Tudor Consort revives Schütz’s St Matthew Passion

Heinrich Schütz: St. Matthew Passion

The Tudor Consort, directed by Michael Stewart, with John Beaglehole (Evangelist) and Ken Ryan (Christus)

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Saturday, 31 March 2012, 7.30pm

An appropriate pre-Easter work, this St Matthew Passion was presented in a slightly unusual way.   The choir performed from the rear of the sanctuary, while the audience was mainly seated in the choir stalls and on chairs placed in the sanctuary between the choir stalls.   There were a few people seated in the nave.  The performance took place in near darkness, with just enough light for the choir to be able to read their scores.  It made me think of being in a German church in the composer’s time, and hearing the work as the congregation would have.

By seating the audience close to the singers, and virtually not using the nave, the slow reverberation of the building did not assert itself as much as usual.  Ken Ryan’s rich bass voice suffered more from ‘feedback’ than did John Beaglehole’s tenor, or the choir.

Instead of the words being printed in a programme, the English translations of the sung German were projected on a screen placed between the choir and the audience.  The work is unaccompanied, and unlike J.S. Bach’s well-known Passion settings, there are no chorales or arias; apart from the final movement, the text is entirely St. Matthew’s gospel account of the events leading up to, and including, the Crucifixion, and of the burial of Jesus in the tomb.

Approximately 20 singers made up the choir; some of them took small solo roles.  In the gloom I could recognise only Andrea Cochrane, who took not only several female roles, but also that of Judas Iscariot; all were admirably delivered.

From the opening attack, with instant smooth tone, the choir excelled itself.  There was a wonderful unity of sound, and beautiful diminuendos.  The maintenance of pitch throughout the work (despite a few aberrations from minor soloists, particularly Caiaphas) was a marvel; John Beaglehole was utterly reliable, apart from slightly falling pitch in the part where he reports on what Pilate said. The tenor has a very big role – there was a great deal for him to sing, but he did not flag; this was quite a tour de force.  Michael Stewart had trained his singers well, with crisp rhythms and exemplary entries.  The semi-dark allowed the focus to be entirely on the music and the message.

Bass Ken Ryan varied his tone and expression to deliver the character of Jesus and the meaning of the words throughout the performance; tenor Beaglehole less so.  It could be argued that the Evangelist is the reporter, not an actor in the drama.  Towards the end of the work however, he gave more characterisation.  A large proportion of the music is for these two soloists only.

At 50 minutes long, Schütz’s work cannot readily be considered in the same class as Bach’s great, dramatic Passions.  Yet it has its own drama – in the word-setting, and the pacing of the various recitatives, Jesus’s utterances, and in the chorus numbers.  Some surprising harmonies for the chorus add to the drama.

The most dramatic part was that dealing with Pilate – both his role and that of the mob, demanding that Jesus be crucified.  Here, the chorus was very strong.  Women were part of the mob, but also part of the soldiers’ and priests’ choruses.   There was much interweaving of parts in these choruses, but also sections of homophony, and word-painting.

Beaglehole was very fine in singing the translation of Jesus’s utterance which in English is “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, and the lovely pianissimo from the choir set it off beautifully, in “He calleth for Elijah”.  Throughout, the German language was pronounced and projected very well.

The chorus of priests asking that the tomb be guarded was splendidly sung, as was the final chorus, “Christ to you be the glory”, which is the only comment on the action, the remainder of the words being all from the Biblical account.  This was sung poignantly and with feeling, and made an exquisite end to the performance.

This performance proved to be appropriate in another way: Radio New Zealand Concert has Schütz as its Composer of the Week for the coming week, so listeners can expect to hear this work again in the coming days.  Some of what follows is based on Indra Hughes’s introductory talk on radio.

Schütz wrote the St. Matthew Passion in his 80s, after he had survived the Plague, the Thirty Years War, and the loss of his wife and two young children.  His early tuition with Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice seems to have resurfaced in this work; it is written in stile antico, not the more dense and complex (and exciting) stile moderno, which he also studied, later in life, with Monteverdi, Gabrieli’s successor at St. Mark’s.

With this tuition behind him, Schütz brought back to Germany elements of  the Italian style, which became a huge influence on the music of the latter country, not least contributing to the way in which J.S. Bach wrote his Passion settings, a century later.  This influence can partly be attributed to the fact that his employment was in Dresden, the centre of musical life at the time, in Germany.

It was interesting, though, that in his old age Schütz reverted to the counterpoint of stile antico for this Passion.  No instruments, no arias, no chorales or extended choruses in this work, although there are in others of his works.

Schütz’s is therefore an interesting time in church music history, since he straddled the renaissance and the baroque eras.



Resplendent Mozart Requiem from the Bach Choir

MOZART (edited Süssmayer) – Requiem KV 626

Amelia Ryman (soprano) / Bianca Andrew (mezzo-soprano)

Thomas Atkins (tenor) / David Morriss (bass)

The Bach Choir of Wellington

Douglas Mews (organ)

Conductor: Stephen Rowley

St.Peter’s Church, Willis St., Wellington

Saturday 31st March 2012

Wiser, more experienced concert-going heads than mine would have been better-prepared for the likelihood that the Bach Choir’s Mozart Requiem performance would use an organ rather than the orchestra the composer specified. Having grasped this state of things upon entering the beautiful Church of St.Peter’s on Willis St. in Wellington, I simply had to deal with my own withdrawal symptoms at cardinal points (alas, no trumpets and drums at Dies Irae, no trombone at Tuba mirum and no remorseless, driving strings in the Confutatis maledictis, to mention just some of the obviously affected places). As well, I needed to put Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette out of my mind as best I could at the performance’s almost jaunty organ-only beginning. But when the choir entered with the words “Requiem aeternam”, everything changed dramatically.

Right from these opening phrases, the choir under Stephen Rowley’s direction sang with splendidly-focused tones and full-blooded commitment, rising to the challenge of “carrying” much of the work’s weight and momentum, in the absence of an orchestra. Once I’d adjusted my own expectations I actually found more to relish in Douglas Mews’ organ accompaniments than I expected to, even if parts of the Dies Irae without trumpets and drums sounded a bit undernourished. There were places I wanted more pointed instrumental emphasis, though in one instance (the beginning of the Lacrimosa) the organ blurted out a phrase rather alarmingly before being quickly brought back into line. But mostly the organ-playing served the performance well, a touch of awry ensemble at the first “Quam olim Abrahae” being more in the realm of an occupational hazard than anything else, I would think.

I was impressed with the choir throughout, their lines confidently placed and clearly-voiced across the spectrum, given that the men’s voices were always going to have to work hard by dint of comparative lack of numbers. But whatever imbalances there were I could hear the tenors and basses at almost all times keeping their lines alive and buoyant within the ensemble. Stephen Rowley drove the opening Requiem swiftly, encouraging dramatic attack and plenty of contrast with the more hushed tones at the repeated “Luceat eis”, and allowing the beautifully-floated tones of soprano Amelia Ryman plenty of room. The fugal Kyrie also went with a will, the ensemble crisp and energetic, and the women’s voices actually relishing things like their awkward “eleision” ascents leading up to the assertive final supplication.

One had to “sound” the trumpets and drums of the Dies Irae from within one’s imagination, here, though the musicians’ energies carried the day, the men at their exposed “Quantus tremor” not especially strong, but reliably alert. Then, at the Tuba Mirum the soloists took over the performance – a glorious, magisterial solo from bass David Morriss, negotiating his wide leaps with sure-voiced aplomb, paved the way for the others. Thomas Atkins’ opening notes sounded a tad stressful at first, but he quickly settled into a warm-toned “Liber scriptus”, while mezzo Bianca Andrew’s “Judex ergo” had a rich, velvety quality conveying a properly awed response to the apocalyptic solemnity of her words. Amelia Ryman’s purely-focused lines brought to us a beautifully-ascending “Cum vix justus sit securus?” the words repeated to expressive effect by a tremulously-voiced ensemble of soloists.

A confidently-propelled Rex Tremendae from choir and organ incorporated some lovely sounds from the women at “Salva me”, followed by the reflective Recordare, delicately begun by the organ, and richly-coloured by the mezzo and bass combination, Bianca Andrew and David Morriss, contouring their tones to great effect. The same went for Amelia Ryman and Thomas Atkins a few measures later, the soprano leaving behind a momentary awkwardness at the opening to enchant us with her ascent at “Sed tu bonus fac benigne”. Stephen Rowley then got the maximum possible dramatic contrast with the choir’s Confutatis maledictis, the desperately driving momentums of which brought the subsequent creepy chromaticisms of “Oro supplex et acclinis” into bold relief. Apart from the momentary organ outburst, the Lacrimosa was brought into being with lovely gravitas, Rowley controlling its ebb and flow of emotion with considerable sensitivity, the intensification of “Dona eis Requiem” melting naturally and organically into the final “Amen”.

As the work progressed the choir’s energies seemed constantly to renew themselves, the vigour and focus of the “Osanna” fugues carrying over to the final “Cum sanctis tuis”, and bringing things to a resplendent conclusion. But there was also dignity, tenderness and warmth to be had from the Agnus Dei, with Douglas Mews’ registrations deftly coloring the music’s different dynamics. And Amelia Ryman’s brief but beautiful lead-in to the concluding Lux aeterna had the choir responding in kind, then unerringly building things towards the closure of the work’s circle.

The soloists again came into their own in the Benedictus, the singing as finely-wrought as with the earlier Recordare, with solo lines and ensemble passages alike delighting the ear. The sounds we were given made for moments of great sublimity, even if the music in this instance was more inspired than penned by Mozart, who died before the Requiem was finished. This and the preceding Sanctus were completed by the composer’s pupil Franz Süssmayer, who arranged and reworked a good deal of the music. Fortunately, the music-making throughout this performance was of a quality which appeared to ennoble the ideas and efforts of those who worked to try and realize Mozart’s intentions. It made as though we had with us a real sense of the spirit of the composer.








NZSO Soloists and a kaleidoscopic “Carmen”

KENNETH YOUNG – Portrait / TORU TAKEMITSU – Rain Tree / ARVO PÄRT – Fratres

GEORGES BIZET / RODION SHCHEDRIN – Carmen Suite for Strings and Percussion

NZSO Soloists

Vesa-Matti Leppänen (director)

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 24th March

Strings and percussion put side-by-side make an intriguing ensemble combination – perhaps they’re not natural musical bedfellows to the extent that are winds and percussion or brass and percussion. But their coming-together makes, I think, for unique results, such as their capacity for generating enormous contrasts of timbre and colour. This was evident throughout the NZSO Soloists’ “Carmen Suite” concert, given that the music presented during the first half was perhaps more subtle and subdued than one might have expected from such forces.

It struck me throughout the evening that, because of the difference in sound-worlds, there was a certain tension generated by the combination, a tension of awkwardness, of having to marry these very different worlds together. Perhaps it was as much audience- as composer-generated, but I thought the chalk-and-cheese juxtapositions of “non-percussive” and “extremely percussive” created a mixture of expectation and conjecture as to how it was all going to turn out. Of course there is percussion and percussion, and in at least one of the works programmed in the concert, Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree, one could almost predict that the sounds would hardly sound “percussive” at all!

As I’ve already indicated, the three works in the first half took a gentler, more reflective stance towards the percussion section, as if, along with the strings, traditional adversaries were being brought together for some kind of truce and told to be on their best behaviour! Then in the second half, more overtly “percussive” qualities were given their head in places – though I must say that this music, Rodion Shchedrin’s reworking of themes from Bizet’s opera Carmen into a ballet suite, wasn’t as “noisy” as I had been previously led to believe. More through circumstance than by deliberate avoidance, I had never heard the work before. (Right! – I shall try to no longer use the words “percussion” and “percussive” in this review – if I can!)

The concert opened with a new work, one written especially for the NZSO Soloists and commissioned by the NZSO Friends of the Orchestra. This was Portrait, a work by Ken Young – and from the title, one might have expected the piece to be a self-portrait, or a portrait of some specific person or object. Instead, the composer told us in a program note that the work was one which merely “reflects various moods and sensations”. We were as well invited to make any associations we ourselves wished to make with the music.

It was all my fault – I was expecting the composer of his first two symphonies and that wonderfully exhilarating work Dance to give us something more along those lines. So, I spent much of the listening-time waiting for the piece to do something other than what it was doing! Still, the music I found extremely attractive, written in a late-Romantic idiom, and making striking use of the solo violin – Young employed a kind of descending motif at the opening, one whose harmonies he occasionally “bent” chromatically, in a haunting, atmospheric manner.

I was struck by the beauty of the music for the strings and harp throughout this opening section, with the solo violin like a single wanderer in a beautiful, unfamiliar sonic landscape. The music did gather up its energies during a middle episode, where the writing reminded me a bit of Bartok’s in his Concerto for Orchestra, the motifs sounding folkish and very singable. But whatever more strongly rhythmic episodes there were seemed all too ready to put aside their energies and return to more reflective modes of expression. And because I was waiting for the composer to bring more muscle and thrust into the proceedings, it took a while for me to rid myself of the disappointment that the piece never seemed really to “take off”, beautiful though many of the episodes were.

Upon reflection, and rehearing a section on the work on the radio, I’m inclined towards thinking that the music worked well despite my expectations of the time not being fulfilled. But as regards the next item on the program, Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree, I did expect a completely different kind of sound-experience – in a sense this was the case, though again I had some difficulty focusing on the music, albeit for somewhat different reasons. As I imagined it would be, Takemitsu’s piece was largely meditative, gentle and inward, with occasional irruptions of light (more of this in a moment) and scintillations of impulse. Energy in Takemitsu’s music is, of course, largely of the mind and the imagination, rather than of the blood and sinew. Three percussionists were involved, playing marimba, vibraphone and crotales (antique cymbals) respectively.

What became the performance’s dominant feature (causing much discussion afterwards) was the lighting used throughout the piece. The instrumentalists were individually lit, and the illumination was alternated between the players, according to which instrument was being used – an interesting idea in theory, but in practice one I found fatally distracting. It all seemed too insistent and crude, at odds with the overall gentleness and subtlety of the piece, and an enormous distraction for this listener, at any rate – in fact I found myself absorbed in predicting when each lighting-change was going to happen and to which instrument it would be applied, instead of listening to the music!

Again, the problem is probably mine to an extent, but I would think this also a generational issue. I can imagine audience members younger than myself not batting an eyelid at what I would consider distractions, as they would have probably experienced many musical events with constant variation of lighting and other effects “augmenting” the music. Of course, Takemitsu himself was a noted “cinephile” with a number of beautifully-wrought film-scores to his credit, so his music does have a strong and established association with visual imagery. But I found the lighting changes “noisy “and “clattery” in this instance – visually more like lightning, or dramatic denouement, or explosive flashes one might associate with warfare. I might well have been prepared to accept more delicately-modulated ambient changes, of the kind suggested by the music. But, unfortunately, I still labour under the delusion that a concert is where someone goes to “listen”, and found this all too much to take, something of an impediment.

So, a somewhat muted, circumspect first half was completed by a classic Arvo Pärt work, Fratres, which was written in 1977. This began life as a work for strings and winds, but the composer subsequently arranged the music for a number of combinations of instruments. Probably the most popular version is for solo violin, strings and percussion,as was performed here, though it also makes occasional appearances as a work for violin and piano.

I thought the string-playing during this work was simply a joy to listen to. It all began with the solo violin sounding modulating arpeggiations which grew in intensification as the deep percussion sounds opened up the ground beneath one’s feet, suggesting something monumental and unearthly. The accompanying string chords had an eerie, haunting Aeolian, or wind-blown quality, with the double basses holding on to this deep-seated sound. I like the way the hymn-like music for strings seemed to address the heavenly spaces, with the solo violin also playing music of the air, while the percussion and lower strings kept the foundation sounds well grounded.

One would have thought, after all of this, that the second half of the program, featuring Russian composer Rodian Shchedrin’s Carmen Ballet  (music largely drawn from George’s Bizet’s eponymous opera), would straightway electrify our sensibilities with masses of sound – my somewhat randomly-formed impression of what we were going to hear was that it was going to be “extremely noisy”! In fact, what we got at the start was the gentlest and most evocative kind of “wake-up call” – Rodian Shchedrin begins his Suite with what sound like distant, early-morning sounds, bells sounding the famous “Habanera” theme as a gently nostalgic echo, perhaps for some people a sleepy remembrance of what they were doing the night before! But soon, the music got going in earnest, with the first Dance, an evocation of the bull-ring, flailing castanets prominent.

I thought two differences between Shchedrin and the original Bizet work gradually emerged. Firstly, it became clear that Shchedrin had his own order of events for the action of his ballet – it wasn’t a carbon copy of Bizet’s Carmen story, by any means. And so the tunes we all knew came in a somewhat unexpected order in places. What I didn’t know was that Shchedrin had interpolated a couple of numbers from Bizet’s incidental music for L’Arlesienne into his score and from another opera, The Fair Maid of Perth, along with a bit of Jules Massenet’s ballet music for Le Cid. So these things came as a surprise as well.

Secondly, Shchedrin’s strings and percussion scheme rather unexpectedly drew my attention to the enormous importance Bizet gave to the wind instruments in his opera – without them, as here, the differences were profound. So, in that sense, the strings had a great deal to make up for; and what they lacked in timbral and textural variation, they compensated for by fervently singing – they could, of course, convey all the romance and anguish of Bizet’s themes, even if those accustomed colours and “dialects” associated with some tunes, were no longer there. The NZSO strings were, I’m happy to report, well up to the task.

It was interesting, and perhaps predictable, that the official Soviet reaction (in 1969 the cultural scene in Russia still dominated by “The Party”) was extremely hostile. Shchedrin’s “tweaking” of the story for the Ballet caused outrage in some quarters – Soviet Minister of Culture Ekaterina Furseva exclaimed that the work was “insulting” and that “Carmen, the hero of the Spanish people, has been made into a whore”. It was only after the intervention of Shostakovich that a ban that had been placed on the music’s performance was lifted. Shchedrin’s story-line has Carmen in a kind of “menage a trois” with both Don Jose and Escamillo the Toreador. At the end, Carmen dances with each of her lovers in turn until Don Jose stabs her in a fit of jealousy. Presumably it was Carmen’s apparent “free-range” sexual activities which raised the ire of the Soviet Thought-Police.

Given these scenarios, I was surprised and delighted at the extent to which the music had moments of real fun, of a somewhat irreverent feeling, a “tongue-in-cheek” aspect that peeked out occasionally from between the score’s pages. For example, Shchedrin gets the players to hum the Toreador’s Song at one point, and subsequently asks the percussionists to play kazoos, to everybody’s delight at the concert. Touches like this leavened the intensity of the mix, to the enterprise’s advantage.

So, it was all very entertaining, superbly delivered, exciting and with lots of diverting touches. Perhaps Shchedrin’s work is too quirky in itself to be an enduring masterpiece – but it’s certainly a work that, ultimately, reminds one of what a great piece the original Carmen continues to be!



























Monumental recital, a gift from the Puertas String Quartet

Puertas Quartet: Tom Norris (violin), Ellie Fagg (violin), Julia Joyce (viola), Andrew Joyce (cello)

Mozart: Adagio and Fugue in C minor K 546; Ravel: String Quartet in F; Tchaikovsky: String Quartet No 1 in D

St Mary of the Angels church

Friday 23 March, 7.30pm

Because the concert by this quartet at Waikanae had been reviewed a few weeks earlier by my colleague Rosemary Collier, I had wondered whether I needed to offer a fresh view.

On reflection however, the fact that at this concert one piece in the programme had changed made it seem a good idea to write about them again. The Haydn string quartet at Waikanae was replaced here by Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor K 546.

Furthermore, this was a special, free concert, presented, I understand, by the players themselves.

Based in Britain, the quartet’s connection with New Zealand is the presence of New Zealander Julia Joyce (nee McCarthy) who went to study in London as a violinist and now plays as principal viola in the NZSO. She met cellist Andrew Joyce in London, where the quartet was formed with two violinists who play in leading London orchestras. (Andrew is now principal cellist in the NZSO). They visited New Zealand last May and have been able to make another visit this year.

The Mozart was a very rewarding substitution (not that it is ever a mistake to play Haydn), but this quartet piece, which is sometimes played by string orchestra, is rarely played in live concerts, at least in my experience. The Fugue was written in 1783 for two pianos (K 426), and in that form is perhaps even more arresting than as a string quartet. It is commonly ranked a masterpiece, which perhaps accounted for its dominating my mind for many days after.

Later, in 1788, Mozart wrote the Adagio and the authorities seem to accord it alone the Köchel number 546, so that the conjunction of the Adagio with the Fugue should perhaps be properly identified as KK 426 and 546. The Adagio too is a most arresting piece, offering an unusually sombre prelude to the fugue. Its almost tragic energy gives it anything but the usual air of an adagio, and that serious spirit was underscored by the way the quartet’s impressive playing remained suspended in the church’s generous acoustic.

The fugue was perhaps well chosen as it gave prominence to Andrew Joyce’s splendid cello in the powerful opening statement of the fugue theme. But after that, as each instrument had its share of the action, there was no ignoring the superb musicianship of all four players.

There followed a short piece from a recently released CD by the quartet of music by an English composer colleague, Keith Statham. It was a Pastorale of serious demeanour, neo-romantic in character, creating its own momentum to suggest a creation that had emerged fully-formed in the composer’s head.  After the interval they played another of Statham’s pieces – this time a Romance, which at first sounded merely easy to listen to, unadventurous, though never really predictable; but it developed and evolved as a longer, more varied and interesting work than its early stages had suggested; and the players did it proud.

Then followed the two major pieces that they had played at Waikanae. We heard a profoundly lyrical account of the first movement of Ravel’s quartet, played with great warmth and sweetness, followed by a quick (‘Assez vif’) movement, pizzicato outer sections framing a pensive middle, coloured by tremolo passages. An exquisite feeling of suspense sustained the slow movement (‘Très lente’), richly unhurried, meandering without sounding relaxed, and the players further revealed their admirably controlled yet fluid ensemble in their handling of the 5/4 rhythm of the last fast movement.

In Tchaikovsky’s first quartet, the violins changed places: Ellie Fagg took over from Tom Norris. Here too the quartet demonstrated its ease and its complete command of structure and emotional character. The ease was felt in the naturalness of the rubato and unostentatious rhythmic changes, the unity of tone and style that bound the players together; they were never afraid to offer little surprises in the shape of slightly prolonged pauses and conveying the feeling of spontaneity that seemed unstudied but was of course the product of long-cultivated collaboration.

Though the presence of a movement that has taken on a life of its own can be a problem for listeners at first, I cannot imagine a performance that drew you in to the entire work so strongly, and whose playing argued more persuasive for the musical inventiveness, the formal strength and the lyrical beauties of this first string quartet.

This represented the end of the quartet’s tour of a number of smaller centres in New Zealand. Considering it was offered as a free concert, it was rather surprising that a very large audience did not fill the church. Though we have several very fine resident string quartets, principally the New Zealand String Quartet, it is always illuminating and gratifying to hear players who have developed a different manner and exhibit such superb musicianship as these players have.


Albeniz’s Iberia – a musical traveller’s delight

ALBÉNIZ – Iberia

Guillermo González (piano)

Adam Concert Room,

New Zealand School of Music, Wellington

Friday 23rd March, 2012

Surely the next best thing to actually GOING to Spain would be to listen and give oneself up entirely to either (or preferably both) of those two masterpiece collections for solo piano, Isaac Albéniz’s Iberia and Enrique Granados’s Goyescas. Fortunately, there are a number of fine recordings available of each of the cycles, although live performances of them are rare happenings indeed.

It was, therefore, an occasion worth celebrating and savouring, when Spanish pianist Guillermo González recently played the entire set of Albéniz’s Iberia in Wellington, at a concert given in the NZSM’s Adam Concert Room. As his was a name new to me, I was surprised to find González has actually recorded a good deal of Albéniz’s piano music,including Iberia, for the Naxos label, and made numerous other recordings of Spanish and non-Iberian music as well.

If his recordings manage to convey anything like the grandeur, energy and intensity with which González invested his playing of Iberia for us at the Adam Concert Room, then they ought to be snapped up by Hispanophiles and pianophiles alike. By dint of what seemed his total involvement with the music, González drew us into his Antipodean sound-world, one in which every note had its own organically-wrought impulse of colour, flavour or rhythm. So persuasive were his evocations that, once under their spell, one felt at times almost more like a native than a tourist.

Interestingly, the pianist presented his own order of Albéniz’s twelve pieces, one which (as he explained to us through an interpreter) he believed gave us “the best experience” of the work. However bold an initiative this first appeared, González (who has completed and published a new edition of the work) proceeded to justify his “order of vision” with playing whose sounds suggested total familiarity and identification with the music’s native substance.

The composer’s arrangement for the work’s publication involved four books of three, whereas González’s presentation involved three groups of four, and what seemed like an almost complete change of order of the pieces. So we had two intervals during the concert, an arrangement I found gave the music we’d heard in each bracket time and space to breathe and resonate in the memory. Like Debussy with his Preludes, Albéniz didn’t except the pieces to be played in an entirety – and though (as with Debussy’s work) when played as a set their greatness glows even more richly, each nevertheless has a stand-alone strength and depth which creates its own distinctive and satisfying world.

González spoke about the work as a whole before the concert, and then about the oncoming bracket of pieces after each interval. His words, in gently and melodiously expressed Spanish, were translated by fellow-musician Paul Mitchell, more familiar of course to audiences as a ‘cellist. I found the experience of listening to a musician’s thoughts regarding the music he was about to play fascinating – in this case it seemed to bring the specific worlds of Albéniz’s pieces more closely to us while still leaving some responsibility to our own imaginations for each evocation.

We began the journey with Almeria (Book II), González presiding over a beautifully-phrased unfolding of indolent rhythm, the melodic lines in places densely clustered, but with the intervals, however close or remote, sensitively voiced. Such was the focused earthiness of the pianist’s playing I felt something of a sense of spontaneous growth being tapped about it all; and as with the piece’s rhythms, the light falling about the notes not chiaroscuro-like but subtle and gradated. The music’s great climax was one whose trenchant tones rose and quickly died away, the effect being of an irradiated landscape, the occasional glint of some of the figurations suggesting the groundswell that filled its moment to bursting and then passed. Wide-eyed, transfixing stuff, indeed!

I couldn’t help write similar kinds of jottings about almost every piece, noting the impulsive intensities of the following Málaga, the droll syncopations of El polo masking the music’s ever-growing weight of intent (spontaneous applause for this one!), and the more familiar Triana, lighter in feeling but with a dark undertow of rhythm that native Spaniards probably register instinctively as a blood-pulse. Everything about each of the pieces seemed richly-conceived, the pianist’s silences in places as tone-saturated as the notes, making for tangy evocations of exotic atmospheres.

The second group was similarly introduced, with González telling us about Scarlatti’s influence upon Albéniz’s keyboard writing of Cádiz (sometimes called El Puerto), something one could hear in the playful insistence of the decorations surrounding the piece’s recurring motifs. He then talked about the composer’s swan-song, Jerez, a complex and candidly-written meditation whose material seemed to summon up a life’s work. I thought this drew remarkable playing from González, tightly-wrought at the beginning, then more spacious through some chromatically-coloured sequences, and later exploring the ambiences around and about an expansive theme whose appearance gave rise to a number of contrasting episodes. Here was both quiet ecstasy (lump-in-the-throat downward whole-tone modulations) and pain, which the pianist touched on in his spoken introduction, nothing too searing or scorching, but in the form of anxiety-ridden upward reachings of sounds towards light and liberation.

The obsessively rhythmic opening of El Abaicín provided a telling contrast, an evocation of the Gypsy quarter of Granada, one which González entered into with a will, imparting a wonderfully physical snap to his rhythms, and delivering the recitatives with passionate ardor. Following this, the Messiaen-like clustered tones of the opening of Lavapiés made a festive, almost chaotic effect in the pianist’s hands, as befitted the music’s inspiration from the streets and dance-halls of Madrid, complete with a catchy tune reminiscent of Debussy’s Hills of Anacapri, one whose workings developed beautifully towards a climax in this performance, then even more beguilingly wound down again.

González’s final bracket from Iberia contained both the opening and concluding published pieces of the entire set, beginning with Evocación, which opens Book One, and which he called “a simple expression of soul”. Its beautiful Chopin-like melody at the beginning dominated the piece, by turns passionate and  gently poetic, with some stunning gradations of withdrawn tones towards the end. The dance-like Rondeña opened engagingly (González played us a couple of bars of Leonard Bernstein’s “America” from “West Side Story” to demonstrate the rhythm), its melodic trajectories requiring fistfuls of notes in places – an engaging but demanding piece. I loved the rhythmic directness of the lively Eritaña, and the rich baritonal voicing of the melody mid-way, surrounded by such lovely ambiences. Was that the merest hesitation at one point leading up to a cadence? if so, it was the pianist’s only hiccup of the evening, a momentary hiatus before the plunge into yet another of the composer’s individual modulations, which came thick and fast before the reprise of the main theme.

Having always thought Eritaña, for all its energy and colour, a somewhat inconclusive end to Book Four of the suite, I was pleased that González gave us Sevilla at the end, here – this was music of great spectacle, the opening processional reaching a true “shimmering-point” in this performance, the pianist generating a marvellous sonority, something Liszt would have heartily approved of! The beautiful sequential melody enveloped us in a Parsifal-like halo of solemnity, its progressions, however predictable, totally mesmeric. And the ensuing build-up towards a conflagration of bells and song had a Musorgsky-like grandeur, one whose resonances drifted across our vistas and into the most satisfying of silences at the end. We were left thinking, “What music, and what a pianist!”

(A footnote in the program acknowledged the “generous assistance of the Embajada de Espana en Nueva Zelanda, the Embassy of Spain, for making Guillermo Gonzalez’s visit to New Zealand possible”.)














Soprano, clarinet and piano in lovely Lieder recital

Schumann: Liederkreis, Op.39;
Schubert: The Shepherd on the Rock, Op.129

Rhona Fraser (soprano), Richard Mapp (piano), Hayden Sinclair (clarinet)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 21 March 2012, 12.15pm

This was a wonderful opportunity – there are so few lieder recitals these days.  Yes, we hear students from the New Zealand School of Music from time to time, but they don’t sing entire song cycles or extended works such as the Schubert one we heard in this concert.

Schumann wrote two song cycles entitled ‘Liederkreis’ (which simply means song cycle); this second one sets poems by Eichendorff.

Rhona Fraser does not have a huge voice, but it is clear, and her pronunciation and enunciation of the words was excellent.  I thought Richard Mapp was a little too loud at the beginning of the recital, but this soon ceased to be the case.

It was interesting to hear the singer in this repertoire; previously I have heard her only in opera, i.e. the operas she has promoted and sung in, in her beautiful garden at Days Bay.

The opening Schumann song ‘In a Foreign Land’ was quiet and contemplative.  The programme gave the translations of all the words, which was excellent, but it was a pity not to have also a few notes about the works performed, e.g. the poets’ names (the words Schubert used were by more than one poet), dates of composition and so on.

The third song ‘A Forest Dialogue’ was one of a number of songs more frequently heard than others.  This has mainly been on the radio, but also from visiting singers.  It was also one of the most musically descriptive (which probably accounts for its greater popularity), as the words describe the words and actions of the enchantress Lorelei.  As I have seen myself ‘…from its towering rock My castle looks deep and silent down into the Rhine.’  Rhona Fraser characterised all this amply, in her changes of tone.

The fourth song, ‘Silence’, featured a wonderful accompaniment describing the words about stillness, and then about the singer wishing to be a bird flying across the sea.

‘Moonlit night’, the fourth song, was another well-known one, and the following ‘A beautiful foreign land’ again demonstrated Fraser’s ability to evoke the mood beautifully, and make the words very clear.

The seventh song, ‘In the castle’ called on the lower register, revealing rich low notes in Rhona Fraser’s voice; again, the mood was capture and conveyed well, as a wedding procession and party were described.

‘Sadness’, the ninth song, typified the mood of all the songs –romantic longing, with frequent forests occurring, as we;; as foreign lands, nightingales, and sorrow.  This was another that I have heard more often, as was the twelfth and final song, ‘Spring night’.  Finally, we seemed to leave the dominant sad, romantic, almost cynical theme of the poems with their message that happiness is brief and illusory.  This song ended the cycle on a hopeful note.  Idiomatic playing from Richard Mapp assisted throughout to give the music meaning and beauty.

The extended song by Schubert, with its beautiful clarinet obbligato, I have not heard live for decades.  The playing of Hayden Sinclair was glorious.  The singer exhibited a fine, rich sound in the third verse, where the mood becomes dark and hopeless; the tension here was built very well. (The piece is not formally divided into verses, but there are clarinet solos between the various sections of words).

In the latter part of the piece, the singer’s breathing was sometimes noisy.  Here also, a few notes were not quite on the spot, or were slurred from too quickly in the more florid passages.  Vocally, the Schubert was not as satisfactory as was the Schumann cycle, but top notes were very secure.  It was great to hear this music; the clarinet and piano were both splendid, and the singer mostly so.





Michael Endres launches Paekakariki’s 2012 Mulled Wine concerts with brilliant Romantic music

Mulled Wine concerts

Mendelssohn: Songs without Words, Op 19; Schubert: Sonata in G, D 894; Schumann: Carnaval, Op 9

Michael Endres (piano)

Paekakariki Memorial Hall

Sunday 18 March, 2.30pm

Last Sunday, at one of the world’s very few concert halls that stand only 50 metres from a sparkling surf beach, the year’s series of high class musical concerts was launched.

Paekakariki’s celebrated Mulled Wine Concerts, bravely and skilfully promoted by Mary Gow, started with a piano recital by Michael Endres, currently professor of piano at Canterbury University; sadly, he is returning to Germany soon.

A special piano was obtained for the concert – a Schimmel, from Auckland, courtesy of several local sponsors. Getting it to Paekakariki by Sunday was beset by a series of problems and mishaps and it was only the last-minute efforts by Mainfreight staff and by the piano tuner, far beyond the call of duty, that saw the piano in place and tuned in time.

The hard wood surfaces of the hall can make it difficult to control piano sound and that indeed proved troublesome at times

But it never obscured the essential quality of the piano or of Endres’s superb interpretations of the music, much of which demands fairly exuberant and energetic playing.  Ironically, it was the encore – Chopin’s gentle, exquisite Barcarolle – that perhaps suffered most from the acoustic.

The concert began with six of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words (Op 19, one of six sets). Many of them have been permanent favourites since they were published and Endres’s treatment of the charming, romantic pieces would have brought back memories, as well as admiration for the subtle handling of the moods, rhythmic changes and, yes, the dynamic variations inherent in the music, all of which were brilliantly rendered by the pianist.

It surprised many and confused some when, at the end of the last of the Song without Words – a Venetian gondola song – Endres launched into Schubert’s Sonata, without pause or waiting for applause. Perhaps he wanted to draw attention to the kinship between Schubert and Mendelssohn, which indeed is plainly there in the warm-hearted G major sonata. The playing of Schubert demands a special sensibility and Endres’s playing was in perfect sympathy with the composer. The last movement, Allegretto, was a special delight, as the mix of grandeur and optimism emerged vividly from his hands.  How extraordinary it is to recall that Schubert’s piano music was not, as a whole, recognised as being at least equal in greatness to his songs and chamber music until, I think, Artur Schnabel took it up, between the wars, and writers like Alfred Einstein,  after World War II, gave it proper, authoritative attention.

Perhaps the most looked-forward-to work was Schumann’s Carnaval, a sustained collection of thematically-linked vignettes depicting puppet-theatre figures as well as portraits of friends and loves and his own inventions. It’s one of the most joyous creations in all music and, as Endres demonstrated at Parekakariki, responds marvellously to the most exciting, heart-warming and  hair-raisingly virtuosic performance.

This is a review, slightly altered,  submitted for publication by the Kapiti Observer


Tafelmusik – festive Baroque splendour from Canada

THE GALILEO PROJECT – Music of the Spheres

(New Zealand International Festival of the Arts 2012)

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra / Jeanne Lamon (Music Director)

Shaun Smyth (narrator) / Alison McKay (Concept, Script and Programme)

Wellington Town Hall

Friday, 16th March 2012

It was all a bit too much at first – I confess I found the mega-hype of the Festival booklet’s blurb for “The Galileo Project” concert distinctly off-putting, creating an impression in my mind of an experience involving as many extra-musical “distractions” as one could possibly throw at an audience. We were promised “Dazzling images…a fusion of science and culture…beautiful classical music and poetic narration…” (and much more along those lines). The program – including an Allegro  from a concerto by Handel, a Rondeau from a larger work by Purcell, plus various instrumental exerpts from operas by Lully, Rameau and Monteverdi – seemed diverting enough, to be sure, but was it the kind of fare one could seriously get one’s teeth into?  It looked like an assemblage of baroque-ish bits and pieces designed to augment some new-age “flash-over-substance” entertainment.

Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong – I should have put my trust in The New York Times, whose review of Canadian baroque orchestra Tafelmusik’s concert was also quoted in the Festival booklet – “An event steeped in intellect and imagination”. For the evening had all the ingredients of a truly memorable experience for the concertgoer, presenting an amalgam of music, words and images that contrived to entertain, stimulate, educate, challenge and satisfy all at once. Even crusty old holier-than-thou musical purists like myself were completely won over. In fact I can’t recall attending a concert at the end of which there seemed more smiling, delighted faces and animated voices thronging the corridors and exitways of the hall.

It took only a few moments of the concert’s opening for us to discover why Tafelmusik was described by Gramophone Magazine as “one of the world’s top baroque orchestras”. Beginning with an Allegro movement for two violins from one of Vivaldi’s L’Estro Armonico concerti, the group delivered the music with incredibly engaging buoyancy, the two soloists’ melodic lines conversing, countering, echoing, mirroring and contrasting with one another in a delightfully ambivalent exchange, part-confrontational, part-complementary. In the time it took to draw breath, the concerto’s slow movement stimulated a change of lighting, and a regrouping of musicians, so that a different soloist was playing, the music’s rapt stillness a complete contrast to the previous bristling energies.

As if giving tongue to the rapture of the sounds a speaker at one point interposed with those famous lines of Shakespeare’s from “The Merchant of Venice” – Lorenzo’s “How sweet the moonlight sleeps along this bank…”. Then, at the words “Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!…” several wind players joined the strings and began Lully’s Overture “Phaeton”. Generally, the orchestra arranged its string-and wind-players in a circle around its continuo players, two ‘cellos, double-bass, guitar and harpsichord, and as the different works required changes of soloist, the musicians revolved accordingly – at times they revolved during the music, and in places in appropriate pieces did dance-steps as they played. All of this was done with such ease and elegance as to make one hold one’s breath, in mute appreciation of it all.

Besides Shakespeare, we were given, in tandem with appropriate pieces of music, a story from mythology (How Apollo’s son Phaeton met his death), readings from letters of Galileo concerning his telescope, parts of the Inquisition’s pronouncements concerning Galileo’s heresy, reminiscences of the great Sir Isaac Newton, from his manservant Humphrey Newton (we were told “no relation”), readings of Kepler’s theories concerning the harmonies of the spheres, and accounts of historical happenings such as the 1719 Dresden Festival of the Planets with its attendant opera, balls, events and concerts in honour of each of the known planets.

All of these things the speaker/narrator Shaun Smyth delivered with finely-tuned focus and judgement, allowing us by turns to feel the gravitas of things such as Galileo’s condemnation and imprisonment by the Church authorities, the wry humour in descriptions of both Galileo and Sir Isaac Newton by their contemporaries, and the ceremonial splendor of festival events honouring the various planets. It was unfortunate that, at the quietest and most intimately-scaled part of the presentation (the episode of Galileo under house-arrest, playing his lute) an audience-member had to be removed from the auditorium for medical reasons; but to everybody’s credit the emergency was registered, and things on the stage were held in suspension while the operation was completed, then continued as before.

Making flesh of the word throughout all of this was the music – the musicians, every demi-semiquaver played from memory, seemed, by dint of their own intense involvement, able to connect us with sounds of worlds we knew from history books but could now feel as direct sensations. The exhilaration of the opening Vivaldi concerto for two violins, the magical antiphonal effects of Lully’s Chaconne, accompanying the story of Phaeton, between the soloists and the ripieno (the larger group, playing so quietly), the remarkable rhythmic interchanges between two solo ‘cellos and the accompanying orchestra in Monteverdi’s music, following Galileo’s description of his observation of Jupiter’s nearby “stars” – all of these pieces enlivened the spoken commentaries and activated the different worlds of each of the personalities we were presented with.

It may have been during the latter stages of one of Monteverdi’s pieces, or while the band was playing Tarquinio Merula’s Ciaconna (difficult to know where one exactly was, musically, at times during this wonderful farrago!) that the musicians actually danced a kind of courtly dance while playing (with an occasional touch of “silly walk” to debunk any pomposity that might have arisen). And during the “Homage to the Planets” sequences, the orchestra spilled over and down into the auditorium aisles, summonsed from the stage, as it were, by a group which had detached itself during the opening “Entrance of Jupiter” from Rameau’s “Tragedie en Musique” Hippolyte et Aricie, their “offstage” tones sounding like music from Fairyland. How wonderful to then have the whole auditorium of the Town Hall sounding and resounding with music in honour of heavenly bodies such as Venus, Mercury and Saturn!

This was all done with such style and unselfconsciousness as to create a kind of organic flow, the music, movement and narrative dovetailed to perfection. These things were capped off by a series of images projected onto a circular (how other?) screen at the back of the stage, the sequences complementing, but never unduly impinging upon the music. It strikes me as appropriate that Tafelmusik has been given the honour, by the International Astronomical Union, of having an asteroid named after the orchestra – a true “Music of the Spheres” gesture, and one which I’m sure everybody who attended the Wellington concert would, as they did the performers themselves at the evening’s conclusion, heartily applaud.











Great enthusiasm at Jenny McLeod’s “Hōhepa” premiere

JENNY McLEOD – HŌHEPA (opera) – World premiere performance

New Zealand International Festival of the Arts / NBR New Zealand Opera

Cast: Phillip Rhodes (Hōhepa) / Jonathan Lemalu (Te Kumete) / Deborah Wai Kapohe (Te Rai)

Jane Mason (Jenny Wollerman) / Nicky Spence (Thomas Mason) / Martin Snell (Governor George Grey)

Narrator (Te Tokotoko /Te Waha): Rawiri Paratene

Director: Sara Brodie

Members of the Vector Wellington Orchestra

Conductor: Marc Taddei

Wellington Opera House

Thursday, 15th March, 2012

I’m not sure whether I ought to admit to readers of this review that, earlier in the same day that I attended the opening of Jenny McLeod’s “Hōhepa” I took up a friend’s invitation to accompany him to a screening of the latest New York Metropolitean Opera production of “Götterdämmerung”.

Perhaps my abrupt juxapositioning of the two experiences was foolhardy, considering the chalk-and-cheese aspect of the works involved. But I found the inevitable comparisons thrown up by these “close encounters” thought-provoking, residues of which have undoubtedly coloured my reactions to Jenny McLeod’s work, outlined below.

The first thing that must be said of “Hōhepa” is that it’s a pretty stunning creative achievement on McLeod’s part, in line with Wagner’s achievement of writing his own texts for his stage works. And as with Wagner in his “Götterdämmerung” I felt an incredible emmeshment of words and music throughout the work, if at the opposite end of the grandly operatic textural and tonal spectrum.

Employing a moderately-sized cast and chorus with a small orchestra, McLeod created an evocative and enduring variety of ambiences throughout the story’s presentation, the sounds shaping and enlivening the narrative with firmly-focused contouring and colorings. In a sense I thought the orchestral score the most consistently dramatic protagonist, one from which nearly everything on the stage seemed to take its cue. One’s ear was constantly being drawn forwards and into that “world of light”, the sounds suggesting an order presided over by ancient gods and disrupted by unexpected change.

To briefly outline some background – Hōhepa Te Umuroa was a Whanganui Maori living in the Hutt Valley during the 1840s, one who, though well-disposed towards the European settlers he met and befriended, opposed the land-confiscation policies of Governor George Grey and took arms against the British militia. Captured, he and others, including his friend Te Kumete, were exiled to a penal colony in Tasmania, where Hōhepa died. His forgotten grave was rediscovered by a New Zealand child visiting Tasmania, whose parents alerted the authorities, and began a process that would see the remains of the exiled chief returned to New Zealand in 1988.

Through her involvement with writing church music for use by Maori people in the Ohakune district, Jenny McLeod had developed an association with Ngati Rangi. She was asked by Matthew Mareikura, elder, and leader of the mission which brought home Hohepa’s remains, if she would undertake to write the history of the entire saga – not as an opera, but hopefully in book form, a task she accepted. She was then approached by the current director of NBR New Zealand Opera, Alex Reedijk to write “a New Zealand work” for the stage, and she thus decided that it would be appropriate to adapt Hohepa’s story for the purpose.

In the course of her compositional career, McLeod has, in a sense, covered more territory than most, her works ranging from avant-garde innovation and her own brand of neo-primitivism, through popular styles, including hymn-writing for present-day worship, to a re-thinking of an avant-garde “tone-clock theory” involving innovative use of the chromatic scale, something she found influenced her writing of “Hōhepa”. She’s refreshingly pragmatic about her use of such techniques in as much as they have an impact on what the ordinary concert- or opera-goer hears in her music – in a recent “Listener” interview she talked about listeners not needing to know too much about the technicalities, expressing confidence that people would instinctively sense a “structural coherence” in her work.

I wondered, as I listened to the evening’s finely-wrought tapestry of sounds, whether this “structural coherence” of McLeod’s would generate sufficient energy of itself to implant a stage work with requisite dramatic possibilities. What I felt must have posed an enormous challenge for director Sara Brodie was how to respond to McLeod’s writing – how to render it onstage as “dramatic” or “theatrical” in an operatic sense. The presentation involved a great deal of “storytelling” via a narrator, one self-styled as a “talking stick” – Te Tokotoko, who is also the hero’s spirit guardian. Actor Rawiri Paratene looked and sounded the role to perfection, though I wondered whether his prominence throughout actually diminished the impact made on the proceedings by Hōhepa himself, whose dramatic character could have “taken on” more of his own story and enhanced the depth of his onstage presence in doing so.

In an article in the programme, Diana Balham writes of Hōhepa that he “is really an ideal opera leading man” – an ordinary man caught up in events which lead to his wrongful exile, imprisonment and eventual death, his fate leavened by a kind of post-mortem coda of wrongs addressed and put to rights. On the face of things that’s perfectly true – but the writer’s words created an expectation that, as a character Hōhepa would behave more “operatically”, which didn’t seem to be the composer’s (and following on, perhaps not the director’s) intention.

McLeod’s work itself seemed to me stylistically more like a kind of “dramatic legend” – something of the ilk of Berlioz’s “La Damnation de Faust”, a work which is equally successful in concert as when staged. There were occasional moments during Hōhepa of physical energy and dramatic movement (a brutal killing was depicted at one point), but in general the stage movement and configuration had a gradually unfolding aspect suggesting pageantry or ritual more than theatrical cut-and-thrust.

This impression was heightened by the composer’s use of some of the drama’s supporting characters, as well as the chorus, to advance the narrative – while the effect wasn’t unlike stylized classical drama, I felt the balance between storytelling and theatrical depiction was pushed away from the latter to the point of dramatic dilution. Ironically, I also thought that Hōhepa himself wasn’t given sufficient prominence throughout the first two acts to capture our attention, to train our focus upon him with sufficient force so that his fate as the tragic embodiment of a victim of gross injustice would later have its full dramatic impact.

Phillip Rhodes, who played Hōhepa, did everything he could with the part – he looked and sounded splendid throughout, and had both powerful and touching moments, the most enduring of which for me over the first two acts were the imposing warrior’s delight in his Christianity-inspired “Holy Family”, and his teaching of the names of birds to his children. But the Pakeha settler couple, Jane and Thomas Mason, made even more of a lasting impression on me, dramatically (splendid singing from both Jenny Wollerman and Nicky Spence), while Deborah Wai Kapohe’s Te Rai (Hōhepa’s wife) and Jonathan Lemalu’s Te Kumete (Hōhepa’s friend), both richly-characterised roles, seemed just as prominent in the scheme of things as the eponymous hero.

And yet – perhaps one shouldn’t be making such an issue of this. After all, in Maoridom it is the whanau, hapu, iwi, and the associated whakapapa which matters more than the individual; and Hōhepa’s tragedy was essentially a communal one, given that he endured great personal privation of both a physical and spiritual kind up until his death in exile in Tasmania. In that sense it’s appropriate that the character be portrayed as an integral member of a group as much as an individual, particularly as the Western operatic concept of a “hero” doesn’t sit well with the scenario that McLeod evokes. Should the work, then, be actually called “Hōhepa”? Is it more about a darker aspect of this country’s history than about what actually happened to him? Is it even more universal than that?

At the time, in the opera house, I felt myself musically entranced by it all, despite some bemusement – upon reflection, and having read back through what I’ve already said in this review, I feel myself beginning to incline towards taking the things I saw and heard on their own terms, and greatly enjoying them. Above all was, as I’ve said, the beauty and variation of McLeod’s illuminated tapestry of instrumental sounds, rendered with the utmost skill by a chamber-sized group of players drawn from the Vector Wellington Orchestra, here under the guidance of conductor Marc Taddei.

Then there were the voices, at the beginning of the work as people of the land enacting the rituals of acknowledging the tipuna, and paying homage to their living descendants. These choruses then merged with the drama, as Hōhepa’s descendants witnessing the recovery and repatriation of his bones, and afterwards as his contemporaries, expressing in heartfelt tones the shared ignominious humiliation of displacement, and the sorrow of his loss to exile and death.

Each of the solo voices suggested oceans more capacity for characterization than was allowed by the composer – apart from those I’ve mentioned, Martin Snell as Governor George Grey quickly established the character’s arrogance and implaccable nature, again largely with audience-directed pronouncements, though in places with engagingly jaunty (and ironic) Stravinsky-like accompaniments.

Given that McLeod’s treatment of the subject-matter demanded a good deal of recitative-like storytelling on the part of the characters, director Sara Brodie wisely responded with stagings designed by Tony de Goldi that emphasized and underpinned the ritual-like aspect of the drama. Her “less-is-more” instincts gave our imaginations space to augment the physical movements of the characters with impulses of our own, suggested either by music, words or backdrop images, sensitively applied here by Louise Potiki Bryant.

Opera is meant to be a visual as well as an aural experience – while this unconventional work of McLeod’s seemed to me to work just as effectively as abstract music and storytelling as it did as a theatrical event, the production’s feeling for ritual and atmosphere grew beautifully from the sounds made by voices and instruments. An enthusiastic and heartwarming reception was accorded the composer, along with her singers and musicians and her creative team, by an enthralled audience at the final curtain. I thought it richly deserved.





















Classy performances of excellent programme of string quartets at Waikanae

Haydn: String Quartet in C, Op.20 no.2
Ravel: String Quartet in F
Tchaikovsky: String Quartet no.1 in D, Op.11

Waikanae Music Society: The Puertas Quartet: Tom Norris and Ellie Fagg (violins), Julia Joyce (viola), Andrew Joyce (cello)

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 11 March 2012, 2.30pm

Having heard the Puertas Quartet play before, I was anticipating a good concert, and was not disappointed.  I hope word will quickly get around Waikanae about the quality of this ensemble; there were not as many present as is sometimes the case.

The Haydn work began with a fine, bright sound, and great clarity.  The Capriccio second movement of the work is particularly strong; after a sombre opening, it continues with ‘almost vocal pathos’, as the programme note described it.  The care with which these players had prepared was noticeable in a number of ways: the convincing playing of the unison phrases, the emphasis on important notes; the variety of expression.  This was a most delicious movement.   A note slightly out of tune struck my ear, and one or two elsewhere in the concert – otherwise, the playing was immaculate.

A lovely, light Minuet followed, featuring some chromaticism unusual in Haydn’s music, then the fugal Finale gave plenty of interest, with a sudden burst into forte to announce the end – another of Haydn’s jokes as in the ‘Surprise’ symphony, for those who might be nodding off?

The performance of the Ravel quartet saw the leadership of the quartet swap from Tom Norris to Ellie Fagg.  The music’s wonderfully ethereal unison passage for the violins near the beginning, and another later for violin and cello, were among the many delights.  In unison, the sound was like that of one instrument playing; the playing generally had great unanimity.  All parts could be heard, but balance was superb.  Julia Joyce’s viola was never overwhelmed, and her splendid tone came through well, while her husband’s warm and rich sound on the cello gave a superb basis to the music, even when he was merely bowing or playing pizzicato on repeated notes.

The second movement started with all playing pizzicato, with the sparkling and rhythmic effects that go with that, followed by a muted slow section that displayed mellow tone.  Again there was unison between first and second violins summoning that unearthly feeling.  More lively pizzicato passages brought the movement to a satisfying conclusion.

The slow third movement featured mutes, again.  This made for very gentle, warm and expressive tone.  It was followed by a faster ‘Vif et agité’ finale that was notable for thicker textures, but still returned to familiar themes from earlier movements.  It was a very fine rendition of Ravel’s masterwork.

After the interval, a short Romance by Keith Statham was played.  He is an English-born New Zealand resident and friend of the quartet members; the piece was introduced by remarks from Andrew Joyce.   Ellie Fagg led the quartet now.  As I said in my review of the quartet’s concert in the Hunter Council Chamber at Victoria University last May, when this piece was also played, there were whiffs of Mendelssohn, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and especially Elgar and the English composers.  This time I would add Ravel and Debussy to the list – and a friend felt that Delius was present.  It is a simple romantic piece, but with rich harmonies.

Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet no.1 is not nearly as well known as a whole as is its famous ‘Andante cantabile’ second movement.  It is a great work in totality, even if the slow movement does rather stand out.

The first movement was played smoothly, with plenty of subtlety; a charming, romantic work, mild of mood and mellow of tone.  Here again, there was always great ensemble, and the several of first movement passages for solo first violin with the others accompanying had the right balance.  There were splendid crescendi, and a grand ending.

The lovely andante was muted, and its sound delicate but never wispy or spineless.  The first violin against the pizzicato accompaniment is so exhilarating in its quiet way, it is no wonder the movement is so popular – it is justly famous.  Here, the playing was full of feeling.

The third movement scherzo is much more matter-of-fact.  It was played in a lively yet insistent fashion.  The playing again had great accord and mutual understanding.

The opening of the finale was very classical, until the second subject was announced on the viola.  This was a more Russian music, and the development of that theme was bright and bouncy, as was the conclusion of the movement.  The co-ordination of the parts following rests was near perfection.

This was a classy performance string of a quartet not heard sufficiently often.

I trust that the showing of the Puertas Quartet in this concert, and in the rest of their current tour, will enable Chamber Music New Zealand to schedule concerts in the main centres on the next tour they make here.  We are very fortunate that the quartet is able to visit together across the globe in this way; Andrew Joyce paid tribute to Keith Statham for his contribution to making this possible.