Sixth Symphony even since encountering, more than forty years ago, Anthony Collins’s 1950s Decca recording (in glorious mono) with the London Symphony Orchestra. The Seventh Symphony I intensely admire, but don’t love as passionately, except when listening to Colin Davis’s amazing Boston Symphony performance; but I admit I never tire of hearing rattlingly good performances of Finlandia (my benchmark being the flamboyance of Sir John Barbirolli and a fired-up Halle Orchestra). So – in vying with these noble resonances, how do the new performances sound? And could I imagine them working equally well on their own terms?

The opening of the Sixth Symphony on the new disc sounds to my ears as if the instruments were recorded a shade too closely, the textures distractingly “edgy”, with insufficient space around and about the different strands – it makes for a slightly claustrophobic effect, one also very brightly-lit. I did get used to the sound, partly because there was so much else to enjoy – the tempi are beautifully paced by Inkinen, nicely-breathed throughout the opening, and infectiously propelled with the arrival of the allegro (the “molto moderato” allows the music time to speak with sufficient resonance). The various “pedal-notes” from winds and brass accompanying the strings’ “endless figurations” throughout the movement make for wonderful ambient colour-changes as the music surges forwards, towards a darkening of the textures as the lower strings dig into what seems like the very ground underfoot. I was hoping Pietari Inkinen would get his brass at the end to gradually intensify their ascending phrase-notes to imitate a crescendo, which, however, they don’t do – but the sounds are nevertheless nobly wrought.

At Inkinen’s beautifully-measured tempo the slow movement is for once just that (often there’s confusion over metronome markings, here), gradually unfolding with beautiful dignity and gradually-burgeoning textures, as things turn from air into water and finally into solid earth at the climax (the brass allowed some welcome “attitude” here which they’re unfortunately denied in other places in the symphony) – but this is a beautifully-realised performance. So, too, at the beginning, is the bucolic scherzo, even though I thought its dotted rhythms a bit too tightly-clamped in places – and, those delicious interactions between strings and wind need, alas, sterner interjections from the brass, I feel, than those we get here – Sibelius did talk abut the work’s “rage and passion”, which Inkinen, it seems, will have little truck with, both here and at the very end of the movement, where I feel the brass ought to be able to properly snarl, giving warning of what’s still to come (Collins’ LSO brasses from the 1950s are wonderfully goosebump-forthright, here!).

Again, Inkinen finds the “tempo giusto” at the finale’s beginning, at first a wonderful feeling of some kind of ritual unfolding, followed by a hitching up of garments and dancing at the allegro molto, Inkinen managing the music’s occasional swirling crescendi beautifully, though for my taste not allowing timpani and brass enough scope for expressing the exuberance and energy that the cadence-points cry out for – even that final vortex-like dissolution of energy and impulse could have done with a bit more snarling force (the composer’s “rage and passion” again needing a proper voice). But Inkinen makes eloquent amends with his players throughout the movement’s epilogue – the lines sing, the rhythmic patterns dance and the textures glow, with the final string phrases almost sacramental in their expressive beauty and purity.

A longer pause between the two symphonies on the disc would have been welcomed – however, in just a few seconds, the Seventh Symphony’s opening timpani-strokes (prefiguring the opening of the later tone-poem Tapiola) sound, followed by those giant’s upward steps into the “different realms” of a world-weary composer’s imagination. A wide-ranging work, despite its single movement and relatively compact structure, it contains music of both sunlight and shadow; and Pietari Inkinen’s patiently unfolding way with the first episode balances the pastoral with the epic,allowing the hymn-like themes to sing as if from the mountain-tops. Then comes the first of three majestic trombone statements (a commentator called them “peaks along a mountain range”), and though beautifully voiced, I thought the player’s sound not sufficiently “epic” – too smooth, too “civilized” to conjure up vast spaces, real or imagined. But Inkinen’s grip on things doesn’t falter, moving with impressive surety from the bleak despair of the trombone tune’s aftermath to the playfulness of the scherzo-like scamperings which follow.

The second trombone statement suggests something more baleful and threatening, introduced by swirling strings and supported by forthright echoing brasses and winds. There’s an almost heroic restraint about the playing at first which holds the listener back from being plunged immediately into a maelstrom of doubt and darkness – but there’s a powerful cumulative effect at work, so that by the time horns and timpani voice their defiance the threat of chaos is met head-on and for the moment, overcome. It’s almost Ein Heldenleben country we now find ourselves in, strings and horns echoing heroic-like motifs that speak of valorous deeds and triumphal homecomings, of romance and rest for the weary (all in a bracing Nordic C Major, of course, instead of a glowing Straussian E-flat!). But triumphs are short-lived for this Sibelian hero – Inkinen and his players vividly plot the ever-increasing urgencies and agitations (marvellous playing from both strings and winds, here – although I did wish for stronger timpani at one point), taking us to the huge crescendo that ushers in the final trombone solo, again nobly played, but I thought still needing just a touch of “bite” in the phrasing, to truly ring out. However, orchestral support burgeons promisingly, the textures both jagged and epic, building to what ought to be the composer’s most intense cry of pain in all of his music – ah! – not quite, as it turns out, here…..still, the anguish is sufficient to strongly register and release waves of resonant poignance to the resignation of the coda.

Right at the end Sibelius recovers his strength and resolve sufficiently to voice a final gesture of defiance – a kind of “Finnish Amen”, darkly launched and heroically wrought. Inkinen and his musicians give it heaps of dignity and nobility, making a sonorous conclusion to a finely-conceived performance.

I would have put Finlandia elsewhere on the disc, preferring to sit in silence at the symphony’s end. But there it is, waiting, ready to cheer us all up once again, we who’ve been immersed as listeners in oceans of Sibelian reverie, angst and stoic resignation. The performance takes its time to do so, Inkinen possibly hearkening back to the work’s original title “Finland awakes”, by way of demonstrating a kind of “sleeping giant” at the beginning (compare the startling opening attack of, for one, Barbirolli’s Halle Orchestra brasses, on a famous 1960s recording). Timpani and snarling lower brass help matters, and the strings dig into their first phrases with a will.  Matters energize once the stuttering trumpets galvanize the work’s introduction into action (I liked Inkinen’s  bringing out of the lower strings’ “seething” textures shortly afterwards), and strings and timpani give plenty of initial impetus to the music’s driving force.

This reviewer’s niggardly opinion apart, people will perhaps enjoy being “cleansed” at the disc’s end by such a life-affirming expression of joy and energy. And this Naxos recording, the last of Pietari Inkinen’s and the NZSO’s Sibelius cycle, needs, I believe, to be investigated – though the expression “Vive la difference” isn’t Scandinavian, it’s entirely apposite. For these are performances that may not completely satisfy all listening sensibilities, but they will certainly fascinate and engage, and might even (as in my case) win you over.

A horn trio wins converts at Wellington Chamber Music recital

Nautilus Trio: Wilma Smith (violin), Andrew Bain (horn), Amin Farid (piano)

Mozart: Violin Sonata in A, K 305; Beethoven: Horn sonata, Op 17; Koechlin: Four Little Pieces; Brahms: Horn Trio, Op 40

Ilott Theatre, Town Hall

Sunday 18 September 3pm

Wilma Smith, a former NZSO concertmaster, has been returning to New Zealand every year or so since she became co-concertmaster with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra: usually with a strings and/or piano ensemble. This time, inspired by the urge to play Brahms’s Horn Trio, an appropriate trio was put together, comprising the Melbourne Orchestra’s principal horn and pianist Amir Farid.

Why Nautilus? Nautilus is a mollusc with a spiral shell divided into compartments. Is that the connection with the character of the French horn? In a subsequent exchange with Wilma, she confirmed that this was indeed the significance.

Putting together a programme for the somewhat rare combination of piano, violin and horn would not have been easy, though their encore showed other pieces do exist. They found one written for just those instruments in Koechlin’s short pieces which were attractive even if a bit insubstantial, and they didn’t do much to induce one to explore this interesting composer, some of whose other music I had met. Nevertheless, the writing for the three instruments was subtle and charming, offering the horn a very nice environment in which to work with the two stringed instruments.

The solution to fleshing out the first half was to play sonatas that used violin and horn separately. No trouble with the former, and the one they chose – Mozart’s in A, K 305 – was a good choice: neither well known, nor insignificant. Unusual in shape – two movements (as was not unusual at the time), the second, a theme and variations, rather slower than the first. The galloping rhythm of the first movement was a splendid opener while the Andante grazioso was an interesting set of variations with an unexpected modulation towards the end. It was a most successful opener, the two players demonstrating a rapport that was not just a matter of keeping perfectly together, but combining the voices of violin and piano rather beautifully.

Beethoven’s rather routine sonata (published with the reassurance that a cellist could handle it) is the sort of piece that is only played in circumstances like this. It calls for the horn to launch forth in military-sounding arpeggios in stentorian style, which does not usually bring out the horn’s most engaging sound. But as soon as lyrical passages arrived the player’s skills became more evident, unexpectedly perhaps, in accord with the piano. Individually the two players explored its character carefully, making as good a case as possible for it. By playing the second movement rather more poco than the tempo marking, poco adagio, might have indicated, they sustained its lines – and the slow breaths for the hornist – as well as exposing the somewhat vacuous musical content.

After the interval came the reason for the concert. The remarkable thing about this unique piece is the way in which you never feel that Brahms is going out of his way to write for the particular qualities of the horn. Yet nothing seems to be lie more naturally for the three instruments, either together or individually, at least from the listener’s point of view, than Brahms’s imaginative handling of the ideas; his unmistakable voice is present throughout. Most strikingly in the most passionate passages, the three instruments produced a blend that was sheer delight. Here, more than elsewhere in the recital, the horn’s lyrical qualities were conspicuous, handling the long melodies beautifully.

There is a view that the work might have been composed in response to the recent death of Brahms’s mother, and the third movement, Adagio mesto, might have endorsed this, the tones of violin and horn delivering poised, restrained music reflecting grief.

However, the second movement, Scherzo, and the Finale dispelled any real belief in the work’s general elegiac character. The Scherzo boisterous and extrovert and the Finale marked by the whoops of successive fourths that suggested well enough the activity that the horn was originally used to accompany.

A word about the pianist, Amir Farid. Throughout, his playing was marked by real individual distinction which would clearly make him a superb solo player, but his precise, carefully shaded, acutely pedaled performances in the various pieces, and his collaborative role in a richly sympathetic trio was quite admirable.

They played an encore after applause laced with bravos; it used the three instruments most happily, in an arrangement by one Ernst Naumann (I think Wilma said; he was a 19th century German musicologist/composer/arranger) of the last movement from the quintet in E flat for horn, violin, 2 violas and cello by Mozart, KV 407 (obviously written about the same time as the four horn concertos, which were for Mozart’s friend Ignaz Leutgeb) . This most convincing and delightful performance proved it a work of considerable charm which would, in this arrangement, have been an excellent companion in this concert. I suspect there could be a rush to find the piece on now (try Parsons first).

Dream team together on record – Trpčeski, Petrenko and Rachmaninov

RACHMANINOV – Piano Concertos 1-4 / Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini

Simon Trpčeski (piano)

Vasily Petrenko (conductor)

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

Avie Records

AV2191 (Concertos 1, 4 / Paganini Rhapsody)

AV2192 (Concertos 2, 3)

Avie Records and its NZ distributor Ode Records will have pleased Wellington concertgoers enormously with a recent pair of CD recordings (available separately) featuring pianist Simon Trpčeski and conductor Vasily Petrenko in the music of Rachmaninov – all four Piano Concertos and the Rhapsody on Theme of Paganini. Of course, both Simon Trpčeski and Vasily Petrenko have been recent guest artists with the NZSO, though not performing together – Trpčeski gave us Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, and Petrenko conducted the orchestra in a recent concert featuring Rachmaninov’s Fourth Piano Concerto, with Michael Houstoun as soloist. So the CDs represent a “coming-together” of different strands of impulse from these concerts, pianist, conductor and composer. While the absolute stand-out performance of the set is that of the Fourth Concerto, these musicians bring plenty of feeling and enviable skills to each of the works on the two discs, if not quite emulating the performance-intensity levels which I enjoyed at each of the concerts I attended.

Trpčeski and Petrenko approach the First Concerto as though they’re making no allowances for its status as a relatively youthful work (Rachmaninov was 18 when the concerto was completed, in 1892, though he revised the work extensively in 1917, expressing some latter-day astonishment at the Concerto’s “youthful pretensions”). In fact Rachmaninov soon realized he couldn’t remain in Russia with the Communists in control, and therefore had to face the prospect of earning a living in exile as a virtuoso pianist – so reworking his concerto’s “youthful pretensions” gave him an extra piece to add to his projected concert repertoire.

Right from the start, Trpčeski and Petrenko stress the work’s big-boned contrasts – those boldly stated flourishes from orchestra and soloist at the beginning have real “bite”, throwing into bold relief both the liquid flow of the opening theme, and the rapid scherzando-like passages which follow. Trpčeski‘s playing has plenty of flint-like brilliance, if not as volatile and alchemic as the composer’s on his recording (but nobody else’s is!), and Petrenko conjures from his Royal Liverpool Philharmonic players gloriously Russian-sounding tones, rich and resplendent in one episode, elfin and volatile in the next, heart-rending and melancholic in a third. One senses, too, a piano-and-orchestra partnership of equals, with all of the creative interactions and tensions that such a relationship implies.

I liked Trpčeski‘s Scriabin-like fantasizing on the slow movement’s first page, the playing creating sounds borne upon the air, with Petrenko encouraging his players to evolve the sounds almost by osmosis, allowing the soloist to climb through the textures with his figurations. And scenes of Imperial Russia come to mind as the music’s rhythmic trajectories kick in with the clipped horses’ hooves, the jingling harnesses on the sleigh and the wind-flurried snow-flakes skirling as the string sing a soulful melody. Only in the finale did I feel Trpčeski‘s playing a trifle under-voltaged in places, lacking some of the electricity of Stephen Hough’s blistering fingerwork on a rival Hyperion set of the concertos (Hyperion CDA 67501/2). Petrenko’s is a darker orchestral sound for Trpčeski than Andrew Litton’s is for Hough, though the romance of the second subject group is beautifully realized on the newer recording, the canonic dialoging between instruments as tenderly lyrical as any. Finally, some whiplash-like irruptions of energy from the orchestra galvanize the soloist as the music races to its brilliant conclusion.

After the resplendent performance I heard Petrenko conduct of the Fourth Concerto with Michael Houstoun and the NZSO, I was surprised and fascinated to encounter a somewhat leaner orchestral sound from the Liverpool Orchestra as recorded by Avie – what remnants of romantic sweep Rachmaninov allowed to remain in his composer-armoury by this stage of his creative career were certainly brought out full-bloodedly in Wellington, but seem less in evidence on record. Instead, Petrenko keeps things lean and tightly-focused in Liverpool, details very much to the fore, the result being a steady steam of interactive dialoguing between orchestra and soloist, the attention on the musical thoughts and ideas rather than any guide’s exposition of it. It did make the big moments in which the soloist did dominate more telling, such as the archway of the big central climax, with its gorgeously bluesy Gershwin-like tune on the strings, though the subsequent mocking laughter of the brasses resonated all the more in such a climate of restraint. Trpčeski‘s playing throughout is of a piece with the orchestra’s, focused and flexible, taking a partnership role as often as seeking to dominate. The result is a strongly-balanced exposition of the music, the sensitivity of Trpčeski‘s dialoging with the winds in the melancholic epilogue to that big middle section a clue to the stature of this performance as a powerfully expressive partnership of equals.

Pianist, conductor and orchestra build the haunting, melancholic tread of the slow movement towards a climax whose pain and sorrow, though momentary, pierce the heart of the listener, as much for the heartbreak of the subsequent bars as for the shock of the sudden onslaught. As for the finale, again Trpčeski‘s playing may yield points to Stephen Hough’s performance in sheer vertiginous brilliance, but here it’s the interplay with Petrenko’s ever-responsive Liverpool players that catches the ear again and again. Critics who damned this music at its premiere on the grounds of Rachmaninov’s “old-fashioned” style must have made up their minds about the work before they even heard a note – for this is a composer who, despite his own distaste for the avant-garde and his omni-present inner resonances of Imperial Russia, was certainly listening to what was happening around him. Bartok, Stravinsky, Gershwin and Ravel are all there at the finale’s feast, even if the fare remains bitter to the taste, flavoured to the end with the composer’s own anguish in exile from his beloved native land. Rachmaninov’s trauma at the work’s reception by the critics was such that he cut the Concerto heavily, rewriting some passages and (ironically) lessening the work’s “new look” aspect – it’s worth tracking down either Alexander Ghindin’s or Yevgeny Sudbin’s recordings of the Concerto’s original version (respectively, on the Ondine and BIS labels) to experience the extent of the composer’s thwarted achievement.

By the time he came to write the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini for piano and orchestra, Rachmaninov had, I feel, come to terms some of the way with his situation. His frequently-expressed grief at his refugee status had become less overt in his music than, perhaps by way of compensation, a delight in brilliantly sardonic, in places almost diabolical accents,  though he would still produce incomparable episodes of melancholic lyricism (his Third Symphony, completed two years after the Rhapsody, is a kind of emotional counterweight in this regard). The Rhapsody was the first work he wrote in a new home, the villa called “Senar”, on the shores of Lake Lucerne. As befits its virtuoso leanings it uses a similar theme to that used by Brahms in HIS “Paganini” Variations, albeit for solo piano. Unlike the hapless Fourth Concerto, the work was an instant success with the public, the composer’s pleasure at this tempered with the worry of having to perform it. Oddly enough, there’s a tenuous New Zealand connection with this work through the famous choreographer Michel Fokine, who wrote to the composer from Auckland in 1939 (Fokine was touring the country with the Covent Garden Russian Ballet at the time) asking permission from Rachmaninov to adapt the work for a ballet to be called “Paganini” – the composer subsequently agreed, and “Paganini” received its first performance at Covent Garden that same year.

Trpčeski and Petrenko play the score, it seems to me, with ears for its structural qualities, rather than its surface brilliances and coruscations. Up to the first appearance of the “Dies Irae” theme (Variation 7 – Meno mosso,a tempo moderato) the music treads steadily, the orchestral colours dark and weighty, the piano having more “glint” than out-and-out brilliance – something of a contrast with Stephen Hough’s more elfin volatilities, matched with a brighter, more effervescent orchestral presence from Andrew Litton and his Dallas Symphony players. Trpčeski is chunkier and earthier, and his accompanying orchestral colours to my ears more Shostakovich-like (a nicely guttural clarinet in Variation 12, having more time, at Petrenko’s tempo, to “colour” its melody). One could hazard the comment that Trpčeski and Petrenko give the music a more Russian-sounding outlook, very like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Tsar Saltan music in the splendidly swaggering Variation 14, though Stephen Hough again finds extra sparkle in the succeeding piano-only Allegro. I like the homage Rachmaninov pays to Prokofiev in Variation 16’s Allegretto (straight out of the latter’s ballet Romeo and Juliet), Andrew Litton encouraging particularly spectral shudders from his strings, while Petrenko’s Liverpudlians are robuster, fuller-bodied phantoms. In the lead-up to the famous Eighteenth Variation, I found myself preferring Hough’s and Litton’s rather more atmospheric Allegretto, more spacious and Gothic, the sostenuto winds almost ghoul-like, not unlike Respighi’s Catacomb phantoms in his Pines of Rome, though honours are pretty even when the big tune comes around (the “Paganini” theme simply inverted and slowed down, can you believe it?).

And so it goes on – Hough and Litton bring out the glitter and volatility of the concluding sequences with more quicksilver than Trpčeski and Petrenko, whose energies have a darker, more elemental quality. But both rides to the finish are madcap ones, risk-taking ventures, with alarming accents and angularities aplenty, as well as passages whose harmonic explorations leave those of the worlds of the Second and Third Concertos far behind. At the beginning of the last variation of all, Trpčeski and Petrenko out-point their rivals in deliciousness, but as the patternings intensify, it’s simply neck-and neck at the finish. Trpčeski throws away the last phrase deadpan, like a good poker-player, while Hough etches it in with just a hint of a raised eyebrow.

Turning to the second of the Avie discs, containing the aforementioned remaining concertos, the listener enters a world filled with multitudes of ghosts of past performances, whose resonances are liable to rise up and haunt and even overwhelm all but the most intrepid and determined new interpreters. Happily Trpčeski and Petrenko are adventurers of that cut and cloth, and the opening paragraph of the C Minor Concerto (No.2) is a strongly-wrought statement of intent, couched in deep, rich tones, and propelled with striding energy. Vasily Petrenko loses no chance to support his pianist with emphatic touches from his players that stress the depth of feeling and purpose of it all – his lower strings, for instance, sing a rich counter-line to Trpčeski‘s simply-voiced second subject melody, echoed beautifully by the oboe shortly afterwards. The musicians tend to make the music’s transitions flow, rather than go for high-contrast changes of tempo and mood  – but the excitement nevertheless builds up impressively towards the movement’s “great moment”, the return of the opening theme on sweeping orchestral strings, the soloist reinforcing the music’s trajectories with a triumphal counter-melody.

The second movement opens enchantingly, strings, Trpčeski‘s piano and the winds taking turns to weave undulating patterns of finely-spun emotion, the music’s ebb and flow and brief irruption of energy easily and naturally brought into being.  After Petrenko’s terse opening to the finale the music expands with explosive energies towards climaxes, furious piano playing initiating steadily growing momentums which the strings-and-piano fugato gathers up and races towards the release of the big tune’s reappearance.The scherzando passage is galvanized by Trpčeski each time he joins the fray, culminating in a spectacular keyboard flourish and a grand and forthright final statement of the tune – glorious!

And so we come to what many people regard as the greatest of all Romantic piano concertos, the “knuckle-breaker”, as pianist Gary Graffmann used to describe it – otherwise known in the business as “Rack 3”. For a time the territory of only the boldest and most fearless of pianists (the likes of Horowitz, Janis, Gilels, Malcuzynski, Lympany and Van Cliburn, as well as New Zealand’s Richard Farrell – but, unaccountably, NOT Sviatoslav Richter), the general rise in technical piano-playing standards (though not in actual musicianship) has seen many more pianists than one could have ever imagined taking the piece on, with, alas, generally unmemorable results – given that the work still remains an enormous challenge, so that anybody who actually attempts the piece really deserves Brownie points for trying.

At first, Trpčeski‘s and Petrenko’s way with the music seems small-scale, their delivery of the opening episode emphasizing the first theme’s beauty while playing down its rhythmic undercurrents.  However, it’s part of the longer view – when the lower strings take up the tune, Trpčeski‘s increasingly insistent accompanying figurations awaken the music’s urgencies. And what a glorious sound Petrenko encourages from his strings, and how subtly both musicians build the music through the first appearance of the concerto’s most memorable melody, shared by the piano and the orchestra, in turn, to the grand, romantic sweep of the moment’s climax.

The central episode again relaxes the tension surrounding the opening tune’s reprise – those underlying energies are kept down by Petrenko, allowing chattering winds to interact with the pianist’s nervous utterances, and only encouraging the music’s pulses to beat with any edge and force when rising out of the ambient detail to match and contour the piano’s combatative intentions – impressive control, but lacking, I thought, that suggestion of abandonment which would have brought out the encounter’s sense of the participants risking all and plunging into the fray. Trpčeski chooses the heavier, more chordal of the two cadenzas Rachmaninov left, and builds up a splendidly majestic weight of tone and fury of purpose. Beautiful wind-playing answers the soloist’s near-exhausted ruminations, and my only real disappointment is that pianist and conductor don’t make something more “charged” of the “bells across the meadow” episode before the opening tune’s final reprise brings the movement to its expectant close.

At the slow movement’s beginning, I’m always reminded of my first recording of this concerto, Byron Janis’s with Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony – still memorable for Janis’s coruscating pianism and for Munch’s fervent encouragement of his strings at this point in the work. Petrenko’s players sound just as committed, the dying fall as the strings awaken the piano one of the work’s most expressively full-blooded moments. Trpčeski‘s and Petrenko’s account of the dark waltz-like episode is poised and veiled, as though concealing feelings too candid to fully display, though the strings subsequently stress the underlying heartache just before the finale’s electrifying opening flourishes. Trpčeski is suitably volatile and impulsive, here, and the steady-ish pace adopted for the “galloping horse” motif allows the orchestral tutti more weight and cumulative force. I’ve heard the scherzando episode played more delicately and impishly by other pianists, but Trpčeski brings out its nocturnal aspect nicely, and the lead-in to the great moment of the first movement’s memorable second subject is as charged with emotion by the players as one would want – for me, a definite performance highlight.

Apart from what I thought sounded like a strangely “clipped” reprise of the orchestra’s “galloping horse” motive, the remainder of the concerto gets the utmost romantic treatment, with all the proverbial stops pulled out – Trpčeski‘s pianism has all the weight and brilliance required, and Petrenko draws from his players the full panoply of orchestral splendor, the sounds making handsome amends for those momentary “lean-and-hungry” equestrian impressions. In sum, though I didn’t find the music-making throughout these discs as consistently “electric” as I did in the concert-hall from this pianist and conductor, that’s as much a commentary on the nature of the “live-versus-recorded” music-listening experience. It’s one I’m glad to have had both ways with these truly splendid artists, here together playing such marvellous music.

A new element in the ‘Live in Cinemas’ phenomenon – orchestral concerts

The following note has just been posted in the first part of our Coming Events schedule.

Both the BBC Proms and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra have this year entered the ‘Live in Cinemas’ market.

In New Zealand we got three of the Proms concert – the first and last nights, plus one from the middle of the season that featured Emanuel Ax playing Brahms’s Second Piano Concert with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Bernard Haitink – they also played Brahms’s Fourth Symphony.

The Last Night of the Proms will screen from 6 October. Lang Lang will play the piano and Susan Bullock will sing; Edward Gardner conducts.

The Berlin Philharmonic’s series was of four concerts: the first, their ritual Europa Concert marking the orchestra’s founding in 1882. That took place this year in the Teatro Real (Royal Theatre) in Madrid, and included Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. The second, taken from the orchestra’s home in the Phiharmonie in Berlin, consisted of one work – Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde: with Anne Sophie von Otter and Jonas Kaufmann, conducted by Claudio Abbado.

The third to be screened, like the others, at the Penthouse in Brooklyn, on 17, 18 and 21 September, will be at the Waldbühne, the famous open air arena in forest 10 km or so west of the city. There Riccardo Chailly will conduct a lightish programme including Nino Rota’s film score, La Strada, and music by Respighi and Shostakovich.

The fourth concert will be under Japanese cnductor Yutaka Sado and includes performances of Takemitsu and of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony.

Over 60 cinemas across Europe are part of this historic live cinema event, courtesy of Rising Alternative.

Here is an excerpt from Musicweb International’s article about the Berlin Philharmonic’s venture in live transmissions in cinemas, and emergence of a phenomenon that could make a difference to the appreciation of classical music everywhere.

“…Digital cinema and satellite technology is providing cinema owners, distributors and the entertainment industry at large with new programming opportunities – the ability to show alternative content (non-movie entertainment). Cinemas are becoming vibrant entertainment centres, as well as movie houses.

“The technology is operated by Rising Alternative, a leading international distributor of special event entertainment into cinemas. Rising Alternative, based in New York, is a leading distributor/agent of special event entertainment (alternative content) for cinemas. Rising Alternative acquires, distributes and markets world-class live and pre-recorded cultural content, including opera, ballet and concerts to cinemas worldwide. The upcoming slate of events includes highly anticipated performances from La Scala, Milan; Berliner Philharmoniker; Wiener Philharmoniker, Vienna; the Salzburg Festival;  the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona;  Teatro Real, Madrid;  San Francisco Opera and the Munich Opera Festival. The company was created by Giovanni Cozzi, a co-founder of Emerging Pictures, the U.S. digital art house cinema network.”

Boris Pigovat’s Requiem – a stunning CD presentation



– Requiem “The Holocaust” / Prayer for Violin and Piano / Silent Music for viola and harp / Nigun for String Quartet

Donald Maurice (viola)

Vector Wellington Orchestra / Marc Taddei

also with Richard Mapp (piano) / Carolyn Mills (harp) / Dominion String Quartet

Atoll ACD 114

This recording commemorates the first performance outside the Ukraine of Boris Pigovat’s Requiem, given by violist Donald Maurice, with the Vector Wellington Orchestra conducted by Marc Taddei, on November 9th, 2008 at the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington. The composer, whose grandparents and aunt were victims of the Babiy Yar tragedy in 1941, when thousands of German Jews were massacred in cold blood by the Nazis, had wanted for a number of years to write a work dedicated to the Holocaust, thinking originally of the standard Requiem format, with soloists, choir and orchestra. Then Yuri Gandelsman, the then principal violist of the Israel Philharmonic asked Pigovat to write a work for him, and the composer decided he would tackle a piece for viola and orchestra, writing in the style of a Requiem. He completed the work in 1995, but it wasn’t premiered until 2001, as Gandelsman, who intended to give the first performance, was prevented by circumstances from doing so. However, the situation was eventually resolved, most appropriately, by a concert planned in Kiev commemorating the Babiy Yar tragedy, to which Pigovat successfully offered his score for performance.

The composer regarded the cancellation of the original performances in Israel as “the will of Providence”, as it meant the work would be performed for the first time in Kiev, near the tomb of his family members who were killed at BabiyYar. Added poignancy was generated by the co-operation between the Israeli Cultural Attache in Kiev and the city’s Goethe Institute which resulted in the famous German violist, Rainer Moog, being asked to play the solo viola part. This concert took place in October 2001. Eight years later, the work was performed here in New Zealand at a “Concert of Remembrance” (commemorating the 70th anniversary of “Kristallnacht” – The Night of Broken Glass – a pogrom carried out against German and Austrian Jews in retaliation for the assassination of a Nazi diplomat by a young German/Polish Jew in November 1938). The concert featured, along with Pigovat’s work, a performance of Brahm’s German Requiem, and was sponsored by a number of groups, among which were the respective Embassies of the Federal Republic of Germany and the State of Israel. As well, Boris Pigovat himself was able to attend the concert, thanks to the support of the Israeli Embassy.

Now, there’s a further chapter in what has become an ongoing story – this features the recent invitation made to violist Donald Maurice to give the work’s first-ever performance in Germany, on October 15th at the final gala concert of the International Viola Congress in Wuerzburg. The performance commemorates, in turn, the 70th anniversary of the Babiy Yar massacre, and will be given by Maurice with an orchestra from Duesseldorf.

However, before making this journey, Maurice will again perform the work on the actual day of the tragedy, September 29th, in the Wellington Town Hall with Kenneth Young and the New Zealand School of Music Orchestra.  Also performing will be Israeli ‘cellist Inbal Megiddo, playing Bloch’s Schelomo. As well, John Psathas’s Luminous and Anthony Ritchie’s Remember Parihaka will give a New Zealand flavour to this commemorative program. I believe the concert is included under the umbrella of a “Rugby World Cup Event” – if so, one salutes the organizers’ enterprise!

Atoll Records deserves the heartfelt thanks of people like myself who weren’t able to attend that Wellington performance of the Requiem in 2008 for making the recording commercially available. It was at the time splendidly captured by Radio New Zealand’s David McCaw and his engineer Graham Kennedy – as one might expect, the music generated plenty of visceral impact, all of which comes across with startling force in Wayne Laird’s transfer to CD. It presents soloist Donald Maurice, with conductor Marc Taddei and the Wellington Orchestra  working at what can only be described as white heat – the coruscations of parts of the Dies Irae movement are searing, to say the least – and the effects upon listeners in the hall must have been profoundly disturbing in their impact.

The Requiem has four movements, each of them given Latin subtitles, a ready context, despite their non-Jewish origins, for listeners accustomed to pieces which use similar kinds of headings for individual movements (works by Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, and Faure for example) – the four movements are Requiem Aeternam, Dies Irae, Lacrimosa and Lux Eterna. Pigovat considered these parts the most suitable for his overall purpose in writing what he called “a tragic orchestral piece”. Despite his work being completely instrumental, some of the composer’s motifs and themes in the work are derived directly from the words of texts – for example, the first theme of the Dies Irae on trombones fits with the words of the first verse of this famous thirteenth-century Latin poem; while the Jewish Prayer, Shma Israel, Adonoi Elokeinu, Adonoi Ehad inspired a recurring theme in the work, first appearing in the epilogue of the Dies Irae, and in subsequent places, such as in the viola solo at the very end of the work.

The opening measures of Requiem Aeternam bring about vistas of space and eons of time, into the centre of which swirls an irruption of dark, threatening unease. But the solo viola takes up the chant-like line, by turns declamatory and meditative, its discourse supported by various orchestral motifs and atmospheric textures. Donald Maurice’s solo playing vividly captures the music’s gamut of supplicatory emotion, while Marc Taddei and the orchestra provide an accompaniment richly-mixed with ambiences of faith and trust, doubt and fear. From Ligeti-like string-clusters come sudden intrusions of light and energy, menacing, gutteral-throated strings and ghoulish figures on what sounds like a bass clarinet. Deep, seismic percussion ignites an outburst that galvanizes the whole orchestra, and brings the solo viola into conflict with forces of darkness. A portentous, doom-laden motif rises in the orchestra, challenged further by the viola, which is soon overwhelmed by a rising tide of pitiless-sounding, all-enveloping brutality, reinforced by crushing hammer-blows. Stoically, the viola remains steadfast, giving vent to its anguish, but still raising its voice to heaven at the close.

There are some famously apocalyptic settings by composers of the “Dies Irae” poem, and Pigovat, though not employing the actual words, certainly aligns himself with the movers and shakers of heaven and earth, such as Berlioz and Verdi. Slashing string lines introduce the “Dies Irae” movement, leading to orchestral outpourings whose force and vehemence will, later in the movement, readily suggest the imagery suggested by the term “holocaust”. After the initial maelstrom abates, the solo viola attempts to plead with the forces of darkness, but is repeatedly beaten down, its desperate energies to no avail. Pigovat was strongly influenced by a novel Life and Destiny by the Russian-Jewish writer Vasiliy Grossman, containing passages describing Jews’ last train journey from imprisonment to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Some of Shostakovich’s more harrowing motoric orchestral sequences come to mind in places, over the top of which the brass shout cruel repetitive utterances. Out of a searing, incandescent chord-cluster thrusts a beating rhythm, the composer suggesting the pulsing of a great number of human hearts, a rhythm which loses strength and dies.

Harsh, strident bells sound the beginning of Lacrimosa, the viola sharing in the pain and horror of what has just been experienced. The composer notes, most appositely, that “It is possible to shout with strong anger, or to groan powerlessly, or to go mad, and only then appear tears……” and Maurice’s virtuosic playing at this point conveys all of these feelings and more besides. A timpani-led processional begins the process of ritualizing the grief, somewhat, but underlines the bleak nihilism of the scenario, reinforced by a doom-laden tam-tam stroke. Then the orchestral strings offer consolation amid the despair, horns as well paying tribute to those destroyed as well as acknowledging those left behind. As the music slips without a break into the Lux Eterna, lights softly begin to glow amid the sound-textures, and there’s an almost lullabyic feel to the music’s trajectories.The viola speaks again, its voice dark-toned and grief-tainted, but calling for a renewal of faith in the human spirit, and a rekindling of hope for the future. The instrument re-establishes connections and interactions with various orchestral voices, their tones no longer expressing fear, hate, and cruelty, but intertwining with the soloist’s voice in search of a better, more understanding place for everybody in the world (the final exchanges between viola and dark-browed brass and percussion speak volumes, as the work closes).

The three pieces accompanying the Requiem on this disc all have connections or commonalities of some kind with the major work. The first, Prayer, for viola and piano, probably has the closest relationship with Requiem, as it was written when the composer had finished the latter’s Lacrimosa and was preparing materials for the fourth part, Lux Eterna. The music thus breathes much the same air as does the Requiem, with one of its themes actually used in the Shma Israel section of Lux Eterna. Donald Maurice again plays the viola, and, together with pianist Richard Mapp, gives an extraordinarily intense reading of the work. Its opening measures are meditative and hypnotic, the piano resembling a tolling bell at the outset, beneath the viola’s quiet song of lament. From the darkest depths of their interaction spring impulses of lyrical flow, gentle and undulating at first, then more impassioned, Maurice’s bow biting into his strings and Mapp’s monumental chords imparting an epic quality to the mood of grief and suffering. The undulations return, their tones gradually dissolving into mists of quiet resignation and fortitude – altogether, a beautiful and moving work.

Silent Music is scored for viola and harp, a felicitous combination of complementary tones and timbres, one I’d never before imagined. Written in 1997, after the Requiem, the piece commemorates the practice in Israel of people lighting candles for burning at places where there have been fatal terrorist attacks, one such occasioning this piece. The music’s beauty almost belies the composer’s sombre intent, though towards the end of the piece some repeated agglomerations of notes on Carolyn Mills’s harp grow through a disturbing crescendo towards a moment of intense pain, whose feeling resonates throughout the concluding silences.

Intensities of a different order are unashamedly displayed throughout the final work on the CD, Nigun, for String Quartet, though the piece finished far more quickly than I expected, due presumably to an error of timing recorded with the track listings (instead of a nine-minute work, the music came to an end, a tad abruptly, at 5’00”.  Boris Pigovat originally wrote this work for string orchestra, the string quartet version appearing for the first time on this CD. The composer’s intention was “to give expression to the tragic spirit which I feel in traditional Jewish music”. It’s certainly not a happy work, being, in psychological terms, assailed by anxieties at an early stage in its progress, the composer using the quartet’s antiphonal voicings to create a kind of overlying effect, as textures pile on top of, or slide beneath, other textures. Figurations and tempi intensify as the piece proceeds, the Dominion Quartet’s players “blocking” their sounds together for some marvellously massive-sounding chords, before continuing what feels like a fraught interaction, mercifully worked-out in the time-honored manner, but leaving one or two sostenuto voices to gradually expel their last reserves of breath and melt their tones into the stillness of the ending.

Not only does this recording deserve to be heard and savored, but the oncoming Town Hall concert (September 29th – see above) featuring the Requiem, should be an entry on everybody’s calendar. If something of the spirit of this recording can be replicated (albeit with a different orchestra and conductor) the occasion will be stunning, unmissably spectacular.

Delightful American songs from Megan Corby and Craig Beardsworth at the Hutt

American songs by Copland, Barber, Ives, and William Schuman, Richard Hundley, Paul Bowles, Richard Hageman and Jason Robert Brown

Craig Beardsworth (baritone) and Megan Corby (soprano); Hugh McMillan (piano)

St Mark’s church, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 14 September, 12.15pm

It’s a few years since I heard either of these singers in a solo recital of any kind. This lunchtime concert was such an enterprising and attractive event that I felt real regret that the audience was so small, though not very different from the audiences that usually come. The real sadness is the failure of the Lower Hutt City Council to save the Laing’s Road Methodist Church where these concerts used to be held, usually attracting more people.

Introducing the concert, Craig Beardsworth sort-of apologized to those who might have expected a recital of American music to present names like Porter, Rodgers, Kern and Gershwin. But unapologetically, he made it clear that some sort of distinction was to be seen between American ‘songs’ and commercial Broadway music, just as there is between Schubert and Schumann, and the world of the West End musical and the Beatles.

By no means undervaluing the lighter varieties of music, I thought the two proved their case very well.

They took turns, generally singing songs that matched the sexes. They were well prepared, their presentations polished and accompanied by gestures that did much to bring the mini-dramas to life, as well as to entertain. Speaking of accompaniment, Hugh McMillan handled the wide variety of styles, from the country rhythms of Paul Bowles’s Lonesome Man to the complexities of Charles Ives, with skill and a distinguished facility with the style and character of each.

American accents were employed judiciously, hardly audible in many songs, but full-blown elsewhere, as in Beardsworth’s arresting performances of ‘The Dodger’, ‘Lonesome Man’ and ‘The Greatest Man’.

Megan Corby opened with an aria, ‘Laurie’s song’, from Copland’s opera The Tender Land, easing us into American song through a work with clear European sources, yet flavoured with Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin. Richard Hundley was a name new to me; his two songs, ‘Sweet Suffolk Owl’ and ‘Come ready and see me’ revealed a composer, thanks to Corby, with an ear for notes that were just right for the words. Her Barber songs – ‘The Monk and his cat’ and ‘The Crucifixion’ – presented a composer less committed to a popular style, more in tune with the art song of France or England, yet with American contours. She sang them with real polish.

I realised from what was said about Paul Bowles that my education had been neglected (most of his life he acted as a sort of one-man American cultural out-post in Tangier by the sound of it), and the four songs, evenly shared by the two singers, richly tuneful, not the least hackneyed or sentimental, were among the most enjoyable of the concert. In ‘Sugar in the cane’ Megan, southern twang and all, showed her impatience with the constraints of her condition; while in ‘Do not go, my love’ by Richard Hageman, her anguish at her looming loss was real. Her final song, the 1996 setting by Jason Robert Brown of ‘The Flagmaker’, touching a War of Independence tragedy, was both poignant and dramatic.

Craig’s share of the partnership began strikingly with two of Copland’s familiar folk song arrangements: ‘The Dodger’ and ‘At the River’ – the first satirical and mocking, a bit outrageous, the second rotundly pious, also mocking. Perhaps his biggest challenge was with the three Ives songs, with which he used his interesting voice to great effect. The studied way he put down the score, to start in a quasi-lecturing way, to narrate his tale of ‘The Greatest Man’  was the mark of a highly accomplished performer; there and in ‘The Circus Band’, the voice and the droll, evocative gestures seem to call for him to have much more exposure.

It was a admirable recital that deserves to be enjoyed in other parts of the metropolis.