The Ginger Series tackles classical music with a captivating, oblique apologia

How to Hear Classical Music by Davinia Caddy
No 11 in The Ginger Series
Published by Awa Press, Wellington

Book review

One has waited quite a while for this brilliant little series of monographs to find a writer able to deal with what the media likes to suggest is about the most intractable (and irrelevant) of artistic fields: classical music.

The many subjects covered so far have included such quirky topics as bird watching, watching video games, how to pick a winner, fishing, as well as more serious matters like listening to pop music, reading a book, watching rugby and cricket, looking at paintings.

So I was delighted when this book appeared, in large part because a few years ago Mary Varnham of Awa Press had invited me to try my hand at the subject. It attracted me greatly because I have developed quite strong views on the nature and importance of music, especially over the 25 years that I have been writing music reviews.

But although I had clear ideas as to the style and tone of a book that would match the excellence of those that were appearing in this series, what I wrote persisted in deviating from that path. The temptation to self-indulgence (as will be in evidence below), to draw too much on my own memories and experience of exploring and discovering music, not to mention becoming unduly polemical, proved too strong, and I also came to realize that the job of being entertaining, of employing lots of amusing and relevant anecdotes, and vivid examples that would hold the reader’s attention, called for time-consuming research that I never made space for.

A quick skim through Davinia Caddy’s achievement, however, showed me how it should be done.

What struck me first was her avoidance of any predictable organization of material either chronological or by topic. So the chapters deal with notions and conceptual things that are usually introduced by an anecdote, often drawn from the writer’s own experience as a student or as a teacher.

The uses of classical music
Nothing could have been as arresting as story No 1: the author, house-hunting in Auckland, comes across the full score of Massenet’s little-known opera, Esclamonde, sitting ostentatiously on a piano in an evidently pretentious house for sale. It leads obliquely to a consideration of one of the uses of classical music – ostentation.

It was the entrée to chapters that sought to discover whether there were more important reasons for its continued relevance, indeed for its indispensability to civilization and to the fulfilment of human desires and needs.

The next chapter was entitled ‘Play me, I’m yours’; it described a phenomenon that has yet to reach New Zealand: the placing of old pianos, tolerably playable, in public places. The writer’s first encounter was with one on the approach to the Millennium Bridge in London, where she watched people play it shyly, tentatively, confidently, virtuosically (the small George dashes through the fiendish last movement of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata).   There are scores of such pianos in public spaces round London and in many cities round the world; the inspiration of British artist Luke Jerram, it’s clearly a growth industry.

Davinia observes that the pianos, in unusual places, and the music that people play on them has a remarkable social impact, and quotes thinkers from Plato on who have recorded the powerful spiritual force of music. Classical music has a hold over listeners.

Later chapters too, deal with aspects of music’s uses, starting with early Christian and Renaissance music, but somewhat surprisingly Davinia explores Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum somewhat analytically, discussing the use of canon and other technicalities. Ultimately she reveals her reason for employing such an example – ‘you can float away on the soaring phrases’, and it leads to recalling Baudelaire’s understanding of the character of Wagner’s music which acts in a similar way.

‘Concert halls, blow ‘em up’
The matter of where music is played reappears later, in a chapter, ‘Concert halls, blow ‘em up’. A follow-up of Boulez’s famous recommendation for opera houses, she hesitates at that but perhaps shares a tendency to denigrate the normal concert hall environment: dim light, silence, quasi-religious, seeming to ignore the fact that crowds still happily inhabit these places, enjoying the whole experience of dressing up a bit, talking to others before, during and after, interval drinks; just the whole thing. (I was not born into affluence or high society, yet I never remember, as a teen-ager, feeling in the least inhibited in going to concerts in the Town Hall). Pop concerts too take place in the same halls. However, she does advocate widening the range of places where classical music happens and enlivening music with the help of other art forms; she tells pertinent stories of The Rite of Spring performances in London and Auckland where young dancers and spontaneity brought different experiences to listeners.

‘Performance anxiety’ begins with the question about the place of performers between composer and listener, concluding that our era has elevated the performer’s role to stardom compared with the view a century ago that ‘a work’s meaning lay in its internal qualities and technical innovations rather than in its social function and expressive qualities’; thus its performance was a matter of little import. It’s this emphasis today on the importance of performance that has led to seeking for historically informed performance of earlier music, particularly the baroque and ‘classical’ periods and she writes engagingly about John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. Under this heading too, is reference to the remarkable Los Reciclados, an orchestra, the Landfillharmonic, formed by deprived children living on a landfill in Paraguay who have created instruments from recycled rubbish. See interalia:…/landfill-harmonic-an-upcoming-documentary.

Classical music for beginners
A book like this needs to offer a bit of guidance to the sort of music the tyro might be attracted to, blown away by. The little diversions in that direction read a little like self-conscious parentheses: composers’ dates of birth, and dates of pieces of music, but it’s often the musical examples that look odd, for they are generally there just to illustrate an argument rather than as recommendations that will change your life.

As a result the names sometimes appear slightly arcane and rather much attention, interesting in itself, is devoted to music unlikely to win over novices to classical music. Thus the range of actual suggestions is limited, and there is little room to describe what they are like and what they might do for or to you. Though when she does offer descriptions they are colourful and evocative.

I often wonder at the neglect these days of much of the music that took me by the throat in my teens, and still has a hold. Leaving aside the major symphonies and concertos: a variety of arias and choruses from Bach and Handel, Bach’s concertos, Handel’s Water Music and Royal Fireworks, Wagner’s arrangement of the overture to Iphigenia in Aulis, overtures of Mozart, Beethoven, Boieldieu, Weber, Rossini, Auber, Hérold, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Wagner’s Rienzi and Tannhäuser, Offenbach, Brahms’s Academic Festival, Dvořák; Beethoven’s Archduke Trio;  Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola, the clarinet concerto and quintet; Schubert: many songs, Trout Quintet, Violin sonatina in D; quite a lot of Chopin’s, Liszt’s and Schumann’s piano music; Berlioz’s Hungarian March, Minuet of the Will-o’-the-wisps; and the Trojan March and ‘Royal Hunt and Storm’ from Les Troyens; Tchaikovsky: 1812, Romeo and Juliet, Capriccio Italien, Francesca da Rimini, the ballet suites; Franck’s Symphony in D minor; Sibelius’s Finlandia and the Karelia Suite; Vltava, Symphonie fantastique, Schumann’s songs, Carnaval and Fantaisie, the Piano Quintet; Les Préludes; pops like España and Fête polonaise of Chabrier, Polovstian Dances, Widor’s Toccata from his fifth organ symphony, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol, Gaité Parisienne and Les deux pigeons ballet suites, The Bartered Bride dances, ballet music from Meyerbeer’s Les patineurs, and Offenbach’s ballet, Le papillon, Poulenc’s Les Biches; Waltz and Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, Clog Dance from Zar und Zimmermann, Polka and Fugue from Schwanda the Bagpiper by Weinberger; ballet suites from music of Boccherini, Domenico Scarlatti, Gluck, Bach and Handel; waltzes of Johann and Joseph Strauss, Waldteufel, Lumbye and Ivanovici’s Donauwellen; Richard Strauss: Rosenkavalier suite, Till Eulenspiegel, Also sprach Zarathustra and Don Juan...   [I could go on; but sorry about the proliferation, the flow became uncontrollable].

The nature of opera
Opera tends to be the target of particular attack in many quarters, criticized as irrational ever since it first appeared. Caddy deals with this up to a point, though failing to note than most opera is based on plays, poems and novels which appear not to attract the same scorn by reason of improbability; suspension of disbelief is a pre-requisite of most art.

And this chapter is distracted by consideration of the occurrence of songs within an opera that are directed within the drama rather than at the audience.  Many plays have songs in them, but opera is singled out as irrational because its medium is also that of certain parts of the story, the term is apparently ‘diegetic’ music. Her example: Carmen singing to Don José; there are lots of others: the Italian tenor in Rosenkavalier, Cherubino’s ‘Voi che sapete’, the Don serenading Elvira’s maid: ‘Deh vieni alla fenestra’. And how about Walther’s Prize song in Die Meistersinger?

So this section falls short perhaps of generating an overwhelming compulsion for the reader to become an opera fanatic.

The most fruitful pages are those where the author demonstrates how media reports of the death of classical music are stupid and wrong. In drawing on examples such as Mozart to demonstrate how classical music had not traditionally been considered elitist, navel-gazing, complex and difficult, she stresses how composers till the last century wrote music to make a living and used popular musical forms and tunes routinely. Thus it had to please the audience, and what’s wrong with that?

The problem of ‘modern’ classical music
In contrast, she quotes, approvingly, a description of much ‘modern classical’ music as ‘scientific experiment’, taking apart a piece by Milton Babbitt of no audible beauty, quoting remarks that such music is for the academic musician and not to be played in public.

Yet much unlistenable music is dutifully included in public concerts and is sometimes justified, Caddy explains, alleging that traditional sounds in music have become impossible for a serious composer in the wake of the horrors of 20th century wars. (Earlier war horrors did not impinge on Purcell or Bach, Mozart or even Beethoven or the French composers such as Offenbach, Franck, Bizet, Fauré, Saint-Saëns and Massenet who lived through the Franco-Prussian war and then the Paris commune with no marked effect on their music. Why make an exception of the late 20th century to justify the creation of ugly music?)

Clearly, she shares the view that this stuff has contributed largely, along with the huge growth of popular music and many changes in society, to the alienation of the general population from, not just the ‘classical music’ of today, but through collateral damage, to the standing of great, classical music in general.

Another major element in the decline of classical music, as well as of all the arts and literature generally, as Caddy reflects, has been their virtual banning from the school curriculum. If humans aren’t exposed to certain experiences, like music, poetry and foreign languages, in childhood and youth, they can well remain blind and deaf to them throughout life.

And finally, she deals with the civilizing benefits of classical music, tongue-in-cheek perhaps with regard to curing physical and psychological problems, but she successfully establishes, nevertheless, its ubiquity, universality and sheer indispensibility.


Eclectic Christmas music from the choir with audience sing- along too

Orpheus Choir of Wellington Christmas Concert

Mark W. Dorrell:  Conductor and pianist
Alistair Wilkinson: Compere and narrator
Merran Cook – oboe, Peter Lamb – bassoon

Te Papa Marae

Sunday 24 November 2013

The programme for this concert comprised brackets of Christmas choral music sung by the Orpheus Choir, interspersed with groups of sing-along carols for both choristers and audience. There was a very good turnout, with lots of youngsters, and overflow standing at the back. Two concerts were scheduled for the afternoon, as the marae is only a modest space, especially for a choir of 150 members.

Ding Dong Merrily on High opened the choral singing with great gusto, followed by Bach’s setting of an old German tune O Little One Sweet, and The Shepherds’ Farewell from Berlioz’ L’Enfance du Christ, both beautifully executed.

The choir was in marvelous voice, and their obvious enjoyment immediately set a festive atmosphere for the afternoon. I was struck by the excellent acoustics of this space, though 150 voices at full bore were at times just overwhelming. But the acoustic characteristics of the room transmitted a clarity of diction which was absolutely exemplary, be it in the initial English numbers, or later foreign texts. The balance of voices was also excellent, despite the usual choral handicap of a shortage of tenors.

The conductor Mark Dorrell then got the audience involved in the first group of sing-along carols, with the choir joining in and providing harmony and descant at various points. He chose Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Once in Royal David’s City, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and While Shepherds Watched their Flocks, all sufficiently well known to engage the audience enthusiastically.

Alistair Wilkinson then stepped up to narrate John Rutter’s fable with music Brother Heinrich’s Christmas, which has parts also for oboe, bassoon and choir. The star of the tale is the rather down trodden donkey Sigismund, whose thankless daily task is to go round, and round, and round the courtyard to crush the grapes from the monastery vineyards. Brother Heinrich is his kindly keeper who, as choirmaster, agrees to Sigismund’s ambition to sing in the monastery choir, despite his range being restricted to the two notes of ee-aw (provided in comical, and somewhat hang-dog spirit by the bassoon).

The other Dominicans resent Sigismund’s intrusion, and plot to exclude him from the choir when the Bishop visits for Christmas Mass. But Sigismund saves the day when he provides those same two, forgotten notes for Brother Heinrich’s new carol – first sung by the angelic choir in the heavens above the monastery, and hastily written down for the service. Sigismund is reinstated in the choir, which is duly complimented by the Bishop for providing the best Christmas Mass he can remember. His memory might have been somewhat clouded by a fog of excellent monastic wine, but there could be no doubting his sincerity. The performance was a standout winner with the younger members of the audience, and the adults were just as taken with it too.

Another bracket of sing-along carols followed, being Good King Wenceslas, Away in a Manger, Te Harinui, Silent Night and O Come all Ye Faithful. Then the choir presented Pierre Villette’s Hymne a la Vierge, which is full of
gentle harmonies, lilting melodies and warm background humming effects, which were all beautifully executed in a mood of loving homage. The dissonance of the final chord was left floating in the air with great artistry…….

Next followed John Rutter’s lovely setting of Shakespeare’s Blow Blow Thou Winter Wind, taken from the song cycle When Icicles Hang which Rutter wrote for Wandsworth Boys’ School Choir in London. This too was rendered with great clarity and delicacy, and enhanced by interjections of tinkling icicles from Mark Dorrell on the upper reaches of the keyboard.

The final bracket involving the audience was Jingle Bells, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and White Christmas, which were all sung with festive enthusiasm. The choir then offered Lauridsen’s lovely setting of Sure on This Shining
with great affection and tenderness before bursting into We Wish You a Merry Christmas! for the final number. The multi-coloured decorations of the wharenui formed a brilliant backdrop for a most successful afternoon of musical celebration, and everyone went home with a smile on their faces.


NZSO basses inflict huge entertainment and risks to the building

The Big Six
Easy listening music from films, musicals, ballet and the light music repertoire.

Six NZSO bass players (Principal Hiroshi Ikematsu)
Special guest artist: Vesa-Matti Leppanen (NZSO Concert Master)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 23 November 2013, 5 pm

The Big Six would have to be the most engaging concert I have been to in 2013. It was pure, unbridled celebration of the contrabass instrument by six NZSO players whose overflowing enthusiasm and wonderful audience rapport had the many children and adults transported with them. Music was never more fun, and making that music on a bass was undoubtedly the most fun way to do it.

The players ranged themselves round a colourful child’s pushcar which occupied centre stage. The decidedly shonky tuning-up
procedures elicited immediate mirth, before the group launched into a medley of popular swing tunes in close harmony, with the lowest bass in jazzy pizzicato mode – Glenn Miller’s signature Moonlight Serenade, Francis Lai’s A Man and a Woman, and Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo. You could almost see the couples sashaying across the floor, and it set the mood for an afternoon of thoroughly relaxed music making.

After an appealing French number by Eric Hardie we were treated to the appearance of the Special Guest Artist in T-shirt, shorts, and dark glasses (as were all the players).  He was clearly heading off for a day in the sun, and after clambering, with difficulty, into the child’s pushcar, his antics were backed by the complete sound track for a day’s fishing expedition – the bang of the car door, a couple of false engine starts, the idling motor, the roar of juggernauts overtaking on the motorway, the birdcalls and swishing waves of the coastline, and all the thrill of reeling in the big one which of course, at the eleventh hour, escaped………. It was creative ‘musical’ entertainment at its very best.

Hiroshi next presented a set of solo variations by a Japanese composer on one of the well known Paganini violin caprices. He claimed it was the most difficult piece in the solo bass repertoire, and proceeded to show us why. Abetted by a bright orange spider attached to the back of his left hand, he undertook the most incredible string-playing gymnastics, while never losing sight entirely of the theme, despite frequent attempts at interference from the spider. The extraordinary playing skills and special effects could have been executed only by a consummate master of the instrument, and the composer would likewise have had to be intimately acquainted with all these possibilities. When a fellow listener expressed a sneaking suspicion that the named “contemporary Japanese composer” and Hiroshi might be one and the same, I thought he’d very likely hit the nail on the head!

After the interval the group enacted a musical love story, where all the instruments were upside down, totally concealing the players’ faces. They ‘played’ blind and bow-less, using only the short strings running between bridge and tailpiece, with much drumming and slapping  of the body of the instruments for percussive effects. All the while they were enacting some tentative dance moves until two of them separated shyly from the group and ventured the first kiss, with appropriate sound effects. It was funny, clever, and somehow rather touching.

This was followed by a couple more attractive brackets of film and dance music, a Japanese rock number, then an item from Zanzibar which wound up with the reappearance of the Special Guest Artist – not fishing this time, but staggering under the load of the NZSO’s huge gong – which Hiroshi duly struck to end the piece. But this was not to be the Special Guest’s swansong. In due course we were told that he had persistently tried to insinuate himself into the programme on his chosen instrument, the violin of course, but had been firmly informed that this was a bass concert, so “too bad”. Undeterred however, he turned up on stage with a bass no less, and gave a remarkably creditable, and suitably ponderous, rendition of the elephant from Saint Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, much to the amusement of the audience.

For the penultimate piece, the band was cut to two, and we were treated to the remaining four male bassists, ably led by Hiroshi, prancing their way light(?) footedly through Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, decked out in the traditional white gossamer tutus, swan-feather fascinators, and copious (untraditional) underarm and leg fuzz. It was a hoot, and the audience just about brought the roof down.

In the final number the players wore beautiful short kimono-style tops and matching headbands. They played a Japanese piece that started out with a plaintive, evocative theme from Hiroshi and gradually built up to a dramatic finish with shouted interjections and driving rhythms stamped out by the players. It was an exciting end to a brilliantly conceived programme, brilliantly executed. If you weren’t there you missed a great experience and a hugely entertaining afternoon.


Two woodwinds, two strings, in varied concert from Nikau Trio plus

Nikau Trio (Karen Batten – flute, Madeline Sakovfsky – oboe, Margaret Guldborg – cello) plus Konstanze Artmann – violin

Telemann: Quartet for flute, oboe, violin and continuo
Honegger: Trios contrepoints
Hovhaness: Suite for English horn and bassoon (cello)
Martinů: Duo No 1 for violin and cello

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 20 November, 12:15 pm

There is a belief in chamber music circles that you stage groups involving wind instruments or singers at your peril. A strange notion that suggests that the same sort of closed mind operates within some groups of classical music lovers that they scorn in those fixated by pop music who won’t open their ears to classical music.

I was present when the Wellington Chamber Music Society started its Sunday afternoon series in 1983. One of their aims was to get performances of music for larger groups than the standard string quartet, as well as promising young groups and of music written for all kinds of instruments, but quite importantly for wind instruments; among the early concerts were Mozart’s three wonderful wind serenades which are still too rarely played. These concerts proved a brilliant initiative and were, and continue to be, highly successful.

Well, there was quite a large audience at St Andrew’s to hear this delightful group which I missed hearing at the Futuna Chapel a couple of weeks ago.

These instruments sound warm and brilliant in this resonant acoustic. I last heard them around this time last year when they played a more traditional programme of Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn and Beethoven. This time greater adventurousness paid off with music mainly of the 20th century. However, they opened with a quartet by Telemann evidently composed for these very instruments; though not much of Telemann can be charged with undue profundity, his renaissance has been accomplished through an awakening to the rewards that come from happy, polished and avowedly entertaining music that has been composed with serious intent.

The quartet delighted by its fertile and fluent melodic facility, and the players took every opportunity to exploit all the piquancy and the scope given to the characteristics of each instrument, especially in often delicious harmonic duetting. Though allegro and vivace markings seem to offer Telemann his best opportunities, the moderato middle part of the second movement had extended passages for the oboe’s lower register as well as charming duet with the flute.

Honegger has always seemed to me the odd-one-out among the famous ‘Six’ of the 1920s: Swiss, while the rest were French, not given nearly so much to musical wit or unorthodoxy or, for example, Milhaud’s prodigious output and exoticism.

But he shared the desire to avoid the complexity of impressionism and the expressionism that embraced atonality. These three ‘contrapuntal’ pieces of 1922 hardly suggested baroque counterpoint, but their straightforward style and clarity made attractive listening. The three pieces called in turn for two, three and finally all four players, involving changes to cor anglais in the second and in the third, both cor anglais and piccolo.  The players readily found the most engaging means to convey this honest and unpretentious music, typified in a certain gruffness produced by the cello that seemed perfectly in tune with the elusive charm of this piece.

Alan Hovhaness was one many composers who continued through the mid and late 20th century to compose using traditional means and were long neglected by the avant-garde establishment through those years; his name is even absent from some musical dictionaries (though not from Wikipedia).  His background – Scottish and Armenian – often led to music that has more than a hint of the Balkans, or should that read the Caucasus? For there was an engaging melancholy often associated with that region in this three movement suite for cor anglais (or ‘English horn’ in the title) and bassoon, here played by the cello.

Though the cellist played the notes with considerable feeling, making clear her sensitivity to the style and spirit of Hovhaness’s piece, knowing that it was conceived for bassoon did make me aware that the
composer had intended a different sound which might have been even more beguiling. The last movement, in a mazurka-like triple rhythm in particular seemed to invite a second reed instrument.

Finally, the trio made a concession to the presence of two stringed instruments, entirely neglecting the pair of woodwinds that had tended to lead the way in the other three pieces. I am very fond of Martinů, but this didn’t much remind me of the pieces I know, mainly the symphonies, the opera The Greek Passion, and a variety of other chamber works, one of the most recent being the delightful Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano. This first of two duos for violin and cello was written in 1927 when he was in Paris and had come under the influence of Stravinsky and the expressionist movement. This piece is melodically robust, even muscular, not just pretty, revealing touches of both Stravinsky and Bartok, though not so much, I felt, of contemporary French composers; it struck me as a rather substantial
work, not to be dismissed on account of its unassuming title, ‘Duo’. The two instruments have equal roles, and indulge in a great deal of taxing and musically elaborate counterpoint, sharing of motifs tossed back and forth which the two players brought off with a admirable commitment and persuasiveness.

I suspect that a slightly unfamiliar group such as this would have found it much more difficult before the days of Google and Wikipedia to put together a programme such as they managed here. And in employing such resources, they also bring to life for listeners in remote parts of the world music that
we’d otherwise be unaware of, and the poorer for that.


Italian Embassy sponsors fine recital by violin and piano duo

Works for violin and piano by Corelli, Dallapiccola, Paganini, Pärt and Rossini
Duo Gazzana: Natascia Gazzana (violin) and Raffaella Gazzana (piano)

Adam Concert Room, New Zealand School of Music

Wednesday, 20 November 2013, 7:30 pm

A free concert of this standard is a rare event, so it was disappointing that there was not a larger audience to hear the duo perform – or to partake of the excellent pre-concert refreshments provided by the Italian Embassy, who sponsored the hour-long concert.

That said, we do have a plethora of concerts at this time of year, and we do have very fine violinists locally, including Martin Riseley, who introduced the performers and their programme.

Apart from Pärt (no pun intended) the composers were, appropriately, all Italian masters.  We heard some of the foremost names in Italian music history, plus Dallapiccola, whose dates were 1904-1975.   His composition Tartiniana seconda of 1956, listed in Wikipedia as being for violin and orchestra but in Grove for violin, pianoforte or orchestra, gave the title of the concert.

Corelli opened the programme, with his well-known Sonata Op.5 no.12 – ‘La Follia’; a set of variations on what was a well-known tune at the time, and which has been subsequently set by many composers.  The playing of pianist Rafaella was very fine in tone and with clean execution; these were features of her violinist sister’s playing in the main, though sometimes I found the tone a little harsh in the upper register in this piece.  This may have been partly due to reflection off the varnished floor.  The increasingly brilliant and complex variations were expertly handled.  It was a very accomplished performance.

The Dallapiccola work began with the mute on the violin, and much double-stopping (as indeed there was in the Corelli).  The pastoral first movement was followed by a sparkling second movement (Bourée) with notes all over the place in both parts, the violin sans mute.  The third movement featured bird sounds, and was delightfully and skilfully played.  The final movement was a complete contrast, with long brushstrokes on chords, at first for the violin unaccompanied.  After this episode, the mute was added for a gentle, meditative section, followed by the piano alone.  The unumuted violin returned for a slow passage, followed by more slashing chords.  It was a commanding performance of difficult music.

The first Paganini piece, Cantabile e valzer, was the only one played from memory by the violinist.  The smooth and romantic tone of this piece was engaging, and quite different from the style of playing employed for the baroque Corelli.  The variety of timbres, techniques and dynamics made for a charming and appealing performance.  Here, as elsewhere, the occasional violin note was not quite on pitch.

Fratres by Arvo Pärt is much played in many settings and arrangements – too much, to my mind.  However, I have to admit that this was a masterly performance.  The vigorous introduction had the violinist playing all over the strings before the calm passages commenced, with the violin part initially on harmonics.  The violin then embarked on a series of variations, while the piano continued with the theme.  Just when the music became soporific, it broke into loud chords from both instruments.  Harmonics followed deliciously, and the piece ended with light tapping of the strings with the bow.  The piece’s variety was eminently well demonstrated.

Rossini’s Fantasia per violino e pianoforte (originally written for clarinet and piano) became dance-like after a short introduction, Natascia Gazzana almost dancing along with the music.  Then there was a brilliant piano-only section, followed by more variation for both instruments.  A sombre section ensued, then more solo piano led to  flourishing and bright concluding passages that I found somewhat too elongated.

Paganini again: his Sonata in La Maggiore.  A loud, declamatory opening was succeeded by a very melodic section. like a Mendelssohn song.  Variations upon this tune included many techniques: left-hand pizzicato at speed, for example, then very fast finger-work, with the piano simply playing a few chords, then the bow frantically rushing over all the strings, followed by another section of left-hand pizzicato and bowing, to end this astonishing display, and the concert.

The duo featured almost impeccable playing and musicianship, and the players’ absolute rapport, mutual sympathy and timing were impressive.  It was good to hear such first-class performers.


Orchestra Wellington – breathlessly exciting Beethoven and Bernstein

Orchestra Wellington presents:

Fancy Free

Beethoven: Leonore Overture No 3, Op 72b
Leonard Bernstein: Serenade for Violin (after Plato’s Symposium)
Beethoven: Fidelio Overture Op 72c
Leonard Bernstein: Fancy Free

Conductor: Marc Taddei
Violin: Natalia Lomeiko

Opera House, Wellington.

Sunday, 17th November 2013

This was the fourth and final subscription concert presented this year by Orchestra Wellington. The slow introduction to Beethoven’s Leonore No.3 overture was beautifully crafted, with Marc Taddei eliciting exquisite phrasing and riveting dynamic contrasts from the players, and creating an almost breathless anticipation of the arresting theme to follow. It burst forth with wonderful colour and drama, but it was conducted, sadly, at such breakneck speed that the flying scales conveyed a blur of hectic notes, rather than the spine tingling clarity that Beethoven so brilliantly conceived. The players responded valiantly to the challenge, and there were plenty of rich contrasts and musical spectacle, but the recapitulation of the tutti theme was again just too fast to be convincing. There was so much promise in the introduction, such beautiful playing from the orchestra, especially the wind principals, that I was convinced this would prove to be an exceptional performance, but it was irrevocably marred by the excessive tempi that followed.

Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade for Violin is a technical tour de force for both soloist and orchestra. This programmatic work in five parts is based on Plato’s Symposium, where Socrates and other dinner guests create “a series of related statements in praise of love” (Bernstein). At first hearing it came across to me as a rather cerebral exploration of somewhat angular melodic idioms and edgy tonality, with never a trace of sentimentality, despite its theme. There was something elusive about it, perfectly summed up by a senior colleague who remarked that it didn’t seem to be able to decide whether it was a “serious” work or not. But it was certainly a serious challenge for the players – Natalia Lomeiko produces a most beautiful violin tone, and she gave a reading of consummate musicianship and technical mastery, backed up by exceptional playing from the orchestra.

After the interval there was a brief interlude of music presented by the Hutt Valley’s Arohanui Strings. This is an inclusive, free neighbourhood programme, currently serving 65 children from seven schools. Run by high quality teachers and a team of student and community volunteers, it offers invaluable ensemble and orchestral experience to young string students. All the instruments are donated, and Orchestra Wellington has partnered with the group for two holiday programmes. This very creditable initiative is opening up new horizons to children who would otherwise have no chance to take up music.

Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture opened the second half of the concert, and was conducted by the orchestra’s young assistant conductor Brent Stewart. He crafted a convincing introduction, from the initial fortissimo outburst,  on to the main horn theme beautifully delivered by Ed Allen. The woodwind principals again produced some magical phrases with real depth and musicianship, then the orchestra burst into the central tutti statement. Unfortunately Brent succumbed to the temptation to rush this tempo so that, yet again, the busy string parts tended to become blurred, rather than having the riveting clarity of Beethoven’s impelling rhythmic dynamo.  But again the players did sterling service to the score and this work was underpinned throughout, as was the whole programme, by a rich and rock solid foundation from cellos and particularly basses.

The final work was Leonard Bernstein’s suite of ballet music Fancy Free. It was commissioned by the legendary American choreographer Jerome Robbins with whom Bernstein collaborated on a number of stage works including West Side Story. The seven movements of the Fancy Free suite follow the shore leave of three sailors – heading for a bar, sussing out the female talent, chatting them up, and so on. Bernstein’s highly evocative and colourful music is characterised by some incredibly tricky rhythmic writing and syncopation, often at hectic pace, that recall the idioms of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring ballet music. The playing was full of excitement, and the orchestra negotiated the frenetic, knife-edge rhythms with complete mastery and panache. Some contrasting bluesy dance music was announced by a deliciously seductive theme from veteran trombonist Peter Maunder, which set the  mood for a wonderfully atmospheric break where the guys and dolls had paired off. This suite really was a tour de force from the players and it showcased just how talented this orchestra is. Only one thing would have put it up a notch, and that would have been the choreography. There’s nearly always an element of the golf (sorry, stage) widow about dance suites, however brilliantly conceived and delivered they may be. A back-projection of the ballet production would be no big technical challenge these days, and it would not have been the first time Orchestra Wellington had played to film. Two of my immediate neighbours in the audience independently exclaimed “If only we could see the dance!” and that’s exactly how I felt too. Maybe there’s a cue here for a future live collaboration with NZ Ballet – let’s hope so!

At the conclusion of the concert, Orchestra Wellington released its programme for 2014 which has a distinct Viennese flavour. Mozart, Mahler and Bruckner are featured composers, and the series is built round the complete series of Haydn’s Paris Symphonies. These seldom-heard but delightful works are an inspired choice for an orchestra of this size and a venue like the Opera House. There is definitely an exciting year of concerts in the offing.


Unusual, enterprising concert centring on Britten and Helen Webby’s harp

‘Alleluia: a newë work!’  The Ceremony of Birth and Death

Baroque Voices (women only) directed by Pepe Becker; Helen Webby (harp)

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Saturday 16 November 2013, 8pm

Sixth in a series of concerts celebrating universal themes, the concert featured Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, celebrating the composer’s centenary year.  It was split into two, to open and close the performance. Between these two parts were no fewer than seven specially commissioned works for voices and harp – how unusual and enterprising!  I don’t suppose I have ever before been to a concert comprising entirely music accompanied by harp.

The  chant ‘Hodie Christus natus est’ was intoned unaccompanied by the choir of six women slowly moving from the back of the church to the front; the reverse process was undertaken for the repeat of the ‘Hodie’ at the end of the concert.  Then Helen Webby began the delicious music of ‘Wolcum Yole’, in which Britten, in his late twenties, revealed his extraordinary talent at word setting.  In a completely different mood was ‘There is no rose’; such a beautiful setting, that ended with a lovely decrescendo to pianissimo.  The interesting harp parts could in no way be considered mere accompaniment.  Here, as throughout the concert, Helen Webby exhibited her astonishing skill and talent as a harpist.

A notable feature of the performances was that all the words were in Middle English spellings, in which the singers were so well schooled, that the vowels were absolutely unanimous.  This was particularly notable in the song ‘Balulalow’, where most of the words differed from their modern equivalents in spelling, pronunciation, or both.  The words of all the songs were printed in the programme, adding to the audience’s ability to enjoy what was being performed.

The final song in this part of Britten’s work, ‘As dew in Aprille’, is well-known in several versions, but Britten’s was very unlike these.  The singers made errors towards the end, so stopped and started again, rendering the piece faultlessly this time.  The hugely varied harp part was absolutely pleasing and delightful.

The first of the commissioned works, Songs of Thomas Moore, consisted of settings of poems by that poet and songwriter (1779-1852), by Carol Shortis.   The first, ‘Ode LXIII’ was a short but effective composition, especially in the voice parts (one voice to a part).  Next came, appropriately, ‘The Origin of the Harp’, that epitomised the harp as a Siren, and told her sad tale of lost love.  This was a more complex composition.  The choir’s parts were fairly regular in rhythm and metre; the words were set expertly.  The harp’s part was charming.

‘Child’s Song from a Masque’ was the third and last song, and was also very appealing.  The words, about the child’s garden, and her (?) fawn were universally clear.  Their more modern form made them easier to pick up – and it is easier for a small ensemble to convey words clearly than it is for a choir.  The rhythms of the poems were followed in the music – which is not always the case in contemporary settings.  Yet again, the setting for harp was very fine.

Now we came to the first of the poems especially written for the commissioned composition.

The poem, entitled Coverings was by Elena Poletti and the music by Anthony Ritchie.  Google informs me that Elena Poletti is a lecturer at the University of Otago, and thus a colleague of Anthony Ritchie’s.  It is a pity that the ample printed notes about the composers were not accompanied by notes about the poets, although some notes about the individual works contained information about them.

Therefore as well as commissioning composers, Baroque Voices has given an opportunity and encouragement to the writing of new poetry.

The idea of renewal was conveyed through words about a penguin moulting and gaining a new coat, and about trees waiting to gain new leaves. The singers’ parts were not as melodically interesting as some of the items in the concert, but there was a dramatic harp part.  The third verse, beginning ‘Trees stand stark against the storm,’ was more exciting, and skilfully written.

Uncertainty/Eternity (Demeter, Ursula, Buddha) brought together poems by Rilke and Ursula Bethell, and French words concerning Demeter, a French science project investigating ionospheric disturbances from seismic and volcanic activity.  These were coupled with the search by the goddess Demeter for her daughter Persephone.  The music for these pieces was by Glenda Keam, an Auckland composer moving to head the Department of Music at the University of Canterbury.

Hers was a much less traditional musical language than we had heard so far.  I found the setting of ‘Pause’ by Ursula Bethell very lovely.  The contrast between the high and the low voices was most effective, and gave a mysterious quality to the piece.  In these items the harp part was not so prominent.

Gareth Farr’s contribution was to set a poem by New Zealand/Venezuelan poet Desirée Gezentsvey, written in English but in the published version given a Spanish translation, which Farr chose to set because of the language’s more musical character.   La Próxima Vez (Next Time Around) used brief but expressive words.  There was some harsh tone from the singers in this one – they had already done a lot of singing, and the second half of the concert was still to come. However, there were some delightful and telling musical effects.  Here, too, there was often wide separation of the high and low voices.

Pepe Becker’s composition began the second half, after a minute of silence in memory of Felicity Smith, who had sung with Baroque Voices, and died in London recently, aged 33.  This work used words from an English translation of the Sanskrit  Bhagavad Gita, most of the words sung being from a transliteration into Hindi.  The work was entitled na jayate mriyate.  There were sparse notes on the harp; Helen Webby was required also to knock on the wood of the instrument.   The setting was meditative, as if to induce a trance-like state.  Intervals of a second were featured – these were perfectly pitched.  In one section, the singers clapping small stones together, which made an attractive sound supporting the rhythms, and adding to the considerable variety of the piece.

Helen Bowater’s contribution, in the east, to the right was in a much more esoteric style, though oddly, the beginning was rather similar to Pepe Becker’s work, despite the very different theme.  It was sub-titled ‘humpty dumpty – a modern ecstasy’, the poem being written for the occasion by Andrew Caldwell.  It was an amusing commentary on Humpty’s famous fall, full of funny rhymes and pseudo-philosophical musings on the effect of his fall.  The last two lines give an idea of the mood: ‘with a map or an app you can see him by night,/ he’s that bright twinkling star in the east, to the right…’  Despite a fine choral and harp rendering of the fall, I did not feel that the musical setting reflected the humour of the piece.

The harp part had many intriguing musical figures; the use of small megaphones by some of the singers in parts may have been related to Humpty’s fall, and was certainly intriguing, and the music sounded like twinkling stars for those final two lines, but otherwise, I (and others I spoke to) thought the music too clever for the subject, and the opportunity for reflecting the joyous humour of the delightful poem was lost, although the harp part reflected it to some extent.  The structure of the work was not apparent (similarly in one or two of the other pieces performed).

Persephone by Mark Smythe (Pepe Becker’s brother, based now in the US) used a Latin translation of English words.  As the programme note stated, this work was ‘more dissonant and nebulous’ than Baroque Voices’ usual offerings.  Here, the structure was clear, but the repeated patterns for harp did not make the most of that instrument.  But splendid singing and brilliant playing, some beautiful intervals, harmonies and progressions made it an enjoyable listening experience.

We returned to the last items of A Ceremony of Carols: ‘This Little Babe’, ‘Interlude’ (harp solo), ‘In freezing winter night’ ‘Spring carol’, ‘Deo Gracias’ and ‘Recession’.
The first of these was so fast that most of the words were hard to pick up.  The harp solo was gentle, simple, evocative and subtle, employing a range of dynamics; the result: beautiful.

Britten’s astonishing writing for the harp – dramatic, adventurous and apt, was again prominent in the ‘Spring carol’, a duet for two sopranos.  ‘Deo Gracias’ is declamatory and very satisfying as an ending for the work (followed by the repeat of the ‘Hodie’).

The performance was warmly received by the audience, and congratulations are due to Baroque Voices for conceiving the programme and commissioning the New Zealand works, and ending with such expertise and beauty in the Recession.

Pepe Becker expressed her hope that many of the commissioned works would be taken up by choirs and ensembles.  Not all could be performed by any but the highly skilled, but some could.

It was unfortunate, in my view, that an encore of a light ‘radio theatre’ piece by Mark Smythe was given, spoiling the mood and atmosphere created by the last part of the Britten work.  It was bland, with a repetitive chant from some singers while others sang in both unison and harmony, accompanied by a sustained, somewhat repetitive harp part.


Ya-Ting Liou – delight and triumph amid near-empty spaces

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace presents PIANO +
A week of concerts in support of the proposed new Welcome Centre

Concert No.5 – Ya-Ting Liou (piano)

BEETHOVEN – 6 Bagatelles Op.126
BERG – Piano Sonata Op.1
LISZT – Années de Pèlerinage – Première année: Suisse

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

Saturday 16th November 2013

I had thought at first that last night’s poor attendance at pianist Melanie Lina’s St.Andrew’s recital was the fault of a kind of “Friday night” syndrome. As it transpired, I had singled out Friday most unfairly, because this evening (Saturday) less than half last night’s already meagre number turned out to hear pianist Ya-Ting Liou. It’s true that neither of  the pianists were “names” to conjure with as far as the public was concerned, but each of their programmes as listed spoke volumes in terms of interest and musical pleasure.

Fortunately for those of us who had gone to these concerts, each of the pianists seemed completely unfazed by the lack of audience numbers, assuring we who were there that the important thing was to be able to play, and that SOMEBODY was there to listen. And judging by the programme that Ya-Ting Liou had put together this evening, it was obvious that here was potentially a most interesting and questing spirit wanting to play for us.

Taiwanese-born Ya-Ting Liou came to New Zealand in 2009 to live, and has since concertized both as a soloist and chamber musician throughout the country. I’ve seen and heard her play only once before, in a 2011 Wellington concert with her husband Blas Gonzales, as part of a duo called the “Pangea Piano Project”, playing works by New Zealand composers ( On that occasion I was impressed by her artistry, but my appreciation was somewhat decentralized both by the excellence of her musical partnership, and the interest generated by the home-grown repertoire. In short, I wasn’t really prepared for the overwhelming experience of encountering her work as a recitalist.

And what music she offered! – Beethoven’s final set of Bagatelles for piano, the richly-wrought Op.1 Sonata by Berg, and Liszt’s first youthful Year of Pilgrimage, inspired by Switzerland. Each of these works tends to be talked about more than played, though interestingly enough it was the third occasion I’d heard the Berg Sonata in concert in relatively recent times. The Beethoven however, took me all the way back to my first and only experience of Alfred Brendel playing “live”, in Wellington in 1975, while Liszt’s Première année I’d never before heard in recital complete (I fancy there may have been a Vallée d’Obermann or two at some stage along the way…..).

The first Beethoven Bagatelle elicited warm, rich sounds from player and instrument, but without smoothing over the piece’s rhythmic and melodic angularities – and to follow, what a contrast Liou got with the impulsiveness of the following allegro! Her engagement with the music was at all times apparent, demonstrating a spontaneity and volatility surprisingly at odds with her diminutive appearance and seemingly tiny hands! After a richly contemplative Andante she again released great surges of energy for the rumbustious Presto, in full command of the dynamic contrasts in the music, and creating a gorgeous liquid flow throughout the “trio” section, one whose gossamer finish had a slightly “other-worldly” quality.

As for the final Bagatelle’s remarkable fusion of grand serenity and dismissive volatility (one commentator described the explosions of energy which introduce and dismiss the piece as “the composer delivering to his instrument a kick down the stairs”), Liou brought out the kinship of the music’s visionary explorations with the slow movement of the Hammerklavier, allowing free play between both immediacies and the mysteries of the sounds – at the end, only a slight mis-hit took away some of the finality of the payoff that its composer perhaps intended.

What to make of Alban Berg’s enigmatic one-movement piano sonata? Berg was simply thinking along the lines of Debussy who famously remarked that “after Beethoven, sonata form was no longer valid for composition”. Here, after a brief exposition, the music takes its cue from the piece’s opening phrase, and develops accordingly and organically.

Interestingly enough, some of Berg’s sequential passages reminded me of Rachmaninov’s keyboard writing in his First Sonata – what’s common to both, I feel, is the emotional drive at the bottom of the sequences, however much in thrall each composer is to a prevalent ideology of composition. Ya-Ting Liou expressed this yearning and striving towards these “remote consonances” with real feeling, as wholeheartedly as she delineated the piece’s haunting downward intervals towards even more remote regions. She brought to life the rhapsodic surface of the music throughout, while keeping the underlying strands of the music’s journeyings unbroken.

In the minds of many people, Franz Liszt’s fame is based upon his flashy, virtuoso instrumental pieces, and the greatly exaggerated tales of his “frequent” amours (which, if true, would have left him precious little time for his better-documented activities and achievements). He was, of course, reputed to be the greatest pianist of his age, and a good deal of his music reflects that extraordinary keyboard facility. However at least as much again shows the composer in a more serious and purposeful mood, and many of these less overtly spectacular works have, until recent times, been seriously neglected, known only to scholars and connoisseurs.

Perhaps it would be unfair to class Liszt’s three collections of music inspired by his travels – he called them Années de Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) – as neglected in toto, because certain pieces from each of the three volumes have been regularly featured in pianist’s recital programs. From the opening Swiss Year comes Vallée d’Obermann, and from the Italian (Second) Year there are the Petrarch Sonnets and the concise but powerful Dante Sonata. Finally, from the Third Year collection there’s the justly famous Les jeux d’eaux a la Villa d’Este (The fountains of the Villa d’Este). However, performances of any of the books as complete entities have, until recent times, been rare.

Most welcome, then, was Ya-Ting Liou’s presentation of the first of these collections, the Première année: Suisse. Liszt and his mistress Marie d”Agoult travelled extensively in Switzerland during the 1830s, the composer recording his reflections in a collection of pieces titled Album d’un voyageur, published in 1842. He later revised the cycle of pieces, adding two further ones and rechristening the collection Première année: Suisse (“First Year: Switzerland”) republishing the set in 1855.

If I go on to describe Liou’s performances in detail it will take people longer to read the review than it would to listen to a recording of the cycle! – tempted as I am by the impact of witnessing her achievement, by the totality of her conception, the brilliance of her playing and her conveyance of a great love for and understanding of the music, I’ll reluctantly content myself with a few brief descriptions of certain “moments”, hoping that readers will glean from these something of my excitement and thankfulness at “being there”.

Grand, rich chordings opened the first piece Chapelle de Giuillaume Tell, giving the music eons of resonance and space – bold, colorful playing! – I liked the touch of “diavolo” in places, with mischievous and sometimes menacing snake-slithers of sound, one that gave way to the grandest, most orchestral of conceptions of the music, which we revelled in like great lords and ladies! From this, the change to the tranquil waters of the Lake Wallenstadt was almost surreal, producing a magical effect, the playing “embracing” the music’s textures and colours, and painting a “landscape of emotion”.

The next piece sounded like Liszt’s homage to Beethoven via the latter’s “Pastoral” Sonata, while the lively and volatile Au bord dune source seemed to gather both momentum and girth to the point where the music became a rushing torrent – very “organic” thinking by the pianist, in view of the onslaught of the following Orage, with its terrific physical attack and ferocious, incisive aspect. As with Melanie Lina’s playing of Ravel’s Alborado the previous evening, I was astonished at the incredible “glint” in the pianist’s tones, and wondered if that was helped by what appeared to be Liou’s sparing use of the sustaining pedal – nothing, no sound, colour or texture, was indefinite or muddled, the pianist’s fingers doing all or most of the work so brilliantly.

Vallée d’Obermann was next, a veritable tone-poem in itself, and a touchstone of romanticism in music. Liou’s performance had a positively psycho-analytical ring, the music delving into the Byronic character’s growing crisis of confidence and faith, and overwhelmingly coming to terms with the world at the end, amid Musorgsky-like sonorities, with the traveller having the last word when nearly all was said and done. Much-needed relief from these full-on outpourings was provided by the Grieg-like delicacies of the following Èglogue, Liou’s wide-ranging capabilities of touch producing all kinds of easeful sonorities here.

How affecting, then, was Le mal du pays, its emotion fetched up from the depths and striking at the heart of the weary and comfortless traveller. In Ya-Ting Liou’s hands the feelings grew from out of the sounds, remembrances of home overlaid by world-weariness and anxiety, and seeking some kind of equilibrium and solace in the rich ambient chords which quietly closed the work. More celebratory and ritualistic was the final Les cloches de Genève, Liou’s seemingly boundless tonal resources at the music’s service whole-heartedly, making for a resounding and celebratory conclusion to the journey.

So, by dint of the playing on both of these occasions at St.Andrew’s, our initial dismay seemed to morph into delight!  Very great honour is due to both pianists on all counts – but we Wellingtonians will have to look to our laurels in the future.















Melanie Lina – great playing reaching all too few ears at St.Andrew’s

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace presents PIANO +
A week of concerts in support of the proposed new Welcome Centre

Concert No.4 – Melanie Lina (piano)

SCARLATTI – Sonatas: E major K.380 / D Major K.29
BEETHOVEN – Sonata in E-flat Op.81a “Les Adieux”
PSATHAS – Waiting for the Aeroplane
BRITTEN – “Early Morning Bathe” / “Sailing” (from “Holiday Diary” Op.5)
ALBENIZ – El Puerto / Cordoba
RAVEL – Alborado del gracioso (from “Miroirs”)
CHOPIN – Waltzes: E Major (Op.Posth.) / A-flat Major Op.42 / Piano Sonata in B Minor Op.58

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

Friday, 15th November 2013

How unfortunate that, in the wake of Michael Houstoun’s extended weekend of Beethoven Sonata performances at the MFC, which was followed immediately by this present Piano+ series at St.Andrew’s in Wellington, the capital’s music-going public seemed to have “run out of steam” after three of the five nights of concerts.

It was probably a case of event overload, but each of the two remaining occasions, both of them notable piano recitals, were so poorly attended as to induce a degree of actual embarrassment on the part of those who were there. It left me with the not wholly comfortable feeling that the city’s reputation as an arts and cultural centre (which we Wellingtonians all keenly look to espouse) might not be such a “given” as presumed.

Whatever the case, Shakespeare’s immortal lines from Henry V “And gentlemen of England now abed…….”  applied in spadesful to both of these concerts, as the few who attended heartily agreed (we all readily bonded as a group on each of the evenings under these conditions!). There were chalk-and-cheese differences as regards repertoire, though each had a definite link with the aforementioned Houstoun/Beethoven series concluded a few days previously – Melanie Lina’s recital featured the composer’s “Les Adieux” Sonata, while Taiwanese-born pianist Ya-Ting Liou gave us the Op.126 set of Bagatelles the following evening.

The “Les Adieux” Sonata was given by Melanie Lina as part of a first half whose general theme expressed aspects of human dislocation/relocation in places away from homelands, both temporary and lifelong. So, along with Beethoven we had music by (Italian-born but Spanish-domiciled) Domenico Scarlatti, the much-travelled Catalan-born Isaac Albeniz, and the Basque-born Maurice Ravel, whose lifelong affair with Spain is well documented in his works.

Bringing the idea “closer to home” for listeners was John Psathas’s evocative Waiting for the Aeroplane, along with excerpts from Benjamin Britten’s rarely-played but highly entertaining Holiday Diary.  An all-Chopin second half seemed in accord with the dislocation/relocation theme, though the works presented here were more cosmopolitan than nationalistic in outlook.

I felt, perhaps, that the program was over-generous – a pianist friend with whom I attended the concert also thought the recital too long by a couple of items, though remarking that she herself had been “guilty” of a similar largesse of performing spirit in her younger concertizing days. Just one of the Albeniz/Ravel “Spanish” works would, I think, have sufficed, providing sufficient contrast with the rest, and leaving us pleasantly hungry for more…..

Beginning the recital, Melanie Lina gave us Scarlatti – two beautifully-crafted Baroque sonatas here exquisitely rendered by the pianist on a modern concert grand. Throughout the opening E Major (K.380) I loved Lina’s “imaging” – that sense of fantasy with which she so readily infused the music, her tempi and phrasing allowing the music to blossom and live within each bar. I could hear throughout the “twang” of the guitar resonating within a vividly-wrought ambience, one infused with her rich command of keyboard colour.  She revelled also in the more extrovert D Major (K.29), the great toccata-like whirls of sound at the opening conjuring up something very pictorial and dramatic, followed by fingerwork which propelled the music’s thrust with Horowitz-like crystalline clarity.

The pianist very properly alerted us to the correlation between the German word “Lebe-wohl” and the opening of Beethoven’s popularly-styled “Les Adieux” Sonata – the heartfelt three-note motif led to a full-blooded exposition of grief at a friend’s departure, both vigorous and reflective (both elements superbly delivered by Lina – some brilliant toccata-like chording in places, as well as a brief development hiatus which she quickly recovered from), while at the movement’s conclusion the farewell motif (also evoking a posthorn-like ambience) reinforced the sense of loss most vividly.

After this I wanted a shade more stillness from the second movement, a more “stricken” feeling – though Beethoven writes “andante”, he intensifies the feeling with “expressivo” – but Lina’s playing I thought a shade dry-eyed, perhaps registering the impatience of one who awaits the return of a friend more than the sorrow of that person’s absence. Theoretically, a classicist would approve of her structural organization of the whole, whereas a romantic might bemoan the lessening of feeling and atmosphere.

The finale very properly burst upon us with a mighty flourish, and though the pianist didn’t always carry a kind of underlying momentum across some of the sequences there were some thrilling moments. I particularly relished Lina’s repeated right-hand upward triple-flourishes (again, crystalline fingerwork) and, following the reprise of the opening, the hair-raising juxtaposition of left-hand octaves and right-hand dancings which when done, as here, with confidence and élan, produced an exhilaration of physical excitement! And though it was a case of thrills and spills at another point, the pianist prevailed in the face of some Haydnesque “dead-ends” and wrestled back the musical argument, to the great relief of all concerned.

A different kind of ambience informed John Psathas’ bitter-sweet Waiting for the Aeroplane, by turns nostalgic, visionary and jazzy, and here evoked with great surety. It made the perfect foil for two movements from a work I didn’t know, Britten’s piano suite Holiday Diary, written in 1934 and dedicated to his piano teacher, Arthur Benjamin. The first piece, entitled “Early Morning Bathe” nicely delineated the energies required to set the process in motion, the angularities of the opening giving way to the swimmer’s strokes and the water’s undulations.Had I not known the music’s title I would have plumped for a horse-ride of some description, complete with the feel of the wind on the rider’s face!

In the second piece, “Sailing” the playing caught a warmly sostenuto singing mood over gently shifting chords, the line’s water-mark shifting the sonorities to brighter realms in places, when suddenly the music energized and danced in a quasi-Musorgsky mood, the phrases spiky and fragmentary. Then, as quickly, the opening mood returned, this time with a deep tolling bass line underpinning the lyricism – a gorgeous performance of some lovely music.

As for the three “Spanish” pieces, I enjoyed most of all Melanie Lina’s astounding playing of Ravel’s Alborado del gracioso – when she began, I thought her tempo was too fast and that everything would degenerate into a garble of smudged notes – but she made it work with such tremendous zest, buoyancy and clarity, the repeated notes both clear and resonant, and the flourishes full-bodied and properly theatrical. Then, the recitative took us into the ambience’s heart, with pliant yet focused rhythmic impulses, the storyteller’s art coming to the fore, here – Lina was able to throw off the flourishes with such amazing “glint” while still making the melodies sing, spreading the chords as if she was strumming a giant guitar, and launching into the dance-rhythm of the opening once again with exquisite timing – those glissandi completed their mesmeric spell and helped whirl our sensibilities into paroxysms of delight at the end.

Neither of the Albeniz pieces was quite on this exalted level – El Puerto was given plenty of zest and physicality, and Lina did as well as any I’ve heard to keep the piece coherent and varied amid the composer’s veritable torrent of notes. And Cordoba started well, the pianist capturing during the introductory bars the ambivalence of the Spanish night, with its luminosity and fragrance set against darker rituals of purpose, but later, I thought relinquishing too much of the depth and mystery in rhythms which never really dug in – for me, a bit too picture-postcard a response to this soulful music.

The remained of the program was given over to Chopin – firstly, two waltzes stylishly and charmingly performed, the first the Op.Posth. E Major beautifully gauged as regards an appropriate mix of strength and poetry, and the second, the Op. 42 A-flat “Grand Waltz” variously whirling us around the ballroom and encouraging us to snap our heels to attention with the music’s engaging “strut” – all delightful and invigorating stuff.

Then came the “grand finale” – the Op.58 B Minor Sonata – a difficult assignment for any pianist, but especially at the conclusion of a demanding program. Despite some “crowding in” of detail in places, making for a slightly rushed and breathless intermittent effect, I thought Lina’s delivery of the first movement of the work very fine, wanting only in some light and shade here and there, which would have given Chopin’s classically-oriented piano writing a touch more air and space. And I admired her gossamer delivery of the Scherzo’s fleet-fingered opening, and the on-going “tingling” effect of the intermezzo-like passages which followed, more agitato in places than I expected, but nevertheless effective.

But it was the slow movement which truly captured my imagination, here – after emphatically delivering the opening’s dramatic and rhetorical gesture, Lina brought both of the movement’s contrasting lyrical episodes to warm-hearted fruition, with whole vistas of contrasting feeling and colour deftly applied to a poised, easeful change from B major to E Major. I thought the pianist’s tone was”centered” in a way that focused sensibilities on the here-and-now qualities of the music’s emotion – a treasurable sense of something unique to the moment that would never be recaptured.

Impressive, too, in some ways was Lina’s playing of the turbulent finale – except that I thought in places she pushed the “presto” so fiercely that the “ma non tanto” dropped off!  I couldn’t help feeling in her phrasing and articulation a degree of anxiety driving the music ever onwards – as though she didn’t trust the music’s own in-built momentum – which gave the performance as much a sense of breathlessness as of motivation and purpose. I found it all a bit unsettling – perhaps in accord with its composer’s state of mind at the time.

However, these few points aside, this was a splendid and enjoyable recital by a pianist whose musical and communicative skills deserved oceans more than our few hands and voices could give her. I do hope she gives Wellington another chance, before too long.


































Delights from Emma Sayers and NZSO principal violin and horn, in ‘Piano Plus’

Piano Plus at St Andrew’s: Concert No 3

Mozart: Violin Sonata in G, K 379
Brahms: Horn Trio in E flat, Op 40

Vesa-Mati Leppänen – violin; Samuel Jacobs – horn; Emma Sayers – piano

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Thursday 14 November, 5:30 pm

The third of these enterprising concerts which have been mounted to help in the church’s rebuilding programme: the project is in its third stage which involves new public facilities to make the church a more attractive place for all kinds of social and cultural activities: a green room, reception area, toilets, meeting space, disability access and other amenities.

This evening was the centre-piece of the series in some ways: it fell in the middle of the five concerts and it involved three players; and it was the longest concert so far, containing a Mozart violin sonata and Brahms’s horn trio.

Mozart’s violin sonata in G major has somehow escaped me till now. To refresh my memory, I listened to the only CD recording I had of it but it hardly came to life or overflowed with charm.

So I was delighted to discover how an affectionate and committed performance, and of course a live performance compared with a mere recording, could so transform it. Its shape is a little unusual: an introductory Adagio leading to an Allegro in the minor key and then an extended Theme and Variations. The opening Adagio could in some ways have been a separate movement: it lasts about 5 minutes. The piano opens with four rolling, broken chords holding the floor for nearly a minute; before the violin had sounded a note I was quite enchanted, but the violin’s entry completed my delight to find what utterly charming and gracious piece it promised to be.

There was an urgency and a certain emphatic quality about the following Allegro, which moves to G minor, a sombre key for Mozart. In spite of the remark in the programme about Mozart moving away from the character of violin sonatas at the time, which was basically a piano sonata with violin accompaniment. That may have been so, but the piano still seemed to have the more interesting things to do, and Emma Sayers knew how to enrich her part, certainly every bit the equal of the violin in lending the music its allure.

The second, and last, movement is a Theme and Variations, basically orthodox yet original on account of their speaking from a lively imagination rather than a perfunctory set of predictable variations. Here again the piano tended to lead; in fact the first variation was for the piano alone. Later variations were delicate, decorated, the one instrument echoing the other; the fourth variation shifted again to G minor, very quietly, becoming imaginative and elaborate, and in the fifth the piano again led as the violin accompanied with pizzicato. And then the main theme returned, exposing both players again to more balanced musical contributions.

To provide an entrée to another era of music, Emma sought our indulgence by anticipating the expected demand for an encore at the end by playing it here, before Brahms’s horn trio. It was his Intermezzo in A, Op 118, No 2.

Brahms’s Horn Trio is rightly accorded an honoured place in the chamber music repertoire. It was chosen, as Emma explained, both because of its stature but also because Samuel Jacobs’s predecessor as the NZSO’s principal horn was Edward Allen who had loved and played the piece many times.

Its success as a composition lies in the balance and harmonic compatibility achieved between, in particular, the violin and horn, and in this performance it rested on the accord and beauty of tone that those two instruments achieved. The programme notes remarked on Brahms’s preference that it be played on a natural horn – without valves – though here Jacobs used a modern instrument.

Perhaps the most interesting sounds emerged in the Scherzo where after the emphatic staccato from the piano, which Emma Sayers produced with velvety tone rather than mere loudness, the vitality of the outer sections offer the horn its chance to return to its origins as hunting horn, though there’s still more lyrical music than brassy hunting calls. The Trio of the Scherzo follows a full close, and offers a striking contrast to the encompassing boisterousness, with charming melody that gave each player scope to explore rhapsodically.

The loveliest duetting by violin and horn is in the Adagio mesto, which we are invited to hear as sad. Here it was simply thoughtful or contemplative rather than an elegy for Brahms’s recently dead mother; the playing was expressive and lovingly spun out. It is possible to find the finale, Allegro con brio, a bit predictable with the horn running along with its sequences of rising fourths; piano and violin seem to be in control of the melodic ideas, but after a while my ear was being caught mainly by horn and piano. Nevertheless, for all the superb playing by Leppänen and Jacobs I found increasing pleasure in Sayers’s performance which was endlessly arresting and delightful.