Energy and commitment with Bach Choir’s Christmas Oratorio

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Cantatas (or Parts) Nos 1,2, 4, 6

The Bach Choir, the Chiesa Ensemble and Douglas Mews (organ) conducted by Peter Walls with soloists: Nicola Holt, Megan Hurnard, Oliver Sewell and Kieran Rayner

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart

Sunday 15 December, 3:30pm

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, in six parts, might be one of a kind, though I have come across a reference to a tradition of five-part oratorios in Lübeck in the same period.  It is classified in the Bach catalogue as one of three ‘oratorios’: the others are one-part works for Ascension and Easter; both the Ascension and Christmas oratorios seem closer to the passions in their use of recitative from the Evangelist.

The Christmas Oratorio consists of one cantata for each of the six days of Christmas: 25, 26 and 27 December, 1 January (the Feast of the Circumcision), the Sunday after New Year and the Epiphany (6 January).

Bach adapted them, in part, from three secular cantatas, BWV 213, 214, 215 (written for the Dresden court in 1733), for performance over 1734/35 in the two principal Leipzig churches, Saint Thomas and Saint Nikolai. According to the title page of the printed libretto they were all performed in the morning at Saint Nikolai but the 3rd and 5th cantatas were omitted at Saint Thomas in the afternoon. Whether or not meaningfully, the same two were omitted from this performance in the Catholic cathedral.

The choir is in fine shape, the four soloists fresh-voiced and accurate, and their accompaniment by Douglas Mews and the specifically created Chiesa Ensemble (mainly NZSO players), all under the direction of Peter Walls, brought about a very satisfying performance, given the limited rehearsal time for singers and players together.

It opened with a brilliant chorus buoyed by jubilant timpani and brass, at a steady, imposing tempo. Here, as in all but the second part, Bach’s vivid orchestration, depicting this turning-point for the world’s salvation, was fully demonstrated, while the choral part was delivered with a gusto that assured us that we were launched into a confident and energetic performance.

The busiest of the soloists, tenor Oliver Sewell, in the role of the Evangelist, began with the account of Christ’s birth according to Luke, intoning with clear diction in appropriately declamatory style; followed by alto Megan Hurnard, in the role of Mary, with her recitative and aria that contrasted with the opening spirit through its more intimate expression.

Sewell took other roles in addition to the Evangelist; though his voice is true and attractive, I noticed an increasing tendency, as the performance continued, to slur words in a rather un-Germanic manner.

The first and second Chorales of Part I presented a more subdued character as oboes were replaced by either cor anglais or oboe d’amore; the second chorale opened with bass Kieran Rayner in delightful contrast with the women’s voices, and continuing interestingly in its alternating verses. So it was good finally to hear Rayner with his solo aria, ‘Grosser Herr, o starker König’ projecting with clarity and confidence. All his later excursions were admirable.

Part II begins with a pastoral sinfonia, in an altogether more peaceable vein. As appropriate to the cantata that deals with the Annunciation of the Shepherds, the oboists again picked up cor anglais and oboe d’amore (Bach scored it for two oboe d’amore and two oboe da caccia – the predecessor of the cor anglais).

Other instrumental colours emerged. The tenor aria in Part II, ‘Frohe Hirt, eilt’, with conspicuous organ continuo, was accompanied by brilliant flute obbligato that became increasingly sparkling in its ornamentation; though Sewell seemed here to have too many words to fit comfortably into its speed and complexity.

Also in Part II is one of the most striking and beautiful arias, ‘Schlafe, mein Liebster’, a short verse but luxuriantly enveloped in rich reed sounds, elaborated with breathtaking skill and imagination and sung beautifully by Megan Hurnard; sustaining some of her more expressive words with singular beauty.

A hint that more rehearsal might have been useful came, for example, in the chorus ‘Ehre sei Gott’ towards the end of Part II, as it was joyously sung if slightly muddied.

Apart from a recitative ‘Furchtet euch nicht’ in Part II, soprano Nicola Holt waited till Part IV for a substantial entry. She shone in ‘Flösst, mein Heiland’, a not unattractive tremulous touch in her voice, with prominent oboe obbligato: an obbligato that includes the repeated echoing of the rhetorical words ‘Nein’ and ‘Ya’, which has attracted the disapproval of certain scholars. Because this section was taken from the cantata BWV 213 where it was set to words considered suitable, it’s been called an incongruity and inappropriate in this situation, even ‘risible’ for one commentator.  Unorthodox perhaps, but words and music seem to me a droll but quite effective device by which to vary the narrative.

Only at the end of Part VI do all four soloists sing as a quartet: only the tenor sang from the pulpit which had been used throughout for solos, while the other three sang (though I couldn’t see) from the floor; they remained individuals rather than a seamless ensemble. And a return to the bellicose character of the opening choruses brought the work to a close with brass and timpani blazing away and choir in full flight, though tiring a little, perhaps, to acclaim Christ’s quasi-military victory over death.


Festivities and farewells at the NZSO’s Messiah

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

Handel – Messiah

Anna Leese (soprano) / Russell Harcourt (counter-tenor)

James Egglestone (tenor) / Teddy Tahu Rhodes (bass)

Orpheus Choir of Wellington

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Richard Gill (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 14th December 2013

A woman said to me as we were walking together out of the hall after Saturday evening’s  “Messiah” performance by the Orpheus Choir and the NZSO players, “You know, I NEVER get tired of it!” And judging by the work’s popularity and its ability to draw full houses year after year, it’s a sentiment shared by a lot of concertgoers.

Of course, there are a number of reasons for Messiah’s perennial popularity – firstly, it’s  one of those works whose greatness can’t seem to help but shine forth from every individual recitative, aria, chorus and instrumental interaction. Running hand-in-glove with this is the music’s sheer, direct appeal – whoever decreed that the greatest music ought to be fraught with difficulties, complexities and obscurities for the listener obviously forgot to tell Messiah-lovers.

One of the x-factor qualities which keep Messiah is that there are seemingly endless performance variables – because Handel himself could never settle on a “final version” of the work, there exist different performing editions deriving from different premieres. Then there’s more-or-less constant discussion between musicologists and performers regarding “how” the work ought to be interpreted. And there’s the built-in circumstance of every performance being different in any case, given that no two singers will put across the notes the same way, nor will any two conductors produce interpretations that sound like one another.

It all adds up to something that seems to have built-in renewability – had I but world enough and time I would have talked with a dozen people after the performance and explored a variety of ideas and feelings as to Messiah’s enduring popularity and appeal. In this respect I think it’s unique among choral works – perhaps only the Verdi Requiem could claim to enjoy anything like the same level of popularity.

Saturday evening’s “Messiah” certainly had a number of memorable features which readily contributed to the occasion’s unique quality. Right at the beginning of the concert, the orchestra leader Vesa-Matti Leppanen took up a microphone upon making his entrance, and paid a glowing and heartfelt tribute to the orchestra’s Double-Bass Section Principal, Hiroshi Ikematsu, whose final concert it was with the orchestra that evening.

Most interestingly, Vesa-Matti spoke about the relationship of the double-basses to the rest of the orchestral strings, assuring us that sound-wise, it was really Hiroshi’s double-bass which “led” the orchestra, and not the Concertmaster’s violin. It was obvious that such an inspirational and vibrant player and leader, returning to Japan, his home country, to live, will be sorely missed by the orchestra.

The conductor was Richard Gill, whom I had encountered a couple of years ago as conductor of the orchestra in a couple of lecture-demonstrations of various pieces of music  (I remembered well the evening devoted to Dvorak’s New World Symphony). He gave us music-making whose tones leapt from the pages which was bright, alert and alive. His tempi were generally swift and his phrasings with both singers and instrumentalists were detailed and spontaneous-sounding. I didn’t agree with everything he did – in places I thought his disavowal of any rhetoric a bit severe (the opening tenor solo, for example, which was very matter-of-fact), and the choir’s enunciation of the words a bit TOO clipped –  in the phrase “Unto Us” for example, from “For Unto Us a child is born” – and I thought his tempo simply too fast for “He was Despised” – a reading which divested the music of much of its sorrowful feeling, so that the result was a bit of a dry-eyed exercise. A pity, too, he left out the middle section and the reprise of “The Trumpet Shall Sound” – though from the singer’s and instrumentalist’s point of view it was possibly a welcomed excision. And were my ears deceiving me, or did he make a small cut in the  penultimate chorus “Worthy is the Lamb”, just before the re-entry of the timpani and brass towards the end?

These things were all outweighed, however, by the positive aspects of his direction – clear, strong, energetic instrumental and choral lines, encouragement of expression and sharpness of focus in the singing, real and vivid characterization of some of the sequences. I especially liked the choral attack in places like the opening of “Surely he hath borne our griefs” – the Orpheus Choir sounded right onto it, giving the music both power and glint, the sopranos especially a delight all the way through. Another highlight of his direction was the setting of certain instrumental passage for solo instruments , which gave the music a quiet intensity, an intimate quality – an example of this was in “I know my Redeemer liveth” which seemed to have an extra immediacy when accompanied by those solo string lines. Again, during the Amen chorus, the single strings sounded wonderful and made a great contrast with the tumult of the choir’s contrasting “Amens”. Things like this gave his music-making real distinction and individuality without any sense that I could discern of trying to be different just for its own sake.

The soloists also gave great distinction to the evening, especially the two home-grown voices, Anna Leese, soprano, and Teddy Tahu Rhodes, bass, both of whom really commanded and filled out what they sang. A more gentle and tremulous impression was made by both the tenor James Eggleston and counter-tenor Russell Harcourt. Russell Harcourt had a sweet, more feminine voice than one sometimes gets with counter-tenors, who can often be a bit “hooty”.

Tenor James Eggleston managed to blend heroic and poetical tones at the beginning of his opening recitative “Comfort Ye” – but I though his runs throughout “Ev’ry valley” were a bit short-winded in places, not quite free and liberated enough. However he interacted well with the chorus throughout the sequence describing Christ’s being mocked and humbled by the spectators and soldiers, beginning with the sequence “All they that see him laugh him to scorn” – and the chorus work was again terrific and vivid and engaging.

Though I felt Anna Leese wasn’t entirely comfortable with the longer coloratura runs in places, such as during “Rejoice Greatly”, the more lyrical and declamatory parts of her solos simply took wing throughout the evening, and her voice filled the hall so magnificently. I thought she had a number of particularly striking moments, generated by her resplendent vocal-quality – firstly, her describing the Shepherds in the fields watching over their flocks before they were astonished and made afraid by the appearance of the angel and the heavenly hosts; and secondly, her radiantly taking over the solo line from the counter-tenor in “He shall feed his flock”. But the highlight was, for me, her singing of “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, accompanied so enchantingly by solo violin and ‘cello. And where she began the aria’s second sequence “And though worms destroy this body”, her voice seemed to go into some kind of transcendental realm of vocal ecstasy, to the point where it actually gave me goosebumps listening to her!

The other singer to make an enormous impression, and not just through dint of his physical presence, was bass Teddy Tahu Rhodes. From the outset he seemed right into the world of the music, putting the words across with tremendous power and focus. In fact, of all the solo singers he seemed the most confident and commanding in delivering both a strong, yet flexible vocal line. The bass arias from Messiah are all so distinctive and characterful in themselves, in any case, but he wasn’t content to simply leave things at that – every individual item was delivered with great “ownership” and thrilling surety. With such singing and playing as we enjoyed here, it was a pity we didn’t get the whole of the aria “The trumpet shall sound”, which of course, in its entirety, with a contrasting middle section and a reprise of the opening, is both a gift and a real “ask” for both singer and instrumentalist.   But what we got was so splendid as to make us truly grateful. Cheryl Hollinger’s trumpet-playing was gleaming and golden throughout, and in tandem with the singer made a stunning impression.

It all added up to a performance of considerable distinction, one by no means perfect (is there any such thing as a perfect performance of this masterpiece?) but always with something individual and exciting to say. The audience “buzz” at the concert’s end was ample testimony to what these musicians had achieved – the NZSO ought to feel well pleased with its bringing together these talents for our great delight! Joyeux Noël to all!

Promising orchestral concert: excellent Ritchie, problematic Mozart

Wellington Chamber Orchestra;  conductor: Brent Stewart with Karen Batten (flute)

Anthony Ritchie: The Hanging Bulb and Flute Concerto
Mozart: Symphony no.41 Jupiter

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 8 December 2013.

This interesting programme promised a great afternoon of listening, offering the contrast of the young and fresh with the time honoured and revered. For me, some of those hopes were more than fulfilled, others irretrievably dashed……………….

The Hanging Bulb is a short descriptive work that explores through music the despair and obsession associated with the image of the hanging light bulb. But far from being a narcissistic descent into anguished navel gazing, it was a very creative and evocative piece with beautifully crafted orchestration and contrasting moods, alternating between despair and obsession. That despair was first expressed in the haunting opening harmonies, through which were woven spare, dissonant and very plaintive wind melodies that created an almost mesmeric atmosphere.

Interleaved with those episodes were sections of frenetic, syncopated rhythms which were recycled in obsessional repetitions. The very tricky, jazz-like idioms, cycling round and round, brought to mind the image of a mouse trapped in a maze, searching desperately for escape. The tension would build and build, then suddenly resolve into the quiet, despairing reflection of the next contrasting episode. The piece wound up with a closing section of frenetic rhythmic acceleration culminating in a dramatic final chord. The players did great justice to both the technical and poetic demands of the piece, and it is one that deserves more frequent airing.

The Flute Concerto was written in 1993 for Alexa Still during Ritchie’s residency with the Dunedin Sinfonia and it has been widely performed, especially in New Zealand and the USA. It is an attractive work which, like The Hanging Bulb, displays Ritchie’s skilful and creative instrumental writing both in solo and orchestral parts, and his skill with complex and catchy rhythms. The first movement is an energetic, effervescent allegro whose considerable technical demands were tossed off with complete aplomb by Karen Batten.

The orchestra executed with skill and confidence the many tricky, syncopated rhythms that underpin the solo role. The contrasting central Lento movement is introduced by a warm, lyrical theme from solo bass clarinet, a sadly neglected orchestral instrument whose qualities Ritchie here does proud. As in The Hanging Bulb, the movement comprises a series of contrasts between the gentle lyricism of the opening, and interspersed episodes of restless idioms for soloist and orchestra, while the Allegro finale is like a dance sequence, again full of contrasts and sprightly rhythms.

These conversations are always engaging and interesting, and there was a clear affinity between soloist and orchestra throughout the work. Their enthusiasm enhanced a thoroughly refreshing, light hearted and appealing work. Karen Batten was a joy to listen to, and her elegant gown showed that she clearly embraces the wider task of creating a rewarding “performance” ambience for the audience.

After the interval, Brent Stewart offered some brief explanatory comments about Mozart’s Jupiter symphony, particularly emphasising its sunny disposition which he felt was very appropriate to the festive season. This work was written at a time of great difficulty for Mozart, when his health and financial situation were under great stress, and the Viennese seemed to be tiring of him, yet it exudes joy and confidence throughout.

Unfortunately, the tempi imposed by the conductor throughout the entire symphony were such that much of the detail and delight of Mozart’s consummate orchestration was lost.  The spine tingling brilliance of the two outer allegro movements, and their riveting woodwind parts, were lost in a frenetic scramble of notes.

Mozart’s clean, compelling dotted rhythms were frequently blurred into triplets in a hectic attempt at what? The players gave it their all, but the result was a travesty of this mighty work that only thoughtless showmanship on the conductor’s part could have found acceptable. This may seem a harsh verdict, but when a young conductor can inform the players at rehearsal that he is in touch with Mozart, and knows what Mozart wants, misgivings are immediately aroused. Brent Stewart let himself, the players, and most of all Mozart down very badly. They all deserved better.


Mozart’s “Goose of Cairo” nicely cooked and served at Days Bay Opera.

Opera in a Days Bay Garden presents:

L’Oca del Cairo – Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (edited by Michael Vinten)

English libretto by Michael Vinten

Producer: Rhona Fraser

Director: Sara Brodie

Cast: Roger Wilson (Don Pippo)

Rhona Fraser (Donna Pantea, his estranged wife)

Barbara Graham (Celidora, their daughter, betrothed to Biondello)

Christie Cook (Lavina, betrothed to Calandrino)

Imogen Thirlwall (Auretta, maidservant and sweetheart of Chichibio)

Christian Thurston (Chichibio, manservant and sweetheart of Anetta)

Andrew Grenon (Calandrino, betrothed to Lavina)

Oliver Sewell (Biondello, betrothed to Celidora)

John Bremford (Count Lionetto, friend to Don Pippo – non-singing part)

Chorus: Clarissa Dunn / Sheridan Williams / William McElwee / Howard McGuire

Orchestra of Opera in a Days Bay Garden: Leader – Anne Loeser / Continuo – Richard Mapp

Conductor: Michael Vinten

Canna House, Days Bay, Wellington

Sunday 8th December, 2013

Now here’s a diverting sidelight involving Mozart as an opera composer, one that will come as a complete surprise to some people, as it did to me. Thanks to the enterprise, vision, industry and sheer tenacity of conductor (and scholar and musicologist) Michael Vinten, light has been shed on some of the esteemed Wolfgang’s lesser-known operatic workings, to whit at least two unfinished operatic projects and certain other fragments from the master’s compositional workshop.

Mozart’s unfinished opera L’oca del Cairo (The Goose of Cairo) which he began in July 1783, is duly included in the Köchel Catalogue of the composer’s works as K.422. Shortly afterwards, in that same year, another operatic project was begun by the composer, one also destined to remain unfinished. This was Lo sposo deluso (The Deluded Bridegroom) catalogued as K.430. Mozart abandoned both for a number of reasons, the most likely scenario being that (a) he was displeased with the libretto of each work, and (b) he jumped at the chance when it came, to work instead with the poet Lorenzo da Ponte, with whom he then produced one of the greatest of all operas “Le Nozze di Figaro” (The Marriage of Figaro).

Given that Mozart actually expressed some satisfaction with the music he had written for “The Goose” (as opposed to his dissatisfaction with the libretto), it seemed a waste not to have the music re-employed in some shape or form. And, as there was another unfinished work by the composer in the same neck of the operatic woods, it meant that there was potentially a lot of good material waiting for a kind of rehabilitation.

Several attempts at reconstruction of the extant music from one or both works have already been made over the years, the first as long ago as 1867 in Paris. Of these, Michael Vinten’s seems to have gone the furthest towards creating a new work from what remains of the two unfinished operas plus various other Mozartean fragments from different sources written by the composer at around the same time. By comparison, a relatively recent (2002) British staging called “The Jewel Box” used the fragments of music but not the plots of the abandoned works.

To list all of the reconstructions and reinventions made by Vinten would turn this review into some kind of opera workshop inventory, albeit an impressive one. What he has done, in short, is to take the largely finished seven numbers from Act One of L’oca del Cairo, along with the five (mostly sketched-out) numbers from Lo sposo deluso (which however, do include a completed Overture, and one other finished item), and augment these with other pieces Mozart wrote for various projects at around the same time,  ending up with sufficient musical material for a newly-reconstituted work. As Vinten explains, the chosen time-frame gives the music a certain stylistic unity; and this was something which certainly fell gratefully upon the ear throughout the performance I was fortunate enough to hear.

When one discovers that, in Michael Vinten’s words, “of the 33 pieces used in the (reconstructed) opera, only 6 are totally completed by Mozart”, the full extent of these musical undertakings alone becomes apparent as well as a matter for great astonishment. But Vinten’s work didn’t stop there, as there were vexing questions posed by the two sets of libretti from the source-works, which also had to be addressed. This involved rewriting parts of the L’oca libretto so that it “fitted in” with aspects of the plot of Lo sposo. Throughout Vinten took pains to observe the conventions of the “known” Mozart operas, and paid special attention to social hierarchies of the kind found in other works by the composer.

As both Italian and a kind of “Viennese” dialect were used by the original librettists, Vinten decided to set the reconstruction in English, thus helping to unifying the modern conception – he also rewrote the recitatives, apart from one passage which appeared to have been written by Mozart himself. Apart from one or two modern colloquialisms which seemed somewhat cruder than Mozart might have allowed in public, given that, in private, he was excessively fond of crude scatological jokes and expressions (here, the word “bastard” seemed a bit excessive to me, as did the expression “giving the finger”) it mostly sounded to me like a thoroughly idiomatic opera buffa ought. All of of this seemed like the work of someone who had fully entered into the composer’s creative world, to the point where I’m certain it would have been the furthest thing from listeners’ minds during the performance to think “some of this is not Mozart’s work”.

So, how did it all come across at Canna House, Days Bay, this wondrous opera-rescue undertaking? Judging by the delight expressed in conversations I overheard both at the interval and afterwards, extremely well, indeed. Despite the weather shaking out its skirts in the wind occasionally, whipping away the occasional piece of stage-business paper, and at one point during the First Act showering scattered rain down onto singers, players and audience, causing a stoppage and a realignment of orchestral forces under shelter, there were no apparent major crises or glitches. A wonderful sense of ensemble between all participants prevailed throughout, one which, at this particular venue, readily spreads into and through the audience – and, of course, as seems to be customary, the occasional audience member is unexpectedly drawn into the action, to the delight (and relief) of the surrounding onlookers.

At Canna House, depending upon the particular production’s configuration, one can find oneself seated either down on the terraced lawn looking upwards at the higher terraces in front of the house, or in a vice-versa position, looking down onto the lower lawn. Here it was the former; and I had a seat which placed me handily to both stage action and the orchestra, quite a way over on my right. A couple of people I spoke to later said they were actually grateful for the rain, because it meant that the orchestra was reconvened for the restart in the middle of the stage action beneath the house veranda, and could be heard more clearly by those sitting on the left in the audience.

Director Sara Brodie’s placement of the opera’s action wasn’t at too specific a point of time, though the costumes had a reasonably “twentieth-century” feel about them, with accoutrements such as wind-up gramophones in attendance. I thought Act One in particular was splendidly staged, in fact, with properly comic comings-and-goings from principals and chorus members alike, as part of a “fluidity of irruption” that took its cues from the stream of wonderful music left by the composer and given new life by Michael Vinten. We particularly enjoyed detailings such as the desperate tennis ball-servings undertaken from the top of a tall tower by soprano Barbara Graham in the role of the unfortunate Celidora, daughter of the villain of the piece, the dastardly Don Pippo.

Though her tennis serves weren’t quite of the consistency of Serena Williams’, Barbara Graham made amends with a beautifully-characterised and excellently-sung portrayal of a wronged young woman, about to be forced by her father to forego her young lover and marry a rich elderly Count. Also held prisoner in the tower is the beautiful Lavina, sung by Christie Cook whom Don Pippo (bass Roger Wilson making the most of his villainous theatrical capacities!) hopes to marry. I liked Christie Cook’s warmly-wrought character and richly-produced tones, though she seemed over-taxed by some of the vocal runs, which didn’t sound altogether comfortable in places.

Roger Wilson’s splendid vocal focus served his character Don Pippo’s delusions of libido-grandeur to a tee, and, together with the two young women, made the most of the absurdities of the Second Act’s “dungeon scene trio”. At times there was scarcely enough room to turn around on the narrow terraces, let alone for the women to tie the unfortunate (and suddenly incapacitated) Don up with ribbon, with the help of the servant Chichibio (it can be gleaned from this that the plot is much too complex and absurd to be detailed). Act Two did have what seemed to me to be one or two congestion-like points in this respect, where the action needed I think to be more clearly focused – perhaps galvanized by great wonderment and astonishment at the Goose’s arrival, for example – before being properly “bumped on” for continuity’s sake.

All the characterizations undertaken by the singers were of a similarly engaging quality of focus and purpose. As the maidservant Auretta, Imogen Thirlwall was an absolute delight, voice production and stage movement so spontaneously “theatrical” in overall impulse one felt in complete and more-or-less instant accord with the character. Her worldly, Despina-like attitudes had a beautifully natural contrivance, much to the simultaneously-expressed joy and sorrow of her “often-behind-the-eight-ball” paramour, Chichibo, played with an engaging mix of wonderment and determination by Christian Thurston, holding on through thick and thin to the idea that steadfastness will come to be rewarded with love.

The two other young couples also had interesting differentiations, alluded to by Michael Vinten, what he called the mezzo carattere couple (Lavina and Calandrino) making a kind of foil for the seria twosome (Celidora and Biondello). According to Vinten this is what Mozart asked for from his librettist but didn’t get, at least to the extent that he wanted. Both Christie Cook as Lavina and Andrew Grenon as Calandrino had enough theatrical “presence” to establish strongly-etched, somewhat mock-serious characters, each thereby making up for a certain lack of vocal agility (Lavina) and weight of tone (Calandrino).

From both Barbara Graham (Celidora) and Oliver Sewell (Biondello) came show-stopping moments of vocal splendor – Celidora’s wonderful top-of-the-tower-captive aria, beautifully supported by a melting oboe solo and resplendent strings, was spectacularly delivered by Barbara Graham, leading then into some swinging duetting with Christie Cook’s Lavina, complete with phonograph-inspired flapper-dance movements. Some even more beautiful duetting from these two came at the beginning of the Act Two “dungeon” scene, the music almost Cosi-like in its loveliness, in places.

As for Oliver Sewell’s strenuously heroic Biondello, it was engaging boys-to-the-rescue stuff right from the start, complete with portable catapult and armies of plastic toy soldiers, all quite irresistible! And at the beginning of the Second Act he poured out his heart to the audience at his love-lorn plight before personalizing the plea with a hapless female audience member in the front row, who, however, gave as warm a response to his predicament as the occasion demanded!

It fell to the character of Biondello to assume the disguise of the eponymous Goose later in the act, a process initiated by none other than the estranged and supposedly banished wife of Don Pippo, the still-redoubtable Donna Pantea. Making her first appearance towards the end of the first Act, Rhona Fraser looked formidably resplendent in her pilot’s uniform, and bestrode the stage like an avenging angel, with a view to rescuing her daughter, Celidora, from her own father’s machinations. I thought the cast and energy of her recitative and aria uncannily anticipated something of the character of Leonore in Fidelio, such was the strength of her resolve and the focus of her singing.

Only at the point of reappearance of Donna Pantea disguised as the “Egyptian Dancer” and bringing with her the so-called “Goose” did I feel the staging lose something of what ought to have been its full dramatic punch, however parodic and ridiculous the sequence might have appeared. As I’ve already mooted in this review, ought the goose to have been made more of an object of mock wonderment and ritualized stupefaction on the part of those “in the know”, as much as with the hapless Don Pippo? Carefully though Michael Vinten crafted the sequences, I thought some kind of increased intensification in one or two places would drive the action forward where it seemed to sag ever so slightly, something that wasn’t ever apparent during the first Act.

With so much high-class and high-spirited fun already to be had from the proceedings, it seems churlish to criticize – it’s a small point. I must, before closing, mention the sterling efforts of the 4-part chorus, veritable jacks-of-all-trades in the hurly-burly of the action, the ebb and flow of their presence nicely directed by Sara Brodie. Steadfast, too, were the efforts of the off-stage/on-stage orchestra, constantly fulfilling Michael Vinten’s requirements for energized rhythms and singing lines, and supporting the singers to the hilt. Though ensemble wasn’t spit-and-polish perfect at all times, singers, conductor and players had a plasticity to their rhythms and phrasings that meant that things never came seriously adrift.

Very great credit to producer Rhona Fraser and director Sara Brodie, and all others concerned with bringing to fruition Michael Vinten’s (and something of Mozart’s) visions of musical and theatrical delight for our great pleasure.











Puer natus est nobis – Christmas music for the ages from the Tudor Consort

The Tudor Consort presents:

Puer natus est nobis – (A Boy is Born to Us)

Christmas Music from the Renaissance

Music by Anon., Lambe, Byrd, Guerrero, Tallis, Palestrina, Mouton and de Lassus

The Tudor Consort

directed by Michael Stewart

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Hill St., Wellington

Saturday 7th December, 2013

The great liturgical feast-times throughout the year are simply wonderful for music and music-making, as there’s plenty of added value in terms of “something in the air”, as with the Tudor Consort’s recent “Puer natus est nobis” (A Boy is born to us) concert at Wellington’s Sacred Heart Basilica.

Opening the concert with a beautifully-wrought example of Sarum Chant, the choir readily evoked both a stillness, and the steady, inexorable beat of time with its processional throughout the body of the church. The voices resoundingly floated the words and tones of the text bearing the Advent tidings, all the while encircling and passing through the congregation/audience, and then ascending to the sanctuary. I thought it a wondrous and cherishable evocation.

Director Michael Stewart then welcomed us to the concert, making a point of assuring us that the singers had paid particular attention – with the help of a “expert” whose name I can’t recall, but who was apparently present at the concert! – to Middle English pronunciation of the older texts. Certainly the sounds took on an added vitality when authentically expressed and coloured, somehow enlarging our imaginative capacities for appreciating the distances in space and time this music was making via these performances to reach us.

I loved the more angular and less moulded effect of these vocalizations – the 15th Century anonymous carol There is no Ros had an enchantingly “modal” flavor, the variation between solo and ensemble voices creating beautifully terraced intensities between verses. And the more robust male-voice Hayl Mary, full of grace from the same period took on a similarly penetrating period awareness, the voices seeming to relish the salty tang of those dialects.

In the concert’s first half there were two pieces written by Walter Lambe, both found in the famous Eton Choirbook – the first, Stella caeli (A Heavenly Star) Michael Stewart admitted to not REALLY being a Christmas song, but was a piece he really liked. Certainly the long, rolling lines of polyphonic blending made an impressive effect, a kind of crescendo-like build-up towards a sequence of dissolution and gradual regrouping, line-by line, complete with unexpected dynamics that gave the music a dramatic, almost theatrical feeling.

My description of the piece is, of course, based on the Consort’s performance of its wonderful textures and contouring, as with the same composer’s similarly dramatic (and this time unequivocally seasonal) Nesciens mater, with its gleaming soprano lines and contrasting male-voiced sequences towards the end – again, great and satisfying intensity was generated by the singers and their director in this glorious music.

We would have felt cheated without the Coventry Carol in a concert of this kind, and the Consort didn’t disappoint, giving the heart-rending story plenty of poignancy and bite in appropriate places – hackles appropriately rose when the men’s voices characterized King Herod’s murderous brutality with black, stentorian utterances. More delicate and softer in outline was Sweet was the Song, from a source I’d never heard of previously, William Ballet’s “Lute Book” c.1600, a piece with a soaring soprano line and rich harmonies.

William Byrd’s joyous and energetic evocation This Day Christ was Born rang as resplendently as church bells, with a veritable hubbub of voice-writing conveying great excitement and joy among mankind, here beautifully realised, along with an amazingly stratospheric soprano line. “Good old Byrd, eh?” was the immediate response of my companion at the concert, who had sung in various choirs, and thus encountered (and enjoyed) the composer’s music as a performer.

After the interval our ears were largely transported across the English Channel and into Europe, with a quick trip back for a piece by Thomas Tallis at one point. To begin we were treated to two enchanting 16th Century “dance” carols from Spain, the first the anonymous Verbum Caro factum Est  and, following immediately, Francisco Guerrero’s A un niño llorando al yelo (To a boy crying in the cold). Back to England we were then taken, for Tallis’s intense and tightly-knit Videte miraculum (Behold the miracle), plainsong lines alternating with closely-knit harmonies, and melismatic phrases repeated to hypnotic effect.

Then came music from the great Palestrina, firstly his Hodie Christus natus est, occasioning a double choir formation and featuring festive energies and colorful exchanges. What wonderful roulades of sound from the women! – gleaming soprano lines culminating with joyous “Noels” at the end!  Nobler, and more intense, was O Magnum Mysterium, music charged with a kind of noble spirituality. Though the question-and answer “Quem vidistis”  (Whom did you see?) sequence took up the second part, the choir had returned to its normal formation, the writing doing the work of differentiation between the voices, with their skillfully layered intensities and beautiful finishing “Alleluias”. Lovely performances.

Two more names to conjure with at the concert’s conclusion – firstly Jean Mouton, who was born in 1459, the best part of a century earlier than Orlande de Lassus. Mouton’s Quaeramus cum pastoribus (Let us seek with the shepherds) was another “question-and-answer” work, firstly describing the scene and then questioning the Christ-child, expressed in music with gentle, open textures and comfortably-shared lines. More complex and energetic was Orlande de Lassus’s Resonet in laudibus (Let praises resound), one whose title gives a clue as to its musical character, or characters, as here, across the different verses – the Consort’s singing encompassed the opening’s sturdy declamations as whole-heartedly as were treated the different variations, the final sequence returning to great jubilation with the words “Magnum nomen Domini Emmanuel” (Great is the name of the Lord Emmanuel) – an appropriate and celebratory way to finish the concert.

A small point at the concert’s end – had Michael Stewart allowed his choir to remain in the Sanctuary after taking his bow, retired for a moment, and then returned, we could have acclaimed the Consort’s and its director’s performances for even longer! They certainly deserved it.







‘Great Music 2013’ on lute and organ: wonderful Messiaen

Bach: Suite for Lute in G minor, BWV 995
Messiaen: La Nativité du Seigneur

Jennifer Chou (organ); Stephen Pickett (lute)

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Friday 6 December 2011, 7.30pm

It is almost exactly two years since I reviewed Thomas Gaynor playing the same mighty Messiaen work, which dates from 1935,  in the same Cathedral series (though that was a lunchtime concert).

About the same number of people were in the audience on both occasions: around 40. However, there was at least one major difference this time: the audience was seated in the gallery above the main door, at the back of the church.  As a note in the printed programme had it, the organ sounded ‘clear and powerful’ from this position (mostly).

The lutenist sat facing the audience, in front of the balcony rail of the gallery. This enabled us to hear him; almost any other position in the Cathedral would have made this difficult or impossible.

It was an interesting juxtaposition of one of the quietest instruments against one that is potentially the loudest.  I found the contrast too great.  The opening Allemande from the Bach Suite sounded rather dull, and in light of what we heard later, it was monochrome.  The playing was so gentle and quiet that it was hard for the sound, in the early part of the evening, to conquer those of coughing and of traffic. However, the gallery was a good place to deliver the desirable intimate ambience, and to enable us to be close to the lutenist.

I know nothing about lute technique, but it seemed to me that an occasional twanging sound on the lower strings was unfortunate, as was the uneven tone produced, some notes sounding strongly while others disappeared.

Jennifer Chou is based in Australia, and is a highly competent organist.  She followed the lute’s Bach Allemande with the first three movements of the Messiaen work; the two further batches of movements were interspersed with movements from the Bach.

Thus we heard ‘The Virgin and the Child’, ‘The Shepherds’ and ‘Eternal Purposes’ in the first sequence.  The excellent programme notes and introductory article about Messiaen were by one David Gammie.  His descriptions of the movements, based in part on Messiaen’s own notes about the music, were very descriptive.  The words about the first movement, based on the plainsong ‘Puer natus est’, were apt: words such as ‘hypnotic dance’ and ‘the music takes flight in an exquisite flute cadenza’.  While the music is vivid, and quite different from any other composer’s works, at times there seems to be a traffic jam of contrasting sounds, rhythms and timbres.

The subtle, ethereal effects used in the second movement are unique to Messiaen. But I was sure I heard the tones of the donkeys, too!  Or perhaps it was a result of memories of John Rutter’s Brother Heinrich’s Christmas at Te Papa the Sunday before last.

The third movement, ‘Eternal Purposes’ was concerned not with the Christmas story but embodied more profound ideas.  Its slow, even ponderous pace was almost soporific, or at least mesmerising.  The lower chords did not sound very distinct, at the considerable distance we were from the pipes.

More lute music, this time the Sarabande and Courante.  Although the former is certainly a slow dance, this rendition seemed a bit too slow to dance to.  The notes were not sounded with equal clarity, and a few were out of tune.  The second dance had more pace, spirit and volume, and involved more counterpoint.

Back to Messiaen.  ‘Le verbe’ (The Word) incorporated many colours from the wide palette available (and Messiaen was one of those rare individuals who saw colours when he heard musical sounds).  The long solo on the cornet stop produced delicious tones.  The solemn melody had a noble character.  The organ certainly sounded very well from the gallery in this movement, giving not only a fine demonstration of the range of pipes, but also precision in the dynamic constrasts, the runs and figures.

The words in the programme notes ‘Messiaen’s music does not evolve or develop… it simply is’ I thought particularly apt for the movement entitled ‘God’s Children’.  The richness and beautiful contrasts were memorable.

‘The Angels’ introduced a wonderful spread through the range of the instrument, and through the tonal colours.  Jennifer Chou’s immaculate technique was equal to all of it.  The audience didn’t worry about what she was doing, so far away.  We simply enjoyed the music with all its marvellous sonorities and dynamics.

The last two movements of the Suite for Lute brought a jolly mood, but it was a huge divergence from the variety of sonorities we had just been hearing. There were fewer unpleasant twangs here, and a more full-bodied tone emerged from the instrument.  The Gavottes and Gigue were presented with more shape and structure than we had had with the earlier movements.

The opening of Messiaen’s seventh movement, ‘Jesus accepts suffering’, was quite shocking in its discordant, dramatic, forte opening chords.  The solemnity of the deep bassoon reply and the tension of the evocation of suffering in the treatment were amply conveyed.

The music for ‘The Wise Men’ easily evoked images of the three wise men travelling across desert, seeing a star, and encountering something that inspired them with awe.

‘God among us’, the climax to the work, was full of exciting episodes and passages.
Technically very demanding, its musical language represented the Incarnation, Communion with Christ and Mary’s ‘Magnificat’.  The luminous, grand final chord, long-held, was a climax of contentment and joy, not of flashy virtuosity.

A towering work, La Nativité du Seigneur was played with mesmeric skill and panache.  This was a mammoth accomplishment, creating a rhapsodic experience, unlike that to be had from any other composer’s music.