An overwhelming Missa Solemnis from the Orpheus

PSATHAS – Luminous

BEETHOVEN – Missa Solemnis

Emma Fraser (soprano) / Bianca Andrew (mezzo-soprano)

Cameron Barclay (tenor) / Kieran Rayner (baritone)

Orpheus Choir

Vector Wellington Orchestra

Marc Taddei (conductor)

Welliington Town Hall

Sunday, 29th April 2012

Along with his last symphony, which he finished at about the same time, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, completed in 1824, is justly reckoned to be the finest and grandest of his public utterances as a composer. One commentator went so far as to term the work  a “sacred symphony, one whose secular counterpart (the Ninth Symphony) followed shortly afterwards”.

The composer called the Mass “my greatest work”, which perhaps explains in part the somewhat bewildering duplicity with which he arranged to receive advances for the work from at least six publishers before settling on a seventh, as well as privately selling ten prepublished copies to various royal patrons. Obviously Beethoven wished that what he held so dear ought to be similarly regarded by the outside world, more especially so as his financial circumstances at the time of writing the Mass were even worse than usual.

Financial considerations aside, Beethoven’s intention, according to letters written to his patron, the Archduke Rudolf, was “to awaken lasting religious feelings both in the singers and in the audience…..there is nothing loftier than to come nearer the Deity than others and, and from here to distribute the heavenly rays among Mankind….”. With these sentiments firmly in mind, the words “Mit Andacht” (With devotion), found written over the opening of the score, is the overriding instruction for the performers.

Which is all well and good, except that those same performers are confronted with a work bristling with difficulties, one whose composer demonstrated little concern at various places throughout the score for ordinary human capabilities. At almost any stage in the work’s performing history, it seems as though its challenges have been emphasized almost to the exclusion of its actual content – thus the Musical Times of 1882 pronounced in no uncertain terms that “The work is impossible. No human lungs can withstand the strain imposed by it.”  And despite today’s orchestral and choral standards being of the level of technical excellence hitherto undreamed of, critics and listeners continue to report performance woes and mishaps – this from a review of a recent London performance, for example:

Time and time again could be heard many of the soprano singers striving to meet Beethoven’s very severe demands on them, only to be undermined by a substantial number of their colleagues merely screaming at the note and missing. The tenors too were often wild, with individual voices coming through. That Beethoven’s demands are severe should not mean that listeners have to make allowances……”

Of course, Beethoven’s score for the Missa Solemnis has long been cited, along with various of his “late” works as embodying the idea that the composer refused to compromise his artistic vision to the limitations of instruments and musicians of his era – – hence his oft-quoted reply to a violinist who complained that a passage in one of his last quartets was virtually unplayable: – “Do you think I care about your miserable violin when the Spirit speaks to me?” – in other words, the idea counted far more than its execution.

All of which gives the impression to the uninitiated listener that the Missa Solemnis is a kind of intractable musical monster, created by a somewhat deranged creative spirit – certainly some of Beethoven’s contemporaries were shocked by what they actually heard of it, particularly the militaristic interpolations towards the end of the work’s final movement, the “Agnus Dei” –  a hapless critic lamented “what these strange trumpet-fanfares, the mixing in of recitative, the fugued instrumental section, which only destroys the flow of ideas…..what the hollow, unrhythmical bizarre timpani strokes are intended to mean, only dear Heaven knows…”. Of course, succeeding generations of music-lovers have more readily accepted Beethoven’s revolutionary attitudes to traditional form and expression – writing as early as 1861 the acerbic critic Eduard Hanslick, after hearing a performance, wrote about the work’s “sublime ideas” and admired its creator’s “double majesty of genius and adversity”. In this sense the composer was correct when he remarked to a friend “my music is not for this, but for a later time”.

Even in our time the work has the power to startle and surprise listeners unprepared for its boldness and daring. And these were precisely the qualities which were brought to the fore by the Orpheus Choir, the Vector Wellington Orchestra and four radiantly-voiced soloists under Marc Taddei in the Wellington Town Hall on Sunday afternoon. The concert actually featured another, shorter work as a kind of prelude, John Psathas’s fanfare Luminous, one whose intensities, though very different to those of the Missa Solemnis activated both our sensibilities and the sound-vistas of the hall, and put us in a “tingling” frame of mind, ready for the coruscations of  the Beethoven work. I thought that, in this respect, it was good programming, even if I for one would have been happy with having the Mass as a “stand alone” experience.

Throughout the whole of the first part of the work, the Kyrie, Gloria and Credo, Beethoven is in his grandest, most imposing mode, with energy and drama to the fore, and frequent contrasts between fast and slow, loud and soft, music with “attitude writ large”. By contrast, the two following movements, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei, are generally more intimate and personal-sounding, apart from a few irruptions of energy (at the words “Pleni sunt coeli in terra” during the Sanctus, for example, and during the latter part of the Agnus Dei, when the composer reminds his listeners all too palpably of the horrors of war).

I would doubt that there’s another work in the standard repertoire that puts a choir through its paces to the extent that this one does – throughout these first three movements the energy levels of the singers are taxed to an incredible extent. Very wisely, Marc Taddei called for a “tuning-break” between the Gloria and the Credo, one which I appreciated as well, as one is otherwise literally bounced by the composer from one alpine peak to another, between the two sections. But in general, I could have wept for joy at the strength, power and beauty of the Orpheus Choir’s  singing throughout. Such a great deal is required by the composer of his singers, and I thought the choir’s stirring commitment to the task was as much a tribute to its Music Director Mark Dorrell as to the other “Marc” who directed the performance with such inspirational élan and all-encompassing energy.

As for two or three places where the choir was pushed fractionally beyond its limits by the conductor, such as the fugal conclusion of the Credo and the aforementioned “Pleni sun coeli” in the Sanctus, the momentary ensemble imprecisions proclaimed a certain spirit of risk-taking, of going to extremes entirely appropriate for such a work in performance – a case, perhaps, for the idea that the pursuit of perfection is in itself a greater undertaking than its actual achievement. Conductor Marc Taddei certainly seemed like a man possessed throughout, inspiring his musicians to put themselves on the line and give it all they had. At the same time, his sense of the work’s overall structure remained admirably clear-sighted, so that, in his hands the work sounded every bit like the masterpiece that it’s reputed to be.

Heroes of equal standing were the orchestral players, every section covering itself with glory, realizing all of the work’s demands throughout – the brass I thought were outstanding, the horns in particular – and of course they all had a fine old time during the Agnus Dei, putting across Beethoven’s militarist evocations of the perils and sufferings of war. What an extraordinary sequence this made,  the raw force of the composer’s message here given plenty of power and intensity by singers and players alike, right up to the work’s somewhat abrupt ending.

Pivotal in this scheme of things were the four young soloists (all of whom, in a context of such awe-inspiring grandeur of expression, looked excessively youthful!). As it turned out, Emma Fraser, Bianca Andrew, Cameron Barclay and Kieran Rayner made a veritable dream team of voices. They were placed at the back of the orchestra and in front of the choir, as though they were singing in an integrated space, rather than “out the front” – and this worked well because their voices had the heft to be clearly heard. Baritone Kieran Rayner had a little difficulty in this regard because of the lowness of some of his notes, although higher in his range the voice “told” with no impediment. All made a beautifully blended sound as well as handling their individual lines with great aplomb. Especially affecting was their singing in the Sanctus and Benedictus, sounded in tandem with the orchestra’s concertmaster Matthew Ross, whose violin solo triumphed over a couple of uncertain moments to contribute to the work’s most sublimely beautiful passages.

This was a performance that I’m sure will be talked about for a long time to come – all credit to conductor, choir, orchestra and soloists for their part in creating our very own and much-cherished version of the stuff musical legends are made of.











Sofya Gulyak – pianist extraordinaire

Piano Recital by Sofya Gulyak

New Zealand School Of Music,

in association with the NZ (Auckland) International Piano Festival

RACHMANINOV – Three Pieces for Piano Op.3 / Etude Tableau in E-flat Minor Op.39

Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op.42

SCRIABIN – Two Poemes Op.32 / SHOSTAKOVICH – Prelude and Fugue in D-flat Op.87 No.15

PROKOFIEV – Piano Sonata No.6 in A Op.82

Adam Concert Room, NZSM, Victoria University of Wellington

Saturday 28th April

Former Professor of Piano at Auckland University Tamas Vesmas instigated in 2005 the Auckland International Piano Festival, an event which for the following couple of years attracted numerous world class pianists to give recitals, concerts and masterclasses. In 2008, Vesmas returned to Europe to live, and the Festival’s organization was taken over by John Eady, of Lewis Eady Ltd, the New Zealand agents for Steinway pianos. Tamas Vesmas was able to maintain an interest in the Festival as Artistic Director, which continued successfully under John Eady’s stewardship, a process which eventually saw the Festival drop the “Auckland” from its title and become the New Zealand International Piano Festival. This year, the prestigious line-up included none other than the 2009 Winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition, Sofya Gulyak. It was Wellington’s great good fortune that she was able to include a visit to the capital in her schedule, and perform her Festival program here as well.

Gulyak’s success at Leeds was historic in the sense that she was the first woman to win the top prize in the competition (Mitsuko Uchida went close in 1975, but was edged out by Dmitri Alexeev, and the talented Noriko Ogawa was placed third in 1987, though she beat the highly-regarded Russian Boris Berezovsky into fourth place). At Leeds Gulyak played the Brahms D Minor Concerto with Mark Elder and the Halle to take the honours, and her performance was praised for its “measured intensity” and its “combination of tonal weight and dark lyricism”. Her success wasn’t entirely unquestioned, as often happens in these competitions, with each of the runners-up preferred by some commentators as the more deserving of the highest award – but Gulyak was able to impress enough of the right people sufficiently to carry the day.

She was certainly able to impress her Wellington audience as well, though not with Brahms – her programme, which she had also played in Auckland, at the Festival, consisted entirely of Russian works.  It was a well-chosen assemblage of pieces designed to demonstrate unequivocally those characteristics we’ve generally come to associate with music from that particular part of the world. Added to this was a style of playing which, thanks largely to recordings of other pianists, could readily be identified as belonging to the “Russian School”, and which Gulyak seemed to me to proclaim practically from her first note of the recital, at the beginning of Rachmaninov’s Elegie from the set of Pieces, Op.3. Her depth of tone, and evocation of both a deep stillness and a wonderfully oceanic surge caught us up in her sound-world within seconds, one which rose and fell at will throughout the music’s journeyings.

The Op.3 Pieces of course contain THE Prelude,  which Rachmaninov the concert pianist grew to hate, as he was simply beleaguered with requests for its performance – “I know my duty – I will play it!” he would wearily say to his stage manager, in response to his audience’s clamouring at the end of each concert. There was nothing weary about Gulyak’s performance, which was very “chiaroscuro” throughout the sharply-delineated opening, but then brought out the variants of colour and tone, with the left hand held in check, allowing the sounds of those tolling bells plenty of space and atmosphere. A quicksilver middle section proclaimed her amazing technical facility, with cascades of sounds pealing in all directions, and then the most magical tonal diminutions of the final chords opened up the music’s vistas and merged sounds with memory.

Despite the programme’s boldly-proclaimed “Five Pieces for Piano Op.3”, Gulyak played only three of them, concluding the group with the Polichinelle, Rachmaninov’s scintillating portrayal of the well-known Pulcinello, from the Italian commedia del’ arte theatre – impish brilliance at the outset, followed by one of those rolling Russian melodies that the composer simply couldn’t help writing, and concluding with a reprise of the opening, working up to an even more brilliant conclusion. The grandly obsessive Etude-Tableau in E-flat minor from the wonderful Op.39 set of these pieces followed, its Lisztian sweep and rhetoric making the perfect foil for what was to follow – the composer’s last piece written for solo piano, the Corelli Variations.

Though the theme Rachmaninov used is not really by Corelli at all (it’s an ancient Portugese dance-tune called “La Folia”) it was used by the latter in one of his Op.5 Violin Sonatas, as well as by other Baroque composers. By this stage in his career Rachmaninov was favouring a leaner, sharper-edged style in his composing, following on from his Fourth Piano Concerto and his “Paganini” Rhapsody.  Sofya Gulyak fills out the spaces contained by these clear edges with dark, rich colours, vividly characterizing each variation (a cricket’s song in Variation Two, for example), and for me making each vignette at once modern-sounding and fantastically Schumannesque. At first I thought her playing in the finale a shade unyielding, but orchestral colours kept burgeoning up out of the textures and the rhythms acquired a real schwung from one keyboard extreme to another – exciting and extremely musical pianism! And the epilogue was brought about with such a sense of “being there”, Gulyak scattering a few roses about the devastation, her playing of the theme at the end a quiet, deep-toned tribute to the journey and its remaining memories.

Scriabin’s “Two Poemes” were played for contrasts, the first Andante Cantabile very beautiful,  limpid and watery, the second more “impetuoso” than its actual marking “con eleganza”. Though seeming like whole worlds apart, Gulyak moved from these worlds of over-wrought sensibility to the sharp, acerbic intensities of Shostakovich with complete ease, flinging the composer’s angularities at us with gusto at the beginning of the Prelude, and switching to playfulness for the child-like middle section, innocent and artless but for the occasional “wrong-note” contouring! And what a wicked, chromatically torturous fugue! Gulyak relished its motoric impulses and its spiky, “in-your-face” concluding cadences, whose ironic, matter-of-fact aspect brought a huge appreciative response from her audience.

Though the Shostakovich work had a modicum of grit, it was left to Prokofiev to provide the evening’s truly coruscating moments. His Sixth Sonata was numbered as the first of what the composer called three “War Sonatas”, begun in 1939 and written throughout the duration. Amazingly, the composer began work on all ten movements of the three sonatas at the same time, in order to be able to switch to a different movement’s mode if he felt any kind of creative “block” with what he was currently grappling with. It’s small wonder that these sonatas have things in common, but an even greater miracle that each does have its own specific thematic and schematic world.

Sofya Gulyak threw herself and all of us into the ferment with a vengeance, giving the Sonata’s opening major-minor fanfare its full clangour and spadefuls of energy, drawing us into the darkly-lit lyricism of the central section, before re-energizing things, the fanfare returning in harsher, more mocking guise. Her playing hurled the sounds across the spaces, transfixing our sensibilities and rending the fabric of things. The Allegretto movement provided a little respite, though Gulyak pointed its its angularities in-and-out of our comfort-zones, unsettling us with sudden accents and dark shadows. I also loved Gulyak’s way with the slow-waltz lentissimo, again, taking us from warm reassurance to cool unease across single measures, rather like moonlight suddenly obscured by cloud and leaving things enveloped momentarily in darkness. Her voicings throughout were beautifully modulated, her control of animation and stasis that of a master, the concluding cadences playing delicacy against darkness most effectively.

The finale here drove between bristling energies and diabolical impulses – we felt a sense of dark pursuit that gave way to a slowly-descending vortex dominated by the work’s opening fanfare-motif. Gulyak’s impulsive reawakening of the textures were the sounds of fireflies in the gloom, the energies spreading to open conflagration, and overwhelming us with explosive force – her delivery of the final “pay-off” phrase had an electric thrill whose shock momentarily knocked our receptive powers sideways, though we recovered to give her the ovation and recalls she so richly deserved. Her encore, appropriately, restored calm and order to our sensibilities – a Bach transcription of part of a Marcello Oboe Concerto, after what we had just experienced, the musical epitome of equilibrium and well-being!  Bravo, Sofya Gulyak!









Memorable concert by visiting expatriate musicians

Wellington Chamber Music

Milhaud: Suite for violin, clarinet and piano, Op.157b; Fauré: Piano Trio in D minor, Op.120; Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time

Akoka Quartet (Simeon Broom, violin; Rachel Church, piano; Victoria Simonsen, cello; Sarah Masters, clarinet)

Ilott Theatre

Sunday, 22 April 2012, 3.00pm

These young New Zealanders have all studied in the United Kingdom, and are currently playing professionally there.  Simonsen and Masters are no strangers to the Messiaen work, having jointly won the Granada Chamber Music Competition in the UK, performing this music.  They have considerable experience playing in chamber ensembles, orchestras, and solo, in New Zealand, UK, and Europe.

Their all-French programme revealed how unlike French composers can be from one another, and it was a very satisfying collection of works, surprisingly, all written within a 20-year span.

Having in the distant past played the Milhaud work with friends (one of whom was present at this concert), I was delighted to hear it live.

The clarinet particularly was pleasing in the first movement ‘Ouverture’.  Humour, jazz and off-beat rhythms are all features of this movement.  Later, the piano and violin came into their own more.  The ‘Divertissement’ slow movement is marked by lovely interlocking parts, while the ‘Jeu’ third movement, for violin and clarinet only, is bright, lively and dance-like, with a contemplative middle section.  The ‘Introduction et final’ that ends the work is bouncy with great melodies, and ends deliciously, with a cheerful ‘good-night’.

The work was played with panache and expression; some hesitancy in the violin early on disappeared, and the joyous nature of Milhaud’s writing found full flowering.

Each item was introduced by a different member of the quartet, the information filling out what was in the programme notes.  I find this an interesting feature, becoming more common in chamber music concerts.  It helps to give a flavour to each of the players and they become not only musicians but also communicators.

The Fauré trio is very different from the previous work.  After a very ardent opening on the cello, the strings continued with mellifluous, singing quality, ably supported by a delectable piano part.

The andantino slow movement had classical interplay of melody between cello and violin, with serene supporting chords from the piano.  The music gradually became impassioned.

The final movement is somewhat idiosyncratic, and there are more nods to the twentieth century in its writing.  It is quirky at times, but very rhythmic.  The harmonic language is more varied than that of the first two movements.  It was given an admirable performance.

Before the concert, I felt it was rather soon to have another performance of Messiaen’s work, after Ensemble Liaison and Wilma Smith played it so memorably in the Wellington Town Hall less than six months ago (the concert was broadcast on RNZ Concert only about a week ago).  There was also a performance at the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson in February last year.

However, these players were well up to the task.  Being in a smaller, more intimate space than was the October concert made the work sound less grand and monumental; on the whole I preferred the larger acoustic space.

Nevertheless, the themes of faith and spirit, and apocalypse as outlined by Simeon Broom in his introduction to the work, were amply conveyed.

The word ‘time’ has another meaning music – was this the end of time in music?  Messiaen’s modal, even plain-chant, continuous melody in much of the work has no obvious consistent time signatures, and a lack of apparent unity (see Peter Mechen’s review of the earlier concert, on this website: 29 October 2011) was somewhat overcome for me by hearing it a second time.

The character of the music is forecast in the titles of the eight movements, many of them coming from the last book of the Bible: Revelation.  Despite the lofty and dramatic themes there, this music begins with an ethereal opening of bird sounds, most notable in the high harmonic glissandi on the cello.  This first movement (Liturgy of crystal) is followed by crashingly apocalyptic sounds in the second movement (Vocalise for the angel who announces the end of time).  It moves into smooth piano and string chords seemingly arriving from profound depths, played with muted strings, before a return to the apocalypse.

The ‘Abyss of the birds’ third movement is for solo clarinet, and was originally written separately for the clarinettist the composer met at a temporary prison camp in France, before they were both transported to a Stalag at Görlitz in Germany, in 1942.  The quiet introduction is powerful in its muted simplicity.  Beautifully played, it nevertheless had less impact on me than the previous hearing, with its soloist standing on a large stage at the Wellington Town Hall.  The piece calls for a huge range of the clarinet’s notes and dynamics, all superbly rendered by Sarah Masters.

The ‘Interlude’ fourth movement is for violin, cello and clarinet.  A great array of techniques is called for; the music makes almost ecstatic pronouncements.

Movement five (In praise of the eternity of Jesus) is for cello and piano only.  A strong, serene melody on the cello has simple piano chords underpinning it.  The mood is of faith and fervour, and hope.   Again, the music depicts ecstasy and confidence, yet is sometimes poignant.  However, hope triumphs at the end.

The sixth movement (Furious dance for the seven trumpets) returns the full quartet, and is a complete contrast to what has preceded it.  Furious it may be, but it is not sheer noise.  It is played almost entirely in unison, generating a most unusual mysterious atmosphere and mood.

‘Tangle of rainbows for the angel who announces the end of time’ is the title of the seventh movement.  After a placid opening, there are violent discords, then a return to the placid mood.  The violin playing in this was very fine; beauty and simplicity characterised the music.  A renewal of chaos followed, and then there are birds, the music emerging to perhaps a preview of the end of time.

Finally, the contemplative last movement (In praise of the immortality of Jesus), for violin and piano only, is calm and peaceful in the violin part (marred by a few moments of poor tone and suspect intonation), supported by chords on the piano.

Altogether, it was a memorable concert, and the clarinet playing of Sarah Masters was particularly outstanding, but all the players acquitted themselves well, and gave first-class performances severally and together.



The Full Monte – Baroque Voices let ‘er rip for us

THE FULL MONTE (Concert Two)

Claudio MONTEVERDI – Madrigals (Books 2 and 9 – exerpts)

Baroque Voices, directed by Pepe Becker

Continuo: Douglas Mews (harpsichord) / Robert Oliver (bass viol)

Stephen Pickett (theorbo / baroque guitar)

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Wellington

Sunday 22nd April, 2012

Trying to analyze either truth or beauty brings one to despair at the inadequacy of one’s own command of language. And faced with the truth and beauty of a body of music such as Claudio Monteverdi’s madrigals, I’m conscious that any words I might try to muster up to connect with, describe or explain any aspect of such glorious sounds are not going to match that selfsame glory. The exercise makes one realize anew just why it is that music is regarded as conveying so much more than words ever could.

I’m forced to accept the realization that the best way of telling other people about Monteverdi’s music is to encourage them to experience some of it for themselves. And happily, this is what that wondrous group of musicians and associates, Wellington’s  Baroque Voices, led by Pepe Becker, have decided to make possible for us regarding those justly famous collections of madrigals by the Italian composer, no less than nine books of them, written over a period of more than fifty years, a virtual compositional lifetime.

The group’s aim is to present the entire collection of these works in concert, over a period of four years. The first in this series of concerts was performed almost a year ago last May, one that I attended and afterwards reviewed on RNZ Concert (as a footnote to this present review, I offer my notes from that radio interview, not a word-for-word transcript, but something which contains the essence of what was discussed on air).

Now the group has undertaken a second concert, true to its word, for our delight and pleasure. As they did with the first “The Full Monte” presentation, Baroque Voices aren’t  intending to slavishly follow the composer’s chronological order, but aim for some variety by setting groups of works from different eras in juxtaposition with one another. So it was that this concert alternated madrigals either singly or in pairings from Book Two and individually from Book Nine throughout the afternoon – which meant that we were being constantly confronted by what sounded like music from two different composers.

We had the youthful (1590) more traditionally-influenced composer following the rules of what he called “Prima Pratica” (the older, more conservative way of composition), his works unaccompanied, according to Renaissance tradition, alternated with works from the Ninth Book (published posthumously in 1651), music from a different century, of course, it must be remembered – these madrigals are instrument-accompanied, and the vocal writing is far freer, less predictable,  band more varied, including canzonette (trios) and two-part works whose immediacy of expression are in some cases practically operatic in feeling and in inclination.

As much as I’d like to take credit for what I thought was a perceptive comment regarding Monteverdi’s writing style, I have to confess that the following came from a commentator surveying a number of recordings of these works, and writing about what he thought as the best way for the listener to approach this music. He said, “Trying to understand Monteverdi by working backwards from Handel and Bach doesn’t work, because Monteverdi’s music is the culmination of the Renaissance style, one which looked to express the meaning behind every word of text. He took the “poetry of sound” to its highest level of expression, and in the process, created something which strikes our ears today in places as fiercely modern.”

Between the two concerts the personnel of the group changed a little. Tenor Peter de Blois was replaced by Phillip Collins, joining the other tenor, Oliver Sewell, and bass Benjamin Caukwell took the place of David Morriss. Otherwise, the voices that had delighted us throughout the first concert were there again for the second, and continuing to do so. Pepe Becker’s and Jayne Tankersley’s angelic soprano tones ensured that our sensibilities were kept more-or-less constantly airborne – though very different in individual timbres (very likely an advantage) their blending of their individual lines in places created both mellifluous and startling results! Christopher Warwick’s reliable counter-tenor again wove strong interconnecting lines and enriched those middle vistas with enlivened tones.

Throughout, the blending and contrasting of vocal tones was a constant delight to the listener’s ear – right from the opening “Non si levava ancor”, from Book Two, in which the textures opened like those of a flower, contrasted the mood with a certain mercurial energy, then took up the longer lines once more.I enjoyed those instances of marvellously “attenuated” lines in which a second singer would add to an already existing held note, making for an incredibly intense effect. The song’s totality seemed like some kind of perfection of realization, beginning with impulse, then generating tension, and finally – fruition.

The second item, “E dice l’una sospirand’ allora”, also from Book Two, reminded me of Thomas Tallis in places, with “modal” sounding progressions. As the work progressed the performers excitingly widened and intensified its range of expression, up to the vehement and very dramatic ending, with the “addio” repeated, the words living and breathing. From Book Nine then came a dialogue “Bel pastor, dal cui bel sguardo” between a shepherdess and her lover, Pepe Becker and tenor Phillip Collins played nicely into each other’s and the music’s hands, with delightfully capricious phrasings and figurations, exciting coloratura and winsome echoing of some of the florid passages – most entertaining!

Among the many other highlights was the energetic “Se vittorie si belle” from Book Nine, in which the instrumental ensemble sprang to energetic life, the small baroque guitar displaying real “attitude”, as the instrumentalists matching the singers’ rapid-fire exchanges, the words combatative and flailing about in all directions. Another was the Book Two “Tutte le bocche belle”, with its sublimely stratospheric soprano parts, creating a feeling all around of ecstasy on the wing with the bell-like tones. And the two sopranos gave us another palpable thrill a few minutes later, with the superbly-wrought “Quando dentro al tuo seno” (Book Nine), concluding with a palpably searing clash of seconds from Pepe Becker and Jayne Tankersley which was then brilliantly and fantastically resolved on the phrase’s final note. Sensational stuff!

This ought to have been a literal show-stopper, but we in the audience were perhaps too stunned by the power of the music and virtuosity of the singing to respond immediately! –  and so we waited until the more playful and light-hearted “S’andasse Amor a caccia” (Book Two) brought with its ending the interval. In fact, my only criticism of the concert was that we spectators felt the pressing need to applaud more often, but were stymied by a mixture of inhibition and reluctance to disturb the “spell” of the music-making. We needed, I think, at least one opportunity, midway through each half, to let off a bit of steam and give vent to our appreciation.

I could go on through the second half of the concert highlighting various other “highlights”, the “terraced” beauties of the very first song in the second half, “Mentre io miravo fiso” from Book Two, with its solid underlying harmonic progressions; or the overt, Barbara Strozzi-like emotionalism and volatility of Book Nine’s extraordinary “O sia tranquillo il mare”, the singers having more than ample temperament, sensibility and sustaining power to do these works full justice. Nor was emotive power the exclusive property of the Book Nine madrigals, as we discovered with the performance of the beautiful but intensely dramatic “Dolcemente dormiva la mia Clori” from Book Two, with its lovely, elaborately-turned final cadential measures.

I did think the group right at the end could have chosen a fuller-ensembled madrigal with which to finish, rather than slavishly pursuing the numerical order of the Book Two set  which concluded with the single-sopranoed  “Cantai un tempo…” – as with the concert’s first half, it was the penultimate madrigal which I thought would have made a better and more concerted “finish” here, the Book Two “Ti sponto l’ali, Amor, la donna mia” with its roulades of intense, rolling sound and fearlessly-attacked high notes (soprano Jayne Tankersley in particular in spectacular form). But this, like the very few other criticisms I’ve dredged up, was a minor matter, as smoke compared with Pepe Becker’s and Baroque Voices’ stunning achievement in this music. Even more so than I felt at the conclusion of the first concert of “The Full Monte” in 2011, I now await with impatience the group’s third instalment of these remarkable works.


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2011 Review: The Full Monte (Concert One)

Baroque Voices’ performances of music from the entire collection of nine Books of Madrigals

by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

Baroque Voices: Pepe Becker (soprano) / Jayne Tankersley (soprano) / Christopher Warwick (countertenor)

Peter de Blois (tenor) / Oliver Sewell (tenor) / David Morriss (bass)

Continuo players: Douglas Mews (harpsichord) / Robert Oliver (bass viol)

Il Primo Libro de Madrigali (for five voices) 1587 (complete)

Madrigali e canzonette  (for two and three voices) from Libro Nono 1651

Concert 1 Sunday 1st May 2011, Sacred Heart Cathedral, Wellington

(from a review by Peter Mechen for “Upbeat” with Eva Radich)


PLAY MUSIC : Filli car e amata (Phyllis, my dear beloved) – Poi che del mio dolor (Since you enjoy feeding on my sufferings) (from Il Primo Libro)

“The Full Monte” – the title suggests revealing something or stripping something off, as in the film of the same name. So, what was done to or with Monteverdi?

Baroque Voices in this concert began what’s intended to be a complete survey of the Madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi. Monteverdi wrote nine books of Madrigals, and gradually evolved his own style of expression. So the early books are in the grand polyphonic tradition of the Renaissance, although one can hear distinctive voices striving for deeper and more overt expression every now and then. And by the time the composer came to write his later books he had ushered in a new style of vocal writing, much freer and more overtly expressive than the old. Baroque Voices performed the entire Book one of the madrigals and interspersed groups of them with selections from Book Nine, music that came almost a whole lifetime later, in fact.……..

How did the idea work, of alternating works by a composer from both the beginning and the end of his creative life?

It worked well – it was a situation where different ways of presenting the music would have made for an equally fascinating, but different, result. Part of the reason everything worked is that the music is so good, so instantly combustible to the ear, so that it became a case of registering differences rather than improvements. The early Monteverdi wasn’t at all shamed or cast low by what we heard of the later works. What was fascinating was how one often heard pre-echoes of the composer’s later style, so that the experience was more organic than one might have thought it would be..……..

So what are the differences between early Monteverdi and late Monteverdi in his madrigal writing?

When Monteverdi was young he wrote madrigals in the old-fashioned sense of the word -that is, following the rules of Renaissance Polyphony……….. These early works were unaccompanied five-part madrigals, and the rules consisted of things like having equal voice parts, preparing the listener for dissonances, certain prescribed chordal progressions were used, and the work’s musical structure was paramount.  By contrast, the later Monteverdi deals in bold dissonances, sudden tempo changes, radical harmonic shifts, chromaticism, florid vocal ornamentation – a generally more volatile and spontaneous attitude towards realizing the meaning of the poetic settings.……….We’ll hear two of these early madrigals: “Amor per tua merce” (Cupid, take pity on me), followed by “Baci soave e cari” (Sweet, dear kisses).

So, what do we expect the group to be doing in this group of two madrigals?

It’s music that’s very light on its feet, with the lyrical sections having  a lovely soaring quality. Listen for the lovely voice-blend in both works, and in the second madrigal the soprano’s unflinching attack on the high notes, even if the intonation isn’t absolutely true all the time. There’s a lovely blend achieved by the group here, and the ebb and flow of the work is beautifully controlled.…….

PLAY: Monteverdi “Amor per tua merce” (Cupid, take pity on me”) and “Baci soave e carry” (Sweet, dear kisses) from Book One of Monteverdi’s Madrigals for five voices (1587).

The music sounds amazing – what is it that you think gives it that compelling quality, that instant connection?

In this case, definitely a combination of the music and its performance. The music itself is extraordinary – last year with the performance of the Vespers by the same singers we got a tremendous demonstration of how vivid and communicative Monteverdi’s music can be – and even without that array of wonderful instruments these madrigals still have the power to engage. You can hear, especially in the later works but even occasionally in the earlier works, how, with such expressivity it was easy for this music to become operatic. Monteverdi’s concern with his vocal works was to give the words and their meaning pre-eminence over musical structures and harmonic progressions – he insisted that it was a case of “Prima le parole, poi la musica….” (first the words, then the music). HIs First Book of Madrigals, though it generally follows the traditional styles of the late Renaissance, occasionally gives an indication of the composer’s desire to pursue more modern styles of writing – he considered “the words are the mistress of harmony, not the servant”. Monteverdi had been criticized by at least one of his contemporaries for what were called “crudities” and “license” in his music, and his response was to coin the name “Seconda Pratica” (Second Practice), aligning himself with other composers who preferred the innovative style, and serving himself and his work apart from what he called the “Prima Practica” (First Practice) of the more traditional composers.

The performances sound terrific! – what was it like being there and feeling the force of it all?

Like all performing groups worth their salt, this group invites total immersion on the part of the listener. It was an incredibly involving experience, of course very much an art that conceals art, because this degree of involvement by the performers in this music  which washed over and all around us was of course possible through skills and techniques that enabled the singers to put the message across so tellingly. If one was looking for faults, there were moments of raw tone, and of one or two not-quite on the note unexposed entries, and a couple of instances of not-quite-matching figurations with singers in duet  but these were so few and far between, and often what might have seemed a rawness, a slightly off-pitched note, a momentary inequality of vocal figuration in duet, also created expressive effects of their own. Now music-making can only do that if it’s generally on an exalted level – like Alfred Cortot’s wrong notes on his recordings – “spots on the sun” I think one commentator called them.And the music-making by this group was of such brilliance, power and depth, that occasional minor lapses took on that “spots on the sun” quality. All in all, I thought the concert was an outstanding achievement.

So, we’re going to hear one of the later madrigals, from Book Nine, in fact – what does one listen for?

Well, it’s a wonderful example of how Monteverdi took his style along further – a very dramatic and theatrical setting of the words, with frequent irruptions of feeling inspired by the text’s meaning – you can hear and feel the surge of emotion and the graphic realization of the words “to cry for help to end my terrible torment”, for example – and then, at the end, the throwaway line “for she causes the words to break on my lips”. Remarkable.

Here’s Pepe Becker and Jane Tankersley, accompanied by Douglas Mews harpsichord and Robert Oliver bass viol.

PLAY: Monteverdi “Ardo e scoprir” (I burn) from Book Nine of Monteverdi’s Madrigals for two and three voices (1651)

Pepe Becker and Jayne Tankersley, sopranos, with Douglas Mews and Robert Oliver bass viol.

It does move the whole scenario that much closer to opera, doesn’t it? 

Well, of course Monteverdi had by now written his famous operas, which were among the first ever written. His earliest surviving opera, L’Orfeo, was first performed in 1607. One of the things that make these works really zing is the quality of the poetry – Monteverdi was using verses by some of the most famous poets of the time, Tasso, Guarini and Rinuccini, people whose use of emotive, sensuous imagery was unparalleled.

Even in the earlier madrigals which are more conventional and perhaps “reined in” emotionally compared with the later ones, the writing is of an order that Monteverdi was fully able to explore and push out the boundaries of what could be expressed – the poetry simply went with him – or, maybe, he simply went with the poetry.

To finish, here’s a couple of shorter madrigals from the First Book, in which you can hear the young composer already responding to the ebb and flow of the very emotional poetry. We’re going to hear the ensemble of Baroque Voices singing firstly “Questa ordi il laccio” (She it was who wove the snare”, followed by a look at a kind of Little Bo Peep of Monteverdi’s time, “La Vaga Shepherdess”.

PLAY TO FINISH: Monteverdi “Questa ordì il laccio”(She it was who wove the snare) and “La vaga pastorella” (The lovely shepherdess) (from Il Primo Libro 1587)


















NZSO and Pietari Inkinen all at sea

SIBELIUS – The Oceanides / BRITTEN – Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes”

CHAUSSON – Poème de l’amour et de la mer / DEBUSSY – La Mer

Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano)

Pietari Inkinen (conductor)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 20th April 2012

Having rather too cleverly used the expression “all at sea”  in this review’s heading, I needs must hasten to add that the words weren’t meant in a pejorative sense – but rather as a compliment to conductor and orchestra regarding their powers of evocation!

Compiling a complete list of musical works inspired by the sea would, I think, result in several closely-worked pages being filled. Of the pieces for orchestra, Pietari Inkinen and the NZSO surely gave us four of the greatest, with the help of mezzo Sasha Cook, who followed her heartfelt performance of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer of a week ago with a mellifluous rendering of Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer. 

I thought three of the pieces received splendidly characterful performances, the one disappointment for me being the opening item on the program, Sibelius’s The Oceanides. As a friend said to me during the interval, it wasn’t very Mediterranean – we missed the glint of sunlight on the water and the play of light on the waves, a scenario which would have rendered the “big wave” when it came, an even more impressive demonstration of nature’s power. Here, it instead seemed all very Baltic, and somewhat more subaqueous than Sibelius might have intended – a point of view, but one that played down the Homeric inspiration commented on by the composer: – “It (the Oceanides) derives from the mythology of Homer and not from the Kalevala.”

I wondered whether the good ole’ MFC acoustic played its part in swallowing up some of the music’s airiness – in particular the winds seemed scarcely to speak throughout to my ears in the place where I was sitting, though I suspect it was more the conductor’s “through a glass darkly” way with the music. The passage for glockenspiel, harp and clarinet containing the hitherto “embedded” string theme hardly at all registered, and there were similar places whose evocations of air and light (ironically the program note spoke of the music’s “bright warmth”) were made subservient to the string-dominated soundscapes depicting the ebb and flow of watery expanses. Perhaps in venues like the Auckland Town Hall, the winds will get more of a chance to establish a better sense of the play of sun and wind upon the waves.

Having in previous articles commented upon Pietari Inkinen’s seeming reluctance to explore and bring out the “darker” sides of Sibelius’s music, I now may justly be accused of inconsistency at complaining when he does so! Still, Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes” responded marvellously to the same kind of trenchant treatment, though here I thought all sections of the orchestra were encouraged to “speak” and convey their distinctive colours and accents. The playing of the opening Dawn allowed us to sense the vast and lonely beauty of the sea itself, as well as conveying its darker, more threatening power. This was in complete contrast to the gaiety and human bustle of Sunday Morning with its insistent backdrop of church bells – how wonderfully “precarious” those syncopated cross-rhythms of strings and winds always sound, played here as well as any other performance I’ve heard!

More sharply-etched contrasts came with Moonlight, here dark and dour, unresonant and unromantic and filled with foreboding, followed immediately by the physical assault of Storm with Inkinen really encouraging his players to rattle, roar and rend the air with tumultuous sounds. It was all very exciting, with particularly wonderful brass-playing (the tuba roaring like a kraken from the baleful deep), the performance capturing the “frightened shadows” aspect at the end, with properly spectral strings and winds, before the final free-falling orchestral tumult resounded into the silences.

After the interval, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke added her lovely voice to some gorgeously-wrought orchestral textures throughout the opening pages of Chausson’s seductive Poème de l’amour et de la mer. One of a number of stunningly beautiful works for female voice and orchestra written at about this time (such as Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, Elgar’s Sea Pictures and Ravel’s Scheherazade), Chausson’s “endless melody” style of writing enabled the singer to demonstrate her finely-tuned dramatic instincts, in the first part, The Flower of the Waters (La Fleur des eaux) now hushed and expectant at “O ciel qui de sees jeux dois porter la couleur”, now radiant-toned (at “Faites-moi voir ma bien aimee”, and then later at “Et du ciel extrovert pleuvaient sur nous des roses”), the music evoking roses raining from the sky.

Here, and throughout both interlude and the second vocal episode, The Death of Love (La Mort de l’Amour) conductor and players supported and matched their soloist’s outpourings with a range of tones, by turns refulgent, flowing, spectral and halting. How the music darkens at the words “Le vent roulait des feuille mortes”! – with Chausson’s debt to Wagner, and in particular “Parsifal” evident in those sombre harmonic progressions for orchestra alone, and underpinning the despair of the words “Comme des fronts de morts”.

As for the most quintessential sea-piece of them all, Debussy’s La Mer, Inkinen and the orchestra brought out plenty of crisp detail and strongly-contoured lines – this was no impressionist wallow, but a beautifully-judged delineation of detail whose impulses activated a bigger picture with a widely-flung spectrum of variation. While here I didn’t feel quite as consistently the elemental undercurrents that made Inkinen’s reading of The Firebird of the previous week such a powerful listening experience, Debussy’s seascapes were allowed sufficient power in places to “tell”, again with instruments like the timpani encouraged to sound out (a couple of pistol-shot thwacks in the finale from Laurence Reese certainly added to the excitement!), and the lower strings and brass bringing appropriate weight and darkness to some of that same movement’s climaxes. While we’re on this movement, full marks to the trumpet-player (whom I couldn’t see properly – was it Michael Kirgan?) whose brief but cruelly-exposed solo shone out truly amid the darkness.

In all, an exciting, and richly-varied concert, each of these last two orchestral outings making a refreshing change from the usual “overture-concerto-symphony” format, with, for me, equally satisfying results. Maybe there’s hope for things such as Janacek’s Taras Bulba and Elgar’s In The South yet!








Pianist Nicola Melville returns to give memorable recital at St Andrew’s

Images, Book I: Reflets dans l’eau, Hommage à Rameau, Mouvement (Debussy); Jettatura (Psathas); Nocturne in B, Op 62 No 1 (Chopin); Three Piano Rags by William Albright

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 18 April, 12.15pm

Nicola Melville holds an assistant professorship at a university in Minnesota and is on the summer faculty of the Chautauqua Music Festival in up-state New York (south of Buffalo, close to Lake Erie). She was educated in Tawa schools and at Victoria University (where she was one of Judith Clark’s many talented students) and at the Eastman School of Music in New York State. Since then, in the United States, she has had important competition successes, and won prestigious grants, has performed at music festivals and recorded standard repertoire as well as works commissioned by her.

Her programme was very well gauged for a free lunchtime concert, with pieces both familiar and fairly new.

The three pieces that comprise Debussy’s Images Book I for piano opened the recital, played with remarkable fluency and sensitivity. Reflets dans l’eau shimmered with velvety sound, suggesting not perfect calm but water rippling after the three notes are dropped into it, and regains its reflective character towards the end. Hommage à Rameau is not really ‘in the style of’ but simply a less impressionistic piece, bearing a certain formality and basically traditional harmonies that Debussy stretches and colours: in tone more like the suite Pour le piano, and perhaps kinship with Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin. Melville seemed to find the essence of each – so different – characterising them with clarity and precision, stamping each with the composer’s unmistakable musical personality; Mouvement suggested a very different scene, of a trapped insect or fast-spinning machine, created by throbbing, motoric figures that do not go anywhere but move in a confined space, demanding not just speed but the creation of shapely phrasing and dynamics all of which flowed effortlessly from her hands.

Nicola described the origin of John Psathas’s Jettatura (she remarked that she had been Psathas’s contemporary at the School of Music), reading the composer’s own notes prefaced to the score about the significance of the name and the misfortunes and bad luck that have attended his visits to his family homeland, led his family to attribute to an ‘evil eye’ or jettatura (in Italian).

He wrote: ‘The belief is that a person can harm you, your children, your livestock, merely by looking at them with envy and praising them…”. On a visit in 1998 bad luck struck his wife and son and his sister consulted a village soothsayer who checked John’s aura by long-distance telephone. “The soothsayer gasped, went silent, and declared I was so heavily and completely hexed that my halo was utterly opaque.”

His talisman to defend himself against the jettatura, is this little composition.

It called for hard-hitting, impassioned fingering, and the creation of a sense of defiance and ferocity, almost out of control. Both hands are fully occupied in entirely different activities, the left hand hammering a string of ostinatos while the right hand tumbled in an apparently reckless way over the keys, reaching to the top of the keyboard. A brilliant composition that perhaps found its ideal interpreter in this brilliant expatriate pianist.

Then back to Chopin with one of the less familiar of his 21 Nocturnes. Op 62 No 2 is the last of the nocturnes published in his lifetime (there are three without opus number, two early, one late). They are not as much played in concert as the scherzi and ballades and impromptus, many of the waltzes and mazurkas but, as Roger Woodward writes, “[The nocturnes] are the key to Chopin. They represent the high art of Romanticism and a great way to begin to understand how to play melody well.”

This one has not the quite beguiling ease of the early ones of Op 9, the F sharp major, or the entrancing melody of the nocturnes of Opp 32 and 37, the F minor, or the posthumous C sharp minor.

However, some consider the two nocturnes of Op 62 the most interesting, the most contrapuntally complex, and though the shift from Psathas to Chopin might have seemed a retreat into a simpler world, Nicola’s presentation of its modest, restrained artistry had the effect of cleansing the air, with the subtlest rubato, discreet pedalling and velvety articulation.

Finally, to animate a quite different part of the brain, three Piano Rags by William Albright, pieces that had their roots in Scott Joplin  Nicola has become an Albright specialist, with many recorded on CD, as you will find if you Google ‘William Albright rags’.

The first thing you notice is the flood of notes, and a greater complexity and variety of rhythm and harmony, of dynamics and modulation than you find in the early 20th century precursors. On the other hand, there was no less feeling of an idiomatic performance from the pianist.

The frequent and unusual key changes would have surprised Jelly Roll Morton or Fats Waller. We strike the unexpected at every turn, and it struck me that the rags may have been chosen to match aspects of the character of Jettatura (or more likely the other way round). The second, Sleepwalker’s Shuffle, began softly swinging, in a relaxed spirit, which is suddenly broken by a fortissimo phase in stride style that would have woken the sleepwalker with a nightmare. The Queen of Sheba rather defied interpretation, toyed with chromaticism, pauses, surprises, her left heel tapping the floor, a presto molto burst where traditional harmonies were spiced with dissonances.

They are enormous fun, and enormously challenging, and there is no possibility that they could have been written before the late 20th century. I cannot imaging a more enthusiastic and accomplished advocate of this infectious music than Nicola Melville.





Singing for Children: Young Angel Voices at St Mary of the Angels

An invitation from Robert Oliver

We’re looking for children aged between 8 and 12 years old, who are looking for a group to sing in.

Young Angel Voices started a year ago, and is always welcoming new members.

It’s open to all comers, there is no audition.

The only qualification is the desire to sing.

Children learn all sorts of songs: folk songs, rounds, gospel songs, part-songs, some accompanied, some unaccompanied. They learn to read, and how to produce their voices from one of New Zealand’s most experienced singers and conductors.

Anybody who thinks they might be interested can just turn up at 4:30pm on any Thursday in the school term, at the

Parish Hall, St Mary of the Angels, Boulcott Street.

There is limited parking in the Church Car Park off O’Riely Avenue.

Robert Oliver ph 934 2296; mob 021 0257 4375                   

Triumphant NZSO concert by Inkinen in Mahler, Stravinsky and Lilburn

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen

Symphony No 3 (Lilburn); Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Mahler); The Firbird ballet music (Stravinsky)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 14 April, 8pm

Lilburn’s Third Symphony is certainly the least heard of his three, written after he had begun experimenting with serialism and had virtually abandoned himself to electronic music.

If its first performances was predictably labelled gritty or avant-garde – in its pejorative sense, or harsh (in the composer’s words), the years have softened its impact on ears attuned to modernism that previously went only as far as Stravinsky or Britten. The echoes of Sibelius or Vaughan Williams heard in the first two symphonies have now been replaced by echoes of, in some opinions, late Copland and Stravinsky.

No doubt as a result of its inclusion on one CD with Lilburn’s other two symphonies, it has gained familiarity, as listeners allow the CD to come to its end with the quarter-hour Third Symphony.

The recordings seem to be favourites of those putting together the midnight-to-dawn music on Radio New Zealand concert.

Lilburn’s technical skills as orchestrator and in all aspects of large-scale orchestral composition have always been conspicuous, but what struck me about this performance was the confidence in handling of the musical ideas, and especially, the way in which Inkinen maintained the pulse, exposed the essential lyrical and eventful features of the score and highlighted individual instrumental motifs, which seemed sensitively directed to giving rewarding moments for a great many players, particularly winds.

The piece is famously built on modified serial principles, but we have become so used to atonal music – music without constant, implicit reference to a home key – that tonal ambiguity does not sound as tuneless or alien as it did when one first encountered it. Certainly there are no lively melodic episodes such as the Second Symphony’s Scherzo, but there is no need to dwell on its serial elements. The actual tone row doesn’t appear for some time and only through reading the score would the average listener recognise it, or even come to hear the way these scraps slowly coalesce into the row proper. They are the atoms that come together eventually as molecules – tunes – and after a few hearings the evolution of the flow and generally light-textured composition starts to reveal its absorbing beauties.

On the other hand, Lilburn’s signature whole-tone oscillations are there from time to time and certain rhythmic and intervallic habits appear. Its five sections are not distinguished by pauses, only by changes of tempo and mood, but once identified, they help the listener to grasp the argument, and the luminous, animated and well-thought-out performance did the rest.

Mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke had replaced soprano Measha Brueggergosman to sing Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Sasha made a mark as Kitty Oppenheimer in Adam’s recent opera Doctor Atomic at the Met; she has sung a lot of choral and symphonic repertoire that calls for solo voices, like Mahler’s Second and Beethoven’s Ninth, and Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer, which she sings at the next NZSO concert. Her opera repertoire is interesting, ranging from Strauss’s Composer, Mozart’s Dorabella, Massenet’s Charlotte.

Hers was a strong and characterful voice, warm and communicative in the middle and low ranges, and capable of comfortable excursions high into soprano territory and of captivating pianissimos. So she explored the four songs that Mahler set to his own words, bringing out their sharply contrasted moods with vivid individuality. Her transformation from the sunny optimism of ‘Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld’ to the panicky grief of ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ was quite astonishing, the repeated cry, ‘O weh!’ filling the air with palpable alarm.

And Inkinen guided the orchestra’s accompaniment, so discreetly written as to avoid burdening the first words of each phrase, with scrupulous care; not that her voice would have failed to penetrate a more rowdy orchestra.

The major work, if that is a fair description after the two beautiful/interesting pieces in the first half of the programme, was Stravinsky’s first ballet for Diaghilev, which suddenly made him famous. It was appropriate to recall in the programme notes Stravinsky’s conducting of the conclusion of the ballet in his 1961 concert with the orchestra, which I was at.

From the very first moment I knew I was in for a radiant, exalted experience, with the almost soundless murmuring of basses slowly emerging, rather like the opening of Das Rheingold. But if hints of Wagner can be heard (as they can in almost everything written in the half century after The Ring, it is Russian rhythms and melodic shapes that soon dominate. The air of foreboding through magic sounds that suggested Liadov’s Enchanted Lake both made me long for an evocative production of the ballet in Bakst’s designs, but also persuaded me that the music, so beautifully played, was more evocative on its own than any staging might be.

Moving and arresting solos came from various players – Julia Joyce’s viola,  and the rapturous horn playing of new principal Samuel Jacobs; sinuous flutes, and major bassoon contributions and the subtly varied strokes of the timpani.

And the orchestra lifted the dark veil of evil as Kaschei dies and  a new sunny mood emerged in playing that expressed the renewal of the lives of the Prince and the captive princesses.

The splendour of this, and indeed, all three works at this triumphant concert confirmed Inkinen’s unobtrusive mastery of the podium, and I find it disturbing that a cabal still exists that seeks out the odd adverse reviews that inevitably appears in overseas media, mostly in unmoderated blogs. Reliable critics wherever he has worked have found his leadership and interpretive talents convincing, clear and imaginative.

Secondary Students’ Choir, versatile and deeply impressive, prepares for tour to South Africa

New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir in Concert directed by Andrew Withington

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Saturday, 14 April 1012, 7.30pm

Choral music seems to be on the up and up, not only here, but in other countries as well.  Any choir would be exceedingly proud to sing as well as this choir does; all the more surprising, because the members, from all parts of New Zealand, meet only in school holidays, and because every work (except the newly-commissioned one) was sung from memory. ‘Sung’ includes body percussion, actions, sign language and vocal sounds other than singing.

The choir is a two-year choir only; another reason for celebrating its continued excellent form and versatility.  At the climax of each two-year round, the choir travels overseas.  This year, it was to have been to Greece, for the International Society for Music Education conference.  That is presumably the reason for a new work being commissioned, to be sung in the Greek language, from John Psathas.

Sadly, as a result of the civil disturbances and the economic austerity measures there decreed by the European Union, this trip will not now take place.  At the end of the concert we were informed that a CD of the programme we heard will be made soon; perhaps that CD could be sent to Greece and played at the conference, as a poor second-best to having the choir live.  Instead, the choir will travel to a music festival in South Africa.

A generous 20-item programme greeted a near-full church.  Energy never seemed to flag, and the items were all sung well.  I counted 10 different languages employed; I’m sure this is a record in the annals of choral concerts I have attended – and they are many.  Each language sounded authentic and beautifully pronounced, including Icelandic, Swedish and Irish – not that I know these languages.  This level of proficiency takes hard work, but is ultimately only achieved through each singer making the vowels and the consonants in exactly the same way as the other singers; this also produces the clarity of words that marks this choir.

The opening was dramatic: with the church in darkness, the choir processed in, holding candles, while a single low note on the organ was echoed by quiet intoning from only the lowest and highest voices in the choir, in what sounded like Russian.

Then, with candles out and lights on, the familiar ‘Veni, veni Emmanuel’ was sung, beautifully balanced (as indeed was almost everything on the programme).  It became unfamiliar, in a wonderful arrangement by Zoltán Kodály, presumably in Hungarian.

Sixteenth-century composer Jacob Handl (not to be confused with G.F.) wrote mainly church music.  His ‘Resonet in Laudibus’ was one of the few familiar pieces on the programme.  Its splendid antiphonal effects and varied dynamics (double choir) were marked in the magnificent acoustic of Sacred Heart.

It was followed by one of the most well-known choral pieces ever written: ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Handel’s Messiah.  This was one of the least successful items.  Firstly, too much time was spent in the choir moving around into single choir format.  The basses, who shone in the first item, did not seem quite able to emulate the sound of an adult choir.  The organ accompaniment was rather mixed in style, and too much of the singing was at an unvarying double forte.  My note made at the time reads ‘they are certainly exploiting this acoustic’.  Nevertheless, it was a good performance.

Rossini’s ‘O Salutaris Hostia’ had the choir sounding like a much more mature group than the high school students they are.  The tone was rounded and beautifully warm; intonation was almost immaculate; as before, words were clear, and rhythm was spot-on.  No wonder this choir, or rather, its earlier manifestations, has won an impressive list of international prizes.  Here again, there were a few too many sustained double-fortes for this lively acoustic, and a few attacks were not quite together, or were not all on exactly the same note.  But this is carping.

Another good feature is that, without being stiff, the choir members stand still.  There is no obvious wriggling or wagging of heads.  And for all 61 singers to have memorised such a range of different music is astonishing.

Mendelssohn’s choral music is not as well-known as it should be, apart from Elijah.  The piece ‘Mitten wir im Leben sind’ was a lively example.  It was followed by ‘Geistliches Lied’ by Brahms, accompanied on the organ.  Beginning with a soprano solo, this was a quieter number, but built to a climax before dying away again.

Groups of items were introduced by various choir members and others; the announcement of the next piece was inaudible, despite the microphone, but having picked up ‘ovsky’ and perused the programme, I discovered it was ‘Rytmus’, by Ivan Hrušovský.  This very rapid contemporary piece was unaccompanied, like the majority of the pieces presented.  The Slovakian composer had certainly provided challenges, to which the choir was equal.  Pieces such as this would have benefited from brief programme notes.

Following a short interval, the choir presented the commissioned work from John Psathas: Nemesi, about the goddess Nemesis, who worked to maintain an equilibrium between good fortune and evil deeds.  Here, the choir used sheet music on stands, so that their hands were free for rhythmic clapping (both soft and loud, like that of Spanish flamenco musicians) and clicking fingers.  Other body percussion employed light foot-stamping, and non-voiced whispering sibilants and other mouth noises, while a small cymbal and a triangle were employed briefly.

A very effective piece, it made use of much chant-like singing and very spare writing.  Perhaps it relied a little too much on effect rather than choral technique; colours in sound rather than singing.  Alto and soprano soloists were splendid; this is a piece that could readily find a place in the repertoires of other choirs.  A partial standing ovation followed the performance, at which the composer was present.

Pieces by New Zealand composer Richard Oswin followed: ‘Sweet Sleep’, ‘Altered Days’, and three Gallipoli settings: ‘Gallipoli Peninsula’ (the poem by Alistair Te Ariki Campbell), ‘The last to leave’ and ‘The spirit of Anzac’.  The first featured lovely harmonies and sensitive treatment of the words, including some Maori words.  The next was sung with a New Zealand accent, and placed tricky parts against each other.  I liked the fact that it was characterised by a tone different from that used for Rossini or Mendelssohn, showing that the choir was able to vary how it sounded depending on the music and words in hand.

The first of the Gallipoli songs began with the ssh-ssh of  the sea coming in and going out on a beach.  The music eloquently illustrated the words.  The very touching poem was treated to lovely tone and a great bass sound.  Enunciation was so uniform that the words could readily be heard and understood.  The second song included some unison singing, which was very telling.  There was rich sound in the harmony sections.  The final song was a rollicking one – perhaps Gallipoli as the soldiers pretended it was as they were leaving, rather than how it really was?

After the second short interval, Paraire Tomoana’s ‘Toia Mai’ was presented, with guitar and many actions, and chanting from the men.  This and the following two items appeared to be sung without conductor.  The vigorous, full-throated tone from the men and the lively actions from the whole choir brought an enthusiastic response.

The altos and sopranos performed ‘Glettur’(by Stephen Hatfield, a Canadian composer), in Icelandic.  It involved them sitting or standing in groups, using appropriate actions and facial expressions as they apparently gossiped and ‘chatted’, with lots of rolled ‘r’s; the result was brilliant.

If plenty of verbal facility was needed for that piece, it was needed even more by the tenors and basses, especially the cantor; he had many tongue-twister words to sing, in the Irish ‘Dúlamán’ by Michael McGlynn.  It demonstrated a great dynamic range.

A Swedish song followed: ‘Glädjens blomster’, arranged by Hugo Alfvén (composer of the famous Swedish Rhapsody).  A short, attractive piece that opened with a passage of humming, it was very expressive.

Two French songs now; one by a Frenchman (sixteenth century but sounding very up-to-date), the other, ‘Dirait-on’, by an American, Morten Lauridsen.  The first, a very fast ‘La la la, je ne’lose dire’ that I was familiar with from a record of the King’s Singers.  This performance suffered nothing by comparison.

An arrangement by James Erb of the well-known ‘Shenandoah’ was accompanied on piano.  This was a very smooth and beautiful rendering, making something familiar sound fresh.  At the entry, the men were not quite on the same note, but elsewhere they were very fine.

A change of mood in the third of four American songs was an arrangement of Gershwin’s ‘S Wonderful’, with soloist Latafale Auva’A, who turned on the appropriate style and accent confidently, with great timing.  String bass and piano accompanied her; the audience loved it.

The next item, ‘Praise His Holy Name’ by Keith Hampton was lively, also with piano and bass, and had the choir animated throughout its repetitive phrases.  The final item involved plenty of clapping and actions, the choir moving around the church: the Samoan ‘Tofa Mai Feleni’.  It had a hymn-like quality, with shouting and shrilling at the end, and was sung in Samoan and English, with Samoan drum and sticks backing.

A standing ovation was rewarded with ‘Wairua Tapu’, accompanied by guitar, and with complex and varied actions, which a couple of friends suggested was actually New Zealand sign language – our third official language.

The choir is versatile; in a variety of genres it was equally successful. This is choral singing at its best.  One would be hard-pressed to find an adult choir in New Zealand as good as this, and certainly not one singing the entire repertoire (not counting the new work) from memory.

Congratulations and salutations, New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir!  Enjoy South Africa – I am sure you will represent us well.


Two varied lunchtime concerts at St Andrew’s

1.  Mozart: Sonata for violin and piano in G major K.301
Fauré: Sonata for violin and piano in A major Op.13
Rupa Maitra (violin) and Kris Zuelicke (piano)

2.  Operatic arias, and lieder
Vocal Students of the New Zealand School of Music, accompanied by Mark Dorrell

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Wednesday, 4 April 2012, 12.15pm

Perhaps it was an excess of riches, or simply that people are ‘programmed’ to attend a lunchtime concert at St. Andrew’s on a Wednesday, but not on another day.  Whatever the reason, the Tuesday concert was not well attended compared with that on Wednesday.

Mozart’s sonata begins in a sunny mood, with a jolly melody (which always makes me think of the Scottish song “Maxwelton braes”, otherwise known as “Annie Laurie”), alternately presented by piano and violin.  The second movement (there are only two) was also allegro, but quite different in metre and character.  The G minor middle section gave a pleasing contrast, with some passionate moments.

These two extremely competent musicians had it well under their fingers.  However, I found the violin tone sometimes a little harsh; the acoustic was partly responsible for this.  There was a brief lack of synchronisation in the closing moments, at the repeat of the opening section.

The second work, with which I was not familiar, was a more difficult and demanding one, besides being much longer.  The composer communicates many musical ideas, with an exuberant allegro first movement containing a great deal of variety.  I found the piano over-pedalled for my taste.  There were soaring phrases, especially for the violin, but intonation was not always spot on, and again I found the tone not always mellow.

The andante second movement was solemn, with some lovely moments, especially in the middle section.  The third movement, allegro vivo, was faster than the final one (allegro quasi presto).  It was jaunty in mood, on both instruments, with frequent pizzicato on the violin.  The slightly slower final movement featured beautiful smooth melodic lines, while the piano part was full of notes.  The ending was very busy for the violin, with chords on the piano.

Throughout, the piece was played in a musical and sensitive manner.

Wednesday’s concert involved a lot more people: seven singers, plus the imperturbable Mark Dorrell accompanying all of them.  Most of these singers I had not heard before, and wonder if they are first and second-year students; the programme did not tell us.

Nearly all the singers sang two arias, or an aria and a lied, separately in the programme, but here I will group each singer’s items together.

Robert Gray had the unenviable task of opening the programme.  His ‘O del mio dolce ardor’ from Gluck’s opera Paride ad Elena revealed his pleasing voice, and he conveyed the mood of this most attractive aria well.  However, his tone in top notes was not well supported, and intonation was suspect on lower notes.  He did not seem confident.

How differently he presented the Count’s aria from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro!  The opening was strong, and the singer more confident now.  His Italian was enunciated very well, and the characterisation convincing  While Mozart’s forte passages for the orchestra, or piano in this case, do not coincide with the voice too often, nevertheless I found Dorrell’s piano a little loud for the singer in places, though wonderfully rhythmic and Mozartean.

Daniel Dew is a young tenor, who sang first ‘Every valley shall be exalted’, from Handel’s Messiah.  As the programme note said, the aria is full of word painting, and Dew’s clear voice and words made this amply obvious.  Runs were executed well, and there was good control on the high notes; elsewhere, the tone and expression were just a bit raw around the edges.  His second piece, ‘Wohin?’ from Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin was engagingly sung, but more tonal control was needed on the low notes.  Dew’s German was very good, and well enunciated.

Rossini’s famous aria, the ‘Willow Song’ from Otello was the choice of Rebekah Giesbers, a soprano.  She has a clear, pure voice with attractive tone.  The runs were not sufficiently agile, however, and there was insufficient variation in the performance.

Two lieder (‘Ständchen’ and ‘Lievesbotschaft’ from Schubert’s Schwanengesang) were chosen by Fredi Jones.  He has a light but very pleasant tenor voice.  At times I found the accompaniment a little too loud for his voice.  He evinced great breath control, and the mood of the second song particularly came over well.  Later in the programme he sang in very good French: ‘En fermant les yeux’ from Massenet’s Manon.  It was delightful singing, with expressive phrasing, but he could do with a little facial expression to help convey the story.

The latter characteristic was a strong one for Esther Leefe, soprano, who performed first ‘Batti batti’ from Don Giovanni by Mozart.  Her silvery voice was mostly accurate; the facial expression needed to be backed up with more vocal expression here.  Her second item was the lovely Samuel Barber song ‘Sure on this shining night’.  The sound was good, but I did not find that she really conveyed the song convincingly.

Angelique MacDonald did not sing the programmed Alban Berg song, but Mozart’s beautiful aria for Pamina, in The Magic Flute: ‘Ah, ich fühl’s’.  This was a very touching rendition, with plenty of dynamic variation.  The tone was a little harsh on the higher notes sometimes, when singing loudly.

In her second aria, a metallic tone seemed present in the middle range, while the top was secure and sweet, and the lower notes were fine.  This was in her very dramatic performance of ‘Regnava nel silenzio’ from Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti.  There were plenty of gestures and facial expression as well as a good range of dynamics in the voice; this aria suited her agile voice.  It was an accomplished performance.

Another soprano, Awhina Waimotu, followed, with a song by Respighi: Tempo assia lontani’.  This gave the impression of being quite difficult, for both singer and accompanist.  Despite a few insecurities for the singer, this was an impressive performance: a lovely expressive voice with warm tone, beautiful vowels, and a strong upper register.

This impression was confirmed in her second song, the enchanting Chanson triste of Henri Duparc.  After a slightly hesitant start, she gave a fine performance.  The French language was good, but the song needed slightly more subtle phrasing – however, that can come.  I have to confess to being very familiar with an old recording by Gérard Souzay, in which he lingers before the high note to give it extra emphasis, and varies the dynamics more than Waimotu did.  Otherwise, this was a splendid performance of this exquisite song.

Mark Dorrell deserved warm thanks for the huge amount of very accomplished playing he did.