A particularly charming lunchtime concert at St Andrew’s

The Nikau Trio – Karen Batten (flute), Madeline Sakofsky (oboe), Jane Young (cello)

Serenade IV in B flat, K 439b (Mozart); Trio Sonata in C minor (Telemann); Chrzaszcz (‘Grasshopper’) (G Waterhouse); Trio in C, Op 87 (Beethoven)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 30 November, 12.15pm

Not a lot of composers have written music specifically for the combination of flute, oboe and cello; however, any composers present at this concert might have been prompted to do so both on account of the intrinsic attractiveness of the sound blend, and the charming case these three players made for the four pieces they played.

They began with a to-me-unknown serenade by Mozart: K 439b, listed as Serenade IV: that means No 4 in the group of five serenades or divertimenti (25 ‘divertimenti’ in all) that carry the catalogue number K 439b (K.Anh.229 in the fairly definitive 6th edition of the Köchel Catalogue). It gets more complicated…

Naturally, you will find a great deal of interesting, if not altogether straight-forward scholarly information on the famous  catalogue through Google and Wikipedia.

The five serenades are scored for various instruments; this one appears to be scored for three basset-horns or two clarinets and basset-horn.  So what we heard evaded the sounds that Mozart had very emphatically in his mind – that of the clarinet and its bass cousin the basset horn. The introductory rising, unison triad would have sounded more convincing played by three identical instruments; the effect from instruments of very different timbres was, to say the least, strange, something that I doubt Mozart would have written.

However, sources reveal arrangements for a wide variety of instruments – almost all winds – including clarinet, oboe, cor anglais, French horn, bassoon, and including a piano.

In general, however, the five brief movements, most based on one theme, were charming though slight. In this scoring, it seemed easier to hear them as mere background music for a vivacious social event. The players established straight away their facility and their comfort in the salon style of music Mozart wrote here.

However, I felt that this piece proved the most problematic in terms of persuasive, idiomatic sound. In contrast, the Telemann trio launched itself with an air of some consequence, written of course when the baroque style was still dominant; it bore the marks of contrapuntal mastery and steady attention to the role of each instrument, bearing mind players and perhaps audience of some musical sophistication as compared with the perhaps less attentive and well-schooled listeners to Mozart’s piece.

It really is a revelation to encounter from Telemann music that shows both such compositional skill and inventiveness, as well a such charm. Each instrument seemed to have music that revealed its best characteristics, the cello in the first movement, the oboes at the opening of the third, a thoughtful Andante, and a lively flute opening of the final Allegro, which employed an adroit though unostentatious fugue.

The third piece was by a Munich-based English composer, Graham Waterhouse (born 1962). His piece had a fine Polish name of nine letters with only one vowel: Chrzaszcz. (Isn’t it interesting to contemplate how much more economically this word would appear in Russian – Хжaщ.  Cyrillic script provides single letters for most sounds that demand two or more letters in Polish and in English and other languages that used the Roman alphabet).

Written in 1984, it was quite short, pithy and its motifs and rhythms offered sufficient justification of its title that means ‘grasshopper’; but its main stylistic origin sounded neither English, nor German, nor Polish – but French, of the Poulenc or Françaix flavour. The players were clearly entertained by it and gave a lively, colourful performance.

Though it carries a fairly late opus number which would suggest around 1810, the Trio, Op 87 was probably written in 1794, shortly after Beethoven’s arrival in Vienna. Hardly a profound work of course, but among its strengths was the fact that, though originally for two oboes and cor anglais, its arrangements seem not to detract from its musical value; rather, as in this case, it seems always appropriate, as the music’s quality is proof against any maltreatment; an arrangement can even enhance its attractiveness and character.  That seemed particularly the case with the cello, whose voice was hardly represented in the original score.  These players seemed to relish the opportunities offered by their individual parts, as well as responding collegially to blending of their parts.

Though the first movement was quite long, its material supported it without a hint of empty note-spinning. Unlike much music of the classical or galant era, no movement seemed without substance: an Adagio that may not have been profound but reflected the thoughts of a serious-minded composer; a minuet that didn’t avoid the routine form, but already revealed an originality and intelligence. In the Finale the cello’s role provided colour and a lyrical quality that might not have been common in such pieces at that time (apart from Haydn and Mozart). It is a highly diverting piece whose individuality the players relished and which brought a delightful recital to a lively end.

‘Make sure your cellophonia are ON’: memorable injunction from the School of Music


Music written or arranged for cello ensemble, by Corelli, Villa-Lobos, de Falla, Klengel, Popper and Bach (arrangements by Claude Kenneson)

Cello Ensemble Concert in association with New Zealand School of Music

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University of Wellington

Sunday, 27 November 2011

What a treat!  Eight cellists from the New Zealand School of Music, NZ Trio, New Zealand String Quartet, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Vector Wellington Orchestra and Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (their new principal, Eliah Sakakushev) formed the backbone of ‘Cellophonia’. They performed with 14 others joining later in the concert, from various other ensembles and none.

It was a mystery as to why this concert was free.  Surely most people in the audience could afford at least a koha, which could have gone towards teaching music to young people, including those in underprivileged situations.  An increasing amount of music teaching is going on in such circumstances; some money from this source would have been a great fillip to them.

The usual request to ensure that cellphones were off seemed to be particularly relevant this time.  But this playing had no extraneous sounds, and was utterly transparent in character.

First up was Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op.6, no.8 the ‘Christmas Concerto’, with 8 cellists (Ashley Brown, Rolf Gjelsten, Andrew Joyce, Inbal Megiddo, Annemarie Meijers, Sally Pollard, Rowan Prior and Eliah Sakasushev).  The music did sound a little strange, with the mainly lower-pitched sonorities – and it can’t be said that intonation was perfect.  The lack of variety of timbre made this familiar music less than appealing to me; it was gravelly (and grovelly), despite some fine playing, and appropriate tempi and dynamics.

The later sections had more movement and were lighter in quality, with Andrew Joyce (who led) playing at a higher register.  The playing of Joyce and Megiddo was particularly effective.  The final Pastorale was characterised by sonorous contemplation that was most satisfying.

It was followed by Mahler’s dreamy Adagietto from his Symphony no.5.  This time the leader was Ashley Brown, and an additional cellist (Jane Young) took part.  The piece worked very well; the harp of the original was rendered on plucked strings, and the whole maintained its nostalgic, elegiac quality.   Being Romantic music rather than baroque, it worked much better for this combination.  Ashley Brown’s solo part was very beautifully played, if a little metallic in the upper register.  Mahler’s seductive melody and harmony could not fail to play upon the heart-strings.

The arrangements of this and the Corelli were by Claude Kenneson, about whom I could learn nothing from Grove, and the printed programme was silent about him.  However, Google led me to some information about this Canadian (American-born) cellist, born in 1935, and his long period of teaching at the Banff Centre for the Arts, where the New Zealand String Quartet has been resident.

Now for a work actually written for 8 cellos: Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras no.1.  The popular series of 9 pieces is most well-known for no.5, the one with voice.  As Grove says “…he wrote polyphonies for groups of cellos and obtained, from an extended range, resources of an almost orchestral richness.”  This time the group was led by Rolf Gjelsten.  (The complex rearrangement of the players between items, particularly in the second half, reminded me of a skilled marching team in action.)  He played the gorgeous melody in the Preludio with warmth and mellifluous tone.

The rich sound from all the performers blocked out the howling of the wind outside.  Villa-Lobos’s music transported me to another world, through the incessant rhythm of the  Introduction, and the thrilling timbres achieved by the players.   For the Fugue, Gjelsten swopped with Andrew Joyce; mostly there were duos of cellos to each part.  It was a lightly rhythmic fugue à la Bach, with a modern twist and complex writing.  The fact that the piece was written for this instrumentation certainly showed.

On now to Spain: the Suite Populaire Espagnole by Manuel de Falla, again arranged by Claude Kenneson.  Originally a work for voice and piano (Keith Lewis has recorded it with Michael Houstoun), it translated well to the medium of 8 cellos.  In the first movement, ‘El Paño moruno’, Andrew Joyce played very high on the finger-board; the melody sounded most sonorously, despite the carpeted floor.  His superb playing demonstrated the great versatility of the cello.

A quiet ‘Asturiana’ followed, with Rolf Gjelsten taking the solo.  A quiet, sultry atmosphere was created.  The next, ‘Jota’, incorporated delightful dance rhythms, using spiccato technique, and a solo from Ashley Brown.  However, I missed castanets.  The ‘Nana’ movement had all the players using pizzicato except the solo from Eliah Sakakushev, with Inbal Meggidu bowing a bass drone.  She performed the soulful and beautiful solo in ‘Canción’, with an accompaniment that could have done with some different timbres.

The final ‘Polo’ was stirring stuff, again with Inbal Megiddo as soloist.

Now to a work for twelve cellos – but played here by 23.  Hymnus was composed by Julius Klengel, a German cellist and composer for that instrument, who died in 1933.

The opening of his piece was conducted by Andrew Joyce, but after that, everyone was on their own.  Not all the cellists were playing for much of the piece.  The melody was taken first by Ashley Brown, then Andrew Joyce joined in at a higher register, and others followed in this soporific but beautifully romantic piece.

David Popper was an Austrian cellist and composer in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with many compositions to his name, including much for his own instrument.  Again, there was a big, lush sound in his Requiem Adagio for 3 cellos and piano (add 20 to that).   There was a wonderfully wide dynamic range, and great cohesion and rhythm in this slow and soulful piece.  With this performance, it was hard to see how it could all be played on just 3 cellos.   While Jian Liu could not readily be seen by most of the audience, his sensitive and musical support and clarity in the effervescent piano part were readily heard.

The fact that the Corelli did not really come off led one to expect the same of the Bach; this could not be further from the truth.  After yet another complicated change of positions, all 23 played again, without conductor in a very effective performance of Brandenburg Concerto no.3 in G major, BWV 1048.

After the delightful Allegro came the Adagio with Inbal Megiddo as soloist.  She played with great style and tonal variety, and with Gjelsten and Brown in the last movement, ending with her playing solo again.

The concert attracted a full house – but a good deal of the downstairs area usually used for audience seating was taken up by cellists, leaving only two rows of chairs, instead of the usual four or five.

The programme could be called experimental, but on the whole the items worked superbly well.  Full marks to the musicians, and also to Claude Kenneson, who arranged most of the pieces.  All the cellists made a fine sound, and the effect of their combined forces was exotic, lush, and thoroughly enjoyable.


The Bach Choir – Where would we be without Messiah?

HANDEL – Messiah

Amelia Ryman (soprano) / Megan Hurnard (contralto) / Thomas Atkins (tenor)

David Morriss (bass)

The Chiesa Ensemble (Leader: Rebecca Struthers)

Douglas Mews – Continuo

The Bach Choir of Wellington

Stephen Rowley (conductor)

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Wellington

Sunday 27th November 2011

Though associated by dint of its “Birth of Christ” references with Christmastime, Messiah has as many affinities with the other “big” Christian event of the Liturgical year, which is, of course, Easter. Conductor Stephen Rowley seemed to emphasize the latter connection at the very beginning of the work in the Bach Choir of Wellington’s recent performance. In fact, it could have been that “High Priest of the German classics” Otto Klemperer conducting, so solemn, grand and slow were those chords at the opening of the overture, though the succeeding Allegro was sprightly enough, with perhaps just a touch of heaviness here and there. It wasn’t a performance for “authenticists” – too full-toned, with an almost romantic sensibility about the music’s expressive unfolding (but in a more cosmic sense, its unique delivery very much in a spontaneously “baroque” tradition).

Having admired and enjoyed the Chiesa Ensemble’s playing on many past occasions, I was a little surprised at the number of noticeable instrumental spills I noticed along the way (insufficient rehearsal, perhaps?) – ensemble awry at the beginning of  the recitative “For Behold…” and again with the soprano in her recitative “And suddenly…..”  – as well as some ragged playing in “Since Man came by Death”. Against these moments were some magnificently buoyant and pin-precise episodes, great support for the choir in “For Unto Us a Child is Born”, as indeed there was throughout all the choruses, another highlight being “And With His stripes” where both singing and playing was excitingly vigorous and secure.

Certainly those big moments, where one wants the utmost glory and majesty, were brought off thrillingly – I actually couldn’t see whether it was Mark Carter or Tom Moyer playing the solo in “The Trumpet Shall Sound” so beautifully, but both gave their all during the final choruses, amply supported by Larry Reese’s scalp-tingling timpani-playing, and full-toned outpourings from strings, winds and continuo.

The Choir itself, somewhat compromised by the imbalance of women’s against men’s voices (an all-too common phenomenon among choral groups these days), performed honestly and reliably throughout, here and there actually touching realms of true sublimity. There were instances where those middle and lower voices were overpowered by the higher ones – though in live performances it’s amazing what the “eye” can imagine the “ear” is actually hearing, especially if one knows the music well. Thus a chorus like “And He shall purify” featured a more-than-usually gleaming soprano line, though one could sense the effort of projection on the part of the other strands, coming together splendidly at the words “That they may offer unto the Lord”.

I liked conductor Stephen Rowley’s emphasizing of some of the choruses’ expressive gestures – the chorus ‘HIs yoke is easy” was nicely modulated throughout, with the dynamics well-controlled, and the tones of the voices on the last word “light” nicely softened into a diminuendo. And the voices’ emphasizing of the word “Death” in “Since Man came by Death” made for a dramatic, breath-catching moment. The Choir also sustained splendidly the long lines of “Behold the Lamb of God” at the words “taken away”. In short, splendid moments, these and others, transcending the difficulties, also occasionally apparent, of the group’s varying strength in different sections.

Of the soloists tenor Thomas Atkins was the first to impress with a thrilling “Comfort Ye”, the recitative properly declamatory and prophet-like, and the aria “Ev’ry valley” joyously energetic (and supported by some lovely string-playing). Also, he made something distinctive, I thought, of his sequence beginning “All they that see Him laugh Him to scorn”, the singing powerful and sonorous, as it was through “Thy rebuke hath broken His heart” . I must confess to wondering, throughout the first half, whether the microphone in the church’s pulpit (from where each of the soloists sang) had been left switched “on” as the voice-tones seemed to have for a while a somewhat augmented and “directional” resonance – but I never got to the bottom of the mystery, except that throughout the second half the voices seemed to my ears more naturally projected.

Contralto Megan Hurnard gave reliable, centered renditions of her solos, the voice gravely beautiful throughout her centerpiece “He was despised”, even if some of the words sounded a shade inert, needing more emphasis in order to make them live and breathe. I thought, for example, that during “He gave his back” the singer could have risked a little roughness of tone to get something of the sting of words like “smiters”, and even “spitting” across to us.

Bass David Morriss gave us something of that vocal energy, interestingly poetic-sounding and beautiful where I expected him to be darker and more sepulchral in “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth”. But he nicely “grew” the phrase “……have seen a great light” with an unerring sense of what the music ought to be doing, as with the more hushed tones of “And they that dwell”. The dramatic “Why do the nations” went splendidly also, with the figurations generating plenty of agitated bluster; and perhaps the brief moment that went awry in “The kings of the earth rise up” was due to the same unaccustomed “lurch” we all felt, of tumbling straight afterwards into the “Halleluiah” Chorus (one gets so used to another chorus “Let us break their bonds” coming beforehand – we were, in fact, so caught up by surprise that nobody on this occasion stood up!).  As for “The trumpet shall sound”, the introduction was full of expectancy and growing excitement, and, one or two “ensemble” moments notwithstanding, the interchanges between singer and trumpet-player were nimble and enlivening.

I enjoyed soprano Amelia Ryman’s bright, silvery tones throughout, celestial and sparkling at “And lo, the angel of the Lord”, and surviving some out-of-sync moments with the orchestra at “And suddenly there was” (the string players making amends with some beautifully hushed work at the end). The spirited, but difficult “Rejoice greatly” was negotiated confidently and securely (breathing an issue in places, here, with such long and florid vocal runs). And her entry during”He shall feed His flock” was a highlight, like an unveiling, an irradiating of the musical textures. Of course, the soprano’s big moment is “I know that my Redeemer liveth” – and we got a heartfelt rendition balancing poise with impulsiveness in places, which I liked – one sensed the words here really meant something, such as at “And though worms destroy this body”. A lovely ascent at “For now is Christ risen” capped off a pleasingly-wrought performance.

I’m sure many people feel as I do, that the year’s concert-going wouldn’t be complete without hearing a live performance of Messiah. By dint of the various performing editions and the possible combinations arising from these, let alone the difference between singers, instrumentalists and conductors, the work for me invariably emerges newly-minted from each encounter. My preference (not necessarily with all works, but this is one of them) would be to hear a performance in the evening – for me there’s always been something about the interaction of music performance and darkness that creates extra frisson (but I am having therapy!). Seriously, I thought this was a presentation with its own distinctions and set of ambiences, one which contained some excellent performances, and which readily conveyed to us the work’s on-going greatness.











NZSM Piano Trio give superb concert of major works

Piano Trios by Beethoven (Op 70 No 1); Mendelssohn (Op 49); Dvořák (Op 65)

New Zealand School of Music Piano Trio (Martin Riseley, Inbal Megiddo, Jian Liu)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University

Thursday 24 November, 7.30pm

I was struck by the use of the word ‘irritability’ in Martin Riseley’s notes about Beethoven’s ‘Ghost’ Trio. I have no idea whether the word has been applied before by others, but it opened a different response for me; one that I found made me listen to it rather afresh.

That might be an initial feeling in the opening phase of the first movement, but it’s quickly replaced by a more positive emotion.  I do not usually find myself remarking much on the performances of individuals in chamber music ensembles; since the end of the eighteenth century the raison d’être of chamber music has been a collaboration between players, and I would rather promote that than encourage audiences to seek stars, and personalities (it’s bad enough that politics has become a popularity contest at the expense of a contest between political philosophies).

However, it was pianist Jian Liu whose playing seemed not just to dominate in terms of audibility, but which guided the character of the performances with such distinction. That is not unusual in a piano trio of course, compared with a string quartet; for the piano commands greater density of sound, most of the harmonic spectrum of the music and, to revert to the eighteenth century model, makes it hard sometimes to avoid the impression of a piano sonata with violin and cello accompaniment.

The Ghost trio is perhaps the most democratic of the three works played, with striking contributions early in the first movement from the cello, beautifully played by Inbal Megiddo; nor is the violin part secondary, though Martin Riseley, here and elsewhere, sounded less robust and rich in tone. The first movement felt somewhat hurried; hurried rather than energy-driven, and the rather perfunctory ending of the movement seemed to come too quickly.

After a lovely calm entry by violin and piano in the second movement, it was the cello that soon caught the ear as Megiddo invested it with a deep emotional intensity, and Beethoven seems to call on the cello to carry much of its dark quality . There is evidence that this movement had its source in music Beethoven sketched for an opera on Macbeth which never got beyond that; the conjuring of a ghost here always escapes me however, even though the piano enjoys some other-worldly growling in the bass regions.

In the last movement the responsibilities are more evenly distributed; it’s given to short phrases that break off and then take off in a different direction.

Mendelssohn’s first trio is very much the work of a young piano virtuoso, and here, more than elsewhere, was the main ground of my remark about the piano’s omnipresence, not just constantly, but in dazzling virtuoso mode which hardly let up. Yet the piano is rarely alone and it never dominated the ensemble, allowing equal the participation by violin and cello; indeed, both have their moments in the bravura spotlight; here too, no player was inclined to overlook the need to create a harmonious synthesis.

The second movement, often likened to one of the composer’s ‘songs without words’, never slipped from its quiet nobility: a particularly successful movement. The scherzo went so fast – as it should – that the players may well have barely saved themselves from minor stumbles.

The last movement filled one with admiration at the pianist’s ability to deliver dazzling, and visually beguiling virtuosity in the most charming, self-effacing manner.

Dvořák’s third piano trio is a serious affair, coming between the D major and D minor symphonies (Nos 6 and 7), of his full maturity. It followed the death of his mother in 1882; that accounts partly for its somber character; the other rather strong influence is that of Brahms. Riseley’s remark about the relative neglect of Dvořák’s large body of great chamber music is well said. Apart from the Piano Quintet, the American Quartet, the Dumky Trio, what is really much heard?

Dvořák was not notable as a pianist (though an excellent one in fact), yet it is again the piano part that commands attention here, though there is interesting writing for the two strings, both again giving glowing performances. The piano is hardly less busy than in the Mendelssohn in dealing with thousands of notes in breathtaking cascades, especially in the second movement, Scherzo.

However, I confess to finding the slow movement somewhat listless, and though it was played with insight and intelligence, I could not escape the feeling of note-spinning. Nor did the players really convince me in the last movement where the piano again rather subordinates the strings and it strikes me as having run out of steam before the end. Yet the players seemed determined to make the most convincing case for it, and they almost succeeded.

Georgina Zellan-Smith – new light on the “Moonlight”

Piano recital by Georgina Zellan-Smith

Music by Scarlatti, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Chopin – plus some “popular favorites” requests.

House concert, Johnsonville, Wellington

Tuesday 22nd November 2011

Auckland-based pianist Georgina Zellan-Smith is, sadly, an infrequent visitor to Wellington these days. She performed here last at a commemorative concert in 2008 which marked the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Richard Farrell, on which occasion she played an excerpt from Liszt’s Italian Book of his “Years of Pilgrimage”. On that evening she shared the piano with Maurice Till, Margaret Nielsen, Diedre Irons and Jun Bouterey-Ishido. So it was with the keenest of anticipation that I awaited her proposed house-concert scheduled for November in Johnsonville, and for which she would presumably have the piano all to herself (no reflection whatever, of course, on those other excellent pianists who contributed so movingly to the Richard Farrell evening).

In the event, she gave her attentive and highly appreciative audience a richly-conceived programme, using an instrument (a Kawai) whose tones seemed particularly sonorous at the lower end of the sound-spectrum. Whether this quality was in fact a natural penchant of the pianist’s towards middle and lower tones, or whether the player connected with and used the instrument’s intrinsic voicings to noticeable advantage, I’m not entirely sure. But in places such as throughout the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, under Zellan-Smith’s fingers the middle and bass voices of the music had a fuller, richer and darker aspect than one normally experiences in this music. The effect was to bring a somewhat uneasy, almost sinister quality to the familiar “Moonlight on the lake waters” evocation, and explore a whole new dimension of feeling and response to the composer’s vision. Never have I heard this music sounding more than it could have been out of Schumann’s “Kreisleriana”, the lower voicing emphasizing the shadows stalking the right-hand melody throughout.

In this context the second movement of the “Moonight  made for a strong contrast, the syncopated rhythms in the middle section played fully out, suggesting something more elemental than what we normally hear. The finale continued the music’s mood, bringing great weight as well as momentum, Zellan-Smith pointing the rhythmic trajectories of the music to compelling, energetic effect rather than relying merely on speed for excitement. She also made a great deal of the claustrophobic contrasting episodes, hands close together concentrating the music into obsessive repetitions before opening up the vistas with the concluding rolling arpeggiations. Alone, the pianist’s playing of this somewhat hackneyed, but still potentially magical work made the concert worthwhile for me.

Incidentally, as a kind of prelude to the “Moonlight”, Zellan-Smith gave us the beautiful Adagio Cantabile” from the same composer’s “Pathetique” Sonata – and again she found in the music such a rich well of light and dark feeling. It was her left-hand work which riveted me, the ebb and flow of tonal coloring beautifully controlling and shaping the right-hand melody (one of the world’s great tunes, I think), the tempo not particularly slow, but always giving things time to breathe, each note specifically placed instead of being delivered in a generalized way. She made a great thing of the middle section’s arched magnificence, her left hand again making certain that all the music’s voices had a part in the overall scheme of things. I could have, on this showing, happily listened to her playing an entire program of Beethoven – what wouldn’t she have done with things like the wonderful “Les Adieux” Sonata, or one of those unearthly late masterpieces such as Op.111?

But then we would have had to do without some other deliciously different things, such as the recital’s opening piece, a Scarlatti Sonata in F Major, played here with such a delicious amalgam of grace, energy and good humor – something that fellow-New Zealand pianist Margaret Nielsen would, I’m sure, have called “great character” – and a Mendelssohn work that I couldn’t recall having ever heard before (to my shame, as a piano-fancier!), his Fantasia in F-sharp Minor, Op.28 (known also as the “Scottish Sonata”), a tremendous piece, beginning with swirling, almost Gothic-like arpeggiated mists, from which developed a beautiful, melancholic theme not unlike that from the opening of Schubert’s “Arpeggione” Sonata. In places Zellan-Smith’s playing strongly brought out the connection with Bach’s toccata-like organ works, Mendelssohn paying homage, one suspects, to those fantastic harmonic modulations that readily conjure up dimly-lit and spookily obsessive dream-like sequences of deranged organists lost in their private worlds of sound. I liked the pianist’s winsome treatment of the theme’s intermingling of major and minor at the end of the movement, and the soft drumbeats acknowledging the ending’s ghostly echoes.

As with the Beethoven Sonata, there’s a graceful ,dance-like movement between the two outer giants (shades of Schumann’s “flower between two chasms” – or was it Liszt who said that of the “Moonlight” Sonata’s middle movement?) – here, the pianist played the dance more for strength than for charm, which I liked, the music to my ears responding positively to such a purposeful approach. As for the last movement’s “diabolique” impulses, Mendelssohn’s sprites tend to be more mischievous than malevolent, though here the delicacies seemed to have flint-edges, the composer managing to conjure up a Beethoven-like mood of agitation in places (though the “Scottish” ambiences of the first movement didn’t seem to be carried over strongly into the rest of the work). Zellan-Smith kept the music’s serious mood to the fore, avoiding the “drawing-room gentility” that tends to hang about a lot of the composer’s chamber and instrumental music, and maintaining an “edge” to the textures and rhythms right up to the work’s final energetic flourishes.

A further delight of the recital was Georgina Zellan-Smith’s playing of a couple of items from her recent CD of popular piano classics, “Remembrance”, including the beautifully atmospheric “Rustle of Spring” by Christian Sinding, the piano on this occasion giving the pianist’s swirling left-hand accompaniments in places a bit more weight and body than on the CD recording, and providing the agitato feeling that the more delicate episodes o the music need to bring out their full effect. By the time the pianist reached the Chopin items which concluded the program, including the fleet-fingered Fantasie-Impromptu (another world-famous melody) I suspect that the effort of realizing both the Beethoven and Mendelssohn items so whole-heartedly was beginning to take its toll, though the G-flat waltz in particular was a great pleasure to experience. In all, there was a great deal of wonderful music and fully-committed music-making packed into what seemed like too short a time, throughout this recital. I do hope we in Wellington get further opportunities to hear Georgina Zellan-Smith play more of the music she obviously loves and illuminates with such skill and understanding.




Festival Singers’ Papa Haydn – a Man for All Seasons

HAYDN – Oratorio “The Seasons”

Lesley Graham (soprano) / James Adams (tenor) / Roger Wilson (bass)

Festival Singers / Orchestra (Simon McLellan, leader)

Rosemary Russell (conductor)

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

Sunday, 20th November, 2011

Of all the works produced by that exemplar of creative industry and longevity Josef Haydn (1732-1809), his oratorio “The Seasons” is surely one of the happiest on all counts. In the work the composer gives full expression to his delight in nature, his obvious relish for country pastimes (blood-sports and all), and his serene religious faith.

What strikes the listener at a first hearing is the work’s ceaseless flow of wonderful things, the composer’s imagination and powers of expression obviously undimmed by his advancing years, despite his complaints to his publisher, thus:

 “The world daily pays me many compliments, even on the fire of my last works; but no one would believe the strain and effort it cost me to produce these, in as much as many a day my feeble memory and the unstrung state of my nerves so completely crush me to the earth that I fall into the most melancholy condition, so much so that for days afterwards I am incapable of finding one single idea, until at length my heart is revived by Providence, when I seat myself at the piano and begin to hammer away at it. Then all goes well, again, God be praised!”

The work’s librettist, Baron Gottfried Von Swieten, has come in for some stick over the years, some of it from the composer himself, who was supposed to have exclaimed at one point that the libretto was “Frenchified trash”. Swieten adapted his verses from those of the Scottish poet James Thomson, whose epic, eponymous work in praise of nature had become one of the most popular texts of his age. Haydn and Swieten quarrelled over various aspects of the work (as happens with nearly all fruitful collaborations of this kind) – but the success of the finished product consigned such differences to the wake of musical history.

The work was here sung in English, the words a curious amalgam of Swieten’s re-translation of his own script back to the original language (losing most of Thompson’s poetry in the process) and various “improvements” made by different editors at diverse times. Some of the original numbers were cut, and others shortened, but nothing was lost which caused great violence to be done to the work as a whole.

Haydn begins with a dark, orchestra-only evocation of winter gloom – a few gravely-descending bars of darkness set the scene before conductor Rosemary Russell brought in the allegro strongly and sternly, placing winter in retreat-mode, and being more roundly dismissed by both bass and tenor (Roger Wilson stentorian and vivid, James Adams sturdy and poetical). Soprano Lesley Graham then welcomed the spring breezes from “southern skies” with true, lightly-floated tones, the cue for the chorus to properly ring the seasonal change with a lilting “Come gentle spring”….

The number I knew once as “With joy, th’ impatient husbandsman….” here became “At dawn the eager plowman”, given plenty of agrarian spirit by Roger Wilson, and relished by the counterpointing bassoon, nicely played by Oscar Laven. We enjoyed these things greatly, along with the “Surprise Symphony” orchestral quotations, and the singer’s slightly more decorative reprise vocals. James Adams impressed, also, with his golden-toned “The farmer now has done his work”, the following Trio giving the orchestral horns the chance to shine throughout a nicely-burnished moment of introduction, and bringing in the chorus, beautifully rapt at “Let warming air turn suddenly soft”, though with a bit of momentary strain when delivering the stratospheric “And let thy sun resplendent shine”.

Lesley Graham’s lovely “Our prayer is heard on high” set the tone for a nicely-poised duet “Spring, her lovely charms…” between the soprano and tenor, James Adams. And the “God of Light, God of Life!” chorus was stirringly done, the rapturous Beethoven-like mood amply and satisfyingly forwarded by the soloists. Apart from an uncertain initial entry by the men in the fugal chorus “Endless praise to Thee….” the vocal lines were woven together with strength and clarity, Rosemary Russell keeping her orchestra equally up to the mark right to the final cadence.

The remainder of the performance reinforced the above impressions, though particular moments remained in the listener’s memory, such as the sunrise sequence at the beginning of summer, a vivid and urgent introduction by Lesley Graham, followed by soloists and chorus making a marvellous refulgence.

The “Country Calendar” commentaries that followed were also characterfully delivered, Roger Wilson bringing alive the Breughel-like harvesting, and James Adams contrasting the hustle and bustle with a sun-drenched paean of idyllic indolence – all of which led naturally to Lesley Graham’s sweet-toned portrayal of a “haven for the weary”, with Jose Wilson giving us  some nicely-turned oboe-playing.

From this “Rural Roundup” kind of mode, we switched to full-on weather-forecasting, portentous announcements from Roger Wilson, with timpanist Doreen Douglas providing telling ambient support. James Adams’ warnings were no less dire, the pizzicato raindrops by now falling about Lesley Graham’s breathless, suspenseful utterances. A sudden lightning-flash, and chorus and orchestra hurled themselves into the maelstrom with great abandonment, a pleasing disorder of unsettling sounds resulting within the confines of the hall.

Autumn, too had its delights, even if the introductory string-playing had some ensemble problems – the Terzetto and Chorus which followed, praising industry and advocating its rewards, had something naughtily Haydn-esque about it, the droll wind figures decorating the soloists’ lines seeming to me to poke gentle fun at the seriousness of it all. The concluding chorus-and-orchestra fugue survived some “woolly” moments along the way towards some wonderfully chromatic upward modulations and a triumphal concluding marriage of honest labour with moral righteousness, soloists, chorus and orchestra shirking not their duties.

Sports of all kinds were celebrated, innocent, knowing and deadly purposeful – we enjoyed both James Adams’ singing and enjoyment in turn of his line “the orchard shades maidens large and small”, and Roger Wilson’s account of the spaniel’s hunting of the hapless bird, shot with a loud timpani retort! As for the deerhunt, the rousing horn-playing (Peter Sharman and Kevin Currie) led the way in grand style, matched in energy and vigour by the chorus, who were then called upon once more a after a short respite, this time for a rollicking drinking-song, “Joyfully, the wine flows free…” The voices did well to sustain their pitch as well as they did across the span of broken phrases, as required by the composer, besides keeping enough energy in reserve for the final “All hail to the wine!”.

Though there were occasional problems with both ensemble and intonation in places, the orchestral playing never lacked for atmosphere and colour throughout – and so it was with the opening of “Winter”, where a lovely, dark-toned instrumental colour at the opening used sombre strings and plaintive winds to suggest the grey mists and gloom, an evocation which the composer equated with his own mortality and failing powers. The Cavatina that followed taxed the strings’ ensemble at the beginning, but Lesley Graham focused our attentions with her tremulously-toned lament at autumn’s passing into darker climes. James Adams’ tale of a lost traveller was also dramatically told, even if the singer didn’t have quite enough breath to easily cap the ascending phrase at “to find comfort sweet”.

The chorus’s “Spinning Song” (surprisingly romantic, dark and dramatic, sounding almost like something out of Wagner!) went with a swing, making a piquant contrast with the saucy tale of the maid who extricated herself from the clutches of a lascivious nobleman. Lesley Graham pointed the detail with some relish throughout, if not with quite enough “heft” in places to be properly heard, though the chorus’s “ha! ha!’s” certainly demonstrated its appreciation of the entertainment.

Roger Wilson’s deep, rich tones saluted the icy grip of winter, imploring all to cling to virtue as a means of salvation – though the brass blooped their first notes in response they recovered to cap the concluding orchestral efforts, and support some fine, strong lines of singing in the fugal passage “Direct us in thy ways”. Everything became somewhat revivalist at the very end, the energy and fervour of the singing and playing filling the hall, and making for a most satisfying conclusion. All credit to the efforts of singers and instrumentalists, and to Rosemary Russell for her inspired and sterling direction, and for bringing such a delightful work to the fore once again, for our pleasure.












Listening to ourselves: Voices New Zealand

Chamber Music New Zealand presents


Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir

Karen Grylls (director)

Horomona Horo (taonga puoro)

Music by Hildegard of Bingen, David Childs, Douglas Mews, Morten Lauridsen, Christopher Marshall,

Helen Fisher, David Griffiths, David Hamilton, Benjamin Britten, Henry Purcell (arr. Eriksson)

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday, 19th November, 2011

The concert was brought into being by the sounds of a trumpet played by Horomona Horo, creating both a ceremonial and a haunting effect, and thus suggesting limitless possibilities. One of these, appropriately resembling a voice from long ago, was a Sequence composed by Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth-century abbess, poet, composer and mystic. Growing beautifully from out of the expectant silence, the text O viridissimi Virga sung the praises of the Virgin Mary, hailing her as the “greenest branch” from which sprang “harvest ready for Man, and a great rejoicing of banqueters”. Hildegard’s unison lines were then interspersed among the choir’s voices, Pepe Becker’s beautifully stratospheric soprano tones prominent amongst them, to which was added the gentle counterpointing of another of the taonga puoro, on this occasion a flute. The presentation seemed like a kind of ritual of birth, of bringing the music into being by awakening the spirit within each and every voice – and on this occasion calling up a creative impulse to speak to us from half a Millennium away – all very impressive in a quiet and undemonstrative manner.

David Child’s lyrical Salve Regina followed, the vocal lines baroque-like in their detailing and deployment – solo, small group and whole ensemble interacting as a living organism, conductor Karen Grylls achieving with the voices a great haunting beauty at the concluding words, “O clemens, o pia, o dulcis Virgo Maria”, aided by a mesmeric repetition of the word “Maria” at the end.

From “Saints and Angels” (the works were bracketed thus throughout the concert) we moved to “Voices of Fire”, beginning with the coruscations of Douglas Mews’ Ghosts, Fire and Water,a work which made a huge impression on me when I heard it performed some years ago. Written in 1972, it was inspired by a poem by British author James Kirkup, his response, in turn to a series of paintings which became known as the “Hiroshima Panels”, and whose subject was the dropping of the first atomic bomb on that city in 1945. The opening lines “These are the ghosts of the unwilling dead” sets the sombre tone of the work, the stark vocal lines having no warmth, expressing only horror and shock at the effects of the carnage, sometimes bleak unisons, sometimes irruptions of biting repetitions of figurations. Spoken voices are powerfully set against the singing in places, the phrase “Love one another” in different languages over a hymn-like backdrop, the silence at the end as eloquent as the last utterances.

A different world of feeling, indeed, from Morten Lauridsen’s Madrigali, which followed – six settings of Renaissance verses by various poets, all in praise of “love’s fire” – hence the Six “Fire Songs” of the work’s full title. Each setting is informed by the composer’s initial “fire-chord”, a cluster of intensities, sizzling and coruscating, impulses that recur throughout the cycle. I liked the contrast between the lively and capricious No.3 “Amor, Io Sento L’alma”, a depiction of a growing conflagration of love, and the tearful despair of the following “Io piango”, the weeping underpinned by a mournful bass line. And the concluding “Se per Havervi, Ohime!” set a ground-swelling clustered-harmonied hymn at the beginning through to a rapt, rich sinking conclusion, enlivened by a brief upward impulse at the end, everything beautifully and robustly characterized by the voices.

Then came “Voices of the Earth and Sea”, Karen Grylls talking with us briefly about the works in this bracket being a “collage of landscape”. Helen Fisher’s Pounamu was the one that made the deepest impression on me, the flute-sounds conjured up by Horomono Horo in haunting accord with the long-breathed vocal lines, the Maori text a proverb from Tainui, beginning with the words “May the calm be widespread…..” and later evoking “the shimmer of summer” with constantly undulating lines and the flute’s cry riding the skies like a falcon in watchful flight – all of this was so beautifully realized.

Christopher Marshall’s Horizon 1 (part of a larger cycle of settings) briefly but effectively set words by Ian Wedde from a poem “Those Others’, referring to the Maori view of creation, and sounding the unceasing “breath of life” behind the alto’s beautiful but austere line. Then, David Griffiths’ two vignette-like pieces from the work Five Landscapes took us firstly to Southland’s Oreti Beach, and afterwards to Mount Iron, a Wanaka landmark – the first characterized by ceaselessly complaining winds, and the second filled out with hugely imposing blocks of tone, punctuated by quieter harmonic clusters.

A new and stirring work by David Hamilton rounded off the local content of the program – Karakia of the Stars. Here, voices were used instrumentally, along with Horo’s koauau patternings, the sounds of tapping stones, and the Arvo Pärt-like tintinabulations of little bells – the singers and instrumentalists having evoked the starry firmament, the chant welled up from terra firma, the mens’ voices counterpointing the womens’, underpinned by stampings and gesturing and resounding through the spaces. A note from the composer told us that the chant was part of a longer invocation to the stars “to provide a bountiful supply of food for the coming year” – a ‘between-the-lines” election-year message for our politicians, perhaps?

Lastly, “Voices of Nature” presented music from two of England’s greatest composers, Britten and Purcell – firstly, Britten’s beautiful Five Flower Songs, all but the last settings of English poetry, the exception being the traditional “Ballad of Green Broom”. From the madrigal-like realization of the opening “To Daffodils”, through the angularities of “Marsh Flowers” and the rapt hymnal of “The Evening Primrose”, these songs brought to our ears a wonderful synthesis of creative imagination and stunning performance evocation, ending with smiles at the wry wit of the composer’s “Green Broom” setting. Normally, such a bouncy, good-humored number would nicely round off a concert, but the ensemble chose instead to enchant us further with Purcell’s Music for a While, a song written for John Dryden’s tragedy “Oedipus”, here arranged for choir by Gunnar Eriksson. Pepe Becker’s pure, focused tones were very much to the fore, here, delivering the melody with searing beauty, the lines harmonized in places by women’s voices and the ground bass patterns vocalized by tenors and basses. It seemed for a few intensely lovely moments to tell us just why it is we listen to music and go to concerts.

Brilliant French programme with Anne Sophie von Otter and Wellington Orchestra at Town Hall

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Debussy); Songs from Chants d’Auvergne (Canteloube); Symphonie fantastique (Berlioz)

Anne Sophie von Otter  with the Vector Wellington Orchestra under Marc Taddei

Town Hall

Friday 18 November, 7.30pm

A full Town Hall auditorium and a stage crowded with a great orchestra of some 85 players, put me in mind of the Town Hall concerts that an NZSO of 30 years ago could sell out.

An entirely French programme was the perfect response to the Wellington Orchestra’s encounter with the wonderful Swedish mezzo who has indeed cultivated a special gift in the language and music of France.

As Marc Taddei remarked, the programme included two works that were landmarks not just for French music but for the whole world of classical music. Debussy’s Faune is now widely considered to herald the dawn of modern music, perhaps of more importance than the adventures of Schoenberg into atonality and serialism. And 60 years earlier it was Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony that pushed wide open the doors to Romanticism that Beethoven had unlocked.

Taddei opened Debussy’s enchanting work with the most discreet movements of his baton, preparing visually for Karen Batten’s ethereal, seductive flute sounds; and though such refinement characterized much of the playing by other instruments, particularly Matthew Ross’s solo violin, and Moira Hurst’s clarinet, the performance was not without more robust passages that spoke of the more earthy, physical quality of love described in Mallarmé’s poem. But its dream-like effects were sustained in an almost faultless canvas of sound.

Anne Sophie von Otter sang seven of the collection of songs from the region known as the Auvergne the name which is today given to one of France’s 22 regions, occupying the main part of the Massif Central. Canteloube was born in the département of Ardèche which lies on the southeast side of the region. I travelled through it 20 years ago on a train called the Le Cévenol (which I see has now become a ‘tourist’ journey), through Vichy and Clermont-Ferrand and south through winding, forested river gorges, through enchanting landscapes with a hundred tunnels and bridges and ancient villages.

Another composer who celebrated its music was Vincent d’Indy whose Symphony on a French Mountain Air or Symphonie Cévenole was also an early love of mine;  D’Indy had a summer residence in Ardèche.

Canteloube compiled five books of folk-songs totalling 32 altogether. I discovered them in the early 70s through the land-mark recording by Netania Davrath; it seems that Véronique Gens is the only later singer to have recorded them all.

Singing in the Auvergnat dialect – related to Provençal and Catalan, von Otter invested these idiosyncratic songs with the great variety of emotions and gestures that they evoke. She was discriminating however with things like vibrato and the affectations of ordinary classical performance; notes were prolonged for comic or sentimental effect; the fourth song, Lou boussu, plagued with switching rhythms and tempi, depicted a girl’s heartless rejection of a hunchback’s advances, with careless gusto.

There was a rare graciousness, almost grandeur, in the performance of Passo pel prat, the voice rising ecstatically, her body and arms swaying to the rhythm. Similar gestures served a comic purpose in the last song, Lou coucut.

The orchestral accompaniments were equally diverting, witty, rumbustious, here a squally clarinet, there rude blasts on horns, a sentimental cor anglais.  Conspicuous too were the piano forays of the piano – from the singer’s regular accompanist, Bengt Forsberg, that seemed to have a special flavour inspired by his intimate musical relationship.

The endless applause prompted an encore – by Benny Andersson (ABBA) – not too far removed in essence from the songs she’d just sung.

And yes: though these songs are quite enchanting, it was a pity not to have heard her, in addition, in some French art song – Debussy, Duparc, Fauré, Berlioz’s Nuits d’été…

The second half was devoted to the 50 minutes of the Symphonie Fantastique, which Taddei dedicated to the departing General Manager Diana Marsh. It opened with the Largo, breathed suspensefully by velvety strings, gaining speed till the main Allegro movement arrives, introducing the  Idée fixe which is, of course, much more than just a ‘principal theme’.

One noticed Taddei had dispensed with music stand and score, a step that meant far more than the fact of having the entire 230 pages (of my miniature score) by heart: it soon became clear that it was allowing him to attend, without his eyes distracted by the notes on the pages, to communicating with every player and creating a performance of sustained beauty at one end and utterly unbridled passion or ferocity at the other. Again it was possible to admire much instrumental playing, particularly cor anglais, horns, and the inflated numbers in certain areas: the two tubas, and two harps, the two timpanists on each set of drums (yet the timpani was often played with the utmost quiet).

One might have imagined that the orchestra had been inflated by many NZSO players; but in reality they were few. So it was possible to record admiration at the polish and integrity of the strings, and to admire the beauty and ensemble of the wind sections. The tubular bells under the balcony on the left produced a magic, remote sound with their Dies Irae, while the cornets lent a distinct anti-classical character to the music of the fourth and fifth movements.

The waltz movement, Un bal, went rather fast; I have always felt that this movement should suggest a phantasmagoric, dream ball rather than a Straussian one; something was lost. The first movement and the Scène aux champs were beautifully paced, a terrifying Marche au supplice. As for the Witches’ Sabbath I was overwhelmed by the frenzy that Taddei mustered from his totally engaged players who still had the capacity to double their speed across the final page even though Berlioz only marks it ‘animando un poco’. I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded.

If there was a price to pay in terms of precision and finesse for the sometimes almost reckless speeds and the intense emotion generated at many stages of this performance, it was entirely worth that price.

Perhaps for the first time, here was a performance that recalled for me the astonishment and excitement I felt when I first heard the work in my teens.

Winning pieces from inaugural guitar composition competition played by Matthew Marshall

2011 New Zealand Classical Guitar Composition Competition

Music by Gareth Johnston, Michael Calvert, Gillian Whitehead, Mike Nock, Michael Hogan, Anthony Ritchie, Campbell Ross

Matthew Marshall (guitar)

Theatrette, Massey University, Buckle Street

Thursday 17 November, 8pm

This recital was the public face of the first New Zealand Classical Guitar Composition Competition which has been organized by Matthew Marshall with collaboration from SOUNZ – The Centre for New Zealand Music – and the School of Creative and Performing Arts of Central Queensland University in Mackay where Matthew is Professor and Dean of the school.

In its first year the competition attracted 20 entries from New Zealand composers – students and professionals, resident both in New Zealand and overseas.

The earlier stages of the competition refined the entries to three finalists and these, along with four existing pieces, were played by Matthew Marshall in this evening’s concert.

The conditions called for pieces for solo, nylon strung classical guitar, with no stylistic limitations. Further, in his introductory remarks Matthew had described the aims of the competition as including an intention to enlarge the repertoire of guitar music in other than the Spanish and Latin American idioms.

The programme interspersed competition pieces with older pieces. The first of the latter was called Pasatanglia by Gareth Johnston, so called because it followed the pattern of a passacaglia in a tango rhythm: that demanded no special discrimination. Though it was garnished with a piquant chromaticism and its style and form derived from classical models, it presented no barriers to immediate enjoyment.

Matthew explained that he had known about Gillian Whitehead’s suite For Timothy of 1979 for some years, but it was only when he received it by mail from the Vice Chancellor of Massey University who had come across it in a second hand shop, that he decided to tackle it. It consists of two folk song movements – one Scottish, the other Northumbrian – framed by a Prelude and a Postlude. The latter offered melodic material and structures of a certain intellectual interest, ideas that were initially straight-forward but which soon took intriguing turns. The folk songs were treated with respect while at the same time being somewhat roughed up.

Mike Hogan lives in Port Vila, Vanuatu. His Two (of four) Studies of 2006 were studies in the Chopin sense: melodically engaging first and technically taxing only secondarily. Matthew uncovered the qualities of these rather slight pieces to offer them real charm. The last of the older pieces was the premiere of a 2009 piece by Anthony Ritchie called Sultry; typical of Ritchie’s music that succeeds in being engaging as well as revealing strengths that are likely to be peeled away and encourage repeat performances.

It goes without saying that Marshall’s  admirable, committed performances allowed them to be heard in the best possible context.

The results of the competition were announced after the recital by the manager of SOUNZ, Julie Sperring.

Third place went to Campbell Ross for his Two Dances, both, rather neglecting Matthew Marshall’s aspiration, in Latin rhythms – rumba and tango. Both were well-written, attractive pieces whose accessibility somewhat belied their sophistication. It earned a $400 prize.

Mike Nock’s Cytokinesis made its impact both through its melodic individuality and the composer’s ability to develop his variety of material in an organic way and through attractive chord sequences. I wondered however whether it had exhausted its inventiveness a couple of minutes before the end. Nevertheless, its sophistication, the way it handled scraps of related melody and its plain musicality clearly merited the second prize of $750.

First prize of $1500 went to Michael Calvert for Fantasia in August, that being the month in which it was composed. Let me quote the judges’ comment: “Fantasia in August is not simply a piece that can be played on a guitar, it is a guitar piece. Broody, moody, provocative, seductive, it drifts from cadence to cadence asking questions without answers. These come in the coda, the most eloquent passage of the work. To this point the musical language has been largely uncompromising. Here it softens, bringing with it a sense of resolution if not resolution itself. It is work of hidden depths that require more than a single listening to appreciate.”

All three pieces will be played at the New Zealand Guitar Summer School in January 2012, and at the Central Queensland Conservatorium of Music, Australia in May 2012
In addition, the winning piece will be played in the Purcell Room in the Royal Festival Hall, London in 2012.  And all three will be published in a volume by SOUNZ.

Brilliant violin and piano recital from Blythe Press and Richard Mapp

Music by Bach, Brahms, Chausson, Bowater and Ravel

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 16 November 2011, 12.15pm

Though it has become conventional not to perform individual movements of extended works of music, it often works quite well. This admirable recital did that very successfully, with the first movement – the Adagio – from Bach’s solo Violin Sonata No 1 in G minor, and again with the first two movements – Allegro and Adagio – from Brahms’s Third Violin Sonata. Only those quite familiar with the works would have felt a little unfulfilled when the music failed to continue as expected.

The compensation was the singularly thoughtful and musically sensitive performances from the young Blythe Press and accompanist Richard Mapp. Press is only 22, grew up in the Kapiti area, began studies at Victoria University but, getting a scholarship to study in Graz, Austria, graduated there earlier this year with a master’s degree with distinction. There he has distinguished himself in European competitions and as soloist with the Styrian Youth Orchestra. He toured New Zealand last year with the Cook Strait Trio (see the review in Middle C of 22 August 2010), and also played for the NZSO on their European tour.

The first movement of Bach’s first solo violin sonata (played without the score) was both an intelligent and imaginative move, for it made the audience attend to the careful and painstaking approach that guided his performance; it was unhurried, with slightly prolonged pauses between phrases, that put his stamp on the music’s profound meditative character. It stood on its own with no hint of self-indulgence.

The two movements of Brahms’s last violin sonata were equally impressive. The first might be marked Allegro but Press captured the pervasive feeling of calm and deliberation; with the piano lid on the long stick, which can allow an accompaniment to dominate the textures, Mapp maintained the pace and dynamic levels that the violin adopted: the two were in perfect sympathy, especially arresting in the more animated central section. The Adagio presented Press with the chance to revel in the beautiful warmth of his instrument, expressing a world-weary spirit with sensitivity.

Perhaps the centre-piece was Chausson’s lovely Poème, which is usually heard in full orchestral dress where it is easier to envelope it in a romantic and impressionist spirit. The two players handled it with a profound familiarity and confidence and with a deep affection, all the decorative features appearing intrinsic rather than pasted on merely for display.

Helen Bowater’s piece for solo violin may have been chosen to complement Ravel’s Tsigane, for Lautari denotes a class of Romanian gypsy musicians. I had not heard it before and was attracted both by its idiom, clearly derived from Eastern European folk music, and the confident personal touches that placed it pretty firmly in today’s musical context, though not in a vein given over to excessive experimental devices and gestures. Nevertheless, its writing (he played with the score before him) clearly presented challenges that Press overcame effortlessly.

It was a nice prelude to the Ravel in which the violin plays a long, unaccompanied, flamboyant cadenza. The Liszt of the Hungarian Rhapsodies is never far away, as the technical difficulties present the violin with comparable terrors. Press dealt with its two-handed pizzicato dashes and its full repertoire of impossibilities, never losing sight of the music itself which is not merely flashy virtuosity.

The recital was essential St Andrew’s stuff, offering the audience a chance to hear a young prodigy of whom we’ll hear much more.