Exceptional recital from Chinese counter-tenor, Xiao Ma

Music at St. Mary of the Angels

Xiao Ma (counter tenor)

Baroque instrumental ensemble (Gregory Squire, violin, Anne Loeser, viola, Robert Oliver, viola da gamba, Erin Helyard, harpsichord)

Vivaldi:  ‘Nisi Dominus’ (verses 1 & 9);  Trio Sonata in G minor, Op.1 no.1; ‘Sposa son disprezza’ (from Bajazet); Trio Sonata in D minor Op.1 no.12 (‘La Follia’); ‘Gloria Patri’ (from the psalm Domine ad adiuvandum me festina RV 593); ‘Agitata da due venti’ (from Griselda)
Handel:     Trio Sonata in D major Op.5 no.2
Riccardo Broschi (c1698-1756)     ‘Son qual nave ch’agitata’ (from Ataserse)
Handel:   ‘Ombra mai fu’ (from Serse);  Trio Sonata in G major Op.5 no.4;  ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ (from Rinaldo); ‘Vivi, Tiranno’ (from Rodelinda)

St. Mary of the Angels church

Wednesday, 15 February 2012, 7.30 pm

Counter-tenors have come a long way since Alfred Deller revived the voice in the 1940s – not to demean that gentleman’s superb singing.  Xiao Ma’s voice is probably the most beautiful counter-tenor I have heard live – and I have heard some very good ones.  This voice has a bright, sweet tone, and is never strained.  It is well rounded, with huge variety.  There was a tendency at times, particularly in the first item, for the singer to lower his head, which sometimes covered the tone.  Raising the shoulders, as he also did from time to time, can affect the tone also.

Xiao Ma’s is a very flexible voice, and his execution of runs and other ornamentation was quite amazing; he was very skilled in the florid music of the Nisi Dominus.  He and the instrumentalists conveyed Vivaldi’s magnificent music in all its glory.  The short but effective ‘Amen’ verse 9 was repeated at the end of the concert, as an encore.

The first trio sonata of five movements was notable particularly for the lambent tone of the viola.  The expertise of these players is such that one could easily imagine oneself in an eighteenth century ducal court.  Vivaldi’s striking contrasts between the movements, as in the more famous Four Seasons concertos, were given full play.

The aria ‘Sposa son disprezza’ is from an opera entitled Bajazet, whose music was compiled rather than composed by Vivaldi.  Perhaps by this time Xiao Ma felt more comfortable with the venue and the audience; certainly his singing was even better in this item.  The representation of a scorned wife was given strongly, yet expressively.

The phrasing was done with subtlety and complete smoothness, which is not always the case with counter-tenors.  The instrumental accompaniment was utterly sympathetic.

The second Vivaldi trio sonata was based on the well-known ‘La Follia’ melody.  This version began rather more austerely than Corelli’s famous Concerto Grosso, though the variations lacked nothing in rapidity.  A variation with solo first violin accompanied by pizzicato on the other strings was charming, while a very quiet one that gradually sped up and got louder was dramatic.  A graceful siciliana movement restored calm after its stormy predecessor.

These players are in total accord.

The aria ‘Agitata da due venti’ employed extremely florid writing for voice and instruments, but all was accomplished without a hitch.  Vivaldi’s very descriptive music of a ship tossed by the winds as the billows roared made for vocal gymnastics from the singer and appropriate writing for the instruments.  A couple of times the singer had to drop to his low register, but this was negotiated apparently effortlessly, which is not always the case with counter-tenors; no graunchy gear-change here!

After the interval, the concert changed to (mainly) Handel, and his Italian operas.  First, though, was a Handel trio sonata.  In seven movements, this delightful work incorporated movements (e.g. Musette) unknown in the Vivaldi works we heard.

The first musette movement featured an intriguing intoning of low notes by the viola da gamba.  The other strings followed in the allegro with an unaccompanied duet, which gave a refreshing change of timbre.  The march was typical of Handel’s writing in this form (Royal Fireworks music, etc.)  It wasn’t hard to visualise a stately dance with ladies curtseying in long dresses and fascinating headgear.

More storm and stress came in the aria by Broschi.  Another ship on stormy seas reminded one of the very real dangers of being at sea before accurate charts, radar and radio were available (nevertheless, we still have ships hitting ‘reefs hidden beneath the waves’).  This aria demonstrated the singer’s huge range, and how accurately he can negotiate the vocal gymnastics asked of him by Broschi.

Now to something very familiar: Handel’s recitative and the lovely aria from Serse: ‘Ombra mai fu’.  The accompaniment was superb, as was the purity of the opening notes of the sublime aria.  The music floated, yet was purposeful.

The trio sonata that followed comprised five movements, on of which one, Passacaille, was quite long, with a great deal of development.  Ending on a minuet marked allegro moderato, the work seemed to finish rather lamely after the riches that preceded its final movement.

The well-known ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Rinaldo was introduced on harpsichord only, very effectively.  This gorgeous aria was sung simply and ravishingly.  The singer varied the repeat sections, in authentic baroque style.  The performance was quite lovely, and was repeated at the end, as an encore, with more trills. As the evening wore on, Xiao Ma increasingly used gesture while singing – but it was not excessive.

The concert ended in more lively style, however, with ‘Vivi, tiranno’ from Rodelinda, with more florid phrases, enabling Xiao Ma to demonstrate his consummate skill.

The singer’s breathing was imperceptible; he had excellent control, and performed many long runs in one breath.  The top of his voice has a glorious sound.

This was a well thought-out programme; not only did it intersperse appropriate instrumental music with the vocal, but contrasting sonatas of Handel with those of Vivaldi introduced us to delightful but little-known music.  The instruments were by turns mellow and incisive, but always musical.  All played with skill, sensitivity and attention to baroque style and detail.  There were just a few moments when intonation briefly went awry.

St. Mary of the Angels was a very suitable venue in which to perform baroque music; it being the nearest thing we have in Wellington to a baroque church.

While it was good to have a printed programme giving the words of the arias etc. in both the original languages (Latin and Italian) and English, notes about the works from which they were taken would have been useful.

A good-sized audience heard this remarkable recital.   A distraction for those of us on the right-hand side of the church was the constant clicking of cameras while Ma was singing.  No doubt the photos were official, but this is not a usual feature (in fact, normally a prohibited one) of classical concerts.

This was an exceptional concert; I think Handel would have been delighted, and probably Vivaldi too.  Xiao Ma sings again on Friday in Masterton, having already performed in Akaroa, Auckland and Christchurch, and performs this Saturday at 4pm, at Soundings Theatre, Te Papa.  On Sunday he sings twice in the Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival.


Paul Rosoman at two organs in St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Jesu meine Freude (Krebs); Passacaglia (Kerll); Voluntary IX from Op 7 (John Stanley); Improvisation in A minor, Op 150 No 7 (Saint-Saens); Dir, dir, Jehova, will ich singen (Karg-Elert); Elegy for 7th April 1913 (Parry); Postlude in D, Op 105 No 6 (Stanford)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 15 February, 12.15pm

Paul Rosoman began his recital, the first for 2012, using the chamber organ located on the right of the sanctuary, an instrument which gives the church something of the character of European churches and cathedrals in which a smaller organ existed to accompany the choir. Few in the audience would have recognised any of the music and many would not have heard of half of the composers; that would have been no bad thing except that few of the pieces would fall into the class of neglected masterpieces.

The opening piece was by a pupil of J S Bach, Johann Ludwig Krebs who was contemporary with Bach’s oldest sons. Based on the chorale ‘Jesu meine Freude’, on which Bach himself based his great motet, it could hardly have suggested a less likely kinship. It followed a routine pattern which performance on the chamber organ did little to enhance, seeming to draw attention to its slender character.

The Passacaglia by Kerll, of a century earlier, offered evidence of considerable musical imagination, employing a chromatic, downward motif that retained interest through the variety of its contours and ornamentation. Its performance on the baroque organ proved a more satisfactory than had the piece by Krebs.

John Stanley was a contemporary of Krebs; this Voluntary opened on piccolo stops that seemed to need more support, but the following fugal section became more interesting, employing the organ’s resources more fully.

Rosoman now moved upstairs to the main organ for the rest of the programme, of 19th and early 20th century music. Much of Saint-Saëns’s music is chameleon-like as the composer hardly developed a recognisable style, melodically, harmonically, or in instrumental colouring; so he’s often difficult to identify and this was the case with this Improvisation, one of seven written in 1916/17. In this, Rosoman seemed determined to dramatise the contrast with the lightly voiced chamber organ, using registrations that for me were too heavy, too brazen.

Sigfrid Karg-Elert, as the programme notes pointed out, was more popular in his life-time than after his death in 1933, though I have to claim that I encountered him in my teens through the adventurous musical interests of a school friend. In one of his Choral Improvisations (Op 65) Rosoman succeeded with a thoroughly convincing performance that displayed both the composer’s imaginative invention and the organist’s command of the organ’s resources; its character seemed to owe more to the composer’s French contemporaries like Vierne and Tournemire than to Rheinberger or Reger, or the English organists of the time.

Pieces by the two major English composers followed. A calm, unassertive Elegy by Hubert Parry was written for the funeral of a brother-in-law. It used a melody with widely spaced intervals, alternating between open and closed ranks, avoiding any false piety or sentimentality.

The last piece was by Parry’s contemporary (and rival) Charles Villiers Stanford (Parry wound up as professor at Oxford, Stanford at Cambridge). An appropriate Postlude, to conclude the recital: a bold rhythmic piece in stately triple time, sombre and emphatic, that could not possibly dispel Stanford’s reputation as apostle of Victorian grandeur and self-confidence. It was a good choice to conclude, strong structure, interestingly evolving ideas even if unadventurous harmonically. Like so many neglected and denigrated composers, both these Englishmen are seeing their reputations dusted off and found far more worthy of attention than was the opinion 50 years ago.

Though there was nothing familiar in the programme, Rosoman had given us food for thought, and for the musically curious, places to begin fruitful explorations.