Beethoven from Houstoun Concert 4 – recycle plus renewal….

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:

Michael Houstoun (piano) – Beethoven ReCycle 2013

Sonata No.20 in G Op.49 No.2 / Sonata No.3 in C Op.2 No.3

Sonata No.24 in F-sharp Op.78 / Sonata No.16 in G Op.31 No.1

Sonata No.23 in F Minor Op.57 “Appassionata”

Town Hall, Wellington,

Sunday 30th June 2013

Those of us who are regular concertgoers can’t really help ourselves – as we get to know the work of certain musicians whom we’ve heard at various times over the years, we form opinions of them as artists and of their work. And, contrary to the popular axiom, if this work is of a consistently high standard, it’s a case of familiarity giving rise to admiration and respect, and invariably to a desire to hear still more from these same people.

Consider, for instance, pianist Michael Houstoun, who’s had thus far a most distinguished career in this country, and who’s presently engaged upon his second complete public performance cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas. Through these and many other performances and recordings, Houstoun has impressed a positive, strong and clearly-etched artistic profile in the minds of the musical public. He would, I’m certain, be widely regarded as this country’s foremost classical pianist at the present time.

Houstoun has consistently and single-mindedly worked towards the highest standards as a musician – to the point where, some years ago, his intensities contributed to a kind of physical melt-down in the form of focal dystonia, a dysfunctional phenomenon which has, over the last quarter-century, afflicted a number of instrumentalists. It says much for the pianist himself that he was able to work towards a recovery, with the help of a number of skilled specialist practitioners.

So, up to that particular crisis-point in his career, and with stellar achievements under his belt such as two complete Beethoven sonata performance cycles – one in public, the other commercially recorded – his reputation as a pianist had been well-established.  Now he’s come down to us having gone through what he himself has indicated was a redefining set of experiences associated with his debilitating disorder and gradual return to playing health.

I’ve heard him perform on a number of occasions of late – and for me, each experience has persuaded me to rethink my opinions regarding a pianist whose playing I thought I knew well. This latest concert, the fourth in the new “Beethoven ReCycled” series, pushed out the parameters of the pianist’s art for me in a way that was as exhilarating as it was unexpected. It wasn’t a Wordsworth-like scenario of pleasure and understanding recollected in tranquility – this was a here-and-now experience, one which took its time to grow and flourish during the recital’s course, but with its flowers growing cannons towards the end, to overwhelming effect.

For whatever reason we were located in the Town Hall for this particular recital – and the venue I think overawed the musical content of the opening sonata on the programme, the second of the two “student’ sonatas, Op.49, the one in G Major. Houstoun also chose to play the music in a very simple and unprepossessing way, as if his abilities had been marshalled and concentrated for the purposes of simply realizing the score. I could have imagined more character given to each of the movements – the first chatty, even garrulous in places, volatile and explosive in others, and the second homespun, quirky and angular, by turns – but the pianist might have reckoned that such treatment would have overlaid the music’s simplicity. And Houstoun’s playing graciously made me feel that my own feeble attempts at playing the second movement weren’t perhaps altogether worthless!

The C Major, Op. 2 No. 3, was a different story, the irruptions of energy positively orchestral in their impact, though the melodies were kept on a fairly tight rein, as was the right-hand work – more power than “tumbling warmth”, but none the less impressive for that. The slow movement’s opening, with its stepwise left-hand theme and filigree right-hand figuration here beautifully stilled the busy beat of time, making the great mid-movement outbursts all the more telling, Houstoun bringing out almost Goethe-like vistas of huge spaces and great contrasts.

Tumbling warmth there was a-plenty in the scherzo, with the canonic-like voices having a marvellous time, falling head-over-heels together and landing in satisfyingly tangled heaps at the bottom of each descent – by contrast, the trio was all swirling, vertiginous impulse, making the return of the “Jack and Jill” opening a relief, even if the ending did suggest that the Jack indeed “fell down and broke his crown”. And the finale, deceptively graceful in places (and, I thought, quite Schumannesque in the lyrical second subject), released great surges of energy, with a fierce young virtuoso’s joy in the final presentations.

Before the interval we were treated to one of the composer’s loveliest and most distinctive creations, the two-movement Sonata No.24 in F-sharp Op.78, subtitled “For Thérèse”, the dedicatee, Thérèse von Brunswick, being one of those on the “short list” of candidates for the composer’s enigmatic “Immortal Beloved”. The music here had a lovely ceremonial opening, with Houstoun giving the subsequent unfoldings plenty of time and flexibility to allow a sense of something naturally expressed.

Beethoven gives us certain surprises in the form of sudden remote modulations, and a playful whimsicality as the exposition repeats (lovely to hear!), not to mention the abrupt, enigmatic ending. As for the second movement, its sophisticated humour was given just the right amount of insouciance by the pianist, though we did all enjoy those dynamic “lurches” from major to minor and back again, in those toccata-like passages. If the music is indeed something of a “character-study”, Thérèse must have been both a bit of a thinker, and a lot of fun!

Enjoyable though the first half was, I thought Houstoun’s playing really began to spread its wings after the interval, beginning with the exalted playfulness of the first of the Op.31 Sonatas, No.16 in G Major. Gone was much of the severity and brusque treatment of detail found in the pianist’s recording of the first movement of this work, made for Trust Records in the mid-1990s – here was playing still of great virtuosity but tempered by touches of humour. In between the exciting, energetic runs, the syncopations were given time to register their drollery, so that the listener had a sense both of action and reflection, and their give-and-take in the music.

The second movement’s aria-like aspect here properly had a singer’s amplitude, the textures richly and gorgeously upholstered with both trills and related figurations – I liked the “duetting” middle section, a lovely foil for the more ritualized solo lines, while the “coming together” of the simple and decorative at the end was given by the pianist, by turns, a rich ambience and a wistful, open-ended feeling of space. And the fleet-of-finger finale similarly played with contrasts, Houstoun readily and easefully bringing out the music’s expansive, very Schubertian figurations and textures, but adroitly returning us to a Beethoven-like presto at the end, a drawing-together of the discourse’s threads and patches.

And when this was done, Houstoun proceeded to launch into a performance of the “Appassionata” Sonata, No.23 in F Minor, Op.57 – one of the most famous of Beethoven’s works – with an almost frightening sense of purpose and determination. I remember the pianist in an interview describing how his youthful encounter with a gramophone recording of this music all but overwhelmed his sensibilities  – and it seemed that, on this occasion he was able to recapture the essence of that initial impression and convey its full force to those who were present.

No other work by Beethoven expresses a sense of the elemental more insistently, not even the “Grosse Fugue”. The music’s incipient darkness never fully relinquishes its grip, even if there’s some relaxation of tension throughout the “theme-and-variations” form of the middle movement. Houstoun’s powerful playing had all the “grip” this music needed, bringing into play a living and volatile feeling for the piece’s dramatic ebb and flow, great command over a tonal spectrum that gave the piano’s treble plenty of ring and glint and the bass what seemed like oceans of depth, and the enormous reserves of power and stamina needed to do it all justice.

Two things about this performance will abide in my memory long after other details are forgotten – firstly, the sense of the pianist playing that opening phrase, and in doing so somehow enveloping us completely and utterly into the music’s world, as if we were suddenly taken to a vantage-point and could see it all from where we stood at a single glance – by no means removed from the storms but instead placed in the very eye of them! Thus every irruption and every lull swirled around and about our heads, having both an immediacy and an inevitability which stimulated body and mind, emotion and intellect.

When Houstoun observed the finale’s repeat of the development and recapitulation (some pianists don’t, which, for me, always leaves a kind of undressed, bleeding wound in the music at that point!) I had to restrain myself from rising from my seat and thumping the railing in front of me for sheer excitement! I’ve never been able to understand how any pianist with genuinely red blood coursing through his or her arteries could omit this passage, or any analysis could put forward the premise that the repetition is problematical for the movement’s overall structure (significantly, Houstoun also played this particular repeat on his 1995 recording of the work for Trust Records).

The other thing I’m not likely to forget was how Houstoun played the Presto coda of the Sonata’s final movement and what happened straight afterwards. He delivered those opening coda sequences not “as fast as possible” but at a tempo which enabled him to keep the following swirling figurations at a similar pulse, thus avoiding any sense of “slowing down” again, and maintaining the music’s momentum right to the end – such involving, scalp-pricking stuff! And then – the pianist rose from his seat and, amid tumultuous acclaim, seemed almost to scowl at the applause, before turning and practically stalking off the platform, occasionally giving his head a mighty shake, like a lion tossing his mane! He seemed fired up with what he’d just done, and we simply adored him for it! Incredible!

By the time he returned, to renewed applause and a standing ovation, he was ready to smile again! But after a performance such as he gave us of the “Appassionata” he could have made whatever gesture he whatever he wanted, and we would have roared our approval. For myself, I was glad I was there – to see a musician seemingly transported by the emotion of the music he or she is performing so mightily, is certainly something to remember.






Pataka piano recital pleases

Pataka Friends presents:
Piano Recital by Ludwig Treviranus

Rachmaninov: Études-tableaux Op.33  no.9 / Liszt: Transcendental Étude no.3, “Paysage”

Chopin: Étude Op.10 no.5 “Black Key Study”

Beethoven: Sonata Op.27 no.1 in E flat “quasi una fantasia”

Mendelssohn: Variations Sérieuses Op.54 / Ravel: Alborada del Gracioso

Mussorgsky: Five sketches from ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’

Ludwig Treviranus (piano)

Helen Smith Community Room, Pataka, Porirua

Sunday 30 June 2013

A brilliant programme played by a brilliant young Wellington pianist greeted an almost full room on Sunday.  All the music was played from memory and extremely competently; in many cases, superbly well.  Programme notes were very informative, yet brief.

Problems were to do with the room – painted walls on two sides of the piano and a low ceiling made for undesirable triple fortes at times, and in the opening piece and occasionally elsewhere, a brittle sound.  The performer needs to learn to adjust more to the size and acoustics of the venue.  The other problem was the squeaky piano stool.  Adjustable piano stools seem to be like the doors on public toilets – they’re never oiled, and always squeak or creak.

The Liszt piece was gentler and quieter until well on, thus we could appreciate the performer’s pianism better.  The well-known  Chopin study was played in a delicious style and manner.

I was delighted at the next item – one of my favourites of Beethoven’s sonatas, and certainly the one I have played the most.  As the programme note stated, it and its mate in Op.27, the ‘Moonlight’ sonata, are improvisatory in style, and played without breaks between movements.  A few skipped notes here and there did not cause great damage, although there was a little too much pedal for my taste at times; at others, figures were artistically turned without pedal.  The playing was beautifully expressive without unnecessary affectation.  The second movement’s syncopated notes were played too fast to fully reveal the syncopation between the hands.  Nevertheless, this performance gave me new light on a work I know well.

The variations by Mendelssohn were very inventive, and conveyed his usual good humour.  The playing was just a mite heavy-handed at times.  A virtuosic section contrasts with the quiet, thoughtful chorale played in the middle of the piece.  The first section repeated the rather brittle sound.  A good deal of prestidigitation was required.

Ravel’s piece from the piano suite Miroirs was given a lively performance, with plenty of staccato to lighten the texture.  It was a characterful rendering, but rather too loud.  After this piece, a friend and I moved further back in the room; we were not  bothered there by brittle sound.

Mussorgsky’s splendid musical rendering of his late friend Hartmann’s sketches is a superb landmark of the piano repertoire.  ‘Gnomus’ received fiery, electric treatment, with lots of character.  The final sketch, that brings the theme from the opening ‘Promenade’ to its apotheosis, ‘The Great gate of Kiev’ featured great dynamic contrasts.  This was a fine and accomplished performance of Mussorgsky’s appealing work, and played with splendid technique.

As an encore, Treviranus played a jazz arrangement of the ever-popular ‘Somewhere, over the rainbow’.

All those present would wish him well with his determination to make a career in New Zealand.



Tremendous panache from performers in Verdi’s epic Requiem


Lisa Harper-Brown (soprano), Margaret Medlyn (mezzo), Rosario La Spina (tenor), Jud Arthur (bass)

Orpheus Choir and City Choir Dunedin

NZSO conducted by Pietari Inkinen

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 29th June.

Verdi’s Requiem was presented last Saturday evening with tremendous panache by a huge group of musicians who all seemed to revel in the privilege of performing this epic work. Their enthusiasm was palpable, in a way that communicated itself to the audience and created a gala atmosphere that was further enhanced by the wonderful lighting of the rich timber work in the dome . The huge range of dynamic and dramatic possibilities, and the riveting contrasts crafted by Verdi were brought out by Inkinen’s direction in every movement of the score.

A great deal has been written about the dramatic and operatic style of the Requiem by those who question whether such overt dramatism is appropriate for a work that contemplates death. But the score makes it clear that Verdi saw much more than contemplation in the gamut of emotions facing a dying human being. He threw his formidable talent at the challenge of expressing a whole range of feelings with no holds barred, and this was a performance that did that intention proud. The musicians barely whispered the breathless plea of the opening Requiem aeterna,  yet  repeatedly unleashed a shrieking terror of divine wrath in the recurring Dies irae. The contemplative numbers were sensitively crafted by the singers in solos and ensembles alike, and they were supported by some breathtaking obligati from the woodwind principals, the first bassoon being the standout example.

There were very few moments that were less than satisfactory. Lisa Harper-Brown embraced the huge demands of the solo soprano score with complete technical mastery and projected clearly over the strongest orchestral and choral passages. Margaret Medlyn’s musicianship was, as always, eminently sensitive and convincing, but there were times when the pitch and timbre of her voice could not quite float through the orchestration provided for the mezzo solos. Jud Arthur likewise needed more power and definition than his voice could find to sound strong and satisfying in some numbers. Rosario La Spina could soar effortlessly over the combined choir and orchestra, but was sometimes too dominant in the tenor voice of ensemble numbers. Margaret Medlyn and Jud Arthur were both sometimes difficult to hear within the solo ensemble when it was set against the massed choirs and full orchestral resources.

Inkinen was apparently conducting the Requiem for the first time on this NZSO tour. But his beat was always clear and sure and only once, in the Sanctus, did he set off at a tempo which left the disparate choral and orchestral strands struggling to mesh their rhythm. His control of the vast dynamic range and huge dramatic contrasts demanded by the score was truly impressive, and it was clear that even the most distant chorister responded to such clear, emphatic leadership. The orchestra was in splendid form, and the strings and wind had no trouble holding their own with Verdi’s fullest orchestration for brass and percussion.

The performance built inexorably to a riveting climax that was capped off with thunderous applause from the packed auditorium. The glowing faces and excited comments that buzzed in the lobbies afterwards expressed the enormous enthusiasm of the audience, and the sense of being privileged to experience such a powerful work so magnificently presented. Judging by the turnout on Saturday, the NZSO should take these reactions to heart, and more often consider the great masses and requiems of such as Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven etc. when preparing future programmes.

Old and new, far and near, from the New Zealand String Quartet

Wellington Chamber Music Trust

Brahms: String quartet in A minor Op.51 no.2 (allegro non troppo; andante moderato; quasi minuetto, moderato – allegretto vivace; finale – allegro non assai – piu vivace)

Ross Harris: String quartet no.5 (Songs from Childhood)

Dvořák: String quartet no.12 in F, Op.96 ‘The American’ (allegro ma non troppo; lento; molto vivace; vivace ma non troppo)

New Zealand String Quartet

Ilott Theatre

Sunday, 23 June 2013

It was good to see ‘our own’ quartet back in the Sunday afternoon series, after an absence of several years.  Particularly, it was pleasing to see that Helene Pohl was able to play with all the fingers of her left hand, having now fully recovered from her accident in February.

As usual, members of the Quartet introduced the items in an informative manner, illustrating themes and passages on their instruments, especially prior to the opening work.  The thought emerged that perhaps Brahms’s self-criticism that caused the destruction of many of his works may not be something to be deplored; the sublime music of this quartet (one of the NZSQ’s favourites, said Rolf Gjelsten) is beyond compare, and something to be treasured.

Although Romantic, this quartet is not pure romanticism.  There is much attention to form and structure.  The long first movement is full of various shades of emotion and thought, sunny and serious by turns.

The slow movement is rich and sombre, with a wistful lilt.  As the programme note had it, it is like “a quiet conversation between the four instruments.”  This was particularly the case in its third section.  The third movement is very lyrical as well as dance-like, featuring both slow and fast dances.  Its long lines kept the music moving forward.

The finale was in great contrast to the earlier movements.  Despite its energy, it didn’t have as much to say as the earlier ones.  The entire work was played with flair and sensitivity.

Again, some explanation before the next item, this time from its composer, Ross Harris.  He questioned whether we remember childhood, or is it something we make up as memory?

He warned us that the players were not playing out of tune – the work commenced with some playing micro-tuned notes, against harmonics.  Later, a tui melody emerged, that developed into a canon.  Sometimes each instrument was doing different things from its fellows.  There was considerable use of the ponticello technique (bowing close to, or on the bridge; pont=bridge).  The music became somewhat frantic towards the end, and while much of the time it was true that ‘The use of continually shifting metre and micro-tuning imbue the work with a dreamlike floating quality, both fragile and illusive [elusive?]” as the composer’s programme note had it, it was not all like this – some passages were chunky, although others were ghostly, with little fragments of harmonics interspersed with pizzicato.

It was an intriguing work, one I would wish to hear again, to fully appreciate.  I heard generally appreciative comments afterwards.

Dvořák’s ‘American’ string quartet is one of my favourite works.  As the programme note said, “There is a sense of joy…”; I find this with all this composer’s music.  Even where, in the second movement, there is a sense of yearning for his home country, it is not an anxious or angry yearning.

The interweaving of the parts, especially in the passages of the first movement using the pentatonic scale – beginning with the beautiful opening on viola – was wonderful to hear.  The movement was played with fervour and empathy, and more dynamic contrast than I have sometimes heard in this work.

The slow movement was magically lovely, while the third, employing bird song (vide the Ross Harris work) was most enjoyable.  The finale also made use of the pentatonic scale.  It was thoughtful and melodic, but spirited to the end.

A new work, and two of the most brilliant from the late Romantic era made up a gorgeous programme, played with the intelligence, sublime finesse, perfect balance, and the musicality that we have come to expect from Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman, Gillian Ansell and Rolf Gjelsten.


J.S.Bach at Paekakariki

JS BACH – The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One

John Chen (piano)

Memorial Hall, Paekakariki

Sunday June 23rd 2013

(based on notes prepared for a review on RNZ Concert’s”Upbeat” with Eva Radich)

I’m certain that Bach would have been highly intrigued and perhaps tickled pink to think of his music being played in a place with the name of Paekakariki!

It is alway a great pleasure to go to Paekakariki to hear music being played. Firstly, the surroundings, especially on a good day, are spectacular – and of course, if the weather isn’t good, there can be spectacle of a different kind, especially as the Memorial Hall, where the concerts are held, is situated almost right on the shoreline, with only the road and the beach separating the music from the ocean, and vice versa. It seems to me that the only thing that might give concern in such a situation is the prospect of a decent-sized tsunami, which would put an end to pretty well everything if it ever happened.

At Paekakariki there’s a concert series called the “Mulled Wine” concerts, organized by local musician and entrepeneur Mary Gow – each audience member receives a cup of mulled wine as part of a kind of “afternoon tea” after each concert. The whole process has a very attractive kind of community feeling about it, which reminds me of my own experiences in Britain going to some of the smaller venues along the Suffolk coast associated with the Aldeburgh Festival. The hall is a pretty ordinary community hall, but its location is picturesque, breathtakingly so on a fine day, with the ocean and the islands on one side and the coastal mountain ranges on the other.

It must be a unique kind of experience to have those images with you when you sit down to listen to some live music.

Yes, it all adds to the sense of occasion, which isn’t, of course, essential to the appreciation of great music, but which helps make one’s particular experience of it in this case distinctive. An extra attraction on this occasion was the presence of art-work on the walls of the hall, paintings and drawings by two of Paekakariki’s most distinguished residents, Sir Jon and Lady Jacqui Trimmer (present at the concert). Besides their extensive activities and experience in dance, both have worked in the visual arts for a number of years, painting, pottery and sculpture. Most of the paintings were by Jon Trimmer, some by his wife, Jacqui – not surprisingly there seemed in his work a preoccupation with the human form, and not merely engaged in dance.

What a wonderful use of artistic and creative resource within a community – now that is surely something which would have added even more distinction to the occasion!

Yes, and it all took place quite unostentatiously – no bugles, no drums, as the saying goes – everything was allowed, in a way, to speak for itself. So, there we were, in Paekakariki’s lovely Memorial Hall, the piano situated halfway-down the body of the hall instead of at one end, and the audience sitting in a half-circle around the instrument. One would imagine that in an empty hall the sound would be impossibly reverberant – but with all of us there the sound had a pleasant bloom without being too lively. After being introduced, the pianist spoke to us for a few moments, wanting to share with us just a few of his thoughts about the music he was going to play – which was, of course, Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach.

I liked very much his spoken characterization of the music’s course over the twenty-four preludes and fugues.  He told us that for him the music has three different aspects interwoven together – physical, emotional and spiritual – and its course represents a person’s lifetime, with the opening few pieces having a fresh, birth-like quality, and the second quarter of pieces filled with the energy and exuberance of youth. The later preludes represent maturity, with the last few spare and visionary, the energy of youth all gone, and a spiritual aspect taking over the sounds.

I know there’s a school of thought that says the artist shouldn’t talk at a concert, but just play the music, and let the composer do the talking, not the performer. What did you think?

In this case, I welcomed hearing what he had to say – it was impressive and even touching to hear such a young man (he’s only twenty-seven) giving voice to such thoughts. He also told a lovely anecdote against himself – he had been approached admiringly by somebody after a concert who marvelled at his playing of the entire First Book of the WTC from memory; but was mindful, in the face of such praise, how he had heard about Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix’s sister, who had memorized BOTH books at the age of 9; and even more astoundingly, about the German pianist Wilhelm Kempff, who also knew both books from memory, but could also play the complete work, every Prelude and Fugue pair in any key, also from memory. He said that he wanted us to have some kind of perspective about what he was going to do that afternoon – that “it wasn’t such an amazing achievement after all!”. I’m sure Chen would have undoubtedly been aware of the great man’s own response to some admirer of his keyboard prowess, which was, “There’s nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.”

Aware of the significance of the journey we were about to be taken upon, we sat, listened attentively, and let the music cast its spell upon us. From the beginning Chen’s playing impressed with its sheer beauty, the well-known opening Prelude sounding freshly-minted in the player’s hands, in fact as if reborn for our benefit. As he played, he gave each of the pieces the space it seemed to need, following the dictum of “where to hold, where to let go”, as fugue followed prelude, and new prelude followed fugue. Whatever the contrasts between the individual pieces, Chen made them work shoulder-to-shoulder, treating the transitions, both gentle and rather more startling, as though they were entirely natural progressions.

Perhaps the key to his success with both the individual pieces and the work as a whole was his “overview of the music’s character” which he spoke about before the recital – he seemed to be able to successfully bring those three aspects together in different proportions at every stage of the journey – firstly and foremost, there was the physical excitement of the music’s momentum, dynamic variations, tonal colorings and melodic contouring. Then there was the intensity of feeling arcing between the music and ourselves as listeners, feeding and stimulating our imaginations. And finally there was the spiritual aspect of the music, the sounds transcending time, place and station and imbuing our sensibilities with abstractions of thought and wonderment, suggesting eternities in and between notes, and through orderings and sequences leading to exalted states of being.

In a work this size, made up of so many extremely concentrated smaller pieces, the demands on both he player and the audience must feel throughout as though they never let up. Did it seem at any time like a long haul at Paekakariki?

I guess the infinite variety of Bach’s invention simply sustains the interest while the work is progressing. Certainly that sense of journeying, as John Chen put it, through a life-span, allows you to “pace” yourself and give yourself the energy required to keep the attention focused – and it must be the same for the performer, as well. The wonder is that over such a long span, the pieces can still stimulate a lot of difference and variety, rather than sound as thought they’re melting into one another. And of course a full-length concert can perhaps be thought of as a life in microcosm – energetic at the start, properly warmed up for the middle sections, where one is at one’s best,and then gradually waning as the energy starts to dissipate.

How did he manage with all of those life-stages? – quite a feat of imagination for someone in their twenties!

Yes, and such a gift to the rest of us, for what the music and the playing stirred within ourselves! What Chen did was to bring his own creativity to that of the composer’s and make it all come alive – so what we heard throughout was a marvelous amalgam of youth and experience, of energy and discipline, of inspiration and skill – I think it’s something of a picture of a person a young man aspires towards, in that respect. So the music, and its making, is confident, energetic, well thought-out, beautifully shaped and most of all, very alive!

Surely no one person performing this work can realize all of its aspects to the point where there is nothing left to say – do you think there were things left unsaid in the music?

Actually there was only one piece in which his playing didn’t really take me anywhere – but this is a bit of a problem piece, as I’ve heard quite a number of pianists who similarly go on a kind of “auto-pilot” as if they’re not quite sure what to do with the music except perhaps let it play itself, as opposed to a handful who have that “gift” – and I think it’s probably no coincidence that they’re all older and more worldly-wise. The piece I’m talking about is the very last Prelude of the set, No.24 in B Minor – I would call it an elusive piece, something almost not of this world, a glimpse into another realm – very much what John Chen was talking about in terms of the music reflecting someone’s lifespan, except that I didn’t feel that his playing of the music had gone there,in that particular instance – compared with everything else he played this seemed to lack a rich character. On the other hand, the fugue which followed the prelude was splendidly performed! This is quite all right – musicians, and artists in general shouldn’t be able to conquer worlds too easily – the achievement is in the journey as much as in the arrival!

Do you think he managed to express this spiritual dimension of the music in other places in the work?

Oh, certainly – I would expect anyway his playing to mirror his own life-stage, anyway, and being thus very true to his own self. So he seemed less in touch with the deeper, more reflective side of things, but able to express that more vigorous,here-and-now kind of transcendental spiritual joy with which Bach writes in some of the pieces. I would imagine John Chen will be playing these pieces at various times throughout the remainder of his life; and I would hope I get the chance to hear him perform them again, at some time.

Brio’s fantastic lunchtime explorations

Brio Vocal Ensemble Presents:
FANTASIEREISEN  (Fantastic Journeys)

WAGNER – Excerpts from “Das Rheingold”

3 Wesendonck-Lieder

R.STRAUSS – 2 Movements from Five Piano Pieces Op.3

2 Songs: – “Leises Lied” and “Zueignung”

MOZART – Excerpts from “Die Zauberflöte”

Brio: Janey MacKenzie (soprano), Catherine Leining (soprano), Jody Orgias (mezzo-soprano), Mark Bobb (tenor), Justin Pearce (bass)

Special guest appearance – Roger Wilson (bass)

Jonathan Berkahn (piano)

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 19th June, 2013

Fantasiereisen is not, of course, the word for a German bakery, but instead, the title chosen for the most recent of Vocal Ensemble Brio’s enterprising programmes. Presented at St.Andrew’s as part of the Lunchtime Concert Series, it featured music by Wagner, R. Strauss and Mozart, a kind of kaleidoscopic collection of operatic, vocal and instrumental works given this wonderful title (in English, this time) Fantastic Journeys. One or two rough moments put aside, I thought the presentation a great success.

It all began with part of the opening scene from Wagner’s Das Rheingold, here sung (and acted) in concert-hall style, with piano accompaniment (the music truncated here and there, but still allowing us to savour the episode’s principal themes or leitmotifs, as the composer styled them). So, Jonathan Berkahn’s skilled playing unfolded for us the themes associated with nature and with the River Rhine, before the trio of Rhinemaidens burst in on the scene, sung by Catherine Leining, Janey MacKenzie and Jody Orgias. The three sported in the river’s sparkling waters before being suddenly accosted by a dwarf, Alberich, sung here by Justin Pearce.

Of the watery trio of Maidens (I keep thinking about comedienne Anna Russell’s brilliant description of the three as “a sort of aquatic Andrews Sisters”), I thought Janey MacKenzie’s voice stood out when singing solo, her tones, easeful, resplendent and siren-like. When together as a threesome, each voice worked beautifully, their collective energies and impulses well-drilled, and their tones steady and mellifluous. Opposite them, Justin Pearce’s lust-crazed Alberich, though a bit papery-toned in places, was dramatically convincing – he made good use of both voice and “face” when conveying his bitter disappointment at failing to make a capture of any one of the three sisters.

In fact I was enjoying the performance so much, that the excerpt’s abrupt conclusion at that point, just before the appearance of the sun’s rays which light up the Rhinemaidens’ gold, came as an aural shock! Still, I kept my composure, and resolutely avoided causing a scene by jumping to my feet and blustering “But…but…but you can’t stop NOW!….). I did so want to hear the Rhinemaidens’ cries of “Rheingold! Rheingold!”, and especially as everybody seemed to be really getting into their parts and enjoying themselves at this juncture. I suppose, realistically, it had to stop somewhere – but one did feel, particularly at that point, as though one had been from the music “untimely ripp’d!”.

I had to be content with something completely different to follow, two movements from Richard Strauss’s Five Pieces for Piano, here played winningly by Jonathan Berkahn. First was a lovely, song-like Andante, and afterwards an “Allegro-vivace” hunting-song. The latter was music that seemed to want to take its listeners on plenty of wide-ranging adventures, including, by the sounds of things, a couple of tumbles! – all fine, and nobody hurt, save for a few bruises!

Two songs by Richard Strauss followed, both sung by Janey MacKenzie. The first, Lieses Lied, (Gentle Song) was delicately essayed by both voice and piano, the singer readily negotiating the song’s high tessitura, and with only a moment of strain at the top of an ascent, near the end – the rest was a delight. As for the well-known Zueignung (Dedication), the great rolling phrases were beautifully arched, and expansively negotiated, as was the final verse’s climactic high note, thrillingly attacked and attained.

I couldn’t help but feel for Jody Orgias, singing three of Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder in the wake of the resonances of Margaret Medlyn’s stunning performance of the whole set just recently – her feeling for the music was evident, but I felt the songs needed more, here, lacking the ambient Tristan-esque charge that both orchestra and a more focused vocal outpouring was able to generate at that NZSM concert. I thought the singer was elsewhere able to display her abilities far more readily in the operatic excerpts, where her unfailing sense of the stage and of how words and situations interact was evident. The Magic Flute excerpts which concluded the concert found her, I thought, much more at ease.

Throughout the concert Jonathan Berkahn’s piano playing had given us considerable pleasure thus far – unfortunately his somewhat untidy playing of an unfinished Mozart sonata-movement made a less-than-positive impression. The intention was partly to demonstrate an instance of the composer’s occasional forays into uncharacteristically stormier territories – but even when stormy and stressful Mozart’s music requires a kind of elegance and sense of proportion (it’s part of what makes his music so terribly difficult to get right, and especially on a modern piano, where the music’s figurations and textures are often made to sound ungainly).

Happily the Magic Flute exerpts seemed to right these very few wrongs, and provide a suitably fantastic, as well as heart-warming finish to the presentation. For the first exerpt, which was the duet “Bei Mannern”, featuring Papageno, the bird-catcher, and Pamina, the captive princess, bass Roger Wilson stepped into the breach to replace an ailing performer at short notice, partnering Janey MacKenzie, the give-and-take between the two remarkable throughout, even if I felt the piece’s basic tempo was too quick to allow the singers time to properly “round off” their phrase-ends – Pamina’s lovely arching line right at the end, for example, here sounding a shade fettered, and wanting just a little more freedom.

Finally came the “padlocked mouth” quintet, with Justin Pearce reclaiming the character of Papageno and enjoying his “Hm-hm-hm-hm”s, and tenor Mark Bobb giving us a small-voiced but elegant Tamino (the prince in pursuit of Pamina – perhaps it was his eagerness which contributed to the men’s music being rushed ever so slightly) –  still, the voices blended nicely in the ensembles, nowhere more beautifully than in the “Three Boys” sequences (surely some of the most sublime music written by anybody!) sung by both the trio of women and the Tamino/Papageno duo, before the final “Lebt wohl” exchanges at the end.

All in all, a pleasure to report that these journeyings through fantastic lands were well worth the making.











Valedictions from the Tokyo Quartet

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:

The Toyko Quartet – Farewell Tour

MOZART – String Quartet “Hoffmeister” K.499: BARTOK – String Quartet No.6

BRAHMS – String Quartet No.1 Op.51 No.1

Tokyo String Quartet

Town Hall, Wellington

Saturday 15th June 2013

Going to hear practically any concert is a kind of privilege for the listener – especially when one thinks about the “coming together” of the different things that contribute to a live performance. The “here-and-now” of it all has its own kind of spontaneously-charged electricity. Somehow, it doesn’t feel quite the same when listening to the same music played on a recording, and not even when the performers are the same as one has heard ‘”live”.

Having said this, there are concerts and concerts – and certain occasions do have a greater sense of “charge” than others, generated either in anticipation, or during the course of the performance, by the listener. One such occasion, on both counts, was the recent appearance in Wellington by the esteemed Tokyo Quartet, nearing the end of this, their “farewell” tour.

The group is disbanding after a 43-year-long career, one which has seen a number of changes of personnel, leaving one surviving original member to stay the course, violist Kazuhide Isomura. A second member of the group, violinist Kikuei Ikeda, joined the quartet just four years after their inauguration, which made him the next best thing an honorary foundation member – the other two quartet members, leader Martin Beaver and ‘cellist Clive Greensmith, joined the group in 2002 and 1999, respectively.

Despite the changes in personnel over the years, the group has maintained the highest standards of quartet-playing, winning critical acclaim for both their concertizing and their recordings, the latest (and, unfortunately, the last) of which features works by Dvorak and Smetana. Among previous recordings are integral sets of the Beethoven, Brahms and Bartok Quartets, along with single discs featuring a wide range of repertoire.

Here, tonight, it was Mozart, Bartok and Brahms whose music carried the Quartet’s valedictory sounds to us – I confess I would have preferred hearing some of their Beethoven to the Brahms – but that feeling wasn’t shared by people I spoke with after the concert. And it was interesting to experience the latter’s music in particular played by a group whose sounds were among the most refined and focused of any quartet’s I’d previously heard – interesting, because even with such advocacy I still found the Brahms quartet hard going, in particular the first two movements.

But ah! – the Mozart! The group’s playing reminded me a little of an account give by Artur Rubinstein of his hearing Sviatoslav Richter “live” for the first time: “It wasn’t anything special or out of the ordinary (recalled Rubinstein)……then at some point I noticed my eyes growing moist, and tears began rolling down my cheeks”. That wasn’t exactly what happened to me, but the effect of the Quartet’s playing took a similar course – a little way into the first movement I realized that I had actually lost myself in the music.  I felt I had been drawn in by the composer’s “world in a grain of sand” way with what sounded like the simplest of means having the utmost effect.

This was the “Hoffmeister’ Quartet K.499, given its name in honour of the work’s publisher, Franz Anton Hoffmeister, a friend of the composer’s and a fellow Freemason. Hoffmeister wrote in an advertisement regarding the work that it was “composed with an ingenuity…..that one not infrequently finds wanting in other compositions”. That “ingenuity” expressed itself in graceful ease throughout the first movement, the players here able to turn the music’s phrases in such a way that sweetness and energy worked hand-in-glove, with nothing forced or contrived. Everything had such focus, such purposeful strength, including the quietest, most delicate moments, so that the music’s argument seemed like a living, pulsating discourse.

I liked the delicate whisper of the development’s beginning and the surges of energy that followed, the players again with unfailing elegance delineating the ebb and flow of things – the movement’s “false” ending was delightfully brought off, giving its proper conclusion a kind of augmented satisfaction. The minuet provided a richly-uphostered tonal contrast, throwing into amusing relief the canonical chicken-like “cheepings” of the trio: while the slow movement demonstrated the group’s skill at sustaining long-breathed cantabile lines, with the solo violin “taking off” like a skylark towards the end.

As for the finale, the players again demonstrated their ability to delicately touch in detail at high speed, the music anticipating at some points the young Beethoven’s similarly questioning figures in the finale of his first Op.18 quartet. I loved the cellist’s delicious playing of his elevator-like runs, his elfin energies very much of a piece with what the other players were doing. In fact, so evanescent was the players’ articulation in places that the effect was almost impressionistic, though the lines and trajectories never lost their focus – Mozart was always Mozart!

It was with Bartok’s music that the original Tokyo Quartet made its mark internationally, and this performance of the Sixth Quartet reaffirmed the group’s position as among the foremost interpreters of these works. Even if I hadn’t know about this previous association, I could have assumed, from its Mozart-playing, that the Quartet would have similar affinities with Bartok’s charged sensibilities and the resulting range of expression in this particular work.

What an extraordinary work this last quartet is! – Bartok’s idea of presenting a theme at the very outset and a variant of the same at the beginning of each subsequent movement gives the work an amazing multi-faceted quality. The theme and its variations knit the structure together, but conversely provide a springboard for explorations of staggering variety across the movements. In a sense it was an entirely appropriate work for the quartet to play by way of a “leave-taking” – and the players’ extraordinary poise and controlled energy brought out the composer’s sharply-focused distillation of both his sorrow and resignation in the face of the difficulties that beset his final years.

After the interval, it was Brahms, the group giving us the first of the composer’s three String Quartets. I was hoping that, in light of the lucid, sweet-toned textures conjured up in many places by the Tokyo Quartet throughout the first half, that this would be the group that would “convert” me to these works. Alas, I continued to struggle with what I thought were the composer’s over-wrought textures, especially throughout the first two movements. There were times I felt “hectored” by the unremitting onslaught of the figurations, and frustrated at the composer’s own muddying of his own thematic lines. The fault is obviously mine – as with the Austrian Emperor who was famously supposed to have told Mozart that there were “too many notes” in his new opera “Il Seraglio”. People I spoke with at the concert’s end were enchanted with the music and the quartet’s playing of it.

Amidst the opaqueness of the Brahmsian textures I did discern certain lovelinesses – the opening of the slow movement, for example, conjured up in my mind fairy-tale scenes from the German forests, that is, before the first violin’s line, to my ears, began to over-fill the textures. I did enjoy the third movement’s romantic sense of disquiet, the music’s movement, underpinned by repeated notes from the ‘cello, engendering a feeling of unease, perhaps even of flight – the players brought out all the music’s drawing-room grace and elegance, and the Trio’s waltz had a folkish air of simplicity, with attractive, ear-catching pizzicati at certain points, making the return to the opening’s unease all the more telling.

The finale started with a searing unison, the Quartet then digging splendidly into the music’s forward-driving mood, occasionally bringing the opening unison’s figuration into the argument, but leavening the seriousness of it all with some lyrical song-bird harmonizing. The “turn for home” brought out even more trenchant energies and a forceful, unequivocal conclusion. Nevertheless, I was so pleased that the players felt sufficiently moved by the audience’s reception to offer a movement from a Haydn quartet as an encore – a Minuet from one of the “Apponyi” quartets (I think Op.74 No.1) – being, as the quartet leader Martin Beaver put it, “a return to where it all began” in string-quartet terms.

It seemed to me that here was quintessential quartet-playing – the music by turns called for great rhythmic character and energetic attack, followed by relaxed yet sharply-pointed detailing as the moods changed between main dance and trio, with an infinite variety of tones appropriate for each flicker of mood. As far as we in the audience were concerned, no better “goodbye” could have been spoken – a true privilege for the listener, indeed.




Pieces of eight from Nota Bene

Pieces of Eight: Works in eight parts

de Monte: Super lumina Babylonis / Peter Philips: Ecce tu pulchra es
Byrd: Quomodo cantabinus / Purcell: Prelude (organ)  Hear my prayer
Lotti: Crucifixus / Bach:  Alle Menschen müssen sterben, BWV 117 (organ)
Singet dem Herrn, BWV 225
Brahms: Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen (organ) / Unsere Väter hofften auf dich  Wenn ein starker Gewappneter / Wo ist ein so herrlich Volk
Greene: Voluntary in E flat (organ) / Pearsall: Lay a garland /Great God of love
Holst: Ave Maria / Mendelssohn: No.4 from Lieder ohne Worte Op.19 (organ)
Kyrie, Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe, Heilig, heilig

Nota Bene Chamber Choir, conducted by Peter Walls, with soloists, and Erin Helyard (chamber organ)

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill Street

Saturday, 15 June 2013, 7.30pm

Once again, a concert of innovative programming from Nota Bene.  This time, it was made up of pieces written for eight parts, mainly in the form of two choirs.  The result was a performance full of animation, with interesting and appealing music well sung, providing enjoyment for the audience, which pretty well filled the venue.  The dates of the compositions ranged from sixteenth century through to twentieth century.

All the words were printed in the programme; in lieu of programme notes, Peter Walls gave short, knowledgeable spoken introductions to each bracket of music.

Philippe de Monte was a Belgian working in Prague; his setting of ‘By the waters of Babylon’ was unccompanied, and sung antiphonally.  Immediately I was struck by the rich bass lines; the whole piece was delicious, especially the ending.

The Philips item had one choir echoing the other.  The variety of dynamics from the choir was excellent, as was the unanimity of tone, i.e. blend.

Byrd, as a Catholic composer in what was, in the later sixteenth century, Protestant England, gave added meaning (and danger?) to the words ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’  Heard in Wellington’s Catholic cathedral, these words not only had point, but the acoustics made all the music sound good.

Here came the first of the interspersed items played on chamber organ by Erin Helyard: a Purcell prelude probably played at the funeral of King Charles II.  It was a piece of varied tempi, making an apt introduction to the Purcell anthem, ‘Hear my prayer’.  All the words, here and elsewhere, were very clear, and the dynamics, rising to double forte, were admirable, although the opening of the piece, accompanied by the organ, was slightly hesitant.

Lotti used discord most effectively in the single choir (not polychoral) ‘Crucifixus’.  The sound veritably shimmered, especially where sopranos were at the top of their range, and basses at the lowest part of theirs.  I could not help noticing the sparsity of  eyes upon the conductor – no doubt a reflection of the complicated music and the full and varied programme – but what a contrast to The Big Sing the other night, where the young people had memorised all their music!  Nota Bene is a relatively youthful choir, but that would be too tall an order!

A short organ piece by Bach followed.  I would have liked a little more lift between repeated notes and chords in this, and more phrasing of the lines of the chorale melody (i.e. hymn-tune).

Bach’s motet ‘Singet dem Herrn’ is a wonderful example of baroque-era choral music.  It was accompanied on organ; the choir and organ were not always absolutely together, and the blend was not so good here, but the complex and brilliant texture nevertheless came over well.  The chorale and aria middle section of the motet was unaccompanied, and the fine voices of the soloists (Amanda Barclay, Katherine Hodge, Phillip Collins and Matthew Landreth) were projected splendidly, as were the smooth, beautiful sounds from the choir.

After the interval, a short Brahms piece from the organ.  This, and the later Mendelssohn one, would have sounded better from the big organ, with more tone colours available for the Romantic era music.

The three Brahms choral pieces that make up Fest- und Gedenksprüche I had not heard before.  All three were sung antiphonally, and featured excellent German pronunciation.  I found the second, ‘Wenn ein starker Gewappneter’ particularly effective, with its interweaving parts and long sustained lines.  In this acoustic, the latter were more satisfactory than rapid runs.

The third of the trio, ‘Wo ist ein so herrlich Volk’ contained lovely suspensions.  We were treated to a pure sound from the choir when required, and plenty of fortissimo passages, along with confident treatment of changes in tonality.  I found this one of the most satisfying items of the evening.  Both Brahms and Mendelssohn (heard later) were admirers of, and influenced by, J.S. Bach; this made a link through the programme.

An English bracket followed, starting with a slow organ voluntary of Maurice Greene’s.  Next came the madrigal by Robert Pearsall ‘Lay a garland’ (a favourite of Peter Godfrey’s), sung in single choir, with beautiful tone, except for some straining in the tenors, but making the most of the exquisite writing; a second Pearsall madrigal followed after the Holst.

Holst’s ‘Ave Maria’ was sung by women only.  The ‘Benedicta’ section was sung strongly the first time, then in the repeat, pulled back to give an ethereal effect.  I did feel that Holst went on a bit too long with too much repetition, thus running out of steam and losing effect.

Mendelssohn completed the programme.  I thought playing one of the Songs without Words on the organ was most unfortunate.  The music needed the clarity of the piano.  Perhaps adding a 2-foot stop would have helped – it sounded heavy, and not in the least like a song.  I have attended other concerts with interspersed appropriate short organ pieces that have worked better than was the case on this occasion.

The composer’s German Liturgy is familiar to me from the National Youth Choir’s frequent singing of it.  A quartet of solos in the middle (Amanda Barclay, Maaike Christie-Beekman, Phillip Collins and Simon Christie) was sung gratifyingly well, as indeed were all three movements.  ‘Heilig, heilig’ succumbed to a false start, but proved to be performed in a very positive, affirming style with exemplary tone, making a good way to end the concert.

Antipodean stargazing and planetwatching from the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents


EVE DE CASTRO-ROBINSON – The Glittering Hosts of Heaven

GUSTAV HOLST – The Planets

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Pietari Inkinen (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday, 14th June, 2013

“Matariki” – the “eyes of god”, are said to be the stars belonging to a cluster (known elsewhere as the “Pleiades”) which were formed by the fierce God of the Winds, Tāwhirimātea, who tore his eyes out and threw them into the heavens in anger at the separation of his parents the Earth and Sky.

Somewhat less overtly savage is the account in Greek mythology of the seven daughters of Atlas, the Titan, who were pursued by the hunter, Orion, and saved (presumably from a fate worse than death) by Zeus who placed them in the sky. And, yes, there are seven stars, and in both of the mythologies quoted here, each star is given its own name and character.

Only after the concert did I go looking for these definitions and explanations – and I was both delighted and amazed by how these archetypal depictions and metaphorical interpretations of the particular stars in question seemed to particularly resonate with my memories of Eve de Castro-Robinson’s wonderful “Glittering Hosts” music, which was the first music we heard during the evening.

This work was a new commission by the orchestra, and I thought one that most successfully threw wide open its composer’s particular gifts of evocation, along with an ear for near-inexhaustible detail and an unerring sense of structure. De Castro-Robinson’s arresting story-like rhetorical gestures and vivid instrumental characterizations kept us transfixed, like some sultan of antiquity in thrall to his Scheherazade, as she related tales of wonder and excitement.

I liked how the piece began, not with far-away, nebulous murmurings divorcing us by dint of sheer distance from the firmament and its activities, but with in-the-face insistent, spiky, here-and-now happenings, the deep strings and percussion opening up the vistas only after we ourselves had become caught up with some of the scintillations. So, the vastness of the territory was indeed evoked, but so were its relative immediacies, with three of the seven instrumental soloists, flute, clarinet and trombone, drawing us into their opening interplay as part of the overhead galactic goings-on .

The piece seemed very “layered”, with frequent ostinati delineating patterns of orbital and rotating movement, bursts of shimmering detail evoking both individual and “clustered” stars, and more long-breathed lines (usually from the strings) suggesting the mystery of great distances. Details came and went more by osmosis than chance, leaving resonances in their wake, a cantabile figure from the solo ‘cello taken up by the strings, and a trombone solo sounding part-clarion-call part-lament. And across the larger picture, orchestral percussion gradually added their weight and colour to a kind of processional sequence which generated great warmth and colour, almost Straussian in its impact.

After this, the sounds deepened and darkened once again as though some kind of “event’ had occurred, leaving far-reaching resonances, and the soloists all gingered-up with impulse-gestures, angular figures bouncing between one another and different orchestral groups! The solo ‘cello, high in its register, brought forth a deep, double-bass and timpani response, as the flute “sounded breath” against a solo viola’s romantic inclinations, and the percussion trickled in strands of ambient warmth, taking little notice of the larger concerns of gleaming brass and scintillating winds.

The vastness of physical territory was matched by the piece’s far-flung moods – out of the sounds’ passive objectivity at the beginning gradually evolved what sounded to me like a baleful oppressiveness, challenging the solo violin’s lyrical warmth and generating energies throughout the orchestral textures which rose up in a kind of madness, the laughter chromatic in accent and mocking in tone, a kind of display of awesome power dwarfing any human aspiration. The solo trombone’s flatulent-textured comments gave ready rise to similarly pithy responses from among the other soloists, almost an “enter-the-clowns” scenario, one which both entertained and disturbed with its implications for we earthly mortals.

All of these interactions seemed to me in the overall grip of some wonderful kind of axial trajectory whose volatility of detail and surety of progress seemed to mirror, in a star-crossed way, human affairs on earth. I could fill paragraphs with minute-to-minute impressions of the journey taken by the music, but such an undertaking would be out of the scope (orbit?) of this review. Enough to say that the whole was rounded off by the seven soloists’ adroit dovetailing of their lines and fusing of their ever-waning tones and textures with those of the orchestral winds, into a deep silence at the end.

As homage to the splendour of the night skies, I found De Castro-Robinson’s work compelling and satisfying. While it may never challenge its companion concert piece this evening in the popularity stakes, it’s a work which, I think, will reward repeated hearings, and – what would be best of all to happen – a recording. Certainly it’s a handsome tribute by the composer to her “beloved parents”, one of whom (her father) was able to be present at the performance (I understand, somewhat hair-raisingly, after having his scheduled flight to Wellington cancelled earlier in the day!) – it was obviously “in the stars” that he was able to eventually make it!

Having had our terrestrial selves already somewhat borne aloft by contact with the “glittering hosts” of Matariki, we were more than ready for some closer-to-home interplanetary explorations in the form of Gustav Holst’s well-known seven-movement suite “The Planets”. Despite its great popularity, it’s an elusive piece, terribly difficult to get “right” all the way through, due to its wide-ranging moods and compositional styles over the seven parts, not to mention the sheer virtuoso instrumental demands upon the players. Surveys by commentators of recordings which have been made over the years haven’t turned up a single performance by one conductor and orchestra which is reckoned to have “nailed” the piece through and through – though,of course, the same could be said of many, many works, both on record and in concert.

So, how did Holst’s brilliant series of astrological character-studies come across here, throughout the evening? Generally, I felt that Pietari Inkinen and his players were happiest when the music took them to realms furthest from the heat of the sun (with the exception of Venus, more of which in a moment). In fact the final three movements were, I thought, superbly delivered, not least of all the composer’s own favorite movement, Saturn (the Bringer of Old Age), which was cold and unremitting at the outset, with the music’s growing disquiet built to a terrifying central climax (such scalp-pricking trumpets!), before slowly and inexorably turning the music’s despair to resignation and acceptance. Uranus (the Magician, and a favorite of mine) I thought a riot of colour, energy and scarily-directed impulse (the music should sound, as here, just as dangerous (baleful brass and shrieking winds!) as it does funny (galumphing timpani and wheezy contra-bassoon!).

And the enigmatic Neptune (the Mystic) demonstrated such endless reserves of sustained tonal control from all concerned (including the wordless off-stage choir), that we sat for what seemed almost like an age in eerie silence at the end, lost in our own wonderment at the spell cast by those beautifully-distant voices. Earlier in the suite , the cool, chaste, and determinedly virginal charms of Venus (the Bringer of Peace) were of course as much Holst’s doing as anybody’s – and this performance from Inkinen and his players was no exception, with peerlessly pure horn-playing from Samuel Jacobs and matching tones from the winds, as well as Vesa-Matti Leppanen’s violin and the rest of the strings (apart from a not-quite-true attack on their soft final chord, obviously difficult to achieve).

Interestingly, I found myself talking with an old friend at the concert’s interval (before the Holst work was played) – this was an extremely experienced concert-goer friend who enthusiastically praised Pietari Inkinen’s recent work with the orchestra (much of which he said I was heartily agreeing with!) – he then said something like “…and such elegant music-making! – never a vulgar or ill-conceived sound from the orchestra…”. Again I was able to agree, though as I was about to opinion that with some music, this conductor’s encouragement of elegant, and unfailingly mellifluous orchestral textures didn’t for me take some things in the music far enough, the “resuming-bell” sounded, and that was the end of the discussion.

So as I listened to each of the remaining pieces, I found myself recalling my friend’s words – Mars (the Bringer of War) was first up, with everything expertly played by the band, and including some wonderful individual moments – a big-boned, sonorous euphonium solo, for instance! – but the playing for me, though brilliant, didn’t really disturb or truly alarm. One of Holst’s own books on astrology had the following description of the planet: “Mars is cruel,has blood-red eyes and is prone to anger”. Here, it all seemed not quite brutal- or harsh-sounding enough – while at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, I thought Jupiter (the Bringer of Jollity) lacked real humour and bucolic energy. In a sense, each characterization needed more sheer abandonment, towards ugliness in “Mars” and vulgarity in “Jupiter” – and this is probably the rub!

Finally, Mercury (the Winger Messenger) featured skilled, precisely-timed playing, but was it all mercurial enough? – was this the speed of thought? My own thought processes, perhaps – but then I’m a flat-footed, somewhat pedestrian thinker, lacking in true wit and real spark. There are wings on the feet of visual depictions of Mercury that l’ve encountered, but this performance’s sounds didn’t accord with those images in my head. Alas, Mercury here remained earth-bound!

So, in the fine old tradition of performances of this work, some of the planets on Friday evening shone more brightly than others. Those that really glowed did so most effulgently – and conductor, orchestra and choir can be especially and justly proud of that unforgettable moment at the end of Neptune’s performance when it seemed in the hall that the whole of the Universe had stopped for a few seconds just to listen to the music’s silences…..











NZSM students stringing things together

Post-graduate String Students of the New Zealand School of Music

Music by Mozart, Beethoven and Bach

Blythe Press, Jun He, Arna Morton (violins), Xialing Zheng (cello), Matt Oswin (piano), Nicole Ting (piano),

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Yet more impressive playing from students.  First up was Blythe Press, who has been playing with the NZSO as a contract player.  He played the allegro from Mozart’s Violin Concerto in D, K.218, from memory.  This glorious music was played perhaps a little too judiciously – the odd rubato, apart from that before the cadenza, might have been good.

However, the full, bright sound and fast tempo (compared with some recorded performances), added to the obvious skill of the player, made for a great performance.  The long cadenza was very demanding, but quite lovely.  Matt Oswin accompanied on the piano with skill and empathy.

Another violinist and another Mozart work.  Jun He played the composer’s Sonata in B flat, K. 454.  She spoke to the audience about the work and something about the style of bow, but I could not hear most of what was said.  It was a pity that the available microphone was not used.  It was good to hear Mozart’s balance between piano and violin, compared with the rather disconcerting  piano (no pun intended) substituting for the orchestra in the previous item – unavoidable, of course.

Jun He was also accompanied by Matt Oswin.  Together, they made a fine job of the largo-allegro first movement of the sonata.  It was interesting to hear the different timbre and tone Jun He produced from her instrument compared with those of Blythe Press.  It was not a matter of superior or inferior – just less bright and full in her case.

The Cello Sonata in A, Op.69 of Beethoven was performed by Xialing Zheng, accompanied by Nicole Ting on the piano.  They got the portentous feeling of the opening of the allegro ma non troppo movement just right.  The playing was strong, and both instrumentalists produced fine tone.  The pianist played very well, with a great range of expression.  But numerous lapses of  intonation on the part of the cellist were unfortunate; for this reason, her performance did not ‘take off’ for me.

Finally came Arna Morton, who is leader of the Wellington Youth Orchestra, to play the Adagio in G minor, BWV 1001 of J.S. Bach.  This unaccompanied piece was given a very fine performance, and was followed by Mozart: allegro aperto (the latter word means ‘free’) from his Violin Concerto in A, K.219, with Matt Oswin.  Arna used the music score for this performance, but, aside from a few unwanted squeaks, on the whole made a splendid performance of the work, with a variety of tone and dynamics.

Arna proved to be another strong player, and gave a fast realisation of Mozart’s superb music.  She played a shorter cadenza than did Blythe Press, but it was absolutely delicious.  It involved a good deal of double-stopping, and a magical passage where the opening melody of the movement was played on harmonics.  A beautiful tone was maintained throughout.  This musician was the only one to look as if she was enjoying herself.

It was a pity to have biographies in the printed programme for only two of the performers; it would have been interesting to read a little about the others.

Once again, we had the treat of hearing talented young musicians who have benefited from excellent teaching and training.