Fine recital by Douglas Mews on St Andrew’s chamber organ

Bach: Prelude and Fugue in C major, BWV 870, Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV 871, from The Well-Tempered Clavier
Matthew Camidge (1764-1844): Concerto no.2 in G minor
Handel: Suite no.3 in D minor, HWV 28

Douglas Mews, chamber organ

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 27 March 2013, 12.15pm

I was asked by the young man to whom I gave a ride into town on Wednesday, when I told him I was going to an organ recital: “Why do skeletons not play music in church?” Answer:  “Because they have no organs.”  But St. Andrew’s on The Terrace has two, and it was refreshing to hear the chamber organ this time.

What was even more refreshing was to see it pulled to the centre of the platform, where it looked resplendent, and sounded much more direct and sonorous.  It was a little ironic that, playing in a position such that the audience could see Douglas Mews’s feet on the pedals, which is not the case usually at organ recitals, he chose music which incorporated very little in the way of pedal parts, as his spoken introductions informed us in advance.

Mews’s playing brought out all the character and melodic interest of the Bach pieces much more readily than is the case in their more frequently- heard piano renditions.  As my mother says on the old private recording I have of her playing the second of these preludes “The piano does not bring out the notes of the tune as does the organ or the clavichord”.  (Please excuse her grammar!)

For the second prelude, Mews chose a delightfully “chuffy” flute registration, followed by a brighter registration for the fugue.  All was well articulated, but the notes were not made staccato; thus the themes were not broken up.  Throughout, the performer’s technique and rhythm were impeccable, barring a very few wrong notes.

Matthew Camidge was new to me; as Douglas Mews said, his music looked back to the eighteenth century and the style of Handel rather than being typical of the new century, and being English, made little use of the pedals even though they had been integral to German organ music for well over 100 years.

The first movement, adagio, incorporated a number of changes of registration to include reed pipes (for which Mews had an assistant to perform some of the manipulation of stops), which added interest.  This was followed by an athletic allegro, that incorporated a few pedal notes.  The third movement, adagio, went back to flutes.  This movement employed more chromaticism than occurred in Handel’s music.  The jolly opening theme of the final gavotte reminded me of one of Bach’s organ works to which some wit applied the words (in honour of a nineteenth century editor of Bach’s music): “O Ebenezer Prout, you are a funny man”; it was a sprightly dance.

Handel, though a noted organist, wrote nothing for the instrument except for the concertos, which is a pity.  However, this harpsichord suite sounded splendid on the organ, and the link is that the last movement of this suite is also the final movement of his Op.7 no.4 organ concerto.  Despite it being written for harpsichord, Douglas Mews was able to find moments to employ the pedals to good effect in the opening Prelude.  Certainly there is a greater variety of timbres and tones on even a small organ than could be obtained from the harpsichord.

The Allegro movement was played without pedals; there were lots of notes, and the whole was in a dotted rhythm.  The third movement, Allemande, was quite lovely with a flute registration, and to my mind calm and beautiful compared to what its sound would be on the harpsichord.  Of course a rather different technique is required to play the suite on the organ instead of on the harpsichord.

The Courante certainly ran, in bright tones.  Decorated notes were played with exemplary clarity and the pedals were put to use again, both near the end here, and in the next movement, Air and Variations, an extended movement that showed great invention on the part of Handel.  Adding a 2-foot stop gave a tinkling bell-like sound that was most appealing (no pun intended).

The Presto finale I certainly recognised from the organ concerto – though here it was faster than on my recording of the latter – prestidigitation indeed.

We were privileged to hear an expert playing this fine music.


A long and circuitous route from the Guildhall

New Zealand School of Music presents:

A Guildhall Trio Reunion

Barbara Hill (flute) / Debbie Rawson (clarinet) / Donald Maurice (viola)

with Jian Liu (piano)

Music by Max Bruch, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Maurice Durufle, Alfred Uhl, Francois Devienne, Jenny McLeod

Adam Concert Room, NZSM Kelburn Campus,

Victoria University, Wellington

Wednesday 27th March, 2013

“…..a musical reunion? – ooh, yes, a lovely idea! Remember some of those things we unearthed and played, and had so much fun with? Yes, they’ll sound great, especially with a few wines, and plenty of yummy food – what’s that? A concert? You mean, the real thing? – an audience? – Ooo-er! – eh? – what was that? – No, not at all! – I’m on if you two are on! What gave you that idea? – I’m keen if you’re keen. Yeah, a couple of those things are at home somewhere, at the bottom of some pile. No, it’ll do me good! What about you? – you haven’t played that since when?……well, it won’t have gone stale, then……”

Of course one “invents” scenarios for effect – and truth is often stranger, funnier and more interesting than any fabricated exchange. But this trio of musicians, made up of Debbie Rawson, clarinet, Donald Maurice, viola and Barbara Hill, flute, were simultaneously flatmates and fellow-students at London’s Guildhall School of Music during the 1970s. During the intervening years they’d mostly gone their separate musical ways, except for periods where two members of the trio played together in different ensembles – but up until this present concert the threesome hadn’t performed together or alongside each other since their student days.

Now, along with the help of pianist Jian Liu, the three reunited for the present concert, though most of the repertoire presented involved no more than two of the group at any one time. Happily, the last item on the programme did use the whole ensemble – Jenny McLeod’s Suite – jazz themes was written in 1987 for the Zelanian Ensemble, in fact while Debbie Rawson and Donald Maurice were both members of the group. So the reunion was complete, and honour was well-and-truly satisfied.

Throughout the concert pianist Jian Liu’s playing was both the solid rock on which the different instrumental combinations stood and delivered, and the chameleon whose aspect adapted its tones to whatever was required by the music’s character at any given moment. The programme was largely a twentieth-century one, with the honorable exception of a Duo for flute and viola by Francois Devienne (1759-1803). Though Max Bruch (1838-1920), is generally thought of as a nineteenth-century romantic, his Eight Pieces for clarinet, viola and piano, four of which were played here, were written in 1910.

It was the Bruch which began the concert, Debbie Rawson and Donald Maurice joining forces with Jian Liu to give us Nos. 2, 5, 6 and 7 from those Eight Pieces. At the age of seventy the composer probably wasn’t concerned with fashionable trends in composition, drawing instead from a lifetime’s experience of his own creative impulses and other people’s music. So the Nachtgesang (No.6) which opened the concert had a mellow, sometimes Brahms-like, sometimes Schumannesque character, here beautifully realised, with the players taking turns to accompany one another most sensitively.

The short No.2 (Allegro con moto) was rather more lively, again reminiscent of Schumann, and with the piano part expressing miracles of quiet, nervous agitation (there was a delicious gurgle of appreciation from a very young child in the audience, right at the end of the piece!). No.5, the Rumanische Melodie was true to its description, the solo violin gypsy-like, and the folksy clarinet rhapsodizing by turns gaily and darkly. And what a contrast brought out by the players with the Dvorak-like No.7, beautifully setting the long-held melodic lines over infectious skipping energies, all with the lightest of touches.

Heitor Villa-Lobos’s music isn’t heard nearly enough in our concert-halls, and the composer’s brief but high-output Chôros No.2  merely whetted our appetites for more. One of a series of diverse instrumental combinations, this one threw Barbara Hill’s flute and Debbie Rawson’s clarinet together, lyrical outpourings, angularities and all, Debbie Rawson advising us at the beginning to “tighten our seatbelts” in anticipation of the same – a highly diverting and totally idiosyncratic entertainment.

No greater contrast could have been devised than with the music of Maurice Duruflé which followed, the Prelude, Recitatif and Variations for flute, viola and piano. Where Villa-Lobos’ music seemed all knees and elbows and nervous energies, Duruflé’s richly resonant sound-world conjured up depths of feeling whose surfaces occasionally shimmered and bubbled, realms of liquid and of air brought into active play, and presented for our delight and wonderment. Only during the final variations did the music take on a more physical aspect, and almost always with a light touch, though the notes were appropriately and splendidly scattered over a wide area by way of the work’s exhilarating conclusion.

I’d not heard any music previous to this concert by Alfred Uhl – by dint of the work’s title Kleines Koncert, and the composer’s Viennese connection, the spirit of Mozart seemed to be present from the start, although Uhl was very much a twentieth-century composer, with a number of film scores to his credit. Pianist Jian Liu introduced the work, emphasizing its wit and charm, and its references to the music of other composers. I thought its opening very burleske-like – crashing chords, running chromaticisms and sinuous melodies created a kind of “music for the pictures’ ambience. I particularly enjoyed the “half-lit” sequences, the eerie harmonies and half-tone shifts – all great fun! The players also appeared to enjoyed themselves greatly, moving with relish from the mordant wit of the duo-cadenza-like exchanges at the first movement’s ending to the gothic, dark-tread of the music at the slow movement’s beginning, with viola and clarinet sounding their notes like warning-bells at sea.

As if enough swirling energies hadn’t been expended by this time, the work’s finale reached new heights of vertiginous abandonment, driving the music giddily along within  the confines of closely-worked harmonies. It was a “heads down and scamper” kind of scenario among the musicians, their full-blooded playing screwing up the tensions brilliantly right to the end – all very accessible stuff, uninhibited and entertaining.

Barbara Hill was the obvious choice to tell us about the next composer’s work, as the other musicans would have been quite breathless for a while after putting across Uhl’s riotous music so engagingly. And, of course, Francois Devienne’s work featured the flute, in a duo with the viola. An eighteenth-century composer, performer and teacher in Paris, Devienne’s music isn’t well-known to concert-goers, though there’s a fair deal of it extant,  (over three hundred numbered works, mostly involving wind instruments). This two-movement work nicely contrasted an expressive style at the outset, with a more energetic Rondo, the latter incorporating a photo-finish kind of ending, which must have gone down well with the punters at the time. Barbara Hill and Donald Maurice conveyed a palpable sense of enjoyment to us of both the music and of their partnership in realising its many delights.

There can’t have been many classical music concerts which featured a musician talking about putting down a hangi on a back lawn somewhere in London, as Donald Maurice did here by way of illustrating a context for the group’s connections with the next item and its composer. Jenny McLeod’s work Suite – Jazz themes splendidly performed its dual function of entertaining its audience and rounding the concert off most satisfyingly. Debbie Rawson invited people to dance if they felt so inclined at any stage, which added a kind of physical dimension to people’s listening, even if no-one actually leapt from his or her seat during the performance.

The work’s five movements had many ear-tickling sequences, particularly the first one, Zelania, with its syncopations and “wandering stresses”. The following Chaconne lazily drifted its sounds through ambiences of memory and nostalgia, its slow dance evoking a very rural and idiomatic feeling of familiar vistas. In contrast, the perky Blue Classic had an almost “Beckus the Dandiprat” feeling about it, chirpy, droll, and very much with “attitude”, the cross-rhythms leading to a lovely throwaway ending.

The following Reverie seemed like a kind of daydream or sleep-encircled experience, sounds almost turned in upon themselves, with just touches of reverberation here and there – its taciturn aspect throwing the final Gypso into bold relief, rhythms flailing from piano and viola, saxophone lustily calling out juicy and jazzy themes and flute counterpointing merrily above it all. And to cap it all off (possibly because the hangi wasn’t quite ready out the back!) Donald Maurice insisted that the group play the final Gypso again, ostensibly because, in his own words to us, something “wasn’t quite right”.

The group’s reprise seemed more freely and energetically characterised, the different instrumental roles more sharply-focused – though being able to hear them twice in quick succession in this piece would have on its own “cleansed” everybody’s listening palette. Altogether, it made for a splendidly-delivered ending to a happy and rewarding musical occasion.




NZSO’s “Bolero” – well-wrought excitement and elegant ecstasy

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:


RAVEL – La Valse (poème choréographique)

Piano Concerto in G major


SCRIABIN – The Poem of Ecstasy, Op.54

Stephen De Pledge (piano)

Pietari Inkinen (conductor)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 22nd March 2013

What better way to begin an orchestral concert than with music that features playing of rapt, superfine concentration, sharp-edged focus and meticulous attention to detail?

For much of Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, which opened the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s Wellington Concert on Friday evening, I thought the playing and conducting among the finest and most compelling I had heard from these musicians at any time – right from the outset I found myself riveted by the sounds maestro Pietari Inkinen and his players were bringing into being. At first, everything was dark-hued, with each deeply-resonating pulsation, murmuring oscillation and faintly-shimmering texture seeming to grow organically out of what had come before, Inkinen giving his musicians plenty of time and space to properly articulate their figurations and fill out the textures. I thought it all superbly-wrought, the music’s voices resonating with inner life and shimmering with quiet allure, at once transparent and mysterious, clearly-etched and yet still suggestive and equivocal.

The music’s early climaxes came with plenty of force, each one properly “prepared” though seeming natural and inevitable. In this performance we were able to gradually conjure out of the mists of the opening the shapes and forms of dancers swirling in a ballroom, their movements caught in some kind of fantastic intoxication, drawing us into a vortex of make-believe. And so it all continued, at once dream-like and over-wrought, with tender waltz-undulations followed abruptly by upheavals and disturbances from brass and percussion, as if sounding portents of things still to come. Up to the piece’s final quarter I thought conductor Inkinen’s blending of overall movement, phrasing and detail exemplary.

However, as the sense of growing claustrophobia and desperation began to exert its grip, I wanted to “feel” the change more palpably from the musicians. Those “portents” of imminent tragedy should inevitably begin to curdle the music’s flavour, tighten the rhythms and squeeze the air from those textures – for me, the lead-up to the final reprise of the waltz was too relaxed and untroubled to herald an evocation of collapse and dissolution, which the work’s final bars come to deliver so brutally. Still, the coup de grace was expertly and tellingly done; and when it was all over I still felt grateful to conductors and players alike for so much rare and intense pleasure along the music’s way in this performance.

Interestingly, I felt pretty much the same way about the presentation of the well-known Bolero, which concluded the concert. Again, I thought the opening measures of this work here wrought of magic, sounds whose delicacy suggests something borne on air, pulsations of the spheres, the “dance” a mere impulse of distant delight to begin with. I couldn’t see the side-drummer at all (to my great surprise percussionist Lenny Sakofsky turned out to be sitting directly in front of the conductor, though he was almost totally obscured) – it sounded as though he was offstage, so gently-tapped were his rhythmic patterns, so unobtrusive, in fact that the solo flute which introduced the first of the two themes sounded amazingly full-toned by comparison. The ensuing solos and duets and combinations from different instruments were all gorgeously voiced and shaped, though the long-familiar “curse” of the piece – of which, more in a moment – did strike towards the tricky, syncopated ending of the second of the two oft-repeated tunes at one point, the players “turning” the phrase-ending too soon and threatening to throw the whole ensemble out. However, with Pietari Inkinen in charge, things were kept on an even keel, and the music rolled on and into the next sequence.

I always wait for that first massed violin entry, about two-thirds of the way through the work, playing the first tune – such a great moment! For me, those strings bring a suffusion of light and energy which begins to enflame the whole piece, to the point of near-conflagration towards the end. Here, I thought the orchestral playing expert and reliable over the last few repetitions of the tunes, but to me the intensities created by all those wind and brass combinations didn’t build further after the violins had done their thing. It seemed almost as if the conductor was keeping the brass in check towards the end, thus leaving the last-gasp, percussion-underlined sequence to properly heighten the tensions and cap off the work – perhaps those stalwart brass players had given their all during Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy a few minutes before, and couldn’t quite recapture the same level of voltage.

As to the “curse of the Bolero “, among orchestra players the piece is regarded as proverbially treacherous, due to the mesmeric nature of those many repetitions of the rhythm. I recall a radio program played on “Concert” some years back in which a number of prominent orchestral players from top orchestras in Britain and the USA described the experience of playing in the piece, and the frequency of those rhythms simply going off the rails – one player described the experience as a “double nightmare”, being the fear of (a) getting “out” with those rhythmic patterns, and (b) having to figure out how to “get back in” again. One of my recordings (featuring – sacre bleu! – a French orchestra!) bears out this phenomenon, with the side-drummer at one point getting his rhythms mixed up, but, adroitly, (perhaps with the conductor’s help) mirror-imaging his mistake and thus finding his way back in “sync.” once again! On Friday night the glitch occurred almost at the end of the melody-line, so the players merely had to keep their heads and wait for the next repetition to begin.

Within the framework of these two pieces in the concert were a couple of others as different as chalk to cheese, though fortunately separated by the interval. In the first half, after La Valse, we heard the adorable G Major Piano Concerto, with Stephen de Pledge as the nimble-fingered soloist. Though Ravel indicated his debt to both Mozart and Saint-Saens when writing this work, the first movement of this work in particular is very bluesy, and probably owes something to Gershwin, whom Ravel had met (turning down a request from the former to become his pupil, advising him to “remain a first-rate Gershwin, rather than become a second-rate Ravel”). However, there were plenty of different jazz influences at large throughout the 1920s, and Gershwin was of course just one of these – Ravel had already incorporated jazz elements into his 1927 Violin Sonata, written the year before he met Gershwin.

This was a characterful performance, the soloist not afraid to point the music’s angularities in places, getting slightly “out” with the orchestra at one point for that reason, Inkinen and the players adopting a smoother, less spiky trajectory which resulted in the combination “playing around” rather than “with” one another throughout a sequence featuring the opening tune’s reprise. Elsewhere, the accord was mellifluous, if never taken for granted – de Pledge’s spontaneous-sounding playing made for moment upon moment of great interest, his passagework never as smooth and crystalline-sounding as, say, Stephen Hough’s (a keyboard wizard, after all!), but incapable, I thought, of turning out a meaningless or mechanical phrase. I loved the horn solo, but I must say I was surprised when the normally impeccable-sounding oboe seemed to my ears to make heavy weather of a short, but awkward ascending passage in octaves – still, it’s music that certainly keeps everybody on their toes.

De Pledge made something soulful and “human” of the slow movement’s opening solo, eschewing the marmoreal coolness often brought to this passage – his shaping of the melody was taken up readily by the wind solos, which here were simply to die for.The enchantment was taken on by the strings, leading up to the music’s “dark moment of the soul” climax and the consolation of the following limpid exchanges between piano and cor anglais, the pianist again concerned with shaping the figurations rather than simply “prettifying” the textures.

The finale crashed in with great verve, not quite matched by the soloist, whose lack of real incisiveness throughout made for a more muted keyboard effect than usual, though the superb wind solos, begun by the clarinet seemed to whistle up plenty of energies, as did the whip-crack (right on the button!) and the “toy-soldier” trumpet fanfares. Though there was an uncharacteristic fluff from among the otherwise superb horns, the trombone’s sighing four-note figure was a delight, a pearl of insouciance! Conductor Inkinen held back and unleashed his forces at just the right moments, while De Pledge’s playing certainly caught the vertiginous momentum of the chase and the whirling dervish aspect of the final bars with great aplomb! – a thoroughly entertaining performance.

The “cheese” put alongside Ravel’s “chalk” (or what you will) was Scriabin’s amazing “Poem of Ecstasy”, a work requiring all kinds of extra players to come out of the woodwork in the Michael Fowler Centre, for the purposes of the composer’s requirements – quadruple woodwind, eight horns, five trumpets and two harps, as well as, alas, a pipe organ, which the MFC didn’t unfortunately have. We were informed (warned?) in advance by an enthusiastic programme note on the work that a “brilliant and exuberant finish, resplendent in C Major, makes Scriabin disciples of us all”, though as this would presumably be an internal happening, rather like the conferring of a state of grace upon believers, it would be difficult to actually verify. (A friend told me afterwards that he felt a bit nervous when reading this sentence beforehand, as he wanted neither to be made a disciple of anybody, really, and conversely, nor did he want anybody, and certainly not a dead composer, to be declared HIS disciple!).

Despite the lack of a “proper” organ, the work still managed to generate more than the usual number of decibels in performance. As sheer sound it was an awe-inspiring sonic experience, if somewhat cosmopolitan in effect. As I had been listening of late to a recording of a Russian orchestra playing this work, an incredibly exciting and volatile performance, though somewhat disconcertingly coarse in texture, I felt sure that Pietari Inkinen would bring quite different qualities to the performance this evening, and so it proved. From where I was sitting it was well-nigh impossible to pick out contributions from individual players (invariably, bobbing head movements alone gave me a clue as to which clarinettist, which flute-player, which oboist, and so on, were actually playing!) – but I understand that Acting Section Principal Jon Dante was the superb trumpet-player whose recurring motif rang triumphantly out amid the vibrant orchestral textures.

I confess that, in places here, I thought the work’s unashamed rhetoric needed a bit more of the Russian performance’s sheer animal excitement – on the recording, the raw tumult of the sounds leading up to the two enormous climaxes which conclude the work wasn’t quite replicated by the NZSO players. But such a comparison begs the question as to how music in general ought to be played and interpreted, let alone a work by a part-fin de siècle part-futurist-cum-theosophist Russian composer obsessed with mystical oriental philosophy and the phenomenon of synesthesia (in Scriabin’s case, colours linked to musical tones). What Inkinen and the NZSO did with the Poem was, I thought, play it as a musical work with enormous skill and finesse. And if, like with the tone-poems of another great musical innovator, Franz Liszt, this very abstracted, almost literal approach tended to underline the music’s repetition as well as inspiration, it still came across as an impressive and exciting performance of a rarely-played, but worthwhile work by one of the most fascinating of all composers.


















Variety and enchantment in Robin Ward’s triple harp recital

Robin Ward

Folksongs and Classical works for triple harp

Adam Concert Room

Wednesday, 20 March 2013 at 7.30pm

I was sorry that a larger audience was not present to hear this brilliant and enchanting recital on a little-known instrument.

The programme covered works written for a variety of instruments, but all beautifully rendered on the triple harp, made by Robin Ward himself, also the transcriber of many of the items.  Playing any harp seems pretty skilled to me, but to have three rows of strings surpasses merely skilled!

All the groups of items were introduced in a most informative and informal way by the performer.  We learnt a lot in a short time.  The triple harp travelled fromItalytoEnglandand became established in the second half of the eighteenth century.  It was adopted by the Welsh, and early in the nineteenth century became widely known as the Welsh harp.

Not only was the triple harp lovely to hear, it was lovely to look at.  With a minimum of gesture, Robin Ward played elegantly and skilfully.  This harp, unlike the orchestral harp, has no pedals.  Chromatic playing is obtained by having the three rows of strings.  While there is some overlap; i.e. some notes are doubled up between the rows, music can be played in all the keys.  Watching the player reminded me of the separate uses of the left hand and the right hand on the piano.  However, since there are no keys to play on, it was amazing how fast Robin Ward could play.

The sound was evocative of the countryside.  At times ethereal, at other times the sound was strong.

The first group of pieces was, appropriately, by Welsh composers: Aileen Aroon and David of the White Rock by John Parry (1710-1782), and The Rising Lark by Edward Jones (1796).  The extensive variations in the first piece were delightful; this was certainly heavenly music.

Next were Pavan Lachrimae and Can she excuse by the most noted English composer of the day, John Dowland (1563-1626).  These appealing pieces were written for lute, but were most satisfactory on the triple harp; they seemed to me to have a more rounded resonance.

Jean-Baptiste Cardon (1760-1803) wrote mainly for the harp, the pedal version of the instrument enjoying great popularity inFranceduring his period.  Ward referred to the Sonata (allegro, rondo) that he played as ‘salon trash’, but nevertheless, it revealed a variety of timbres and dynamics; I found it charming, and admired the considerable dexterity Robin Ward demonstrated.

To something more recent: Tárrega’s well-known Capricho Árabe, written for the guitar.  Despite its dedication by Tárrega (1852-1909) to the Moors, who had such a huge influence on Spanish culture through their hundreds of years of residence in Spain, the delicate yet stirring work seemed to me to have a very Spanish quality.  That may be because what we think of as Spanish includes Arabic elements.

Sonata Bastada by Sophia Corri (1775-c.1831 – according to Wikipedia) was a combination by Ward of movements from two of her sonatas (allegro maestoso, Farewell to Lochaber, rondo-Caledonian Hunt).  These were classical in style; she composed quite a number of pieces for the pedal harp.  Corri was Scottish, of Italian descent, and married firstly to the composer Jan Dussek.  They lived inLondon.  The music was most attractive; the fast third movement was a very jolly Scottish piece.

A group of Irish pieces for harp followed.  Robin Ward explained that the original Irish harp had brass strings and was played with the fingernails, but that it had largely gone by the 1770s, so that by the time the music was written down, it was set for other instruments.  The five pieces dating from late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries had lovely folksy melodies, and were most engaging, from General Leslys godnight from the Wemyss Lute Book (c1645) to Sir Thomas Burke by Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738).

Augustín Barrios Mangoré was a Paraguayan composer for the guitar (1885-1944); his La Catedral in three movements (the first movement, Preludio Saudade being written later than the andante religioso and allegro solemne movements).  It’s Bach-like character, particularly in the first movement, was pleasing, as indeed were the cascades in the last movement, giving the piece an almost orchestral feel and effect.

Albéniz (1860-1909) was represented by one of his most well-known works, Leyenda, more often known as Asturias.  Like much of his music usually played on the guitar, it was originally written for piano.  Robin Ward transcribed this piece for the triple harp, incorporation some of the piano version as well as that for guitar.

It was played very fast – the Andalusian dancers would have needed to be very quick on their feet.  But in no way could Ward be called a showy performer.

I sometimes find guitar concerts pall through similarity of timbre and style; this triple harp concert of a little over one hour’s duration retained my interest and enjoyment throughout, such was the variety of styles of music and sounds.  In fact it was ‘some enchanted evening’, musically.


Kronos Quartet – holding time and audience in thrall

Chamber Music New Zealand Presents:

The Kronos Quartet

David Harrington, John Sherba, violins

Hank Dutt, viola / Jeffrey Zeiger, ‘cello

Music by Omar Souleyman, Ram Narayan, Nicole Lizee, Jack Body,

Valentin Silvestrov, Steve Reich, Aleksandra Vrebalov

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Monday, 11th March, 2013

The Kronos Quartet got an extremely warm reception at the end of their Wellington concert – and they responded with no less than four encores! Still, opinions among people I knew in the audience varied afterwards – simply marvellous, said one friend; while another lamented that the group played only one thing he liked, the Silvestrov Quartet. A third thought it all a bit self-indulgent, three “veterans” and a youngster, the former reliving former glories, but without the “edge” of yore. Perhaps I was one of the few in the hall who had not seen the Quartet live in concert before – after all this was their fourth visit to the country – and so for me the experience was more akin to a new discovery.

For the uninitiated such as myself the only sense that could be gleaned of a group of musicians resting on their laurels was in leader David Harrington’s laid-back-plus spoken introductions to each of the items – and such an approach could easily have signified twenty different performance attitudes for twenty different audience members. Though the quartet played a couple of established pieces, such as Steve Reich’s WCT 9/11 and Jack Body’s Arum Manis, at least three of the pieces in the concert were less than three years old, all commissioned by Kronos. That hardly constituted “resting on laurels” behaviour, I would have thought……

Considering the range and scope of the group’s stylistic forays in this concert it’s hardly surprising I picked up a few thumbs-downers from people regarding individual items – mostly it was Canadian composer Nicole Lizee’s “Death to Kosmische” described by the composer as “faded and twisted remnants” relating to a particular style of electronic music, which brought forth puzzled and negative reactions. My own feeling was that the piece perhaps needed a clearer demarcation-line between the piece and its actual source-subject – even a stylized stand-alone piece of “Kosmische” would have clarified for many listeners just what was being given the treatment. And the composer’s scheme for the piece was laden, to say the least, incorporating both “musical hauntology” and “residual perception” as currents in the argument, alongside the lampooning of a specific genre – all fascinating, but for some of us a tortured, obsessive-sounding thicket, complete with a “La Valse-like” disintegration into chaos at the end.

Brighter lights shone upon most of the other pieces for me, either by way of reactions to the sounds in a purely visceral sense (as with the two opening items by Omar Souleyman and Ram Narayan) or through an opening-up of different worlds through an interplay between intellect and sensibility. Omar Souleyman’s La Sidounak Sayyada (translated as “I’ll prevent the Hunters from hunting you”) had an instantly-catchy pop-ethnic sound, the composer grab-bagging a multitude of classic, ethnic and pop-techno-like styles. Kronos played an arrangement of his work commissioned by the group from American composer and arranger Jacob Garchick. And Ram Narayan’s interpretation of a traditional Indian raga, transcribed from an actual recording by the composer of Raga Mishra Bhairavi featured the Kronos players  combining conventional instrument textures (“bending ” the note pitches in the manner of a sitar, or more properly the “Sarangi” – Ram Narayan’s own instrument) with hurdy-gurdy-like sounds, exotic and in places filmic in effect.

Jack Body’s work Arum Manis (Indonesian for “candy floss’) was another Kronos commission, this one from 1991. Body intended for the work to have something of the quality of that particular confectionary, more air than actual substance and predominantly sweet and pleasurable. What also came across (as it does with a lot of Body’s music) is a sense of discovery, almost by “stumbling upon” something, which the composer conveys here by setting acoustic and tape sounds, the quartet’s instruments the traveller and the taped sounds the discovery. Most uncannily I visualized while sitting in the semi-darkness listening to this action/reaction process a kind of antennae drawing impulses of energy downward to earth from a starry sky – in other words I felt a pronounced flow of energetic impulses, the fragments of taped sounds somehow “finding”a focus of resonance and response – a case for me of “What, without asking, hither hurried whence?”, but without an Omar Khayyam sitting beside me to pour the next glass of wine!

Draughts of a different, rarefied sort came in abundance with Valentin Silvestrov’s Third String Quartet, premiered by the Kronos just over a year ago. Like his fellow-composer Aarvo Part, Silvestrov’s earlier, more avant-garde works got him into conflict with the Soviet authorities in the 1970s, and it wasn’t until he modified the severity of his work in subsequent years that it began to enjoy a wider acceptance, both officially and popularly. His seven-movement quartet took its time to unfold, the sounds having for me at once a sequenced and spontaneous quality. It was as if the composer was drawing from a stream-of-conscious set of memories, allowing them to call forth their own associated developments. I felt as if the group had become an instrument that was simply being played on. There were occasional angularities and impulsive thrusts of energy, but largely  the lines of the instruments were like old grandmothers’ songs, or nostalgic tunes sounded by a harmonium, themselves memories of deep, rich strains of things.

Over the work’s latter stages I felt we had been taken to a world similar to that of Sibelius’s music for “The Tempest”, everything rich and strange, and redolent of distant lights at sea and mist-shrouded surroundings. It came down to each impulse from the music sounding like a heartbeat, moving in accord with the natural world, and with our own sensibilities as audience members in the end, by this time in utter thrall to the music.

After an interval rich with discussion and disagreement, we were back for Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11, of which I found analysis impossible, so “caught up” I became in the tumultuous nature of the events of that tragic day as presented by Kronos’s assemblage of sounds and music. In three sections, the piece featured the stringed instruments in both “live” and pre-recorded guises, doubling and harmonizing the various fragments of speech patterns and repetitions, concerning themselves with both rhythm and pitch, and bringing out the inherent musicality in human voices. Section One used the voices of air traffic controllers trying to get in touch with the plane which first crashed into the World Trade Centre building, and reports by commentators of that event. The second and third sections featured voices in the aftermaths, including a ‘cellist playing and a cantor from a New York synagogue, singing Psalms and sects of the Torah.

Pushing the idea of what constitutes art-music outwards, Reich’s work emmeshed sounds of human and technological activity with tones and rhythmic patterns. It was like bringing the act of composition closer to the original source of inspiration by directly transferring sounds and patterns of sounds to a piece rather than refracting their impact through some kind of abstract instrumental expression. How fascinating it would be to hear a version of something like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, or La Mer made by Reich or one of his contemporaries. In the present work’s case the effect wasn’t unlike some kind of secular Requiem, its composer using sounds as notes and contexts as building-blocks, and putting them together.

I hadn’t forgotten the programme’s final work, the quirkily-titled ….hold me, neighbour, in this storm….  The composer, Aleksandra Vrebalov, from Serbia, went to live in the United States in her twenties, and is currently teaching in New York. She wrote …hold me neighbour…in 2007 for the Kronos Quartet, who premiered it the following year. The piece seeks to fuse the different strands of folk and religious music from the Balkans region and express them using one of the Western World’s most iconic classical music institutions, the string quartet. Vrebalov wanted to characterize in music a “coming-together” of cultural and religious differences that have for centuries troubled the region – interestingly, she comments that, in some ways at the grass-roots level this fusion has already been taking place, producing something musically quite unique springing from the land and its people.

The composer pre-recorded church bell sounds, Islamic calls to prayer, sounds of children playing, lullabies, war and conflict sounds and drinking songs, an assemblage whose contributions at times pushed things into tumult, then at other times fined down to subtle murmurings.The quartet leader played an ethnic-looking bowed instrument at one point, another player thumped on a drum, and feet were stomped in time to some of the dance-like rhythms.  But then the strings would evoke the sadness of peoples trapped in conflict mode and powerless to make a difference to it all. The sounds of the work were by turns moving and exciting, and made a satisfying and varied whole.

The audience simply kept on clapping at the end, and the quartet obliged again and again with several encores. The players’ generosity accorded with the range and scope of their program – despite the nonchalant, laid-back platform manner, Kronos seemed as ready as ever to give itself as a group over to whatever the music demanded of them. The group’s forty years as an ensemble, packed with presentations of no less than eight hundred original compositions, were tonight carried lightly and gracefully, and brought to bear with wonderful ease and fluency for our pleasure.




























Streeton Trio return triumphantly to Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society

Haydn: Piano Trio in E, Hob. XV/28
Schubert: Piano Trio no.1 in B flat. D/898
Elena Kats-Chernin: Wild Swans Suite (2002, arr. 2013 for piano trio)
Mendelssohn: Piano Trio no.2 in C minor, Op.66

The Streeton Trio: Emma Jardine (violin), Julian Smiles (cello), Benjamin Kopp (piano)

Waikanae Memorial Hall

10 March 2013, 2.30pm

The Australian Streeton Trio made a hit in Waikanae last year, and they certainly maintained or even enhanced their reputation this time, albeit with a different cellist; their regular cellist, Martin Smith, injured his wrist in an accident, and so was replaced for this tour by Julian Smiles.

The Haydn trio was unfamiliar to me, and proved to be an enchanting work containing quite a lot of fun.  The opening allegro revealed great clarity from the players, as they alternated rather folksy pizzicato phrases (the pizzicato echoed on the piano also) with lyrical ones.  The trio was titled by Haydn “Sonata for the piano-forte, with accompaniment for the violin and violoncello”; this title the performers observed, not only when the piano had solo passages.  The rhythmic variety of this movement was just one of its many delights.

The solo nature of the piano writing was even more to the fore in the allegretto slow movement.  It characterised by baroque elements, and the playing style of the strings, using little vibrato, was appropriate.  It was certainly the most sober of the three movements.

A cheerful allegro finale rounded off the work with playing that was both delicate and lively; vintage Haydn, given a very polished performance.  The forte chords that concluded the movement would have been a wake-up call to any lulled to slumber by the gentle elegance that preceded them – and by the warm hall.

The Schubert trio is one that I am perhaps too familiar with.  I have a recording of the Odeon Trio performing it, and had a cassette tape for many years of the Beaux Arts Trio playing the same work, which accompanied me frequently in my car.  However, it is a very different experience to hear the work played live in concert, to see the players negotiating their instruments with apparent ease and expertise, and to hear the nuances of the music in space.

The sparkling first movement is wonderful for the cellist.  In this long movement there is much delicious interweaving of the parts.  The beautiful opening cello solo with piano accompaniment sets the pensive tone of the andante slow movement.  This wonderfully gentle movement was played with finesse and subtlety.  The many imaginative figures were given their due, and performed sympathetically and with beauty of tone.  Nevertheless, there were a few slightly untidy passages here and in the finale.

The scherzo (allegro) was taken at a fairly fast pace; its trio was quite lovely.

The rondo finale tripped along delightfully, with its dance-like idioms.  There was an impressive fluttering technique employed by the cellist as part of the many luscious elements in this movement.

The Streetons played with excellent balance, no one instruments dominating, and gave the audience a marvellous taste of Schubert at the height of his powers.

After the interval, we were treated to an Australian composition.  I had come across the name Elena Kats-Chernin before – last year, in the concert by the Vienna Boys’ Choir.  They sang Land of Sweeping Plainswritten especially for them by this Tashkent-born, Moscow and Sydney-trained composer.  The lavish printed programme for that concert contained three coloured photographs of the composer, two of them with members of the choir.

The piece we heard on Sunday was an arrangement by the composer of music she wrote in 2002 for a ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story.  The first movement, ‘Green Leaf Prelude’ began with attractive watery sounds from the piano, followed by pizzicato cello, and on violin.  These passages led to long bowed notes on violin with a melody on cello, later joined by the violin, while the piano continued its watery accompaniment.

The second movement (‘Eliza’s Aria’) consisted of a jerky dance, the piano again sounding aquatic.  Pizzicato cello with bowed violin featured here, and then the roles were reversed.  The sustained melody was similar to the previous pizzicato tunes.

The third movement (‘Brothers’) was notable for dotted rhythms on all three instruments.  This is not a profound work, but evocative, jolly, and well crafted.

Mendelssohn’s genius is nowhere better demonstrated than in his chamber music.  The first thing I noticed was his brilliant piano writing – though at the beginning of the Piano Trio no.2, I found the piano a little over-pedalled for my taste.  The allegro was vigorous, but there were many subtle passages intervening.

The andante second movement had a profound opening on piano; this was lyrical beauty at its best.  As the excellent programme note stated “It is graceful, reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words… evokes images of A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

A complete change of mood for the scherzo had the strings trotting along together, accompanied from glorious cascades from the piano.

The allegro appassionato finale lived up to its name; in places, it could almost have been written by Brahms.  The entire performance was very satisfying, and richly deserved the audience’s enthusiasm, which gave rise to a wonderful encore: the romantic andante second movement from Mendelsssohn’s first piano trio, in D minor.  It began with an extended piano solo – another song-without-words-like sequence of exquisite beauty, to close a memorable concert full of nuances that expressed so many emotions.