Classical concert “crowding-out” on Sunday afternoons

Bach: Prelude and Fugue in E minor BWV 533

Partita divers sopra Ach, was soll ich Sünder machen BWV 770

Douglas Mews senior: Partita on the Ascension Hymn Salutis Humanae Sator

Bach: Chorale Prelude Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr BWV 662

Fantasia and Fugue in G minor BWV 542

Douglas Mews (organ)

St Mary of the Angels Church

30 September 2012, 2.30pm

Back when the Wellington Chamber Music Society proposed having a series of concerts on Sunday afternoons, nearly thirty years ago, a senior person within the Music Federation (as Chamber Music New Zealand was named then) predicted it wouldn’t work; Sunday concerts had been tried and weren’t well supported.  Now, not only is the WCMS series still going, but Sunday afternoons have become almost de rigeur for classical concerts.  Sunday 30 September boasted no fewer than six of them in Wellington and the Hutt Valley.

It is impossible for Middle-C to review all of these, but worse is the fact that to some extent they rely on the same audience.  Not only will audience numbers, and therefore income, be affected by this duplication (or sextuplication?), but would-be audience members are unable to derive enjoyment and pleasure from hearing all the music they would like to hear.   Some kind of collaboration needs to take place to ensure that such doubling up (I hesitate to put a six-related noun to that!) is kept to a minimum, and more use is made of week-nights – maybe early evening concerts.

It was great to hear the organ at St. Mary of the Angels, originally designed and played by the late Maxwell Fernie, my much-esteemed organ teacher.  Especially it was good to hear the great J.S. Bach, who was not only loved so well by Fernie, but the love of whose music he imparted to me and many others.  Douglas Mews is another master of the organ, and he gave the playing of Bach spirit and life.

The opening work featured a pedal part with coupling from the manuals, and a grand fugue.  The Partita that followed comprised ten variations on a choral melody.  As the programme note stated, this showed ‘a great variety in their treatment of the chorale melody’.  The simple chorale in Bach’s hands gave rise to extraordinary contrasts within as well as between variations.

The first was in two parts with some decoration, a positive mood and delicate treatment; it dealt with God’s compassion and mercy (the translated words of four chorale verses were printed in the programme, but it was not clear exactly which words related to which of the ten variations).  The second variation introduce mixture stops, giving a piquancy to the music. The third was a gorgeous piece, with a fairly fast tempo, a running rhythm and flute registration.

Number four introduced reed stops.  It gave a firm statement of the chorale, with a running lower part.  Five was another flute-dominated variation; six was in more of a grand organ style, somewhat portentous.    No. 7 featured flutes again, all in the treble, with little runs.  The next variation was in a different mood, beginning with a low flute introduction, and then a solemn diapason sound in the treble response.  There were some complex figures, including trills and mordents.

It was back to 8, 4 and 2 foot pipes for the penultimate variation, contrasted with sections on flutes; the tenth had flutes trilling on both manuals, perhaps illustrating the final words of the chorale “My salvation is assured for eternity.’  There were arpeggios and runs, with contrasts back and forth.  This was the longest of the variations and showed the greatest variety, appropriately for the ending one.

The performance was full of interest, and gave a marvellous demonstration of the abilities of the composer – and of the organist, and the instrument.

Douglas Mews’s father was an organist, composer, and Associate Professor of Music at the University of Auckland.  I well remember his radio broadcasts on matters musical, in which he spoke in his lovely Newfoundland accent on topics which he demonstrated at the piano, in a lively yet intimate style, almost as if he were sitting in one’s own room.

His Partita, written in 1987, takes a plainsong tune and varies and decorates it for the four separate verses of the hymn; the title translates ‘O Thou who man’s Redeemer art’.  The music began with high notes and chords, while subterranean pedals grumbled intermittently below.  Then there was a statement of the hymn on one manual, unaccompanied.   This was followed by a statement using reed stops, embellished with a simple, low accompaniment that featured interesting chords and again, a single line providing the decorated melody.  Unusual harmonies were created.

The second verse had an unexpectedly high treble variation, and delicious broken chords, followed by passages using reed stops.  Number three started with the melody at the octave, followed by strong chords using several ranks of pipes.  There were fast passages for both manuals and pedals, fading away to distant high notes.  The music for the fourth voice was played on diapasons, starting with a single unaccompanied line, then the melody was accompanied by dark, mysterious chords.  The work ended with a very high note together with a very low one.  The work featured very dramatic alternations between soft and loud passages.

Back to Bach, and one of his several settings of the chorale ‘Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr’.  Though not the longest of the composer’s chorale preludes on this theme, BWV 662 is perhaps the most complex.  The treatment of the melody, and its ornamentation, proved to be quite beautiful.  There was considerable use of coupled ranks in the melody line.  However, I felt that the registration employed did not allow the melody quite sufficient space of its own, i.e. the accompaniment was a little heavy, although there are important passages to be heard in the accompanying parts.

The final work was a real classic showpiece of Bach’s oevre.  It is grand and satisfying.  Douglas Mews produced a greater range of dynamic contrasts than some organists do in this Fantasia and Fugue.  The fast passages were really fast, and there were thundering pedals in the Fantasia, a movement whose counterpoint is worked out in quite an astonishing way.  Then the bright, fast fugue. Its theme, repeated in all parts, has been known to students as ‘O Ebenezer Prout [an English music scholar, analyst and theoretician of the nineteenth century] you are a funny man’.  Among the fugue’s many complications is the trilling in the right hand while the left hand and feet carry on with other material.  This made a sensational ending to the fugue, and to the recital.

Quintessential chamber music – the Aroha Quartet and Andrew Joyce

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:


and ANDREW JOYCE (‘cello)

Aroha Quartet:

Haihong Liu / Blythe Press (violins)

Zhongxian Jin (viola) / Robert Ibell (‘cello)

with Andrew Joyce (‘cello)

HAYDN – String Quartet in B-flat Op.76 No.4 (“Sunrise”)

TORNYAI – Streichquintett (2010)

SCHUBERT – String Quintet in C, D.956

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Sunday 30th September 2012

I like to think I’ve long gone past the days when I would regard work x, y or z as my “favorite” symphony, concerto, sonata or whatever. Now,  whenever I’m asked about my “favorite” whatever-it-is, I go into a “gripped by bewilderment” state, born largely of the sheer range and scope of the repertoire. I admit I take refuge sometimes behind the rather glib reply that it’s either the last work I heard performed, or else the next one I’m GOING to hear.

But if I was honest I would confess that, secretly, there’s a list of “desert island” works stashed away in my recesses, which I’d have recourse to at crisis-points. And, ever since I first encountered the music on a recording (made half-a-century ago by the Amadeus Quartet and ‘cellist William Pleeth) I’ve not been able to imagine life without being able to hear at regular intervals Schubert’s astounding String Quintet, written in the last year of his life (1828), and expressing worlds of deep emotion in the face of death.

To be present at a live performance – any decently-played live performance – of such a work as the Schubert could be counted as a privilege of human existence. But to have the music recreated and projected into our listening-spaces with such an irresistible amalgam of verve and deep feeling as the Aroha Quartet and Andrew Joyce so brilliantly did at St.Mark’s in Woburn recently was to be given a treasurable gift which won’t easily be forgotten.

It wasn’t merely the Quintet which gave pleasure in these players’ capable hands – earlier in the concert we had the Aroha Quartet alone playing a work by the acknowledged “father” of the string quartet, Josef Haydn, followed by an intriguing and ear-catching item written for the Quartet in 2010 by a Hungarian composer Péter Tornyai, actually a Quintet written with reference to Schubert’s work for the same instrumental combination (featuring two ‘cellos).

So with a programme that promised a good deal of interest and enjoyment, the players took their places and set off with the Haydn “Sunrise” Quartet (Op.76 No.4), a work named for its very opening, featuring a long-breathed melody from the first violin ascending over a gently-sustained chord played by the other instruments. The opening’s richly mellow tones underlined the poetry of the “sunrise” evocation (evidently a publisher’s, rather than the composer’s, nickname for the work), pointing the contrast with the more earthy energies of the allegro con spirito that followed (and the presence of the repeat was a further joy!).

The performance brought out the development’s minor-key “spookiness” beautifully – some of the agitated figures resulted in an edgy phrase or two from the first violin, struggling to maintain intonation, not altogether inappropriate in such a context. But what a homecoming the players made of the recapitulation, each contributing vibrant solo lines to the argument and relishing the composer’s sometimes playful, sometimes wistful variations of his material.

The group’s wonderfully rapt playing of the Adagio I found uplifting, in contrast to the programme-note’s association of the movement with lack of solace and corresponding despair – the few minor-key phrases at the movements end were for me but momentary shadows cast over a largely peaceful soundscape, in this performance. The sprightly, if somewhat droll-faced Menuetto featured a lovely “drone” from the ‘cello carried over from the dance and into the Trio, the players  beautifully nudging those gently-syncopated rhythms taking time-out from the movement’s more vigorous opening.

The finale features one of those tunes that sounds, throughout the first couple of measures, as though it could equally be by Mozart, though Haydn, as ever, brings his own distinctive quirkiness to the proceedings with lurching grace-notes in places, a more “Hungarian-sounding” minor-key variation, and some wonderfully outlandish acccelerandi towards the end of the movement – the Arohas made the most of it all, to our great delight and tantalizing, edge-of-seat excitement.

Péter Tornyai’s Quintet, brief in duration but concentrated and profound in effect, required players to retune their instruments (a technique called “scordatura”, literally “mis-tuning”, but used by composers to make some fingerings of notation possible or create unconventional timbres). Here the strings were re-tuned harmonically and the players required to use open strings to realize the work. ‘Cellist Robert Ibell spoke beforehand about the work’s affinities with the Schubert Quintet, and the group played a number of exerpts which both introduced us to the composer’s particular sound-world and made motivic connections with the Schubert.

The result in performance was decidedly eerie – I could imagine ambient sounds coming from giant machinery slowly turning, or an “Aeolian” process of wind activating different kinds of structures. The emotional effect for me was one of solitude and near-muted attempts at “connection”, via either speech or musical figuration – both sounds and gestures seemed to inhabit a profoundly refracted, if fascinating world, whose language implied rather than specified things – I was reminded of Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush” whose final words always impart some comfort when understanding is hindered  – ” That I could think there trembled through / his happy goodnight air / Some Blessed Hope whereof he knew / and I was unaware….”

After the interval, Andrew Joyce introduced the Schubert, drawing our attention to the unconventional instrumentation – unlike most string quintets which add a second viola to a normal quartet, Schubert instead uses a second ‘cello, darkening and deepening the textures and resonances. Whether it was that Tornyai’s work had sharpened our listening sensibilities, or that these players would have captured our attentions in any context, or both, the sounds had a sharply-honed, arresting quality from the very first note, the harmonic “lurch” near the top of the crescendo almost orchestral in effect. Thereafter, the players kept their accents and phrasings focused and buoyant throughout the exposition (and the repeat!), relying on clean attack and intensity of tone, bringing out the music’s lyricism rather than its disquiet, at this stage.

More trenchant playing came with the development, the violins digging into their dotted figures, while being stalked by the lower strings, the sequence followed by beautiful duetting in thirds from viola and ‘cello, and an equally captivating singing line from the violin. A later reprise of the “stalking” passage for the lower strings here had a “creepiness” about it, perhaps heightened by the violin triplets above, “in flight” as it were, the playing immediate and visceral in effect. Then came the downward plunge at the end of the sequence, relieving us of some anxiety for the moment by returning us, with bated breath, to the exposition, and to “known’ territories.

As with places in the first movement, the great Adagio wasn’t over-milked for emotion at the outset – the players kept things moving, the tones intense but not over-laden or bowed down with grief, giving us the softest pizzicati exchanges imaginable at first, and gradually focusing their “sting” before allowing the hurt to retreat once again. The sudden, shockingly nightmarish irruption mid-movement of agonized agitation had a ragged initial moment which mattered not a whit in context, the raw intensities taking over and raging throughout the middle section. Amid some ebb-and-flow towards the end an uneasy peace was restored, the music looking for solace and comfort, the pizzicati once again making every note, be it gentle or rapier-like, really tell, sweetness mixed with sorrow and resignation – a great achievement by the players.

With the scherzo came terrific attack, the ensemble not always perfect, but,more importantly, the energy and desperation of the opening simply staggering! Those off-beat szforzandi bit hard, and the chromatic slurrings at the end of the sequence made a properly vertiginous effect, as did the sudden lurch into the repeat. All of which the players held fast with the onset of the trio, a veritable “well of the world’s deep sorrow”, its realization here so heartfelt and concentrated as to draw the listener into its essential stillness. No let-up with the reprise of the opening – if anything, the notes flew off the ends of the bows with even more desperation than before.

I loved the great stride of the finale’s opening, here, emphatic gesturing finely judged, and moments of relative repose given their due. There was lovely, skillful work from the first violin, here, plenty of skitterish figuration to integrate into the texture, cheel-by-jowl with the tenderest expression. The ‘cellos duetted songfully, counterpointed by haunting wind-blown figurations from both violins, while the mid-movement canonic passages were delivered with great gusto, by contrast. Only in the brief hiatus before the final gathering of energies did there seem a moment’s uncertainty among the ensemble, an equivocal impulse whose danger was grasped as one by the players and tossed into the desperate exhilaration of the final stampede towards impending destiny, the composer shaking his fist at fate right to the last bar.

A landmark performance? – I think so. I couldn’t really hope to hear a more engaging, more deeply touching, and more understanding reading of this incredible music. Very great honour to the Aroha Quartet and to Andrew Joyce for giving us such a memorable experience.














Diverting variety of opera scenes in New Zealand School of Music’s annual opera fiesta

A Night at the Opera from the New Zealand School of Music

A review jointly composed by Rosemary Collier and Lindis Taylor who each attended one of the performances 

Eighteen singers accompanied by Mark Dorrell – piano;

A list of singers and the scenes in which they sang will be found at the end

Scenes from:
Mozart: The Magic Flute, The Impresario, The Marriage of Figaro;
A Hand of Bridge
by Barber;
Anna Bolena
by Donizetti;
Princess Ida
by Sullivan;
La Bohème
by Puccini;
Die Fledermausby J Strauss II

Director: Jacqueline Coats;
Vocal coach: Lisa Harper-Brown;
Tutors: Richard Greager, Margaret Medlyn, Jenny Wollerman

Adam Concert Room, Kelburn Campus

Friday 28 and Saturday 29 September at 7.30pm

This was a concert of opera scenes, arias and ensembles, a stand-in for the traditional opera production that the school of music has been mounting, with few exceptions, since the 1970s. In fact, considering that the former Polytechnic Conservatorium used also to stage an opera every year, Wellington almost always enjoyed two student productions a year, a valuable addition to the offerings (two or three a year) from the then Wellington City Opera.

The performance space was large with the audience spread round three sides and a huge white screen backdrop covering the chamber organ and the entrance.

Staging was minimal and with only the piano to support them, the singers were certainly more exposed than they would be in a full production. That probably made it harder to create a satisfactory depiction of a fairy-tale scene like Tamino’s meeting with the Three Ladies and Papageno, even with the brave attempt at projecting shadow puppets on the screen behind the performers.

The piano was played by Mark Dorrell who has made a deep impression in the city as an accompanist for singers as well as conductor of the Orpheus Choir. He drew sounds from the piano that seemed as if they had been written by the composer, conjuring such a variety of colours that I scarcely missed the presence of an orchestra.

Some of the singers in both The Magic Flute and The Impresario displayed some lack of ease in their performances, though most threw themselves into the roles with huge energy. Any weaknesses in the first half, however, were probably on account of the demands of Mozart which tended to test them both in terms of vocal refinement and variety, as well as being called on to express emotions of greater subtlety. Thus those same singers often seemed in slightly better control of their voices in later appearances.

Some of the male singers seemed unaware of the need to sing the words as though for the first time, in order to project the meaning and the drama.

The costumes and wigs of the Three Ladies (Christina Orgias, Awhina Waimotu and Rebekah Giesbers) were amazing, suggesting Valkyries perhaps, and they sang with Wagnerian strength. After one has become familiar with the Flute, any early impression that the roles of the Three Ladies are secondary is dispelled: not only are they vocally demanding but each needs individual characterisation, and the three singers showed a lively awareness of that, even if ultimate polish proved a bit further off.

The performances by Jesse Stratford and Rory Sweeney as Tamino and Papageno also showed that combination of good understanding and an awareness of what they aspire to.

The famous vocal duel between the two sopranos in Mozart’s one-act The Impresario (Der Schauspieldirektor) was a surprising offering, a particularly challenging scene to bring off with the necessary amount of hilarity.

The two roles are, of course, quite scary, and there was no concealing that in Esther Leefe’s and Tess Robinson’s daring and vivid performances of Madame Silberklang (Silverklang) and Miss ‘Sweetsong’ (Mlle Herz in the original), there were weaknesses which the nature of their ego-driven roles actually accommodated. In fact, the only other sung role in the original is that of Vogelsang, the company tenor who attempts the mediation. Here, that singing role was ascribed to ‘Eiler’, the banker, who, in the original, takes a non-singing role, threatening in the end to pull the funding in order to force the two vying singers to back off. The other spoken role is that of Frank, the impresario.

Esther Leefe, as the aging prima donna, wore a blond wig and carefully failed in her repeated attempts at top Fs. Tess Robinson’s voice was a little unsteady at the start but both did a great job. In the role of ‘Eiler’, William McElwee’s vocal colouring was a bit under-developed, but he showed more accomplishment in his later appearance as Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus, with fine comic flair.

The scene from Figaro was from the riotous second act in the Countess’s room from the point where Cherubino has jumped from the window as the Count and Countess return to break into the wardrobe where the Count thinks and the Countess fears that they’ll find him, through to the entrance of Basilio, Bartolo and Marcellina. Though all were costumed in period, the lack of stage amenities demanded more vigorous employment of audience imagination.

Angélique MacDonald’s Countess was visually and histrionically attractive though initially she was a little unstable in pitch. Robert Gray, the Count, didn’t really display the fury and frustration that is his hallmark in the entire scene, though his vocal quality is agreeable. Amelia Ryman created a spirited Susanna and Figaro (Christian Thurston), in a plum, velvet jacket, took his role excellently. Antonio the gardener was sung by Daniel Dew, who looked and delivered in perfect style.

The scene ends after the entrance of Basilio, Bartolo and Marcellina (respectively: William McElwee, Jamie Henare and Rebekah Giesbers) who reveal the earlier marriage contract between Marcellina and Figaro; their smaller roles at this point were very effective. The whole extended scene was carried of with as much wit and delight as could reasonably be expected.

After the interval Awhina Waimotu, Christina Orgias, Fredi Jones and Rory Sweeney entered chatting in good American accents before sitting down to a round of Bridge. It must be the shortest opera in the repertoire, allowing just one major monologue each to the four players, revealing their inner lives and suggesting two hopeless marriages, masked by social conventions. The performances were varied and variable, from the confident Bill of Fredi Jones to the pathetic lament of Geraldine excellently sung by Awhina Waimotu. In between were the slightly self-conscious performance by Rory Sweeney as David, dreaming of becoming rich, and the empty-headed Sally, whose childish longing for a fancy hat almost made us feel sorry for her.

The great scene from Donizetti’s Anna Bolena in which the name role (Amelia Ryman) and the woman who will be Henry VIII’s next wife, Jane Seymour (Angélique MacDonald), was a dramatic high-point of the evening. It rests as one of the pinnacles of the bel canto era, and one of the great scenes in opera. The Queen’s long solo grew in intensity and credibility as it unfolded, while Seymour’s responding monologue well displayed their entrapment. They were splendidly costumed, sang strongly if not with the ultimate degree of polish and accuracy, but compensating with the total conviction with which they invested their performances.

The scene from Princess Ida, one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s lesser operettas, did not much amuse me [comments in this paragraph are Lindis’s], though the three men (Daniel Dew, Jesse Stratford and Jamie Henare) carried it off with real flair, exposing individual delineation clearly, though they share the age’s ridiculously passé attitudes to women’s higher education. So the fundamental silliness of the piece rather got in the way of enjoying the quite well-executed nonsense.

The last scene of Act I of La Bohème gave two of the most experienced voice students a great opportunity: Tom Atkins as Rodolfo and Isabella Moore as Mimi created near professional performances, accurate in pitch, well phrased and finely detailed in timbre and dynamics. We heard both the great arias and the duet ‘O soave fanciulla’ splendidly sung, as well as the calls from the other three students from the street below, all of whom had featured in earlier excerpts.

The evening ended with the last phase of Prince Orlofsky’s party in Act II of Die Fledermaus. As with all the previous scenes, it was sung in the original language, with spoken parts in English, though the final ensemble was also in English. Imogen Thirlwall proved a most accomplished Rosalinde and Fredi Jones allowed himself to be gently disgraced in a convincing performance  of Eisenstein; we noticed earlier William McElwee’s well portrayed role as Orlofsky. All eighteen singers came to the party for the final ensemble which might have been one of the few places where the Straussian delight could have been heightened even more with the support of an orchestra.

The singers and their scenes:

Christina Orgias          Flute                Bridge
Awhina Waimotu        Flute                Bridge
Rebekah Giesbers       Flute                Figaro
Jesse Stratford            Flute                Ida
Rory Sweeney             Flute                Bridge
Esther Leefe                Impresario
Tess Robinson             Impresario
William McElwee       Impresario       Figaro              Fledermaus
Amelia Ryman            Figaro              Bolena
Robert Gray                Figaro
Angélique MacDonald Figaro            Bolena
Christian Thurston      Figaro              Bohème
Daniel Dew                 Figaro              Ida
Jamie Henare               Figaro              Ida                   Bohème
Fredi Jones                  Bridge             Bohème           Fledermaus
Tom Atkins                 Bohème (Rodolfo) I
sabella Moore            Bohème (Mimi)
Imogen Thirlwall         Fledermaus (Rosalinde)

Cantatas in their proper place at St.Paul’s Lutheran


Cantata BWV 47 “Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden”

Rebecca Woodmore (soprano) / Jenny Potter (alto) / John Beaglehole (tenor)

Timothy Hurd (bass)

Richard Apperley (director)

Ensemble Abendmusik (leader: Martin Jaenecke)

St.Paul’s Lutheran Church,

King St., Mt.Cook, Wellington

Saturday 29th September, 2012

In presenting performances of JS Bach’s sacred cantatas in their original liturgical settings, Wellington’s St.Paul’s Lutheran Church is unique in New Zealand. The church is part of a network of world-wide Lutheran worship offering this same ministry, including the composer’s own St.Thomas’s Church in Leipzig.

This practice was established at St.Paul’s in 2007 by Mark Whitfield,  President of the Lutheran Church in New Zealand, and Pastor at St.Paul’s in Wellington since 2001.  Prior to this he had taken up a scholarship to complete a Master of Sacred Music Degree at Luther Seminary and St.Olaf College, Minnesota, where he majored in organ (his skill on the instrument evident at various times during the service in which this cantata was presented).

Collaborating in this ongoing enterprise are well-known choral conductor and organ recitalist Richard Apperley, and a group of singers and instrumentalists who perform under the name of Ensemble Abendmusik – the group’s personnel varies from occasion to occasion, depending upon the performers’ availability and according to the requirements of each cantata. This is the second such performance I’ve attended, and the singers and some of the musicians were different on each occasion.

The church itself is smallish, and has a chamber organ, though its vaulted ceiling does give the sounds of the music some resonating-space.  The first time I attended one of these services the day outside was gloomy and grey, and something of the oppressive atmosphere seemed to colour the proceedings – however, my recent experience had a completely different ambience, everything warm and glowing  from the late afternoon sunbeams which had found their way inside the space, so that I felt a kind of sacramental ‘illuminating from within” this time round.

The service in each case “framed” the cantata performance, choral singing preceded by chorale preludes played on the organ, and liturgical prayers, responses and chanting, and followed by some preaching, readings from the Bible and prayer and singing. The congregation was asked not to “applaud” the music presentations during the course of the service, keeping the focus throughout on the overall service and its various acts of worship, of which the cantata performance was an integral part.

When it came to the cantata, following the Epistle and Gospel readings and a congregational “Magnificat” composed by a sixteenth-century composer Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi, the music seemed to flow from the performers as part of a continuum, rather than resemble something brought in for the occasion. The work was BWV 47 Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden (Whoever exalts himself will be abased) – and its instrumental opening brought forth playing whose sweet tones and simple, direct focus seemed to draw both strength and beauty from its purpose as much as its intrinsic value. The quartet of soloists, though varying in strength and projection of voices, made the most of the opening fugal chorus, with only a slight uncertainty of attack at the harmonic lurch into the movement’s coda.

The soprano soloist, Rebecca Woodmore, I liked very much indeed – her aria featured strong, direct vocalizing, and graceful handling of the long lines. Martin Jaenecke’s solo violin obbligato supported her truly almost all the way, perhaps tiring a little during the reprise after the aria’s central, more agitated section, where the intonation was less consistent. During this vigorous middle section, the soprano caught the sense of anger and agitation in her singing, even if some of the figurations were blurred at speed – still, the energy and bite made a telling contrast with the aria’s outer sections.

Bass Timothy Hurd relished the juicy admonitions of his recitative text, with references to “Du, armer Wurm”, giving the delivery proper force and colour. His aria, Jesu, beuge douche mien Herz (Jesus, bow down my heart) was a bit more effortful, the voice having to be pushed through the lines, with breath occasionally an issue – though he managed to inflect the text tellingly in places, while keeping his tones true and focused. I wished we had heard a little more of the alto and tenor as well, but the work had no “solos” for either of them.

Instrumental lines (Jane Young’s ‘cello work a particular delight) nicely augmented the work of soloists and chorus, the final chorale a case in point, which here received a properly dignified rendition – one had a real sense of Bach’s work as music that contributed to a community’s expression of spiritual strength and determination. At the end of the service we were able to express our appreciation of the performers, which also included the auspices of the church and its ministers. The result of all of these people’s efforts seemed to me something eminently rich and worthwhile.








Viva Viola at Lower Hutt campaigns for full recognition with both hits and misses

Viola Viva: The Next Generation (John Roxburgh, Alexa Thomson, Megan Ward and Vincent Hardaker)

Music by Bach, Handel, Bizet and Saint-Saëns

St Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 26 September, 12.15pm

I find that I heard other embodiments of this ensemble last year, and a solo performance by Megan Ward in June. Previous experiences entertained me more than this one did, though there were things, such as the arrangement of Handel’s Fireworks Music, that I thought came off splendidly.

Almost all music for a group like this must be arrangements, and so there is the risk of running foul of the strong feeling in the more severe quarters of the classical music world that such things are bastards, disreputable, to be deplored. Most generalisations are dishonest and foolish and so is that. All arrangements must be taken on their merits and listened to objectively, and with one’s emotional antennae switched on.

I entered just after the Overture to the Royal Fireworks Music had begun and loved the depth of sonority achieved by these instruments; while their sound was quite different from that of woodwinds and brass, it produced a similar effect, of celebration and energy, adorned with plenty of variety, notably when the pensive middle section came. In La Paix (the peace the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle at the end of the War of the Austrian Succession – succession of deceased despotic European monarchs was a bountiful source of conflict and profligate slaughter in the 18th century) I found myself wanting a little more sustained tone, but the entire three movements generally made a persuasive case for the enterprise.

The disposition of players changed democratically with each new piece, allowing each to be heard in the more prominent parts. I’ve always been fond of the Minuetto from Bizet’s incidental music for Daudet’s play, L’arlésienne; it seemed to have been much more played in the 1950s when my musical affections were at their most susceptible. But I couldn’t find it in my heart to fall for this arrangement the colours of which seem to matter more than they did in the Handel; the middle section – say, the Trio – sounded rather cloddish.

The Bach Fugue in C major – oddly truncated from its Prelude – seemed to do them no favours for it was so brief that I found it hard to become involved with, and the playing, capable as it was, simply did not persuade me. Perhaps its performance needs careful rethinking and really thoughtful repetition.

The next piece was an arrangement of ‘Lascia ch’io panga’ from Handel’s Rinaldo. Again I had misgivings about is success as a translation, and didn’t feel that it has bedded into its new habitation.

The last offering was Saint-Saëns’s tone poem Danse Macabre. John Roxburgh took his turn leading this, playing a good deal of the devilish bravura which was fit for a Paganini, or at least a Wieniawski as it might have been when it was written in 1873. It actually began life as a song setting of an eponymous poem by Henry Cazalis, and the composer did separate arrangements for piano solo and small orchestra before coming to its orchestral full dress.

So there is plenty of authority for adaptations here, and this one worked well, though one must be forgiven for missing the special effects such as xylophone. Its great popularity has, naturally, caused it to be dismissed by the more severe of music critics, but it is nevertheless a major work of its kind, one of the first after Liszt’s invention of the symphonic poem with its literary, artistic or philosophical references.

The players did well with the sul ponticello effects, and other departures from routine techniques. If intonation and ensemble were occasionally a fraction under perfect, its atmosphere was splendidly conjured right through to the beautifully protracted dying phrases, and the tonal quality both individually and in choruses, was often excellent, beguiling the ear.

This ensemble, and the personal variations on it that seem to occur, strike me as having a good future both in the specialised viola world and in the sphere of general classical music.


Amici Ensemble in fine performances at Waikanae

The Amici Ensemble (Donald Armstrong and Cristina Vaszilcsin, violins; Julia Joyce, viola; Rowan Prior, cello; Diedre Irons, piano)
(Waikanae Music Society)

Enescu: Sérénade Lointaine (trio for piano, violin and cello)
Mahler: Piano quartet in A minor
Mozart: Piano quartet in G minor, K.478 (allegro; andante; rondo)
Brahms: Piano quintet in F minor, Op.34 (allegro non troppo; andante, un poco adagio; scherzo: allegro; finale: poco sostenuto, allegro non troppo)

Waikanae Memorial Hall

23 September 2012, 2.30pm

An interesting programme performed by fine musicians is always an attraction – even on a gorgeously sunny, warm day in spring.

The Amici Ensemble is a variable feast, under the leadership of Donald Armstrong.  This time it comprised a piano quintet, but the music played varied from three-strong, through four-strong to five-strong (no pun intended, Donald!)

George Enescu’s brief Serenade was a tuneful work, well worth an airing, while the other shorter work, Mahler’s quartet, was a surprise in that it was little like Mahler’s later music.  Nonetheless, it was a very attractive work, Schubertian in parts.  It was written when Mahler was 16 to 18 years of age, and is incomplete.

The Mozart piano quartet chosen, one of only two the composer wrote, was a familiar work.  As the programme note stated, ‘here the piano takes an equal role rather being simply a continuo instrument discreetly backing the strings.’  This gave full rein to Diedre Irons’s pianistic abilities; her performance was bright and lively.  However, some inaccuracies in the lower register, and a general lack of sparkle in the strings meant the quartet had less impact than it should have.

After the interval, Brahms’s monumental quintet.  It features an exciting opening, followed by lovely contrasts, with plenty of power.  All the instruments displayed marvellous sonorities.  Again, there were a few inaccuracies – not severe, but too many.  Phrasing was beautifully done.  A slow passage in the first movement produced attractive timbres.  As usual, in this quintet Brahms extracts the maximum from his material.

The second movement is serene, but with plenty of melodic and harmonic interest, and dense textures at times.  The scherzo has a spooky start, before the grand march commences.  The movement becomes tempestuous with the fugato; the tone of the instruments was not always coherent.

The finale features another quiet opening leading up to a dramatic sequence of syncopated entries for the strings.  A gypsy melody begins on cello, then is taken up the other players.  Many contrasted passages in a powerful development are solemn and tension-filled.  There is passion towards the end, then a tragically gentle mood before a robust finish.

A well-filled hall appreciated the playing of an interesting and satisfying chamber music programme from the players, who are all, apart from Diedre Irons, members of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.


Zephyr – breaths of fresh air

Chamber Music New Zealand

Zephyr Wind Quintet

Music by Elliott Carter, Gareth Farr, Carl Nielsen, Darius Milhaud, Ross Edwards, Gyorgy Ligeti

Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 23rd September

What a joy when one literally stumbles across a piece of music that then becomes a favorite! I didn’t even know wind quintets existed when, way back during my formative music explorations in the Palmerston North Public Library (what an Aladdin’s Cave of a place!) I chanced across an LP recording by the Philadelphia Wind Quintet. “Nielsen”, it said on the cover – and “Barber” as well, if I remember rightly. The Nielsen was, of course, that composer’s Wind Quintet, the very first music of his I ever heard – and I loved it right from that first bassoon phrase, with those chirpy, out-of-doors responses tumbling over one another, as if for the sheer joy of being breathed into life and set in motion.

Since then, I’ve acquired several wonderful recordings of the Nielsen, my favorite being the Melos Ensemble’s characterful 1960s performance for EMI – but live performances have, until this concert , eluded me. I can imagine being more than content had the Zephyr Wind Quintet played only the Nielsen work at their recent concert, as it was such a benediction to hear it “live”, let alone played so magnificently by the ensemble.

However, it was my good fortune to have the work “framed” in concert by a number of attractive and contrasting pieces by other composers , who also seemed to know a thing or two about writing for winds. Beginning the program was a work by Elliott Carter, the music having a similar kind of instant appeal to that of Nielsen’s – perhaps busier and more densely-textured, but  just as inclined towards lyricism. As with Nielsen, a droll sense of humour was never far away, with strongly-characterised episodes in the music used as “foils” for one another, deep tolling bells at one point enlivened by birdsong, with subsequent wind-flurries setting the cat among the pigeons.

A second part, allegro giocoso, clicked some even higher voltage-switches on, setting in motion rapid-fire momentums which delighted the ear, whether settling upon an individual instrumentals line or registering the contrapuntal dovetailing. The music argument seemed to intensify, as if a lot of people at a dinner-party were shouting at one another, trying to make individual points at all costs, before the host, with a shrug of the shoulders and a disarming word or two, defused the argument and bade everybody goodnight.

Gareth Farr’s Mad Little Machine which followed was a Zephyr commission for the group’s current tour – aptly titled, the piece brought out bags of “attitude” from each of the instruments, expressed both in individual and concerted ways. Right from the opening cavortings of the bass clarinet, which both astonished and alarmed everybody else, there was energy and bite as flourishes of impulse from all the different voices were tossed between the group.

The near-constant motoric, syncopated rhythms generated crackling energy, unexpectedly allowing a”luftpause” mid-work before setting off again even more mad-headedly, the figurations wild and angular, and the combinations amusingly bizarre  (piccolo and bass clarinet amusingly “spooking” one another, at one point). It all came to an abrupt end, not with a bang, but with a squeak, to everybody’s great delight. Wonderful, too, that the composer was present, applauding the performance as enthusiastically as HE himself was being applauded!

After these exertions, the Nielsen work seemed to come from another world, lyrical, spacious and bracingly “outdoor” in feeling. The composer wrote the quintet for the Copenhagen Quintet, with the individual characteristics of each player very much in mind. In fact, had he lived longer, Nielsen might have completed his promise of writing individual concerti for each of the Quintet members – as it was he finished only two of the larger works, for flute and then for clarinet. We have left only the Quintet to give us the barest of glimpses of the remaining three players’ personalities.

Apart from one or two vagrant notes and a slight ensemble hesitation when beginning the final grand statement of the first movement’s ascending opening melody, the playing was spick-and-span, flexible and alert, throughout the work. The performance, I felt, concentrated more on the music’s fluency than its occasional quirkiness and pungency – those evidently characterful and volatile personalities who helped inspire the work were mostly on their best behaviour this time round.

I wondered whether the Town Hall acoustic told against some of the work’s immediacy, the sounds integrated almost to a fault, so that we were denied some of the spikiness of Nielsen’s writing. Beautiful details, such as Ed Allen’s first solo in the opening movement, were wonderful, but the strands of colour and texture in ensemble seemed “tamed” in those voluminous spaces. In a smaller hall we would undoubtedly have enjoyed a more flavoursome sound-picture.

The finale, with its frequent solo and duo passages, here most tellingly enabled the players to be themselves, the “wandering in the wilderness opening” featuring plenty of wind-blown freedom and acerbic calling-to-order, while each of the variations following the beautiful hymn-tune (Nielsen’s own setting of a chorale “My Jesus, let my heart receive thee”) created its own intense colour-and-texture experience to wonderfully expressive effect. This tune first appeared in a sing-song 3/4 rhythm, but its reprise at the very end was as a grandly processional 4/4, at once celebratory and humbly moving. (The interval, immediately afterwards, allowed me and others plenty of space to savour it all further!).

Back afterwards for Darius Milhaud’s entertaining suite La Cheminée du roi René, a seven-movement work originally written for a film about an historical ruler from Milhaud’s own Aix-en-Provence, one which brought out the composer’s own piquant response to evocations of earlier times. The movements were all very short, but each made a distinct impression of specific things, processionals, morning songs, entertainers and entertainments. The musicians successfully captured and brought to life these charming vignettes, concluding with a Madrigal-nocturne, whose dream-like rituals gradually faded with the sounds of ancient fanfares at the end.

Strange to hear echoes of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony in Ross Edwards’ work Incantations, with calls sounding across a crepuscular landscape at the outset. Wild horn-whoops and all, the atmosphere captured by the players set the scene for the second movement’s insect-like molto animato, one whose repetitive figurations tightened into a kind of naturalistic ritual chant, to almost claustrophobic effect – whew! As for the finale, the sounds seemed almost filmic to me, primordial at the start, then developing mesmeric rhythms that gathered up hymn-like strands whose oscillations continued in my brain long after the actual music had stopped.

Rounding off this concert’s wonderfully discursive explorings were Gyorgy Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles, pieces which belie their “trifles” classification. The pieces are arrangements by the composer of movements from a series of piano pieces called Musica ricercata, which he wrote in the 1950s. Listening to Zephyr’s brilliantly vivid realizations of this music I found it hard to imagine the pieces in any other guise than for wind ensemble. From the “Keystone Cops-like” opening movement, through the ebb and flow of lament, folksong and energetic dance, Ligeti’s pieces whirled us through whole worlds in microcosm, leaving us almost as breathless as the players by the time the final Vivace capriccioso had “done its dash”.

We were a none-too-sizeable audience when put in the relative vastness of the Town Hall, but we roared and clapped our appreciation as whole-heartedly as we could at the end – a great concert experience!





Litton and Hough combine with the NZSO to present an exhilarating concert

Andrew Litton conducts the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra with pianist Stephen Hough

Anthony Ritchie:  Diary of a Madman: Dedication to Shostakovich; Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No 5 in F, Op 103; Shostakovich: Symphony No 5 in D minor, Op 47

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 22 September, 8pm

To label this concert ‘Around the world in 80 minutes’ is to draw a rather long bow: every concert that includes both a New Zealand and a European work could be so called. From Egypt to Russia is not far, and Ritchie’s piece is really from Russia, after all….

But Wellington’s astute concert-goers were not misled: it was an excellent concert both on account of the programme and the performers.

Anthony Ritchie is one of New Zealand’s best and most successful composers; his arrestingly named Diary of a Madman proved a splendid piece, a sort of small-scale ‘concerto for orchestra’; it was originally written for the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, to celebrate the centenary of Shostakovich’s birth in 1906. Its name derived from Shostakovich’s admiration for playwright and short story writer Gogol. He had set the story The Nose and the play, The Gamblers, as operas; another Gogol story was called Diary of a Madman, which uses the formula of ‘laughter through tears’, a formula that is very often present in Shostakovich, Ritchie writes.

It employed a large number of Shostakovich’s tunes from a variety of works, many of which would have been familiar to many of the audience, though not all easy to name. So one way to pass the time was to wrack the brains to identify each one; another pastime was to admire the orchestration of which Ritchie is a master, using xylophone or tuba or side drum with flair and wit, each element seeming to reflect something of the character of the theme involved; and also to become increasingly impressed by the organic structural feeling that accompanied its unfolding.

He hardly had to tell us, in the programme notes, that he had put them together in a process of free-association; so an attempt to find logical associations would clearly be nonsense.  It began in comfortable tonal language and didn’t deviate greatly from its idiom as music to divert and entertain.

It deserves to become a staple repertoire piece.

Stephen Hough seems to be the only great pianist who allows us to hear Saint-Saëns’s piano concertos. Years ago he played No 4; now No 5, which the composer wrote in 1896 in Luxor and Cairo, making use of some local tunes and thus acquiring the nick-name Egyptian (unlike some composers, he was not starved of melodic invention however). But the extent of this material is slight and I hear more touches of Spain and even the Balkans in this concerto.

Hough made his early reputation in certain very conspicuously virtuosic works like the Hummel piano concertos, but his playing has always revealed an exquisite poetic quality and a refined taste that the flights of unbelievable spectacle merely seem to enhance in a perfectly modest way.

On Saturday evening, he gave a spectacular demonstration of the way in which he has persuaded millions of the value of certain neglected music, particularly the much scorned Romantic composers of the second class. He has shown that the main impediment has been the belief that the music was meretricious and shallow, a view that sprang from the influence of the post Romantic and atonal schools. But it can all be blown away by a player’s musical integrity and demonstrative sincerity. Each movement has a strong individual character, with constantly changing handling of the ideas, set in delightful sunny visions.

Saint-Saëns never pretends to teutonic profundity; he can never be mistaken for Beethoven or Bruckner, and though some of his music, for example most of his solo piano works, can be called trite, far more of his music than gets played deserves to be well known. There is nothing predictable or formulaic in this concerto; its progress, as it happens, seems inevitable; nowhere more conspicuous than in the middle Andante movement, where a distinctly, perhaps north African, atmosphere appears, but which proceeds in the most unpredictable ways, portentous, then mysterious, sentimental moments alternating with deep sonorities.

The only common link between that and the Shostakovich was the number 5.

This great symphony responded to Andrew Litton’s attention just as powerfully and colourfully as had the two previous works. If one’s attention had been monopolised rather by the piano, it was now easy to be impressed by the smooth beauty of string playing, the sense of unease that was soon created, the touches of sardonic martial music, ethereal touches from the celeste or harp and the surprising entry by the piano.

At the back of one’s mind, as one listens to this symphony, is always the still unresolved question about Shostakovich’s intentions: how much do we rely on Volkov’s account of its bitter anti-Stalinist subtext, that the words attached to the score were merely to save his skin; or is it expressing a more ambivalent picture of Soviet conditions?

Nevertheless, this performance left no room for doubt about the orchestra’s ability to rouse powerful emotional responses to the music itself; it was perhaps the kind of concert that the NZSO ought to present more frequently.



Wellington Community Choir – delights both human and animal


Wellington Community Choir

Directed by Julian Raphael and Carol Shortis

Diedre Irons (piano) / Simon Burgess (bass) / Sarah Hoskyns (mandolin)

Nino Raphael (guitar) / Ukulele Ensemble

Opera House, Wellington

Friday, 21st September, 2012

Two years ago, I spent a rollicking, richly-conceived evening in the Town Hall with the Wellington Community Choir, on the occasion of its 5th birthday. This latest concert, in the very different surroundings of the Opera House had a separate and distinct buzz of its own, the contrast underlined by a photograph from that memorable, multi-layered 2010 event reproduced in this year’s programme.

This time round, the performing focus was less on diversity and more on specific repertoire, with two very different and captivating musical strands plucked and resonated for our great enjoyment. We had a “Pasifika” first half, put together under the title “Songs from Oceania”, and then a distinctly “Northern Hemisphere” second half, courtesy of that redoubtable duo Flanders and Swann – with one exception, not the well-known “At the Drop of a Hat” items, but songs from a less-known collection “The Bestiary of Flanders and Swann”.

One registered that, even before the singers took the stage the Opera House atmosphere had created something rather more theatrical than in 2010, aided by back-lighting and a proscenium arch “framing the magic” as it were. But just as strong was the community aspect of it all – as the singers and instrumentalists came on their audience connections were underlined by shouts and waves of greeting, bringing stage and auditorium cheek-by-jowl, as it were. So, we had the best of both worlds by the time conductors Julian Raphael and Carol Shortis made their appearance.

The first song, from Tonga, Malimali Mai, had one of those rhythmic trajectories that has the effect of catching up up whole bunches of people in some kind of mesmeric spell, and getting them to move, think, act as one. The choir sang with plenty of gesturings, and conductor Julian Raphael invited us audience members to clap the rhythms – so we were involved from the outset. Various members of the choir introduced each item during the first half, which heightened the sense of “performer ownership” of the proceedings.

The opening item from Tonga had occasioned a lighting backdrop of the most delicious mango-like hues, underlining the sweetness and warmth of the song’s “place” in our minds. For two songs from Samoa which followed, the intense blue of the sea was emphasized instead; while the songs, firstly Falealili Uma, and then Fa’afetai I le Atua featured richly-harmonised repeated refrains, the second in particular real a cappella stuff. The NZ Maori Wairua o te puna Aroha which followed brought in a strong instrumental beat, and a pronounced swaying motion from the choir, underlining a sense of one people moving in accord.

An old favorite was The Wellerman, an early New Zealand whaler’s song, describing struggles between man and beast relieved occasionally by the “Wellerman” with fresh supplies for the whalers. Here I thought the song’s tessitura too low for the men’s voices to be able to clearly enunciate the tale, compounded by a tempo that was too fast for those same singers – as well as clarity, something of both the melancholy and the drudgery of the whalers’ situation wasn’t for me put across strongly enough. More securely grounded in effect was a New Zealand Lullaby from a slightly later period, early in the 1800s, apparently composed as a joint venture by two women, Maori and Pakeha, its attractive, faintly exotic melodic line accentuated in a Russian-sounding direction by the balalaika-like ukulele accompaniment!

I had to get my atlas out to find Boigu Island – its song Waiye here sounded suitably “ethnic”, which wasn’t surprising considering the island’s proximity to the Papua-New Guinean mainland – instrumentalists gathered around two impressive-looking and -sounding drums which punctuated the ends of the song’s phrases in fine style. The singing had that peculiary “open-throat” sound one associates with Polynesian cultures, slightly raw and very exciting, the men’s lines harmonizing with those of the women’s. More westernized, though still with exotic elements such as rhythmic chanting, was the Australian Soul Wind, the melody line and harmonizing very bluesy in places. Both of these were conducted, spaciously and most expressively, by Carol Shortis.

Two contrasting “Pasifika” items concluded the half, the first Tagi Sina, from Tokelau, dramatic and mournful, with a heavy rhythmic drumbeat underpinning the women’s plaintive melodic line, and the feeling of a whole community expressing sorrow taking up the whole company, the whole intensifying then concluding with a resounding crash. A perfect foil to it all was the concluding Sipaio from Niue, introduced as “Happiness”, with open, long-breathed melodies, accompanied by exuberant hands-and-arms movements suggesting joyful overflowing of feelings. The “tropical” lighting of the very first item returned as well to bring things to a kind of full circle.

From largely oceanic climes and vistas, we were taken by the concert’s second half to different worlds inhabited by non-human creatures, courtesy of one of the greatest musical comedy duos of them all, Michael Flanders and Donald Swann. World-famous for their “At the Drop of a(nother) Hat” shows” they also created a collection, “The Bestiary of Flanders and Swann”, less popular, but just as high in literary and musical values. We were given eight of these, five arranged by Julian Raphael for choir, and three sung as either solos or duos by Julian, Carol Shortis and a character called Lambton, who was also the “compere” for the second half, in which role I thought he often became tiresomely wordy, his humour mostly of the heavy-handed W.S.Gilbert variety. Fortunately he was able to redeem himself with a spirited solo performance of “The Rhinoceros”.

Julian Raphael’s similar turn for “The Elephant”, augmented with a pair of elephant ears, brought out all the droll humor of the words concerning a pachyderm who has lost his memory, to the audience’s delight – while his “Warthog” duo with Carol Shortis gave both performers and their audience plenty of fun at the tale of Warthog Wallflower’s neglect at a party, until the arrival of Mr Right Warthog saved the day.

The rest of the songs featured the choir, supported by some superb piano-playing from Diedre Irons, the “guest accompanist” for the evening (occasionally doing a “Donald Swann” and adding an extra voice to those in the choir). The Whale sang and sneezed its way through Seas Antarctical, while the choir, although resisting the temptation to sing while standing on their hands, still evoked the world of the Sloth with words like, “The world is such a cheerful place /when viewed from upside-down / It makes a rise of every fall; a smile of every frown.”  Other wonderful rhyming couplets came in the song “The Armadillo”, in the wake of the unfortunate creature falling in love with an armoured car- “I left him to his singing / cycled home without a pause / never tell a man the truth /about the one that he adores…” music filled with droll, regimented rhythms and ironic gentleness, soft-hearted beneath the armour-plating!

As happened with every one of the actual Flanders-and-Swann concerts, the show’s climax came with the concerted singing of the “Mud, mud, Glorious mud!” chorus from “The Hippopotamus”, a ritualized celebration, indeed. Though there was an encore song with audience participation, called “Midnight makes up its own mind”, our hearts and sensibilities mostly stayed with the Hippopotami on the banks of the cool Shalimar, taking the song and the other spirited evening performances from choir, pianist and conductor happily with us with us out into the evening air.











Australian guitarist Alex Tsiboulski seduces audience with beautiful playing

J.S. Bach: Suite no.1 for unaccompanied cello (BWV 1007), arr. Stephen Snook
Fernando Sor: Variations on a theme of Mozart, Op.10
Hans Werner Henze: Drei Tentos from Kammermusik
Alfred Uhl: Sonata classica
Heitor Villa-Lobos: Valsa Chôro from Suite populaire brésilienne
Isaac Albeniz: Sevilla from Suite Española
Pixinguinha (Alfredo da Rocha Viana Jr.): Carinhoso, arr. Roland Dyens

Adam Concert Room, New Zealand School of Music

Thursday 20 September 2012, 7pm

Jane Curry, the New Zealand School of Music tutor in guitar, introduced the performer, his visit being enabled by sponsorship from the Australian High Commission in Wellington (though Ukrainian-born, Tsiboulski has lived in Australia since his early teens.)  We in the audience were the beneficiaries, not least in that this was a free concert.  It was a bonus to have the concert in the relative intimacy of the Adam Concert Room, where the guitar could be easily heard, and the player easily seen.  The sound was clear; even the quietest notes could be heard.

The Bach Suite’s Prelude was played in so gentle and lovely a manner that I formed the opinion, not changed through the six movements, that I actually preferred this version to the cello original (sacrilege, maybe).  Tsiboulski spoke after the first two items, and said that this was not an ‘authentic’ arrangement, in that it did not stick solely to the notes written for cello in the original, but took into account the capabilities of the guitar.

There was considerable use of rubato, but the playing could not be called romantic – yet the music perhaps had more emotional impact than it would in the original version.  The delicacy was just enchanting.  The Allemande was most appealing (my note says ‘fab.’), while the Courante was a very fast version.  Throughout the movements there were subtle gradations of dynamics, and a little vibrato.  Tsiboulski made this music truly enthralling.  The last movement, Gigue, was very robust.  At the end of the Suite, the guitarist retuned his instrument; he did not break up the music by doing so between movements – if there was a slight drop in pitch on one or two strings – so what?

How different a mood we encountered with Sor’s Variations!  There was much more passion in this well-known work.  The varying timbres and volumes Tsiboulski extracted from his instrument by the placement of the right hand were delightful.  He played these variations with more subtlety and variety than I’ve heard them played before.  When playing quietly, he achieved a pianissimo I don’t think I’ve ever experienced from this instrument – and that’s saying something, since it is a quiet instrument – and Tsiboulski explained that among the unusual features of his Australian-made instrument was the fact that it was louder than average with guitars.

The last variation was very robust, by contrast.  Unlike the Bach, the work was played from memory.

Henze’s pieces were three excerpts from a suite of 9 pieces, inspired by poetry by the German poet Hölderlin.  Tsiboulski emphasised that these three were just interludes in the longer work.   There was a lot of fingering in very high positions in these pieces, which were otherwise deceptively simple, yet full of expression.  The second one, which translates as ‘In life the eye often finds’ gave the guitarist much more work to do, while the third was quieter again, but with running motifs, interesting chords and an inconclusive ending.

The next piece, Alfred Uhl’s Sonata classica (1937), was introduced in an entertaining way, with a story about Segovia’s penchant for adding his own gloss to composers’ work; Uhl didn’t like that.   His piece is a ‘take’ on the late 1700s – jokey and German.  Its four movements feature unexpected key changes and accidentals.  The andante second movement was quite idyllic, while the third was fast, with some strumming, which we had not heard so far.  There were reprises of earlier material; the whole featured superb writing for the guitar.

Villa-Lobos’s ‘Valsa Chôro’ from Suite populaire brésilienne was apparently about the composer looking back to his childhood, and writing a European waltz with a Brazilian flavour.  He wrote many Chôros; this was one of the early ones.  It was a charming, very melodic piece.   The guitarist created great feeling with this piece, which had that wistful, regretful tinge that much Brazilian music has.

Albeniz followed; Tsiboulski explained that like Granados and others, Albeniz wrote for the piano music that is frequently played on the guitar, including this suite.  They wrote repertoire for salon performers.  Nevertheless, it is authentic Spanish music.  This piece is particularly well-known.

The final piece was by ‘Little Penguin’ (it being customary in Brazil for popular musicians to be known by nicknames).  Like the Villa-Lobos, there was a touch of that Portuguese melancholy, as in Fado.  The arrangement of the song Carinhoso was very effective, and ended the recital on a lighter note.

It is a long time since I heard a solo guitarist that I enjoyed so much as I did the playing of Alex Tsiboulski.  His playing, choice of programme, and spoken introductions were of a very high order.