The twelfth Nelson Chamber Music Festival breaks records – again

Nelson 2013 International Chamber Music Festival

Principal participants: New Zealand and Penderecki string quartets, Darryl Poulsen, Peter Nagy, Colin Carr, NZ Trio, Jenny Wollerman, Diedre Irons, Emma Sayers, Richard Nunns, Bridget Douglas, Hiroshi Ikematsu and other NZSO players

Principal venues: Nelson Cathedral and Nelson School of Music

Friday 1 February to Saturday 9 February


The Nelson International Chamber Music Festival has become by far the largest classical music festival in the country, increasing the trend well established in Europe and North America, to build music festivals into summer holiday plans.

While the festival’s duration has been reduced from the previously normal length of some 17 days to ten, with more concerts each day, in all other respects it is bigger.

It was an enlargement in terms of the number of concerts (around 22 standard concerts) and probably the total number of pieces of music played (around 70).  Thanks to the flair and enterprise of festival manager Bob Bickerton, artistic directors Helene Pohl and Gillian Ansell, and the sane, charming hand of chair, Colleen Marshall, the numbers of seats sold exceeded previous records by some 40 percent with many concerts sold out or close to full. Provisional attendance figures approached 6000, 70 percent of whom come from outside Nelson. The impact on Nelson’s economy has reached a level that has led the City Council substantially to raise its support this year.

To compress 22 or so concerts into nine days has meant three or four concerts on some days which has suited some, but not others.

Opening: Friday – both quartets and horn and NZSO players

The Festival opened in the Cathedral with a varied concert that featured both theNew Zealandand the Penderecki string quartets, four players from the NZSO and horn player Darryl Poulsen.  Members of the Penderecki String Quartet, Canada-based, were the principal guests at this festival. It comprises Jeremy Bell and Jerzy Kaplanek (violins), Christine Vlajk (viola) and Katie Schlaikjer (cello).

Poulsen took part in two classic works that called for his instrument, by Mozart and Beethoven. The one piece without the horn was a rarity: Prokofiev’s quintet for winds and strings, Op 39.

Poulsen’s playing in both K 407 and Beethoven’s Septet, Op 20, was admirable: subtle, entertaining, creamy, delighting in the awful dangers that Mozart had jokingly thrown at his friend, horn player Joseph Leutgeb. The horn was hardly less taxed in the Beethoven; merely less in the limelight, as Philip Green’s clarinet and Hiroshi Ikematsu’s bass tended to catch the ear in brilliant passages.

The two quartets shared players; while Helene Pohl led the Mozart and Douglas Beilman the Prokofiev, the other players were drawn democratically from each quartet. Jerzy Kaplanek, the Penderecki’s second violinist, had the front desk in the Beethoven.

Perhaps the most revelatory piece was the Prokofiev fairly unfamiliar quintet which had started as music for a ballet called Trapeze. Revealing influences like Petrushka and Satie through its six movements, it was comic, oafish, flippant, dark, nervous, ghostly: attractive and interesting. It deserves to be better known.

Both the Mozart and the Beethoven, the first from Mozart’s full maturity, the second from Beethoven’s first evidence of conspicuous genius – the time of the Op 18 quartets, the first symphony and the first two piano concertos.  Both are the most genial and delightful pieces, and the players made the most of the bravura and wit as well as the rhythmically engaging and richly melodious character of the entire works.

Saturday: Piano preludes from Nagy

Pianist Peter Nagy made his festival debut at the Saturday afternoon concert in theSchoolofMusic. Nagy had taught atCanterburyUniversitya couple of years ago but left before his gifts were able to be fully appreciated in this country, at least outside ofChristchurch.

He modified his programme to begin with Liszt’s Totentanz, perhaps to reassure us that he knew how to drive the piano at full throttle, which he did, delivering a satanic, dramatically arresting performance. The rest of the hour was devoted to a juxtaposing of twelve each of preludes by Chopin and Scriabin, pairing those in the same keys, a procedure that drew attention of those not gifted with perfect pitch to the way in which keys create distinct moods and colours.  Nagy’s success lay in his capturing the character of each composer with beautiful finesse, rhythmic and dynamic fluency and naturalness. Chopin’s sharper clarity generally won on points; but Nagy’s enlivening of Scriabin’s elusive music gave plenty of encouragement to the further exploration of his huge output of preludes.

For the record, the following was the pattern of Nagy’s juxtaposing of the Chopin and Scriabin Preludes:

Chopin                        Scriabin:

C major                        C major Op.48 No.2
G major                        G major Op. 11 No.3
E major                        E major Op.15 No.3
F major                        F major Op.11 No.23
B minor                        B minor Op.37 No.1
E flat major                   E flat major Op.45 No.3
C sharp minor               C sharp minor Op.15 No.5
A major                        A major Op.11 No.7
B minor                        B minor Op.11 No.6
F sharp minor               F sharp minor Op.15 No.2
B flat major                  B flat major Op.35 No.2
D minor                        D minor Op. 11 No.24f

Mahler’s 4th from 15 musicians, on Saturday evening

The Saturday evening may have looked like the highlight, even the raison d’être, of the festival. But the competition for that position proved very strong. However, the prospect of Mahler’s lyrical Fourth Symphony, in a remarkable reduction, for 14 musicians and soprano Jenny Wollerman, was certainly much more than a mere curiosity. Under the baton of Michael Joel, it was surprisingly well balanced and the playing by NZSO wind players, plus the two quartets (in repertoire probably unfamiliar to them), made it all sound as if this was what Mahler had really conceived. If there were the obvious moments when these small forces (that included striking passages from hornist Poulsen, NZSO percussionists Lenny Sakofsky and Bruce McKinnon, and bass player Hiroshi Ikematsu) missed the magnificent impact of big climaxes, there were some plusses.

Often the small ensemble proved a perfectly splendid vehicle for the music (it’s probably the only Mahler symphony where such treatment would work); sometimes able to increase dramatic force, it hardly affected the breathless beauties of the third movement, Ruhevol, with more than usually luminous solos from cello, oboe, viola, double bass; and in the last movement Wollerman’s beautifully placed voice created an experience that the full orchestra might scarcely have bettered.

Not to forget the first half however, when the Penderecki Quartet played Mozart’s ‘Dissonance’ Quartet (K 465) in which a sense of deep familiarity with the piece enabled them to do things that sounded quite original, perhaps far beyond the expectations of a late 18th century audience; for example, the carefully obscure rhythm at the opening of the slow movement, and surprising pauses.

Composer Ross Harris was at the festival for a few days to hear premieres of two pieces and to talk about a discovery relating to Ligeti’s Horn Trio.  At this concert New Zealand String Quartet violist Gillian Ansell premiered a Chaconne that she had commissioned from him, a piece that seemed aimed at least in part to exploit the player’s skills in extended techniques which may have interfered somewhat with the creation of an easily followed musical process. There were fragmentary lyrical moments but also towards the end, some brief vocalisations which had the effect of humanising the piece.

Villa-Lobos’s Assobio a jato (Jet whistle) for flute and cello seemed to be pursuing a similar path, treading amusingly around the edges of the flute’s normal range. It presented no apparent difficulties to flutist Bridget Douglas and cellist Rolf Gjelsten who knitted together its oddities, wit and scraps of tune, ending with the eponymous screech from Bridget.

Sunday 3 February
Minguet Quartet

The festival’s third day, Sunday, was a major test of commitment and endurance. There were three concerts: in the morning, the Minguet String Quartet, a fairly young group of three Germans and a Romanian violist; in the evening, two pieces featuring Darryl Poulsen’s French horn; and in the afternoon, in the Cathedral, cellist Colin Carr played all six of Bach’s solo cello suites.

Each included something unusual.

The Minguet’s programme began rather unconvincingly with a couple of the Contrapuncti from Bach’s Art of Fugue, and ended with a warm, almost symphonic performance of Brahms’s String Quartet in C minor. Of all the ‘great’ composers, it is Brahms’s quartets that seem to be most neglected. In fact a couple of friends confessed not to know this piece: it would surprise me if this engaging performance did not change that. Their second piece was the 11th string quartet by Wolfgang Rihm. While, like most of the post-war generation (he was born in 1952), he was soon disenchanted with the Stockhausen-Boulez avant-garde, that did not, sadly, mean a turning away from complexity, extreme dissonance, inchoate, dense harmonic clusters; my notes asked: “Why is he so shy of plain, uncluttered harmonies?”. Passages of coarse bowing alternated with calm, pensive passages. And yet, on reflection at the end, I was left with feelings about its musical substance and inspiration that were not negative.

Colin Carr in Bach suites

For many the festivalhigh pointwould have been the return visit (after 2003) of British cellist Colin Carr who, to widespread incredulity, played all six of Bach’s solo cello suites in the afternoon in the Cathedral. They occupied three hours; Carr’s playing placed itself in the class of the romantics rather than of the strict tempo, even-paced, vibratoless interpreters with unvaried sound. The discursive preludes can be heard as touching the essence of each suite’s character, quite remote from any feel of warm-up exercises: a sort of microcosm of the varied movements that followed. Carr’s ease and fluency, agility and graceful decoration commanded awed attention through the entire concert. Without departing from the feeling of naturalness that was the strongest impression throughout, there were little surprises such as at the rhythmic ambiguity in the Prelude to the Third Suite, or the curiously unstable phrases of the Fourth Suite’s Courante.

In Carr’s introductory remarks he noted the way the music just got better and better till the fifth and sixth suites each of which has unusual features. The Fifth Suite calls for dropping the tuning of the A string to G and the Sixth is written for a five-string instrument (the top string being E); on a four-string cello, that calls for a lot of tortured playing high on the A string none of which seemed to tax Carr in the least.

Everything was so invested with colour and a natural fluency, not to mention increasing technical brilliance that reached a peak in the sixth suite that the cathedral-full audience rose in a standing ovation at the end.

Poulsen, Pohl and Nagy

In the evening, in a concert entitled ‘Bold Strokes’, another late 20th century piece offered a greater challenge than the Rihm had in the morning. Rihm is a good generation later than György Ligeti who undoubtedly enjoys greater fame as a leader in late 20th century music. Although it was to Stockhausen that he went after his flight fromHungaryin 1956, he ultimately rejected that brand of avant-gardism, but his own kind can be as forbidding as the most taxing of his contemporaries.

Ligeti’s Horn Trio, played by Peter Nagy, Helene Pohl and horn player Darryl Poulsen, had a particular interest here because of the discovery of sketches of its last movement that came into the hands of Helene Pohl’s father. The findings in the sketches were the subject of a pre-concert talk by Ross Harris which impressed by drawing attention to the tortured compositional process as well as its unusual difficulties both from a performance and a listening point of view. His remarks, and those later by Peter Nagy, revealed Ligeti as a man of surprisingly peevish, self-serving opinions: for example, “I hate neo-expressionism and can’t stand the neo-Mahlerian and neo-Bergian affectations, just as I can’t stand post-modern architecture.” His compositions inspire musicological writers to employ arcane musical vocabulary that is of little help even to those well-disposed to contemporary music, mistaking cleverness and originality for musical attractiveness and, well, beauty.

This work of 1982 has many facets and cannot be characterised in a few words. The first movement comprises sound sequences that are jagged and hard to follow as one tries to discover and retain patterns and their evolution; the second movement is more friendly: lighter in tone with violin pizzicato, piano staccato and hints of diatonic motifs. None was easy for the players, least of all for the horn which seemed not to have managed to ingest the lines and to reach a happy ensemble with violin and piano.

The other two pieces in the programme seemed ill-assorted: Schumann’s odd Andante and Variations, Op 46, for horn, two cellos and two pianos. The pianos (Irons and Nagy) seemed to have the best of it with cellos providing engaging sounds while the horn’s contribution seemed confined to the occasional doubling of notes.

And finally, Dvořák’s Piano Quintet from Nagy and the New Zealand String Quartet. It was a fine performance from players in complete accord with it; yet, following the astringencies of Ligeti, I found it, as attractive and filled with delight as it was, for the first time ever, strangely tepid and unadventurous. Perhaps that betrays the unacknowledged impact that the Ligeti work had actually had on me after all.

Monday: ‘Requiem’ – Shostakovich viola sonata

The early afternoon concert in the Schoolof Musicpresented another remarkable contrast: It began with a piece called Requiem by late 19th century cellist David Popper; a name known to cellists – I recall playing a short characteristic piece by him. It might be one of the few compositions to have been written to honour a composer’s publisher – originally as a concerto for three cellos and orchestra. Here, the orchestral score was reduced for piano (Emma Sayers); the cellists – Carr, Gjelsten and Katie Schlaikyer (of the Penderecki Quartet). There was little elegiac in its tone: rather, it had a meditative, pastoral quality and showed the marks of the composer/performer in its stretching of the players’ skills, though there were no signs that it presented these players with any difficulties.

If that was an essentially forgettable piece, the next was both memorable and deeply felt. The Viola Sonata, Op 147, was Shostakovich’s last composition; Gillian Ansell and Peter Nagy gave it imaginative life in a beautifully poised yet powerful performance, fulfilling Nagy’s self-directed challenge: “If we play it right, it should be a heart-breaking experience”.

Bach on Monday evening

A Bach concert has been a common element at recent festivals: the two main string quartets were engaged, plus harpsichordist Erin Helyard, flutist Bridget Douglas, bassist Ikematsu and soprano Jenny Wollerman.  They played half  dozen Two Part Inventions, the Violin Sonata, BWV1016, three arias sung by Jenny Wollerman and the Second Orchestral Suite.

The Violin Sonata was played by Penderecki Quartet’s Jeremy Bell, and Helyard. It drew attention to Bell’s striking talent for producing a wide range of tone and colour; here in the opening Adagio, he was the quintessence of baroque style, hardly any vibrato, ornaments of beautiful filigree, while in the following Allegro the violin tone seemed to have moved forward to around 1800. The third movement prompted the thought that it was hoping for an inspired melody, which seemed not quite to emerge. Not least of the delights was Helyard’s remarkably colourful harpsichord, in his role that was every bit the equal of the violin.

These concerts always offer an almost complete tasting of Bach. Jenny Wollerman sang three arias from the Cantatas – ‘Höchster, mache deine Güte’ (BWV 51), ‘Meine Seele sei vergnügt’ (BWV 204), ‘Bete aber auch dabei’ (BWV 115). Though none of them is really among the most familiar arias, all came engagingly to life from her voice that strikes me now as free, attractive and comfortable not only in the middle but also in the highest register. They were all accompanied with continuo comprising Rolf Gjelsten and Erin Helyard; the second and third arias added Bridget Douglas’s flute to weave about the voice, which here and there undertook a bit more decoration than I thought necessary.

The third element was a selection of eight Two Part Inventions that had been arranged for violin and viola (Jerzy Kaplanek and Christine Vlaik of the Penderecki Quartet). The separation of the two voices was most successful, with both players successfully turning each little piece into a charming vignette.  And finally, the two quartets, Ikematsu’s bass, Douglas’s flute, and harpsichord continuo, played the second orchestral Suite, BWV 1067); it brought such a warm response that the lively Badinerie was played again.

Tuesday to the Lake:
Penderecki Quartet at St Arnaud

The middle of the festival takes a break from Nelson: many people took the tour to LakeRotoitifor a bush walk and a concert in the little Chapel of Christ on the Lake, at Saint Arnaud. There, the Penderecki Quartet played Beethoven’s Quartet in G, Op 18 No 2, Schulhoff’s Quartet No 1 of 1924, and Canadian composer Marjan Mozatich’s Lament in a Trampled Garden. None were also played back in Nelson and I regretted not being there.

Tuesday evening: Bonanza

I was compensated in the evening by a concert in the Cathedral by the trombone quartet, BonaNZa, which had performed at the last festival. Arrangements of both classical and popular music were woven into a mock opera without voices – at least without singers – that drew on The Magic Flute and Parsifal to retell the adventures of pious medieval knights attempting to recover the magic trombone whose loss had plunged their people into evil times. Act II made clever use of many of the parts of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, ending with a sonorous painting of the Great Gate of Kiev.  In place of operatic arias and recitatives, oboist Peter Dykes declaimed the tale with comic and histrionic gusto.

Waitangi Day

Waitangi Day was busy.
Predictably it was devoted mainly to music by New Zealanders, and prominently to the remarkable, ground-breaking work of Richard Nunns, Brian Flintoff and Hirini Melbourne in recovering and re-creating Maori instruments and the ways in which they were played, from a situation of almost total loss.

Though some moteatea have survived, for example in the famous George Grey collection of 1853, Ko Nga Moteatea, almost all knowledge of the instruments and their playing techniques had been lost; they have been scrupulously researched and recreated by Nunns and his two collaborators through archaeological and ethnological research, from drawings, written and oral accounts and a great deal of inspired, well-founded intuition as to the likely way of playing them.

At the four events there were alsoNew Zealandcompositions, most strikingly Jenny McLeod’s setting of poems in Maori.

It began at 10am in the Theatre of the SuterArtGallery. Nunns picked up and talked about and demonstrated sounds on around 40 of his remarkable collection of a hundred instruments (taonga puoro) that were arrayed on a long table. He described the evolving process of discovery and creation. At the end of the morning session Nunns induced Whirimako Black to join him in performing a waiata – a taste of the evening concert.

So in the evening in Nelson’s beautifully restored Theatre Royal, Whirimako and Richard conducted a dialogue/recital using some of the instruments and performed waiata/moteatea (songs), from Black’s Tuhoe heritage.  Several of her waiata were composed by an ancestor, Mahi Ki-Te Kapua, and associated with the Ringatu Faith. She sang, utterly without histrionics, but commanding rapt attention through her demeanour, in soft, transcendental tones. While Nunns, blowed the long trumpet-like ku in an introductory call, and then the various instruments that are breathed into, end-blown and nose flutes – putorina and koauau, trumpet-like horns such as putatara and pukaia, whirling objects – purerehua, percussion – tumutumu and the musical bow, a very elementary violin.

The audience in the Theatre Royal was entranced by the remarkable performances in a dim, mystical atmosphere that created a quasi religious experience.

Jenny McLeod’s cycle of Moteatea settings

The evening concert began at 6.30pm to allow space for the 9pm session with Nunns and Black. It began with six Mendelssohn Songs without Words and ended with Schubert’s Trio In E flat.

However, the main item in the programme was He Whakaahua a Maru, a 15-song cycle of waiata set by Jenny McLeod, The poems were written in Maori (by the composer) and their musical setting by a composer with a lifetime of immersion in Maori language and culture. Only two were from Grey’s Nga Moteatea, the rest were poems by McLeod herself based on ideas drawn from Mike Nicolaidi’s book A Greekish Trinity.  Soprano Jenny Wollerman, who had earlier sung arias from Bach cantatas, sang them with powerful conviction, accompanied by pianist Emma Sayers and flutist Karen Batten, both of whom occasionally contributed percussive effects with a poi.

Drawing on childhood experiences – intimate, violent and tender, domestic events and emotions – from at least two widely disparate cultures, planted in another soil in another language and taking on the taste and feel of the latter.

I found the first songs uncomfortably violent, but the tenor of the later ones was mainly domestic, more intimate and the sense of an authentic Maori idiom grew stronger as the work unfolded. It seemed as near to the idiom of the waiata we were to hear later from Whirimako Black as any composer of today, of any culture, is likely to create.

Wollerman and her two colleagues displayed, through long affinity with Maori music and its performance, a sympathy and understanding that is probably unsurpassed. Wollerman’s voice is in excellent shape and seems more than ever to be an idiomatic vehicle for the expression of the violent as well as the tender emotions called up in this sequence.

As the sequence drew to a close I began to be aware that here was a very major work that perhaps in spite of, or because of, its mixed cultural origins, might justifiably be considered something of a masterpiece (a word, I notice, that was also used by Ruth Allison in her excellent review in the Nelson Mail).

It is a singular statement, among other things, about the universality of art, as opposed to race-based claims to ownership. If this music takes root in the memory, it could prove a masterpiece.

Plus Mendelssoh and Schubert

Rather overshadowed by the McLeod song cycle, the early evening concert also included six of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words and Schubert’s Trio in E flat. It offered a respite (is that an OK word?) fromNew Zealand music.

The Songs without Words were played exquisitely by Peter Nagy, raising them from their common perception as somewhat slight salon pieces. In the second half Schubert’s Trio, D 929 was played by Nagy, Helene Pohl and Rolf Gjelsten, with affection and marvellous finesse though, as so often in Schubert, the job of keeping fresh what I, heathen-like, sometimes feel as endless repetition of the main tunes somewhat eluded them; as it commonly does.

Ritchie, Harris, Psathas in one concert

There were two other concerts on Waitangi Day.

In the early afternoon the Penderecki Quartet played John Ritchie’s String Quartet, mainly written in the 1960s; but the last movement, after his wife’s death in 2001, lent an elegiac, though not despairing, character to the earlier autobiographical movements; the performance, in the composer’s presence, was sympathetic and expressive, leaving a sense of a life that still looked forward to satisfying activities and rewards.

Ross Harris’s Fifth String Quartet, ‘Songs from Childhood’, and played by the New Zealand String Quartet, proved surprisingly gritty, with little of the expected, beguiling, childhood reflections. Though it was an impressive example of Harris’s imaginative virtuosity in use of instruments, some at the outer fringes of their capacities and range, I found at this first hearing a lack of engagement, on my part, with the music.

Finally, the New Zealand Trio (NZTrio) (Justine Cormack, Ashley Brown, Sarah Watkins) arrived to play John Psathas’s Helix, which the group had commissioned in 2006, now established as one of Psathas’s best known works, dynamically restrained, melodically vigorous. The trio have clearly had plenty of opportunity to find and maximise all the colour, excitement and ethnic character that inspired it. Here, extremes of instrumental register meant enhanced emotional impact and an exhilaration grew over the course of its three movements.  The NZTrio revels in music of this kind, and the audience responded warmly to their enthusiasm.

Thursday: Penderecki Quartet with Rachmaninov and Bartók

Thursday morning offered a few hours of rest till the 2pm concert which brought us back to the European mainstream. The two concerts of the day proved a minor celebration of Rachmaninov and Bartók, two close contemporaries though far apart stylistically and emotionally. The 2pm concert, from the Penderecki Quartet, began with a rarity – a student exercise by Rachmaninov at the Moscow Conservatory: two movements of a string quartet. It opened with muted strings, meditative, bearing hints of Tchaikovsky; the second movement caught a different mood, neither particularly Rachmaninov nor Tchaikovsky, but an elegant though energetic palm court-like Scherzo second movement with a slower waltz time part in the middle.

The quartet next played Wolf’s Italian Serenade, bows sprightly dancing on strings, exuding southern warmth and a feminine lyricism that bears obvious kinship with Wolf’s elusive, short-breathed songs.

Neither the Rachmaninov nor the Wolf provided a connection with or preparation for Bartók’s Fifth Quartet which perhaps comes as a genial surprise after the tougher language of the third and fourth quartets. Even so, there are passages where I found myself asking, ‘why does the composer need to/want to express so much aggression or anger?’, though that quality is not as marked as it is in the sixth. Bartók was acutely alive to political affairs but as far as I know 1934 did not present anything particularly nasty forHungary, under Horthy’s two decades of relatively moderate fascism, apart from the advent of Hitler coming to power the year before, alarming the whole world to varying degrees.

Carr’s second tour de force was a passionate playing of Rachmaninov’s sonata, with Diedre Irons, on Thursday evening, which again brought the audience to its feet. It’s a piece that makes one lament that the composer was not urged to write more chamber music and that other comparably gifted composers did not have the fortitude to withstand the pressure to avoid melody, tonality and emotion. The two musicians seemed to have reached a singular rapport in their approach to the undulating dynamics and rhythms, and the instincts that guided them in building and releasing tension around climaxes. The cello could retreat to offering the most subtle and casual gestures below the piano, suggesting a degree of spontaneity that must have been carefully considered but sounded improvisatory.

The sonata was preceded by Bartók’s first Rhapsody of violin and piano, from Douglas Beilman and Peter Nagy. Nagy amused the audience by describing and playing a recording of the first performance by a Gypsy-inspired violinist, challenging Beilman to emulate it. He did very well, capturing the romantic spirit of the first movement and then the strong rhythms against a somewhat restrained overall performance.

As if the Cello Sonata was not emotional highlight enough, the players – theNew ZealandString Quartet and Colin Carr – then played Schubert’s String Quintet in C, among his last works. This was a performance made in heaven; the outer movements built an edifice based on all the warmth and sonority and here and there, the athleticism of the brave, optimistic tone that masks the tragic resignation that finds such powerful expression in the Andante.

I don’t much like focusing on individual players in chamber music, but Carr’s cello is very much a solo instrument and there were several times when its opulent sound rose a little above the others.

But altogether, this was one of the richest and most satisfying concerts in the festival.

Café music

In an early afternoon concert on Friday, the NZTrio who had arrived for Wednesday’s Waitangi Day concert, played Debussy’s very early Piano Trio, Gareth Farr’s alternately peacefully beautiful and energetic Ahi,; as well as and Paul Schoenfield’s attractive Café Music.  The Debussy was understandably unfamiliar as it might have been written by any gifted Paris Conservatoire student exposed to the influences of Massenet and Saint-Saëns.  It is probably improper to remark that there could even have been a whiff of English palm court music with its pleasant, slightly kitschy melodies and traditional harmonies. ‘

Farr’s Ahi represented a departure from the Asian and Pacific influences of much of his earlier music though gamelan sounds are present in the last movement. Its four movements follow the classical pattern, alternating fast and slow, in tones that are nevertheless original and which have attracted many performances over the fifteen years since the Ogen Trio commissioned it.

Paul Schoenfield’s Café Music, a good example of well conceived music that uses popular idioms and accents, serving to challenge fixed notions of what is popular/ephemeral and what is serious/classical. It explored several genres with wit and skill, and the trio played it all with great flair. The audience responded with delight at the end of the impetuous ragtime-inspired last movement that pianist Sarah Watkins rather dominated with thrilling rhythmic energy.

“Kreutzer” in disguise and a Brahms Sextet

The Friday evening concert, in the Cathedral, was another heterogeneous programme such as the festival seemed to take pleasure in. As well as some pieces for Martin Jaenecke’s soprano saxophone, Beethoven’s Kreutzer Violin Sonata came in an arrangement for string quintet. It was the work of Sikorski in 1832, five years after Beethoven’s death and followed the same instrumentation as the Schubert Quintet, The formation, with two cellos, creates a marvellously rich sound base, giving it a head start over other possible combinations. The players, Beilman, Pohl, Vlijk (of the Penderecki Quartet), Gjelsten and Carr, carried it off with wonderful commitment and an obvious belief in its integrity; though there were passages in which I could not call to mind the equivalent piano part, I’m sure no liberties were taken with the notation.

Such ventures are risky, but this one was so sensitively rescored and so beautifully played that it came off brilliantly, seeming to me worthy of taking its place as a serious alternative version in the regular repertoire.

The concert had opened however with a duet for soprano saxophone and viola by Edward Ware, a graduate of the Wellington Polytechnic Conservatorium of Music, now living inAmerica. It was played by Martin and Victoria Jaenecke, previously Nelson residents; their two instruments (was it composed for them?), and the performance itself, created a most attractive blending, through three contrasting movements. It had the virtue of unpretentiousness, having been written for the enjoyment of music lovers seeking melodic music that can be followed, has an emotional quality, yet sufficiently teases the listener’s sensibilities.

Martin Jaenecke returned later to play a Song without Words by Sofia Gubaidulina, for saxophone and organ (Richard Apperley). The sound and the musical content was curious but enchanting.

It was followed by a rather similar piece – a Meditation – by Jaenecke himself. It was more decorative than the Gubaidulina, making use of the cathedral’s acoustic, as he turned round this way and that so the sound changed its character, intensity, direction; and the organ too selected stops than echoed or complemented the fluctuating tones of the saxophone.  I found both pieces attractive, not least by the organ’s contribution, and they made me wonder whether, with a fine organist like Apperley in town, the festival should be making use of the cathedral’s organ for the odd solo recital: I’m sure I’m not alone as a lover of chamber music who also enjoys the organ.

A second major repertoire piece followed, to end the concert: the first and best loved of Brahms’s two string sextets. This time it was the turn of the Penderecki Quartet, with second viola and cello from the New Zealand Quartet.  Sadly, the larger string groups – sextets, septets and so on – are rarities in the normal concert series and it is one of the delights of a festival such as this to hear them in live performance.

The two works by Brahms have a special beauty as they seem to offer the composer a chance that he can richly endow with opulent harmony: I remember reading somewhere that when Haydn was asked why he stuck to the string quartet (in contrast to Boccherini who wrote hundreds of quintets), he said he could not find a fifth voice: in other words, four fulfilled all his needs.

In any case, Brahms had no difficulty and every movement seems to delight in the opportunity to expand the most gorgeous melodies. And as in earlier pieces for large groups, the mix of players seemed to create an air of delight that scarcely occurred with smaller ensembles. One after another, individual players took solos that gave them brief moments of rapture.

Saturday: New Zealand Guitar Quartet

The 1pm concert was the first visit to the festival by a guitar quartet, the New Zealand Guitar Quartet which consists of leader Owen Moriarty, Jane Currie who teaches at the New Zealand School of Music, Tim Watanabe and Christopher Hill.  The programme was similar to that played last October at Old Saint Paul’s and reviewed by my colleague Peter Mechen.

The first piece, Quiccan; by Andrew York, a leading American guitarist and composer and long-time member of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, revealed the highly sophisticated writing the wide tonal capacities of the group, from muted softness to boisterous energy, reflecting jazz and Latin American music, and the interesting quasi-orchestral effects obtained in ensemble.

They dropped one advertised piece, Sergio Assad’s Uarekena, and replaced it with John Rimmer’s Nelsonian Riffs, his first guitar composition, tonally traditional, and lying nicely for the ensemble. That was followed by Wellington composer Craig Utting’s Onslow Suite, originally for three players at two pianos, began in extrovert fashion hinting at a baroque influence, and became more reticent in its second part.

One of Owen Moriarty’s guitars was a seven-string instrument – the seventh string set below the normal bottom E: I think, B. The use of that string enhanced the sonority of the whole ensemble.

After these pieces, written for these instruments, it was curious to find the arrangement of Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto somewhat uninteresting, something of the organic fluidity and nuance seemed overcome by playing that was a little mechanical, though lively enough and with excellent ensemble. Here, and elsewhere, it was interesting that applause broke out whenever the music paused between sections or movements: not a serious matter but a commentary on audience attention to the players remarks or the nature and shape of the music.

That said, the players who spoke about the music, introduced a genial and sociable tone to the concert.  But they did not properly gauge the size of the concert room, speak slowly and clearly enough, and project their voices.  They are not alone among musicians in feeling that it is enough to speak in a casual, idiomatic way; that is certainly harder for foreigners, and even New Zealanders, to follow.

Ian Krouse was a colleague of some of the quartet members at the Universityof Southern California. I don’t recall hearing his Antique Suite before, based partially on a composition by Renaissance composer Hans Neusidler, but which Krouse has ‘made his own’ in the words of the programme.  Owen Moriarty described it as lute music on steroids. The suite was in four movements, given titles that I take to be from the original old German. Admirably written for the quartet, a hurdy-gurdy character was introduced by the use of a bow across all the strings of Tim Watanabe’s guitar, and its movements were enlivened with a variety of styles and instrumental effects that took the music far from its Renaissance origins.

The concert ended with two of the dances from Falla’s ballet El amor brujo – ‘Danza del terror’ and ‘Danza ritualdel fuego’. Taken quite out of their original orchestral environment, these performances did them full justice.

Grand Finale

There was a symbolic element in the choice of programme for the final concert: a New Zealandand a Canadian piece (coincidentally or deliberately(?) , both by Greek-born composers), set among two masterpieces of the normal repertoire.

The New Zealandwork was Abisheka by John Psathas (played by the New Zealanders); the Canadian, a String Quartet by Christos Hatzis, born inGreece (played by the Canadians).  Psathas’s piece is well established in the New Zealand canon: it emerges from silence with the solo first violin and gathers itself into a dense bed of inchoate sound, but slowly clarifies to allow individual their place to speak. The players have gained a familiarity  with it by now that gives it the character of a standard classic.

Hatzis’s quartet was a more formal, four movement work, though with a programmatic basis – the bombing ofBelgradeduring the 1990s wars. Balkan characteristics can be heard throughout, but also Latin, Middle Eastern and perhaps Indian elements; violent, disturbing passages are balanced by lighter, more peaceful, optimistic episodes. It was obviously an important work for the Penderecki Quartet and their playing showed the result of careful preparation and a deep understanding of both the musical and the programmatic sources. Most notable perhaps was the ferocious energy that Jeremy Bell, the quartet’s leader, produced throughout the four contrasting movements.

In the first half the New Zealand String Quartet plus Penderecki viola and cello, played the Sextet that forms the prelude to Strauss’s last opera, Capriccio, written during the Second World War. In some way it was an attempt to ignore the pain inflicted by the war and it was a deeply satisfying performance, again made the more intense through the sharing of parts among the two groups.

And finally, the Mendelssohn Octet, which has been played in earlier festivals to celebrate the combined work of two splendid quartets. From the very opening, the marvellous variety of colour and enjoyment of the sheer youthful high spirits that embody the piece could not have been more delightfully captured.


In addition to the formal concerts, there were on most days, masterclasses, workshops, concerts in the city by the local Troubadour Quartet, a Pro-Am concert at which a local quartet, coached by members of the professional ensembles, performed, and the regular Kids’ Concert taken by Bob Bickerton.

It must be emphasised that the festival remains what it is through the commitment of the New Zealand String Quartet and the Adam Foundation and a few other sponsors, plus a number of dedicated people in Nelson. To look at the way summer festivals have become such major elements in Europe is to see the scope for this festival and, one keeps hoping, others dedicated to good music, to flourish inNew Zealand. So far, there has been no emulation of Nelson though the international music competitions such as at Gisborne and Kerikeri look ripe for expansion into more extensive music festivals.

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