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.