Romance with elegance – Jian Liu plays Schumann and Liszt

New Zealand School of Music

Jian Liu (piano) in concert

SCHUMANN – Carnaval, Op.9 / LISZT – Piano Sonata in B Minor

Adam Concert Room, NZSM Kelburn

Wednesday 30th May 2012

What a delight for piano-fanciers! – here at the Adam Concert Room was a free recital featuring two of the cornerstone works of Romantic piano literature served up for us by pianist Jian Liu, currently the co-ordinator of classical piano studies at the New Zealand School of Music. Both works fully tested the player, producing in each instance a strongly-etched interpretation from an obviously well-equipped musician who possessed an abundance of skill, endurance and creative imagination.

On the face of things pairing Schumann’s and Liszt’s music made a logical enough coupling of works, though their close proximity here highlighted the nineteenth century’s most significant musical controversy – the conflict between tradition and innovation which burst into open conflagration between the conservatives, who clung to classical ideals and the progressives, who wanted to explore new ways of doing things. As so often happens, the debate became excessively nasty at times, with casualties on both sides, though at the time, more so on the part of the progressives such as Liszt, whose music, was systematically trashed by mouthpieces of the conservative establishment, such as the influential critic Eduard Hanslick (though the latter greatly admired Liszt as a pianist).

Schumann and Liszt were in fact good friends at first, but the differences which developed between them unfortunately turned into issues, exacerbated by people such as Schumann’s wife, pianist Clara Wieck, who disapproved of what she called Liszt’s “empty, vulgar compositions”. Despite all of this, Liszt in 1854 dedicated his Piano Sonata to Schumann, certainly in return for the latter’s earlier dedication to Liszt of his wonderful Op.17 C Major Fantasia, and perhaps also in a spirit of reconciliation – though by this time Schumann was beyond reach, having become increasingly beset by the mental instability which was to contribute to his death in 1856 at a mere forty-six years old.

So we were presented with two very different but equally potent and wholly characteristic manifestations of musical romanticism – though the conflicts and animosities which flowed between the worlds represented by these two pieces continue to this day to divide opinion and polarize musical sensibilities. At the recital I sat next to and talked with two people, one an enthusiastic admirer of Liszt and his music, and the other who, when the Sonata was finished, said “I made myself stay to listen to Jian play – but oh! – how awful that music is!”. Evidently, the spirit of the disapproving Clara Wieck lives on in today’s world.

One of the recurring characteristics of Jian Liu’s playing throughout both works was the generous flexibility of his phrasing, giving the notes space in which to breathe at all times, so that nothing seemed hurried or sounded incoherent – within these spaces his sensitive detailing, never fussy or contrived, was always accompanied by the feeling that he was drawing out from the notes themselves what sounded like an infinite variety of voicing, shadings and colorings. So, it was no surprise that he was able to constantly entertain and charm our imaginations with his portrayals of Schumann’s moods and characterizations throughout the composer’s richly-conceived parade of personalities, “Carnaval”.

Right at the beginning the opening fanfares had just enough rhetoric to arrest the attention without losing the declamation’s urgency and excitement, the following animato building up its energy and exuberance, before breaking off and beginning the whimsical procession of characters and emotions that give the work its never-ending fascination. From so many finely-drawn characterizations, I thought Liu’s Pierrot particularly vivid, the phrasing free rather than metrical, and with some lovely, subtle voicing, the repeat emphasizing the dreamy, self-communing aspect of it all, with even the emphatic repeated three-note phrase drawn into the world of wonderment. The Valse Noble enabled us to hear how Liu’s left hand beautifully varied its emphasis, the different voicings bringing a strand of meaning to the music far above that of mere accompaniment.

Spontaneity in performance is a risky business (Liu’s Papillons, though exciting, was a bit of a scramble, as were some of the left-hand figurations in the treacherous Paganini), but that sense of throwing caution aside was so worthwhile, so imbued with spirit and impulse as to drive away any sense of routine. And with that spirit applied to the work as a whole, Liu was able to present the music to us as sounding freshly-improvised – Chopin, for example, coming across here as a spontaneous-sounding tribute from one romantic to another, the music seeming to almost lose itself in its own reverie, here, towards the piece’s conclusion.

So, there was poetry and elegance aplenty; and excitement, too, with the right-handed repeated-note scintillations of Reconnaissance followed by the agitations of Pantalon et Colombine, energies shared across both hands in the latter to stunning effect. The final March of the League of David against the Philistines had plenty of swagger, and the ensuing stretta swept our sensibilities along towards the final triumphant if battle-scarred chords. Liu’s playing again caught a sense of the occasion, of the composer’s Don Quixote-like questing spirit, complete with fully-imagined triumph at the end.

But what of Liszt and the B Minor Sonata? Side-by-side with Schumann and with Jian Liu’s finely-honed sensibility brought to bear on the music, the work’s visionary scope and searing focus seemed as if newly-wrought for this occasion, with nothing about the performance left to “play itself” or convey anything of Clara Wieck’s charges of emptiness or vulgarity.

Liszt-lovers like myself are all too aware of the abyss of disapproval mined by all those nineteenth-century conservatives beneath the composer’s feet – and carried onwards in the twentieth century by agenda-ridden character assassins such as Ernest Newman. No other major composer, with perhaps the exception of Wagner, has had to endure, both throughout his lifetime and posthumously, such torrents of criticism and outright hostility regarding his music (let alone his grossly-distended reputation for extra-musical exploits). Fortunately, the advocacy of musicians such as Louis Kentner, Alfred Brendel, John Ogdon and Georges Cziffra, and a host of present-day pianistic giants, among them the redoubtable Leslie Howard with his staggering survey of the composer’s keyboard output for Hyperion Records, has effectively given the lie to the Clara Wiecks of this world regarding the music’s interest and worth.

Whether Jian Liu aligns himself with the believers or the skeptics in the matter of Liszt’s music, he plays it with the care and commitment of a true advocate, with no detail left to chance or unexplored. As with his playing of Carnaval, I was taken by the extent to which his piano-playing speaks across the hands, with what I had previously thought of as mere accompanying figures having something interesting and significant to say. Of course, the Sonata, with its amazingly-layered reworking of the principal themes needs a player alive to those different voices and their characters, and Liu didn’t disappoint, investing every episode with a kind of organic flow that constantly led the ear of the listener onwards. Even during the couple of instances where the music’s complexities momentarily clouded his bearings, he was able to seize upon the severed strands and quickly pull them together and continue – heart-stopping moments, indeed, but their resolution further evidence of the player’s quality.

For me one of the highlights of Liu’s performance was his playing of the fugue – Elgar’s description “a devil of a fugue” relating to his own Introduction and Allegro for Strings would as well apply to LIszt’s diabolically-conceived lines, the latter’s use of the work’s themes demonstrating compositional mastery of an almost indecent kind! Here, these were set in motion by the pianist as part of an ever-burgeoning torrent of impulse whose progress evoked a kind of demonic pursuit through the mind’s most shadowy and sulphurous realms of fancy. By contrast, and perhaps fittingly enough, another moment of magic was generated by Liu over the work’s last few pages, with whole worlds created between the hands, and as beautifully-timed a final low B as I’ve ever heard.

All I wanted during the performance of the Liszt was (should I be ashamed of admitting to this?) a touch more rhetoric in places, mostly in the form of bigger, more resonant tones at one or two cadence-points. Liu’s playing treated the music entirely on its own merits throughout, and was as faithful an account of the score as given by any other pianist I’ve heard – but everything I’ve read of Liszt’s playing indicates that he was no literalist, and that he wouldn’t hesitate to “heighten” whatever mood or feeling the composer indicated (accounts suggest that Liszt and his contemporaries had a more “creative” attitude to the printed score than we ourselves allow performers in this day and age).

Unlike that of his great contemporary, Chopin, the music of Liszt has a “larger-than-life” aspect which, in some instances invites performer-involvement of a kind that reflects the spirit of the work rather than one slavishly following the letter of the score. Without adding notes or radically changing tempi or dynamic markings, I feel it’s still possible to convey something of that “beyond the notes” feeling that marks a truly great and visionary performance of this repertoire. Jian Liu had for me something of this quality in his soft, inward-sounding playing – had he allowed a few more degrees of lingering romantic resonance in the bigger moments the performance as a whole would then have utterly knocked me sideways.






Organist Paul Rosoman opens Old Saint Paul’s lunchtime series

Froberger: Capriccio III
J.S. Bach: Partite Diverse ‘O Gott du frommer Gott’ BWV 767; Prelude and Fugue in D minor BWV 539; Prelude and Fugue in M minor BWV 544

Paul Rosoman, organ

Old St. Paul’s, Mulgrave Street

Tuesday, 29 May 2012, 12.15pm

Tuesday saw the first of the lunchtime concerts at Old St. Paul’s for 2012; the first of  a series that runs weekly until late September.  It was well-attended, in a rather cold church – though the under-seat heaters were on.

Cold fingers may have been a bit of a problem for Paul Rosoman, especially early in the concert, since a number of ‘fluffs’ occurred in an otherwise well-executed recital.  There were, too, a few out-of-tune pipes in the organ.

A problem with most organ recitals is that the audience cannot see the performer’s face, only their back view.  Therefore, compared with almost any other musical performance, there is less of a feeling of communication between player and listener.  I have been to exceptions: at Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul when the downstairs moveable console was used, and in Calgary, Alberta, when a similar console was played.

This organ is a relatively small two-manual and pedal organ in the baroque style, installed in 1977.  It works by tracker action; that is, a direct mechanical action, not electro-pneumatic, electric or electronic.  It has a strong, clear sound and a surprising array of  tonal qualities can be obtained.

The Froberger piece was a pleasing example of pre-Bach organ music.  It was very well suited to this instrument.  A range of colours was employed; the pedal tone was particularly fine.

Paul Rosoman’s brief spoken introduction to the Bach pieces singled out the Partite Diverse as being ‘Bach at his finest, particularly in the last stanza’.  That is, the last stanza of the hymn on which the parts of the whole were based.  He explained that each variation corresponded with a verse of the hymn, being eight in all.  Some illustrated the texts musically, perhaps illuminating the ‘seven ages of man’, through from joyful childhood to old age and death, finishing with the joy of resurrection and heaven.  It is thought to date from Bach’s late teens; if so, it is remarkable.

The work, written for manuals only, opened with a strong rendering of the chorale (hymn tune).  A splendid reed solo was the feature of the first variation.  The second was not so lively, being calmer and less colourful.  The third employed flute stops, including the 2-foot, to give a bright yet light timbre.

All the variations were abundant in invention and variety.  Number four featured the Principal, and was relatively solemn and steady, while the fifth variation gave us reeds – was this illustrating man’s bombastic stage of life?  A less brightly resplendent, more contemplative sixth variation followed.  The swell pedal was used to introduce a quieter section in this partita.

The seventh variation began very quietly and slowly, probably to illustrate old age.  This was not the vibrant ‘third age’ that many of us today aspire to!  Death cannot have been far off .  The last variation’s brightness on the reeds perhaps spoke of resurrection and heaven, while flutes pictured bliss and peace.  Rosoman achieved considerable contrasts between the manuals; a more sombre and sober section was followed by declaiming reeds again, at the end.  This was a most interesting and attractive work, played in an accomplished and satisfying manner.

The Prelude in D minor was composed separately from the Fugue, and there is a theory that the pair were matched up long after Bach’s death.  The prelude was written for manuals only, and after the delights we had just experienced, it sounded rather dull by comparison; it was a relatively plain work – described in the excellent programme notes as ‘modest’.  There was good phrasing from Rosoman, but I would have liked a little more crispness and separation of notes in both movements; this would have made the fugue, particularly, more engaging.

The fugue had no rumbustious ending, just a few flourishes, unlike many of Bach’s fugues; this prelude and fugue constituted the weakest item in the recital.  Not that I was after mere noise; harmonically and even contrapuntally this work was less than arresting.

The B minor Prelude and Fugue were a complete contrast to the previous work.  Known as ‘grand’, it lived up to its name in breadth and excitement.  The prelude was vintage Bach, with lots of contrapuntal complexity, including surprising harmonies and modulations.  A bold fugue followed, utilising the mixture stops on the instrument.  The pedal version of the fugue melody was very clear; the piece demonstrated the clarity and versatility of this small organ, and the competence of the performer.

This recital was a fine start to the year’s season at Old St. Paul’s.


Rhapsodic strains from the NZSM Orchestra with Kenneth Young


New Zealand School of Music Orchestra

Saxophone : Deborah Rawson

Conductor: Kenneth Young

Sam Logan – Lost Island  / Maurice Ravel – Suite “Ma Mère L’Oye”

Claude Debussy – Rhapsody for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra

Witold Lutoslawski – Concerto for Orchestra

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace, Welington

Tuesday, 29th May, 2012

Every NZSM Orchestra concert I go to seems to surpass the previous one in some respect or other, to the extent that I now expect to encounter on each new concert occasion a stimulating and innovative programme and a high standard of performance skills from all concerned. This latest one was certainly no exception, with conductor Ken Young at the orchestral helm securing from the students (and some of their NZSO tutors, swelling the band’s numbers) plenty of impressively-wrought playing, which shaped up well to the programme’s considerable demands.

As well as playing skills, also on show was a new piece evocatively titled Lost Island, written by an NZSM student, Sam Logan, a recipient of the David Farquhar Prize in Composition. Describing his work as “an episode of escapism”, Sam Logan freely acknowledged in his program note the piece’s debt to the composers he likes – one would think, for a young composer eager to learn, an excellent springboard for creativity, especially as this was a “first” for him in writing for a full orchestra.

In seven or so minutes, his work progressed confidently through a number of atmospheric episodes – to begin with, an attractively languid opening nicely launched and floated exotic fragments of melody, the music gradually building in intensity towards a full-blooded roar and a quixotic change of key (brass glissandi and heavy percussion contrasting their voicings with a lovely violin solo). Then, with rhythms nudging the textures more and more insistently, the Lost Island scenario came into focus, bringing tropical-flavoured pulsings not unlike Gershwin with a dash of Jamaican Rhumba, all of which sounded easy on the ear and great fun to play.

Haunting chimes sounding over string tremolandi gave the music a mysterious “Shangri-la” aspect, with an ascending motif prominent, one which worked through trenchant orchestral textures and determined ostinati, creating waves of attractively La Mer-ish sea-swellings (uh-oh! – a tautology?) – but I thought at some stage the episode needed a bit of thematic interest or character to sharpen the listener’s focus (a solo instrumental line? – perhaps more from the violin, whose voice was heard to great advantage earlier). So, hardly a distinctive voice, but there was some well-crafted orchestral writing from the young composer, to go with discernible character in some of the sections of the piece, enough for its hearing to be an enjoyable audience experience.

Further delight was to be had from the performance of Ravel’s suite from his ballet Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose), our anticipations sharpened by the entrance onto the platform of additional players, among them a contra-bassoonist (very visible!). This music is, of course, both a gift and a challenge for any orchestra, simple figurations tempered with exacting refinements throughout. We got a piquant blend of winds throughout the Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane, dynamics not perhaps perfectly gradated, but each player’s sounds winningly wholehearted. More finely-honed was Petit Poucet (Tom Thumb), with lovely strings and melancholy oboe to begin with, and a meltingly beautiful cor anglais solo – the strings gave us a fine surge of emotion at the climax, as did the cor anglais’s return; while Kate Oswin’s violin cheekily led the chorus of birds mocking the lost wanderer.

Laidronette, Empress of the Pagodas, one of Ravel’s happiest creations, here splashed and scintillated with joy, the winds in fine fettle, and the horns resonant and atmospheric. The xylophone’s pentatonic tinklings, tentative the first time round, were brilliantly nailed by the player on the repeat, ably supported by the rest of the percussion at the climax. No greater contrast could be imagined than with Beauty and the Beast, clarinet and strings depicting the girl’s loveliness, set against the grotesquerie of the contrabasson’s rasping tones (great playing by Hayley Roud), backed up by suitably growly percussion! The strings admirably portrayed Beauty’s initial disquiet and confusion, before Kate Oswin’s silken-sweet violin tones brought about the Beast’s magical transformation.

The suite’s final number,The Enchanted Garden, completed the magic, the strings encouraged to play with plenty of warmth by Ken Young right at the start, and the solo violin again lovely, if not always steady, joining in with the great rocking rhythms, horns chiming, strings singing and percussion sizzling, in celebration of the day’s sun-drenched awakening of a garden’s beauties.

This was the first time I had heard the Debussy Saxophone Rhapsody, and was highly entertained by the account of its history and its composer’s dilatory attempts at composing the piece, as set out by the program note. Its title suggests precisely what the piece sounds like – not a concerto, but a rhapsody with a prominent solo instrument part. And Deborah Rawson played it exactly like that, her tones always beautifully rounded, but often meditative, blending in with the orchestral discourse rather than seeking to dominate or over-ride the textures.

It all sounded like a civilized discourse between equals, though a more robust and forthright episode towards the end brought forth more energy and rhythmic intensity. Whether or not the composer was himself properly convinced of the work’s efficacy is open to conjecture – certainly Debussy’s coyness regarding his relinquishing of the work’s orchestral sketches for publication suggests an equivocal attitude – but Deborah Rawson and the orchestra certainly gave the piece every chance to shimmer and glow with this finely-played performance.

I had not heard the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra in concert since, I think, 1972, which was when Vaclav Smetacek directed a performance with the then NZBC Symphony in the Wellington Town Hall. The piece knocked me sideways then, and did so again here, Kenneth Young inspiring his student players to dig into the textures and relish the earthiness of the orchestral writing throughout the first movement. We got searing strings, soulful winds and pin-point brass fronting up with trenchant rhythms and rolling maelstroms of sound, contrasting with gentler, more folksy episodes involving winds and a solo violin, with the celeste sounding a kind of stricken aftermath at the end, a solo flute and clusters of strings picking over the salvageable remnants.

How well I remembered the skeletal eeriness of the second movement’s opening, everything dryly dancing and scampering, a real sense of musical sleight-of-hand, with both wisps of ghostly illusion and breaths of human warmth whisked away alike in a trice! What music, and what playing from this young orchestra! Brass interruptions led to a percussive hammering whose sounds reached breaking-point and exploded, leaving a mourning flute over grumbling strings. And in the aftermath the disquiet took up again, the dovetailing of lines at speed expertly done to the end. Exhilarating stuff!

As for the third-movement Passacaglia, launching a longer movement than the other two put together, it all proved an epic journey, beginning solemnly, with pizzicato strings bringing out a wonderful solo from the cor anglais and inspiring further wind-and-string interchanges. There were brass shouts and percussion onslaughts momentarily obliterating all other voices, ruling by force, though winds and strings reasserted themselves with a chorale-like theme, the strings sounding like a heavenly aftermath of angels. And the toccata-like irruptions from the brass – terrific playing! – spearheaded an even more brutal assault, against which the winds sang a kind of “coming through” theme, like lifelines stretching over an abyss.

Under Young’s direction the orchestral forces throughout all of these contrasting calms and storms scarcely faltered, with only a single episode of less-than-unanimous playing that I noticed – the accelerando passage towards the end in which the players took a few bars to “find” one another. The ensuing cataclysmic chorale grew magnificently out of the ferment of orchestral activity, and Young whipped the players into a final frenzy for the skitterish payoff at the end. Had I been completely new to this work I might have been writing at this point “I knowed no more that evening…..” For all concerned, a stunning achievement!



Wonderland in name and deed – Made In New Zealand


CREE BROWN – Celestial Bodies

CRESSWELL – Concerto for Orchestra and String Quartet


New Zealand String Quartet

Helen Medlyn (mezzo-soprano)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Hamish McKeich (conductor)

Wellington Town Hall

Friday 25th May 2012

This was a “Made In New Zealand” concert which packed a real wallop, featuring three substantial pieces of music by different New Zealand composers – all of whom, incidentally, were present.  While none of the performances on this occasion were premieres, each one seemed to me to freshly unwrap the music, and square up whole-heartedly to the technical and emotional challenges of each of the pieces’ different physical and spiritual worlds.

It seems to me to be important that any orchestra can play and sound as if it “owns” music written by composers who live in the same geographical space, however “global” or “multi-national” an outlook certain forces of darkness seek constantly to try and impose on our lives. And, as Douglas Lilburn was fond of pointing out, there are aspects of the New Zealand experience which even Mozart, for all his music’s greatness and universality, couldn’t express – and an orchestra such as the NZSO which both encourages and can brilliantly play music by local composers that CAN express these things, is, purely and simply, above rubies. At least, in the expert hands of conductor Hamish McKeich, this was certainly the case throughout Friday evening’s concert.

While I’m still convinced of the need for integrating New Zealand music into “normal” concert programs and schedules, rather than treating it as a kind of separate species  confined to its own enclosure (open to the public only at certain times throughout the year!) I’m certain that having a “Made In New Zealand” concert gives additional opportunities for the NZSO to (as orchestra CEO Chris Blake puts it) “support and stimulate the creation and development of a New Zealand symphonic repertoire”.  And it’s fortunate we have conductors such as Hamish McKeich and Kenneth Young who can, when given opportunities to do so, make good that statement of intent with fully-committed advocacy.

Without wanting to “limpet-mine” this review with any suggestion of a subaqueous agenda, I feel nevertheless compelled to mention, quite offhandedly, that one of the greatest (in my opinion) of New Zealand symphonies – David Farquhar’s first, performed in concert in 1960, a year after it was written –  still awaits its SECOND public performance. Ironically, the work has enjoyed two recordings throughout the interim, and thus can’t claim to be completely neglected – but how else would one characterize something that’s had a single public airing in fifty-two years? To my ears the work urgently has a part to play in any such “development of a New Zealand symphonic repertoire”.

Back with the business in hand, I was interested to read that the first work on the evening’s program, Chris Cree Brown’s Celestial Bodies, was first presented in 2005 in Christchurch as an audio-visual collaboration with the artist Julia Morison. It would have been interesting to have experienced something of the composer’s original conception for this work, though previous “Made In New Zealand” concerts which used visual elements encountered a good deal of criticism from concertgoers, myself included, which might have been off-putting for the organizers. However, it must be said that the criticism was directed almost exclusively at instances where visual elements were imposed on existing music, not where it was part of the composer’s own initial scheme.

This accounted for those parts of the work so readily and cheerfully dispensing entirely with the “live” orchestra (the whole of the fourth section “Dark Matter” for example.) Having visual imagery interacting with the taped material would at this point have, I feel sure, removed some of the incongruity for me of having to watch an entire orchestra sitting on a concert platform listening to prerecorded sounds. For the rest I enjoyed the players’ skilful acoustic dovetailing with some of the sounds on the tape throughout (a sign of the times being a reference to an “electroacoustic CD” instead!).

Celestial Bodies is a work in ten sections, the parts named for various phenomena found throughout space, the composer describing them as “overwhelming in their size, awe-inspiring in their diversity and breathtaking in their beauty”. New Zealand composers have written outer space-inspired music before, an example being Edwin Carr’s ‘The Twelve Signs”, though Cree Brown’s work avoided any astrological reference-points. Instead, his pieces unfolded for us, one by one, aspects of the cosmos with titles such as Galaxy, Globular Cluster, Pulsar, Nebula and Supernova, as well as those with a more sinister ambience like Dark Matter and Black Hole.

These were brilliantly crafted sounds, atmospheric and pictorial, with plenty of variation, and readily suggesting their subject matter in practically every case. They were not for everybody, as I discovered when talking with people, some of whom said they struggled to feel any connection with the music, while admiring the composer’s craft and skill. I felt involved in almost every episode, and particularly enjoyed the orchestra’s interactions with the pre-recorded sounds, a process which I thought set up interesting performance tensions in places and pushed my listening boundaries outwards, towards places that felt quite eerie – the second piece, Globular Cluster, worked on my imagination readily in that respect.

I also enjoyed the pieces’ contrasts, for example, when going to the following piece, Pulsar, and encountering those strongly-etched rhythms pulsating through spaces that had seemed up to this point pleasantly nebulous. Black Hole was another piece whose elemental irruptions gave a real sense of menacing power, thrillingly at odds with one’s accustomed sense of vast stillness when looking at the night sky, the orchestra’s heavy batteries making splendidly frightening noises, complete with a startlingly anarchic chord at the end.

Where I didn’t especially “connect” with Cree Brown’s music was, as I’ve said, with any “pre-recorded only” episodes of any length – the fourth piece, Dark Matter, the most ready example. I’m certain that, had we seen Julia Morison’s images, the sequence would have told more readily and maintained enough interactive tension – perhaps a soloist or group of soloists from the orchestra needed to play ad lib with the pre-record, in the absence of any visuals, to keep the impulses alive and flowing.

Interactive tension was the name of the game with Lyell Cresswell’s Concerto for Orchestra and String Quartet. In one continuous movement, the work spun its listeners excitingly through what seemed like an endless variety of episodes involving interchange between the performers – in this case the New Zealand String Quartet and the orchestra. Although this concerto wasn’t written for the NZSQ, (it was premiered in Scotland by the Yggdrasil Quartet and the Scottish National Orchestra in 1997), Cresswell has written other works specifically for the group, a piano quintet And Every Sparkle Shivering, first given here in 2000 with Michael Houstoun, and a string quartet, Kotetetete, which the NZSQ performed last year in the City of London Festival. Cresswell has described the NZSQ as “a quartet that can play anything”, and felt that whatever demands he made of the players in writing the Quartet, they would relish the challenges.

The group has played the Quartet Concerto before, the first time in 2001 with the BBC Scottish Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Young. From the start, Cresswell wanted to write a piece that was a genuine partnership between quartet and orchestra, and not merely with the latter group providing some sort of “accompaniment”. And neither did he want the piece to be a kind of Concerto for orchestra, with string quartet. On the “genuine partnership” count alone, the work seemed to me a truly egalitarian tour de force – one noted a constant flow of creative happenings between solo instruments, small groups and larger forces, a kind of all-encompassing concerto grosso, with all the attendant tensions and resolutions which one might expect would throw up between such elements.

Cheryl Hollinger’s magically-phrased trumpet-playing, introduced by scintillations of percussion and airborne, ethereal orchestral strings, got the work way to a suitably “storyteller-like” beginning, the theme hinting at a kind of unfolding aspect, as in the best tales. And though the quartet’s viola-led instrument-by-instrument configurings, supported by the orchestra strings and commented upon abruptly by brass punctuations, were carefully terraced by the composer, the effect seemed always natural and organic, never forced or contrived. As with genuine human interaction, the exchanges occasionally flared up excitingly, the music expressing its fair share of marked contrast and volatility, but was then balanced by slower, more reflective and meditative episodes midway through the work. Here, I loved the heartfelt duo lines between various pairings of solo strings from the quartet, seeming to me expressing great beauty against what felt in places like a backdrop of ambient desolation.

There were places throughout the final section during which I wondered whether the writing fell back on itself every now and then, and could have benefitted from some  “tightening” by the composer – but always a succeeding episode would scoop up and whisk away my misgivings, generating so intense an excitement of quicksilver exchanges of texture, colour and rhythmic patterning between quartet and orchestra. Cresswell’s orchestral writing in particular I thought so very virtuosic in places, the music’s occasionally vertiginous momentum creating exhilaration aplenty. The quartet players, as always, gave their all, and each section of the orchestra, directed and balanced with admirable skill by conductor Hamish McKeich, seemed switched-on to razor-sharp mode with the timing and focus of their rapid exchanges.

After the interval came intensities of another, more directly human kind, Gillian Whitehead’s setting of poet Fleur Adcock’s retelling in verse of an ancestor’s emigration from Britain to begin a new life in New Zealand in 1909. Twenty-three year-old Alice Adcock, showing symptoms of tuberculosis, and hoping that a change of climate would help effect some kind of cure came to this country from Manchester, to the consternation of her family. She lived for a further fifty years, during which time she lost her husband and was then rejected and dispossessed by his family, having to relocate with her children to another part of New Zealand and start a new life.

Fleur Adcock felt Alice’s story was, in a sense, that of all those who came across the seas to establish a new life, the commonalities having, in her words, “the resonances of a universal myth, known to all of us who live here”. Making the most of the deceptively simple poetry, singing with great power and beauty, and relishing occasional forays into a kind of sprechtgesang, Helen Medlyn here became the heroine, Alice, body and soul, pretty much as she would have done when she “created” the role in 2003 at the premiere performance. She brought out all the different elements of the text – its humor (much talk of lice, using terms like “gentle creepers” and “big crawlers”), positive energy (revelling in the clean air of a new country), unflagging optimism (happiness at finding a man to marry who will take and accept her child) and a sense of loss and grief over deaths of loved ones (father and husband) – but also gave the sung lines plenty of theatrical (even operatic) presence and vibrancy.

No praise is too high for orchestra and conductor, Hamish McKeich, living the different scenarios with Medlyn every inch of the way throughout the story-line, and continuing to deliver, right through the unfortunate contretemps which quietly erupted in the gallery, where an audience member suddenly took seriously ill ten or so minutes before the end of the piece. This, of course, occasioned a flurry of piteous activity (those on the ground floor, along with many of the musicians, largely oblivious to what was going on) – but evidently the revival efforts of those brought to help were successful.

A stimulating and colorful “Made In New Zealand” concert then, with three substantial works whose effect will have won for the orchestra, its conductor, and the special solo performers many plaudits from a delighted audience and from three grateful composers.






















Sayers and Mapp, varied and delightful piano duets at Waikanae

Emma Sayers and Richard Mapp (piano duet)

Music by Thomas Tomkins, Mozart, Schubert. Ravel, Kenneth Young, Barber and Poulenc

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 20 May, 2.30pm

A concert of piano duets (four hands on one piano) is likely to raise discussion about the propriety of arrangements and the voicing of opinions about the merits of an orchestral arrangement of a piece for piano four hands (or two hands, for that matter).

As it happens, most of the music at this concert was originally written for four hands though two were later orchestrated for a ballet.

The opening piece was a small surprise from the Stuart period when the keyboard – harpsichord, clavichord, virginals, etc – was being used increasingly as a solo instrument, most notably exemplified in Fitzwilliam’s ‘virginal book’ published in the 19th century.

According to the programme note, Thomas Tomkins’s piece, A Fancy, ‘for two to play’, is probably the first surviving piece for two players at one keyboard. It started quietly giving the impression that the composer was really thinking of only one player, but soon its various layers emerged to justify its treatment by more than one player.

Mozart wrote several sonatas and other pieces for two pianists on either one or two keyboards. This, in F major, K 497, was not one of the best known, and in spite of Emma Sayer’s promoting it as echoing the spirit of the operas that he was writing at the time – The Marriage of Figaro and The Impresario – it isn’t really furnished with the memorable and characterful tunes that made them famous.

They played the opening Adagio cautiously, and there was even a feeling of holding back as the Allegro got under way. The air of hesitancy derived more from the music than the players; in spite of the outwardly lively tunes, and it struck me that Mozart was compensating for a slightly lower level of inspiration by adorning it with decoration and unexpected modulations.

The same feeling lingered in the Andante second movement: interesting rather than beguiling, yet we heard a performance that was well rehearsed, with attractive dynamic and tempo changes. The finale offered more lively music, the two players sporting with each other, exploiting chances to surprise, offering nothing that was routine, and ultimately leaving no room for doubt that the composer was Mozart in his masterly maturity.

Schubert’s Allegro in A minor, thought to be the first movement of a never completed sonata, was entitled by the publisher, Lebensstürme – ‘life’s storms’. It is no 947 in the Deutsch catalogue, which is immediately after the much better known, three Klavierstücke. It deserves to be as well known for it has real strength and dramatic shape as well as having a perfectly enchanting middle section. Stormy is the way it opened but the storm soon passed; it was interesting melodically as well as developing in ways that were typical of Schubert. There’s an underlying swaying rhythm that characterises a beguiling melody before the music returns to the arresting minor key, fanfare-like motif with which it opened.

Though there were charms of rhythm and lyricism that I felt were not totally realised, this performance was persuasive enough to make me pursue the piece further. If you Google ‘Lebensstürme’ and ‘Schubert’ you will find several You-Tube video clips of performances. One which captivated me was by the Georgian twins, Ani and Nia Salkhanishvili at the San Marino Piano Competition.

Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye was written for girls, obviously highly talented, for it’s not particularly easy.  The question whether the original duet version or the orchestral version is to be preferred exercises many people; for my part, I’m seduced by both as soon one or the other starts. This duo approached it fastidiously, the wit and charm discreetly obscured, to be smiled at by others than those who respond only to the gross and obvious in humour. They played it as one, approaching the rise and fall of dynamics exquisitely and making much of the playful turns in treble passages in ‘Hop o’ my thumb’. The suite ended with the droll sleight of hand found in the last phrase of ‘The fairy garden’.

Kenneth Young’s Variations on a Prayer is based on an original chorale-like tune, according to the programme note, which went on to explain that it “explored the nature of prayer, which can take many different forms in pursuit of a universal goal”. It is the sort of comment that seems more likely to come from a composer than a writer of programme notes, but the notes later speak of Young in the third person, linking his musical character with Dutilleux and Takemitsu. In any case, Young’s music finds its way successfully between the rigours of the complex avant-garde and the indulgently melodic and sentimental, and the performance situated it without apology in the company of the early 20th century pieces in the programme.

The recital ended with another two pieces I hadn’t come across before: Samuel Barber’s Souvenirs and Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano Duet (of 1918, and so very early).

The three pieces taken from Souvenirs, a suite of six movements, Op 28 of 1951, were Schottische, Pas de deux and Hesitation-Tango. Though originally written for piano four hands, Barber also arranged it for solo piano, for two pianos and then he orchestrated it for a ballet which was first performed in 1955.  The Schottische has a jazzy quality in quick 3/8 rhythm; then a slow Pas de deux that exemplified the nostalgic aspect of these Souvenirs, and the Hesitation-Tango, (a take, I suppose, on the once-popular Hesitation Waltz that I recall from college dancing classes), slightly reminiscent of Prokofiev with wisps of a big tune that proved evanescent, and leading us into the here and now.

The Poulenc sonata would, one might think, be performed along with the sonatas he wrote for wind instruments near the end of his life, but this one, written at 19, was contemporaneous with the well-known Mouvements perpetuels . well before his ballet, Les Biches, which put him on the map in 1924. One could hear why it’s not so well known, though it’s not inconsequential, and the duo found its varied character, the dense chords in dotted rhythms of the Prélude, the improvisatory interlude called Rustique, and the speedy, staccato Final that was perhaps going nowhere, but gave the impression of generating much energy in doing so.

This enchanting recital made me realise how much pleasure is to be found in the piano duet repertoire. Mapp and Sayers have been playing together for a few years and their performances deserve to be more frequent and widely enjoyed.


And the earth moved – The Tudor Consort performs Brumel’s Earthquake Mass

Antoine Brumel: Missa Et ecce terrae motus; Ross Harris: Vobiscum in aeternum; Jack Body: Psalm 137; Ildebrando Pizzetti;  De Profundis

Tudor Consort directed by Michael Stewart

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

Saturday 19 May 2012 at 7.30pm

The Tudor Consort, directed by Michael Stewart, performed Antoine Brumel’s monumental  Missa Et ecce terrae motus (The ‘Earthquake’ Mass) on Saturday 19 May at 7.30 in Wellington Cathedral of St Paul. The title is taken from the plainsong antiphon “Et ecce terrae motus” (And the earth moved) sung at the office of Lauds on Easter Sunday. The antiphon text describes the moment of Christ’s Resurrection: “And behold there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it.” (St Matthew 28:2) This work, which is scored for 12 parts, was considered by some to be the greatest work for choirs during the High Renaissance period until it was surpassed some 80 years later by Tallis’ 40 part motet Spem in alium.

The mass was excellently sung, with good phrasing, clean and confident entries and a sustained energy and pitch; not an easy task when performing  a work with multiple moving parts in an acoustic in which it is often difficult to hear one’s fellow singers. It was easy to understand the references to earthquakes when there were repeated phrases and the amazing sound of all the voices singing in canon or with differing rhythms.

One of the problems in programming a concert like this one, which features a mass which is too short to occupy a full concert on its own, is to select works to be performed between the movements of the mass which will complement the atmosphere created. In this concert the works selected were all composed in a totally different period, but they were totally in keeping with main work.

These three works included two recently commissioned works for the choir; Vobiscum in aeternum by Ross Harris, and Psalm 137 by Jack Body, and Ildebrando Pizetti’s De Profundis(1937).  As usefully set out in the programme, the brief to the two composers of the commissioned works was to take an ancient piece of music and use it as a starting point for their new creation.

The Ross Harris piece is a prelude to the Tudor motet “If ye love me”, and finishes with the same motif. It created an ethereal atmosphere with its build up and then seamless change to the original motet. Jack Body has started with a liturgical Russian chant for his setting of Psalm 137 “By the waters of Babylon” in the original Hebrew. Both pieces were sung with great confidence and conviction. It is a strength of the choir that they can quickly switch from High Renaissance to very contemporary music so effectively.

The whole programme was energetically directed by Michael Stewart and the choir responded well to his directions. The voices of the choir were very well balanced, and I enjoyed the rich deep bass sound, especially in the Jack Body piece when it added to the Russian influence.

There is good news for those who were unable to hear this magnificent concert. Tudor Consort is recording a CD of the mass and commissioned pieces, and this will be available in July. Orders can be made through their website at All proceeds from the sales of the CDs will be donated to Christchurch Cathedral’s music department.

A magnificent Rigoletto, almost too close for comfort….


Production by NBR New Zealand Opera  / Director : Lindy Hume

Cast:  Warwick Fyfe (Rigoletto) /  Emma Pearson (Gilda) / Rafael Rojas (Duke of Mantua)

Ashraf Sewailam (Sparafucile) / Kristin Darragh (Maddalena) / Rodney Macann (Monterone)

Emma Fraser (Countess) / James Clayton (Ceprano) / Wendy Doyle (Giovanna)

Derek Hill (Borsa) / Matthew Landereth (Marullo)

Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus  (Michael Vinten – Chorus Master)

Vector Wellington Orchestra

Wyn Davies (conductor)

St.James Theatre, Wellington

Saturday 19th May 2012

Very much an opera-going experience for our time (and thus ostensibly at the mercy of the “updating” phenomenon which subjects present-day opera-goers to all kinds of directorial mayhem), this latest NBR New Zealand Opera production of “Rigoletto” seemed to me to be a triumph of substance over flash, of intelligence over sensation-mongering.  One goes to the opera these days ready for anything, expecting to be challenged as much as entertained, and in some cases as affronted as much as delighted by what one encounters (and not always merely on stage). One or two semi-gratuitous “blips” aside, I thought this production delivered a well thought-out and properly mind-provoking  set of scenarios which brought the original impulses of Verdi’s inspiration all-too-close for comfort to aspects of the 21stCentury world we live in.

I know a number of opera-lovers who won’t go to contemporary productions any longer because of what they consider to be “violence done to the original” by presentations which seem deliberately to set out to gratuitously either titillate and cheapen, or else  shock and affront audience sensibilities. While there’s nothing wrong in principle with certain of those processes being brought to bear on people’s experiences in the opera house, it’s obviously too much for some people to stomach when a theatrical work’s traditional ethos is jarringly overlaid with elements suggesting imported and irrelevant agendas.

Nowhere did I feel that director Lindy Hume’s setting of Rigoletto’s story within a contemporary scenario of razz-matazz politics did either Victor Hugo’s original story or Verdi’s own conception of his work any disservice. True, a Mediterranean ethos was suggested by things like the overtly demonstrative and masochistic manner of the Duke, the Mafia-like aspect of his henchmen (though the “gorillas-in-suits” phenomenon is a commonplace, these days), and the dubious “imprimatur” of a Catholic cleric in full regalia among the entourage – a cardinal, or monsignor at the very least! But it was actually a way of giving the problematical “curse”,  brought down upon the head of Rigoletto by the wronged nobleman Monterone,  rather more “clout” than is usually the case with modern recastings of the story. No matter how sophisticated, worldly-wise and updated the setting, such dark, forceful utterances of vengeance  for wrongdoing can still pack a primordial punch. And especially in this context  –  an old-world culture beset by superstitions and haunted by gods both ancient and more recent, whose shadows of influence can still come out at night and linger beyond realms of reason.

And it is night and darkness that largely predominate in the opera’s action – only the third Act  suggests “the morning after”, while the other three parts of the story are played out against the dark. It’s a world of concealment (Rigoletto and his daughter, Gilda), of dark business (the courtiers’ abduction of Gilda), of murderous intent (the assassin, Sparafucile), and of secret trysts (the Duke, first of all with Gilda, then with the assassin’s sister, Maddalena). Right from the beginning, there was darkness at the heart of it all – the curtain slowly lifted as the orchestra tuned up, showing Rigoletto sitting alone in a room in the dark, except for a “home theatre” screen which gave us none too naturalistic footage of ravens during the Prelude  (supposedly portentous imagery, but surely the music alone at this point was doing enough!), fortunately uncharacteristic of the production over the span of the evening.

Contrasted with this was the glitter and sparkle of the Duke’s residence, which the preludial scene “morphed” into cleverly, walls and doors lowered, furniture revolved, and  the darkness flooded with light, all done expertly and unobtrusively. The characters were suddenly animated and vibrant, Warwick Fyfe’s Rigoletto breaking his dark reverie to become the Duke’s energetic factotum,  part evil genius, part buffoon, cynical and dismissive of all, seemingly unmoved by his master’s political success of the evening.  As the libertine Duke, Mexican tenor Rafael Rojas (a splendid Canio in last year’s NBR NZ Opera’s Pagliacci) looked and acted the part from the beginning, revelling in the media attention (the group photograph splendidly choreographed to be “captured” at a musical climax) and readily displaying his lascivious impulses (with plenty of noticeably bimbo-ish allurement close at hand throughout).

It’s the Duke’s voice which is the first of all to compel attention with “Questa o quella”,  delivered by Rojas with plenty of insouciance and nicely ringing top notes, his energies and tones echoed by the Vector Wellington Orchestra’s expert accompanying under conductor  Wyn Davies.  The others, including Rigoletto, have mostly one-line declamations and conversational utterances throughout the act, with strong contributions throughout the opening exchanges from Derek Hill’s Borsa, and then from Matthew Landreth’s Marullo, when breaking the news to the “chapter” regarding Rigoletto’s supposed  mistress.  As well, we were given convincing cameos from both Emma Fraser’s glamorous Countess Ceprano and James Clayton as her boorish husband.

It’s not until right at the end of the act that Warwick Fyfe’s vocal mettle as Rigoletto is really tested, with his mocking  response to the tragic entrance and vengeful utterances of Count Monterone, come to denounce the Duke for misusing his daughter. Unfortunately, that fine singer Rodney Macann seemed to me vocally out of sorts on the night, not able to muster up the power and focus needed to make his curse really sting.  If the intention was to convey a man already broken by his daughter’s downfall at the Duke’s hands, then this Monterone certainly succeeded, but in the process the curse’s power was somewhat muted, and made Rigoletto’s horror-struck reaction a shade pantomime-like. To Fyfe’s credit his character steadfastedly maintained an agitated state right into the heart of the Second Act’s opening, convincing us that Monterone’s pronouncements had indeed struck home.

Back to darkness with the beginning of Act Two, out in the street and next to a bus shelter, from which came the assassin (or, in present-day vernacular, the hit-man) Sparafucile, sung by Egyptian-born Ashraf Sewailam, physically threatening and vocally imposing, his exchanges with Rigoletto beautifully underpinned by rich, grainy string playing and voice-of-doom percussion work from the pit.  The whole scene was brilliantly effective, with its urban jungle backdrop of darkness, against which Warwick Fyfe was finally able to open up his soul and bemoan his fate as a misshapen jester, as well as ruminate further upon the curse. A revolve of the stage and we were taken to Rigoletto’s house, and to his daughter Gilda, Emma Pearson’s silvery tones, physical beauty and add-water vulnerability straightaway capturing audience hearts.

What a psychoanalytical field day a modern family therapist would have with Rigoletto’s relationship with his daughter! Perhaps a casualty of the opera’s updating to the present was Rigoletto’s refusal to allow his daughter any sense of her own identity, a situation one imagines any modern child would rebel against and probably have the means to do something about. Of course, whatever the time or place, such parental strictures produce time-bombs, intensities producing like intensities, whose explosions may be delayed, but not denied – and so the case proved with Gilda, her father’s intransigence merely fuelling the underground fires further.

The Duke’s appearance out of the dark which surrounded Rigoletto’s house, and his complicity with the servant Giovanna to gain entry had a “Marriage of Figaro” air about the proceedings, (and Fyfe’s admonishing of Wendy Doyle’s servant by means of a less-than-convincingly-delivered slap in the face was not a great moment). More important were the passionate declarations of promised love between the Duke and Gilda, those breathless figurations at the end of their farewell duet understandable in the circumstances. Then came Gilda’s beautifully introduced “Caro Nome”, orchestral winds catching in advance the character’s purity of utterance and direct and unequivocal wholeheartedness. It took Emma Pearson’s voice a few measures to settle, but then it found its poise, the singer by the end integrating it all so naturally into a most believable stage presence.  And while the aria spoke of visions of love’s delight, the prevailing dark around the edges of the stage relinquished darker purposes – this time the courtiers from the Duke’s palace, who proceeded, with clever use of powerful, blinding torches, to outmanoeuvre Rigoletto, and abduct his daughter.

By this time we had surrendered ourselves to the drama entirely, irrespective of time or place, so focused were the different elements which made up the experience, to the point where the nude figure on the Duke’s couch at the beginning of Act Three scarcely made any lasting impact as the form stood up, re-vested and moved away. More to the point was the Duke’s lament at losing Gilda, as he had found the house empty – Rojas’s pitching of the notes showed some strain, at this point, though his interactions with the spry, well-drilled chorus seemed to refocus his efforts. In the following scene with the chorus, during which Rigoletto reveals that Gilda is not his lover but his daughter, I thought Fyfe extremely fine, terracing his intensities unerringly, and conveying the sense of someone in the grip of a deadly obsession,  vowing after the brief reappearance of the disillusioned and downcast figure of Monterone that he, Rigoletto, shall avenge the wrongdoing of the Duke once and for all.

One doubts whether there exists a more perfectly- and potently-conceived final operatic act than this of “Rigoletto”. It abounds with imaginative touches, such as the wordless chorus intoning in places the moaning of the wind, a haunting, scalp-pricking effect. The music surprises us with things like the Duke’s famous “La Donna e Mobile” aria, and afterwards the wonderful vocal Quartet, an episode which both unites and underlines the barriers between two sets of people, while the situations unpredictably swerve and double back on themselves. Fittingly, the prevailing dark has the last word, as the story’s convolutions lead to the death of Gilda instead of the Duke as the jester intended. As the assassin Sparafucile’s sister, Maddalena, whom the Duke makes love to and who enables his life to be saved, Kristen Darragh exuded a vamp-like allure, along with an ever-burgeoning murderous determination to sacrifice another person for the sake of the life of the Duke, her new lover. Naturally, heartrendingly, the other person is Gilda, the graphic depiction of her despatch, fittingly by Maddalena herself (often not shown onstage), both shocking and piteous, but I thought not inappropriate.

Hence Rigoletto’s moment of intended triumph turns to tragedy, a cruel twist of fate I thought brilliantly, searingly conveyed by Warwick Fyfe, with at first almost public-servant detachment when taking receipt of the body he imagines is the Duke’s, but allowing flashes of anticipation of his revenge’s fulfillment, before cooly gathering his thoughts and energies to focus on the act of despatch – only to hear the Duke’s voice right at that moment of owning his triumph – what devastation, what new anguish followed! As with Shakespeare and other great theatre, we may already know the end, but the situation has the power, as here to move us anew, because we are not as we were – and therefore it touches us in different places every time. Warwick Fyfe and Emma Pearson, as Rigoletto and his dying, transfigured Gilda, their characters borne upwards and onwards as throughout by wonderful orchestral playing from the Wellington Orchestra and conductor Wyn Davies, spoke volumes to us at the end on behalf of all who had contributed to a marvellous production,  with so many things to say – a stunning achievement by Lindy Hume and her entire creative team.









Bartók’s Duos on folk music from two violists, Donald Maurice and Claudine Bigelow

Bartók: Excerpts from 44 Duos; field recordings made 1906-1915

Claudine Bigelow and Donald Maurice (violas)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 16 May 2012, 12.15pm

Despite the atrocious weather in Wellington the audience was of a reasonable size at what was a lecture-recital rather than a concert – but none the worse for that.

Donald Maurice is well known locally as a violist, and as one of the performers and the promoter of Alfred Hill’s string quartets recordings.

Caroline Bigelow came here from the Brigham Young University School of Music on a Fulbright scholarship, to work with Donald Maurice.  In a recent radio interview I heard, she paid tribute to Donald Maurice, whom she had met some years ago at an International Viola Congress.

Both performers gave quite lengthy spoken introductions to Bartók and the Duos, which were written for two violins. They are recording the duos for CD; the recording, like the concert, will feature the composer’s field recordings made from 1906 to 1915, upon which these 1931 compositions are based.  It will be the first recording of them for two violas, and is being produced in collaboration with the Bartók Archive in Budapest.

It was a pity that Maurice and Bigelow (particularly the latter) did not use the microphone, since dropping the voice at the end of sentences and phrases made them inaudible at times – and I was seated near the front of the church.

Each of the 11 selections from the 44 was introduced, the translation read, and then in the relevant cases (which was most of them) the original field recording, transcribed from wax cylinders to CD, was played through the church’s speaker system, then Bartók’s duo based on that recording played.

This made for an interesting programme.  The simple melodies used different tonalities from those we now consider standard major and minor.  The first piece, ‘Midsummer Night Song’, was played with warm and rich tone, the beautiful harmonies created by Bartók and altered rhythms from the original folk song combining to create a colourful picture.

The ‘Cradle Song’ that followed was humorous, and the bi-tonality (B flat against E, Donald Maurice explained) employed by the composer appropriate to the modal original, making for a very effective piece.

In ‘Burlesque’, Bartók altered the timing from a simple one in the original to a dotted rhythm.  ‘Fairy Tale’ was an example of more complex rhythms, but such as are common in Eastern European folk music.

‘Bride’s Farewell’ far from being a joyous song, sounded mournful, especially with the unison notes and intervals of a second that the composer chose.  It was full of strong colours, compared with the earlier songs.  Like ‘Burlesque’ and the Dance that followed it, this piece was from Ruthenia.  Maurice explained that it was very difficult to get a translation of the Ruthenian language; it seems not to have survived.  Nor has the name ‘Ruthenia’, in my atlas! [Ruthenia was the small eastern-most province of Czechoslovakia as it existed between the two world wars; it had a mixed population of Hungarians, Romanians, Ukrainians and a significant Jewish population; the region was predominantly Ukrainian. Till 1919 it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; it is now the Zakarpattia Oblast of Ukraine, and bordered by Slovakia, Romania and Hungary. The language referred to is most likely to be Ukrainian. L.T.]

The ‘Ruthenian Dance’ used a different minor scale from the one we know today, and employed an 8/8 rhythmic pattern of 3+2+3, very evident in the accompanying part; the melody line sounded typically folksy, however.

The song ‘Sorrow’, the performers found, differed in a recording by the composer himself from what he had written in his score, as well as from the folk original he recorded. It was a plaintive piece, with woeful humour in the last line about the wench from the inn: ‘How much of my money it has cost, all in vain!’  A man sang this in the original; most of the recordings were by girls or women.

Maurice explained that in the Hungarian language, emphasis tends to be on the first syllable of words (and I recall this from a Hungarian woman I once worked with), and this informs the musical rhythms.

‘Bagpipes’ was an original melody from the composer.  Donald Maurice’s part was the drone and Bigelow’s the chanter with the melody.  It was lively and jolly, and a very good evocation of the bagpipes.  We were told that after this was written, Bartók went to Scotland, and showed much interest in the instrument.

‘Prelude and Canon’, purporting to be about two peonies blooming but ready to fade, was allegedly about two spinsters.  However, the piece (and the original) speeded up towards the end, indicating perhaps that the fact that ‘No-one will pluck them’ was no bad thing!  Here, Bartók was true to the original, but the colours of his harmonies were dark, even in the more animated section.

Another Bartók original was the ‘Pizzicato’.  The entire piece was plucked.  It was beautifully executed and a joyful little number.  Donald Maurice explained that the short duos were written by the composer for students, but he said that the last ones in the set would require very advanced students to play them, that is, this one and the next, of those we heard.

Number 44, ‘Transylvanian Dance’ was last in the set and the last performed.  It derived from the region where the composer grew up.  Again, an unusual scale (to us) was employed.  Maurice said that its exotic sound might have been because it derived from the music of migrants from India, long ago. It made for a complex and interesting piece in Bartók’s transcription.

The well-planned and played programme was fascinating, marred only by the lack of projection of the voices, particularly that of Caroline Bigelow.

The forthcoming recording will be of considerable interest.


Wellington NZ Choral Federation – celebrating 25 years of workshops with the best of ’em!

VERDI – Requiem Mass

Bryony Williams (soprano) / Margaret Medlyn (m-sop) / Richard Greager (tenor) / Rodney Macann (bass)

NZ Choral Federation May Workshop Choir

Rosemary Russell (assistant director) / Thomas Gaynor (organ and piano)

Michael Fulcher (conductor)

Brass: Danny Kirgan / Chris Clark / Chris Woolley / David Kempton / Matthew Stein (trumpets)

Benjamin Zilber / Ben Robertson / Tim Walsh (trombones)

Percussion (timpani): Brent Stewart

Salvation Army Citadel, Vivian St., Wellington

Saturday 12th May, 2012

Twenty-five years ago this year, Sir David Willcocks, doyen of British choral conductors at the time, came to New Zealand  and took the very first of the New Zealand Choral Federation Wellington workshops. Local  choral conductor John Knox, who had sung in the Bach Choir in London under Willcocks, had formed a friendship with him over time, and invited him to come and conduct choirs in New Zealand (one of which occasions I well remember, that of a performance of the Berlioz Requiem in Wellington in 1986). It was on Willcocks’ third visit here, in 1988, that he took that now-historic first NZCF workshop,  which featured music by one of the Venetian Gabrielis and the North German Samuel Scheidt.

New Zealand’s equivalent to David Willcocks was and is undoubtedly Peter Godfrey, now aged 90, and present at the concert on Saturday evening. Godfrey took over the workshops for the next seven years, returning in 2002 after a break of another seven years (all very Biblical) to direct a workshop featuring this evening’s work, the Verdi Requiem. So there were wheels and circles clicking and circling around and about and coming full circle with tonight’s performance of that same work, the director on this occasion being Michael Fulcher, taking part in his (you’ve guessed it!) seventh workshop for the NZCF.

In all, nine directors have led the workshops over the duration, with Peter Godfrey and Michael Fulcher clocking up the most frequent appearances between them. As well, a goodly proportion of the singers present (requested by chairperson Elizabeth Crayford during her closing speech at the end of the concert, to show their hands) indicated that they were also at various of these earlier occasions – in fact, several indicated that they had attended that very first workshop directed by Willcocks. All of which contributed to the festive atmosphere and undoubted emotion of this, the most recent event, one that was fortunately crowned by a remarkable performance of the Verdi Mass, put together by Michael Fulcher and his assistant director, Rosemary Russell (replacing an indisposed Mark Dorrell), with just two days’ rehearsal for the singers and instrumentalists – “born in fiery hour!” as Robert Schumann would have said.

Actually “two days’ rehearsal” suggests more time than was actually given the performers, as the two hundred and eighty or so choir members met together for the first time on Friday evening, working for two hours from seven until nine o’clock. They began again at nine o’clock on Saturday morning and workshopped it all until five o’clock in the afternoon. The soloists and instrumentalists (pianist, brass players, percussionist) came in on Saturday afternoon. True, some people had done a bit of preparation with their own choirs (eg. the Festival Singers), and some got the music in advance. Most people, however, were issued with their scores on Friday night.

All of which suggests some kind of alchemy on the part of Michael Fulcher and assistant Rosemary Russell, in pulling such a massive work together in such a short time with people in various stages of preparation. But far more than simply getting the music to hold recognizably together, the performance sounded truly inspired – here was one of those instances where enthusiasm and sheer will combined with skill and experience to produce something memorable and satisfying for all concerned.

From the first, opening bars of the work, spare, plaintive-sounding tones from Thomas Gaynor’s piano (with an unexpectedly arpeggiated chord at one point!), followed by the murmured hush of those first “Requiems” from two-hundred-plus voices, the music unfolded with living, breathing surety, our sensibilities all a-tingle at being in the same space as those voices, and almost made to feel each intake of the singers’  breath. Michael Fulcher’s control of the voices’ tonal ebb and flow was masterly, the men’s stentorian “Te decet hymnus” startling by comparison with the ambiently-floated “luceat eis”, and the choir’s variation of dynamics ever leading the ear onwards, and giving us a taste of things to come.

At the Kyrie it was the soloists’ turn, each a distinctive and characterful voice, feeing their way into the performance’s particular terrain – tenor Richard Greager heroic and Italianate, the vibrato pronounced at forceful moments, but the singing stylish as always, followed by bass Rodney Macann’s imposing and expansively-phrased utterances (his conductor flashing him the first of a few “hurry-along” glances which added interest to the evening). Then there were the women, both soprano Bryony Williams and mezzo-soprano Margaret Medlyn investing their tones and phrases with theatrical intensity,  the four singers working hand-in-glove to blend their tones and achieve a balance between devotional and dramatic focus. Mention must be made of the choir’s beautiful final “Christe eleision”, Michael Fulcher securing precise and secure attack on those ethereal notes.

When the “Dies Irae” started  I wrestled with the idea of jumping the audience parapet and rushing to the unattended bass drum to deliver a few much-needed thwacks and rolls to join in with the mayhem, as I could see that timpanist Brent Stewart wasn’t going to budge from his timpani throughout. I was told afterwards that the drum was never going to be part of the scheme, and that it was put on the stage merely by rote by the organizers. Oh, it was tantalizing! – but a pity, too, because the brass ensemble punched their whiplash chords and baleful cries out with great gusto, giving the chorus plenty of ambient terror in which to hurl their frightened cries of “Dies irae, dies illa” – all we needed to complete the picture was that abyss opening up beneath, via a few cavernous rolls at the bottom of the textures, something the timpani simply didn’t have a deep enough voice for.

Still, the brass played their hearts out at the “Tuba mirum”, the offstage trumpet surviving a shaky moment to join in with the mounting awe and terror in great style. Rodney Macann’s wonderfully rhetorical delivery of “Mors stupebit” needed a bigger, blacker noise in support that the timps could give, as well, and Michael Fulcher, playing the piano at this point, and moving things along, caught his timpanist on the hop for the latter’s first entry – though Brent Stewart soon caught up. Margaret Medlyn’s “Liber scriptus” sounded as though written for her – she gave it terrific thrust at “Unde mundus judicetur”, though for some reason there was no brass just before “Judex ergo cum sedebit”, and Medlyn also had to skip a beat to accommodate her pianist at one point – a true case of “Nil inultum remanebit” indeed.

The choir was again superb with their ensuing “Dies Irae” reprise, Fulcher adroitly juggling his pianist’s and conductor’s role at this point, before the “Quid sum miser”, with soprano, mezzo and tenor blending their tones again beautifully and Bryony Williams impressing with a shining soprano ascent towards the end, nicely assured. I wanted more sheer noise from everybody (sensationalist that I am) at the beginning of “Rex tremendae” on the opening word “Rex”, though the choir’s “Salva Me’s” at the end were terrific, achieving real supplicatory grandeur! And Margaret Medlyn’s blending with Bryony Williams throughout the lovely, tender “Quarens me” and into the dramatic interchanges of “Ante diem rationis” satisfied on all counts.

I’m uncomfortably aware, at this point in the review, that to go on indulging in “writing up” my great pleasure in all aspects of the performance would produce something whose volume would be akin to ballast for an ocean-going liner! Suffice to say that the soloists continued throughout as they began, Richard Greager soothing our sensibilities in places throughout “Qui Marian absolvisti” (though he had only just enough breath for his final “Statuens in parte dextra”), and Rodney Macann properly apocalyptic in his  “Confutatis maledictis”, his phrasing again rhetorical and measured in places (he chose a lower option instead of his final ascent with “Gere curium mei finis”). In the final “Lacrymosa” Margaret Medlyn again hit the emotional spot with a searing “Huic ergo parce Deus”, before counterpointing Rodney Macann’s reprise of the melody. Choir and soloists combined to great effect, Bryony Williams soaring aloft, her supplications piercing the heart. A beautiful blending of the individual voices at “Pie Jesu, Domine” followed, then some dark-and-light exchanges between mens and women’s voices in the choir eventually came together for a heartfelt “Amen”.

The soloists had further opportunities throughout the “Offertorium”, blending beautifully and making the most of individual moments (Richard Greager unexpectedly more forthright than prayerful at “Hostias”, and Rodney Macann phrasing a little too fulsomely in places, prompting further “encouragement” by Michael Fulcher, but still making something memorable of his “Quam Olim Abrahae” utterances). Bryony Williams negotiated her treacherous but celestial evocation of St.Michael nicely, floating her notes securely downwards from on high. Throughout, the ensemble handled Verdi’s amalgam of prayerfulness and dramatic impulse with aplomb, with Fulchers’s direction vital and focused, and keeping things on the move.

Then it was the chorus’s turn with the “Sanctus” to shine, the brass splendidly festive at the beginning, the voices exuberant in reply. At Fulcher’s steady tempo the lines danced and glowed throughout, the voices having plenty of tonal variation at “Pleni sun coeli”, and wonderful attack at the bell-like “Hosannas” at the end. And the instrumentalists were spot-on with their outlandish, syncopated ascents leading to the final joyous cries to finish – a riot of energy, colour and exuberance.

No greater contrast to it all was there than that of the “Agnus Dei” – firstly, soprano and mezzo in “octave-unison”, accents and timbres well-matched, the choir intense, but warm and supplicatory in response; then a minor-key version from the same soloists, beautifully accompanied by the organ, with the soranos an octave higher in response this time – a lovely sound!  How other-worldly by comparison the “Lux aeterna” sounds! – Margaret Medlyn sounding a trifle unsteady with one of her entries, but still conveying a sense of celestial light shining forth to confront the darkness of Rodney Macann’s grim-voiced “Requiem aeternam” – the ensembled trio (with tenor Richard Greager) again mellifluously blended throughout (I missed the composer’s creepy downward chromatic wind lines at “Cum sanctis tuis”, but the singing provided ample compensation).

And so to the dramatic “Libera me”. Verdi’s original contribution to a planned requiem to honor Rossini, a project that didn’t “make it” during the composer’s lifetime (in fact, not until 1988, when a belated performance was mounted in Stuttgart). The “Libera me” is as dramatic in its own way as the “Dies Irae” part of the work, though featuring only the soprano from the quartet of soloists, along with the chorus and orchestra. It’s a wonderful showcase for both soloist and chorus, and both here were well up to the composer’s demands, supported by dexterous piano playing and closely-worked direction from Michael Fulcher. From the beginning Bryony Williams fully engaged with the music, urgent and searing at “Dum veneris judicare speculum per ignem” – though the piano didn’t match the wonderfully ghoulish bassoon tones of the original at this point, the fear and horror in Williams’ voice was palpable enough, contrasting with the choir’s previously hushed, awe-struck “Libera me, Dominum”.

The return of the “Dies Irae” blazed anew, with powerful work from chorus and brass, then some wonderfully sepulchral exchanges between the men’s voices, baleful trombones and ghostly organ tones paved the way for Bryony Williams’ haunting reprise, with the choir in attendance, of the work’s opening “Requiem” music, concluding with the soloist’s cruelly-exposed octave ascent, here triumphantly realized. But what volatility this music has! – over a “Devil’s Interval” tremolando (difficult to achieve on a piano) the soprano reiterates the fearful opening text “Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna” and awakens the fugue, which has always sounded to my ears the work’s most exacting and fearsome challenge for the chorus.

Michael Fulcher kept it “steady as she goes”, enabling the voices to negotiate even the densest figurations, as well as integrate the soloist’s adding to the textures at several points (Bryony Williams crying mercy for all humanity, here), but also building the excitement of the surging ascents of the women’s voices, before the men take their turn to initiate the forward thrust, with “Veneris, judicare, speculum….” leading up to the brass-and-timpani-supported cataclysmic climax that lacked only the bass drum for its impact to raise the roof of the Citadel. It remained for soprano and chorus to reiterate the words “Libera me”, and allow the silences that followed to proclaim the end.

For a performance such as we had just heard to come from less than two full days of workshop and rehearsal seemed near to miraculous. Very great credit to conductor Michael Fulcher and assistant director Rosemary Russell, for inspiring singers and instrumentalists to give what I imagine would have been their best endeavours, something of great value for performers and listeners alike. For everybody involved with or connected to the Choral Federation in any way, it all would have been a wonderful twenty-fifth birthday present at the end of what must have felt like an exhilarating couple of days!








































Interesting assortment of arrangements for viola ensembles from the New Zealand School of Music

Viva Viola – the next generation (from the New Zealand School of Music)

Viola: Annji Chong, Vince Hardaker, John Roxburgh, Alix Schultze, Alexa Thomson, Aiden Verity, Megan Ward

High Noon Quartet (in Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D, K 285): Michael McEwen – flute, Jun He – violin, Andrew Filmer – viola, Charles Davenport – cello

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 9 May, 12.15pm

Viola students at the New Zealand School of Music have formed this group which has given several concerts in Wellington as well as at the International Viola Conference in Sydney.

The programme listed seven players who took part but not identified in each of the trios, quartets, quintets and the final sextet; plus one, Andrew Filmer, who played in the Mozart. Their programme was, of necessity, rather odd-ball, for not a lot of music has been written for groups of violas. Thus it consisted, apart from the first piece, entirely of arrangements of music originally written for different instruments.

The first was played as written: one of Mozart’s flute quartets, which of course included only one viola. The result was probably the most generally popular piece on the programme, and it was indeed delightfully played. It was the only piece whose players were listed individually. Michael McEwen played a particularly stylish and confident flute and the three string players matched him in the feeling of gaiety that Mozart wrote into his D major quartet. The whole performance was charming, with just a few minor smudges in the last movement.

Then followed a short suite of early baroque pieces, by one Johann Groh, arranged by Australian composer Paul Groh (no note about the strange coincidence). The composer died at the beginning of the terrible Thirty Years War. Five violas performed the four small pieces that were quite characterful if unexciting; perhaps the harmonies employed in the arrangement made me suspect tuning flaws.

Dido’s Lament, ‘When I am laid in earth’ from Dido and Aeneas could have been more effective if played a bit slower to linger a little on the despair. But the piece was played very well.

An arrangement for four violas of a fugue from an organ work by Domenico Scarlatti was a thoroughly engaging piece, in which the fugue was cleverly visited by another unrelated theme that increased very significantly the complexity and pleasure derived therefrom. Bach himself might have been impressed by it, and by its playing.

A Viola Terzett (three violas) by an Israeli composer, Boaz Avni, was brought forward in the programme next: a well-honed performance of a perfectly competent piece that didn’t leave an especially deep impression.

Another minor piece arranged for viola trio by a much greater composer followed: one of Tchaikovsky’s piano pieces, Aveu passione (variously: passionné, passioné, passioni). It began on the lower strings but soon moved, rather effectively up the A string. I do not know the piano original and so cannot tell whether this might have been a good rendering of it.

The first viola led quite strongly an anonymous Galliard arranged for five violas by one Sancho Engano, but otherwise the piece seemed rather pedestrian.

And the concert finished with a curious musical skit, Bartosky, described as ‘tongue-in-cheek’,  by Julien Heichelbech, starting with the opening phrase of Bartok’s unfinished viola concerto into which were injected a couple of familiar tunes including the waltz from The Sleeping Beauty. A performance by less skilled players on You-Tube is furnished with a sudden scream in the middle which was funny and struck me as the main point of the music which in truth had little other purpose. I wonder why The Next Generation decided against it.

Though most of the music was not hugely entertaining, the playing by the various configurations of violas was in itself admirable and very agreeable (I have an especial affection for the sound of the viola), and confirmed the excellent musical level achieved by these (I assume) students.