Baroque Voices – resplendent 20th birthday offerings

BAROQUE VOICES – 20th Birthday Concert
Music from 20 years of performance

Baroque Voices
Pepe Becker (director)
Douglas Mews (harpsichord, organ, piano)
Robert Oliver (bass viol)
Daniel Becker (guitar, percussion)

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill St., Wellington

Saturday, 28th June 2014

Wellington’s Baroque Voices celebrated twenty years of music-making with a concert on the last Saturday of June given in the same inaugural venue, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, in Hill St., Wellington – a splendid place for music-making by vocal ensembles.

It was a truly epic and resplendent affair – perhaps a trifle overlong for listeners and performers alike, though the presentation certainly succeeded in bringing to the fore a sense of the variety and depth of repertoire the ensemble has tackled since its inception. Music Director Pepe Becker, in the programme accompanying Saturday’s concert, outlined something of BV’s history, in the process setting down something of the extent of the ensemble’s range and sympathies regarding performance.

In those twenty years the group’s personnel has markedly changed, the only original BV members remaining being Peter Dyne and Pepe herself. But though singers have come and gone, the performance standards have been maintained, judging by the invariably enthusiastic reviews the group has received. I’ve been going to their concerts for at least ten of those years, and have always been delighted with both the repertoire and its presentation.

On this occasion I actually thought that the ensemble warmed increasingly to its task as the evening progressed, becoming more relaxed and better-focused, though I did get the feeling that the group had worked harder on some of the pieces than on others. Given the range of repertoire covered in the concert this wasn’t really surprising – in fact it was amazing that the group maintained the levels of accuracy and energy that they did, especially towards the end. We would, I think, have been more than satisfied with about four-fifths of the items – especially given that a few of the choices seemed to me a tad insubstantial compared with some others.

But any more comment along these lines would sound curmudgeonly – faced with such generosity of performing spirit one feels far more inclined to celebrate what was done with the group’s usual skill, refinement and panache – which was, in fact, most of the programme (all of the bits I would have wanted to keep!). These alone were in themselves worlds of delight and wonderment, and their performances worthy exemplars of the ensemble’s quality.

The concert’s very beginning in a sense paid homage to the venue, which repaid the gesture with appropriate resonance and ambient warmth – the singers came in from the church’s congregational entrance behind the audience, Pepe Becker leading the way and singing, purely and rapturously, Hildegarde of Bingen’s haunting plainchant O Euchari, with the other singers humming in the style of an accompanying hurdy-gurdy. It all made for a William Blake-like “augury of innocence”, of wonderment such as one might experience as a child at a rare and mystical ritual – a moment of magic!

Baroque Voices followed this with another special moment – a performance of the very first item sang by the ensemble at that inaugural 1994 concert. This was Monteverdi’s madrigal Ch’ami la vita mia (That you are the love of my life), from the First Book of Madrigals, for five voices – a sonorous, flexible performance with moments of pure quicksilver. Of course Monteverdi’s music subsequently became a major focus for the group, presently exploring the entire series of Madrigals, and having already performed, most brilliantly, the resplendent 1610 Vespers in 2010 (can it really be four years ago?). Two other Monteverdi madrigals were presented in the concert’s second half, contrasting the composer’s later (Second Practice) style, accompanied by continuo instruments, with his earlier practice, using voices only.

Another particularly fruitful undertaking for the group has been the commissioning and premiering of no less than thirty-five new works (to date!) by local composers. A number of these drew their initial inspiration from existing works, or from texts set by composers already in BV’s repertoire. We were “treated” to four instances of this during the evening, all of which the group had previously performed, two from Jack Body, one from Mark Smythe, and one from Ross Harris, as well as more “stand-alone” works by Carol Shortis and Pepe Becker herself.

Jack Body’s Nowell in the Lithuanian manner followed a lovely, properly austere three-part performance of the anonymous 15th Century English carol Nowell, sing we – Body’s work, from 1995, was a setting for four voices, with the interval of a second dominating the music, making for a resonant and repetitive antiphonal exchange of excitable impulses tossed back and forth in a kind of minimalist-folksy way, sounding fun to perform, as it certainly was to hear.

More resplendent and declamatory was the same composer’s Jibrail (the Islamic word for Gabriel), here performed immediately after its Latin equivalent “Veni Creator Spiritus” – we heard the Latin chant sung antiphonally by two groups, most of whose members then re-formed in a semi-circle as a gong ritualistically sounded (played by Daniel Becker), the singers chanting the word Jibrail, and capping the growing vocal intensities by picking up and activating hand-held gongs, as if the tintinabulations were spreading through the world like wildfire.

This wasn’t exactly conventional vocal or choral music, but was a demonstration of how a creative imagination can at times defy convention and produce something that really works by its own unique lights – rather like Beethoven introducing voices to symphonic structures, which no-one had ever dared do before him. It’s also a matter of having the versatility to employ non-conventional means for expressive or creative purposes, which composers like Jack Body have demonstrated on many occasions.

A different kind of creative inspiration produced a work by composer Mark Smythe (Pepe Becker’s brother, incidentally), from music originally written for rock band.This was a setting of an anonymous Latin text A solis ortus cardine (From the far point of the rising sun) which Voices first sang as per Nikolaus Apel’s fifteenth-century Kodex (collection), in which version the lines had a gorgeous “floating” quality, the effect being of several plainchant strands beautifully interwoven.

Mark Smythe’s setting followed, employing an electric guitar as a kind of ground bass (the premiere of this work in 2005 used voices only, the guitar being a more recent addition, played here by Daniel Becker), and assigning to the vocal parts the “rock” song’s main melody supported by harmonies from the guitar parts. The result was rhythmically catchy, and harmonically attractive, having what I think of as a kind of oldish, modal flavour in places, with ear-catching modulations. I also enjoyed the purity and sense of freedom and space evoked by those stratospheric vocal lines drawn by Pepe Becker and Jane McKinlay.

A composer whose music has always intrigued and delighted me is Carol Shortis, who’s written a number of commissioned works for BV. Each of her works has seemed to me to inhabit its own world, with nothing generalized or taken for granted; as with the work presented in this concert, five settings of Japanese “death-poems” called Jisei, which Baroque Voices premiered in 2010. Typically succinct and intensely focused “final thoughts”, the poetry required similarly precise, sharp-edged sound-impulses which would “inhabit” the words, and vice-versa – and Carol Shortis’s music seemed to speak, sigh, sing and breathe with the verses to a remarkable extent.

Except that I thought the second Jisei, Senseki’s “At last I am leaving” could have been sparer of tone, more distilled in its realization (evoking more sparingly the “rainless skies” and the “cool moon”), I thought the performances evocative and finely-drawn. I enjoyed especially the third setting, Gesshu Soko’s “Inhale, exhale”, with its wonderful oscillations, and soaring lines describing the flight of arrows through the void. And the wordless realizations of the concluding Jisei, the letter “O”, were appropriately remote and self-contained, a final exhalation of breath closing the symbol’s circle.

Ross Harris contributed a work via a Baroque Voices’ commission in 2009, a setting of the anonymously-composed hymn Ave Maris Stella  (Hail, Star of the Sea). The ensemble again “prepared” the audience by performing a mixture of the plainchant verses with parts of another setting by Guillaume Dufay, a wonderfully tingling, ambience-stroking activation. Ross Harris’s work was itself described by Pepe Becker as “sumptuous”, doubtless as a result of her having previously performed the work – its premiere, in 2009.

I enjoyed the music’s oceanic evocations, sounds patterned like recurring waves, the voices interlocked, and the lines clustered – but then I thrilled to the growing intensities of sounds at the words “Qui pro nobis natus tulit esse tuus” (Who, born for us, endured to be thine), and a corresponding rapt, haunting withdrawal of tones and colour at “Ut videntes Jesum semper collaetemur” (That, seeing Jesus, we may forever rejoice together). And both the joyous affirmation of “Summo Christo decus Spiritui Sancto” (Honour to Christ the Highest, and to the Holy Spirit) and the deep, sonorous closing pages were intensely moving.

I ought to mention Pepe Becker’s own work, the Kyrie from her Mass of the False Relation, a title which had me intrigued until I read about the particular compositional device employed by the composer – the substitution of a sharpened or flattened note, a “false relation” of the original, sometimes in juxtaposition with the actual original, the harmonic tensions and clashes making for highly expressive results – colourful and piquant in places, tense and edgy in others, the listener waiting the whole time for lines and harmonies to resolve. I liked the “hollow cluster” effect of the “masquerading relatives” towards the piece’s end, during the final “Kyrie”.

I’ve unashamedly concentrated on the New Zealand composers and their works written for Baroque Voices, in this review – the concert contained a number of other delights which time and patience preclude a mention. But I mustn’t forget to pay tribute to the continuo musicians, Douglas Mews, who moved adroitly between harpsichord, piano and organ, as the items required, and Robert Oliver, whose bass viol playing was, as always, a delight. These two players have especially supported Baroque Voices down the years, almost to the point where any concert by the group wouldn’t seem quite the same without them.

To my mind, this concert reaffirmed both Baroque Voices’ and director Pepe Becker’s status as national treasures. These are musicians whose efforts help us find and nurture expression for whomever and whatever we are, occasionally, as here, holding our efforts up against the rest of the world’s by way of reaffirming both our identity and our individuality. May Baroque Voices continue to do the same on our behalf with distinction for at least the next twenty years!

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NZSO under Venezuelan conductor triumphs with essential German and Russian masterpieces

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rafael Payare with Alisa Weilerstein – cello

Schumann: Manfred Overture, Op 115
Prokofiev: Symphony-Concerto for cello and orchestra in E minor, Op 125
Mahler: Symphony No 1 in D

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 27 June, 6:30 pm

A couple of highly promising young musicians whose existence have so far escaped my attention appeared with the NZSO on Friday.  Rafael Payare is the product of Venezuela’s Sistema musical organisation that involves young people seriously in classical music, and has already given rise to one of the most illustrious young conductors, Gustavo Dudamel. Payare is obviously following a similar path.

He is married to Alisa Weilerstein, the cello soloist who played the Prokofiev.

It was easy to see how the orchestra has responded to Payare’s approach both to them and to the music; starting with the overture, Schumann’s Manfred. Apart from Shakespeare, only two English writers have become big business in other parts of Europe: Byron and Scott, and for composers in particular. Byron attracted Berlioz, Donizetti and Verdi, Liszt and Tchaikovsky. Schumann too who was drawn to Byron’s verse drama, Manfred. Byron dismissed Manfred, written in 1817, as something eccentric and untheatrical, writing that he didn’t know whether it was good or bad. He called it ‘mad’ and wrote that he had rendered it quite impossible for the stage. In spite of that, Schumann composed not just an overture but other pieces of incidental music for the play, suggesting that he did envisage that it might be staged. I don’t know whether it was. There was a good deal more contemporary dramatic literature in Germany in the early 19th century than there was in Britain.

The central attraction of the piece was a kind of supernatural being who lives with the guilt of an unnamed crime (it was no doubt that which attracted both Schumann, and Tchaikovsky, in his little-played Manfred Symphony). Byron wrote it in Venice after fleeing England after the exposure of his relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh.  It was the product of the age of Faust Part I (and the character Manfred owes something to Faust in fact – yes, I did read it many years ago) and other works of the Sturm und Drang era including Schiller’s Die Räuber, and the English Gothic novel.

I had not heard the Manfred Overture for many years and wondered whether its strong impression on me would still exist. It was, and very much. Schumann’s account of the subject is taut, melodically strong, portraying the hero’s sombre, disturbed character, and this performance was arresting and excitable, giving Schumann the most persuasive account one could hope for. It’s scored for a normal orchestra, double woodwinds, except for four horns which lent a fine dramatic resonance. The conductor handled the unexpected turns with panache, particularly the mock anti-climax at the end.

Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto was played by the NZSO with German cellist Alban Gerhardt about six years ago, in what I recall as a fire-eating performance, feverish, with pretty fast speeds.

Here there were smaller string numbers (12, 10, 8, 8, 6) and an otherwise conventional orchestra.  The cellist in the open phase did not project her sound very strongly, but her instrument carried the essentially lyrical solo writing engagingly, contrasting with the more sombre orchestral scoring, dominated by its repeating, stolid rising theme that opens the piece. It’s an arresting and dark rather than an ingratiating work however, even though the energy of the Allegro movement is compelling and there’s plenty of more conspicuous playing for the cello.

Most of those I spoke to, unfamiliar with the work, did not find it engaging, which was my own reaction when I first encountered it many years ago. A merely routine performance will never do: its enjoyment demands a highly persuasive performance, to turn what at first seems dry, rather laconic, melodically obscure music into a work that has some real emotional integrity, even at times, excitement. For example, after the cadenza in the middle of the Allegro the orchestra returns to a pulsing cross-string passage that is emotionally gripping, like the sound of a hammering steam train at high speed.

The second is the longest movement and seems to contain the widest variety of moods and speeds, and it’s here that a driving propulsion and a sense of purpose emerged, powerfully inspired by Payare’s direction of the orchestra. Though the last movement begins with what can only be described as a real melody, first-time listeners can be forgiven for sensing a severity and unforgiving character in the work as a whole, and that initial impression can be hard to shake off even as very interesting developments and quite memorable sounds create a work of art that is strong and original without recourse to alienating avant-garde techniques.

It’s quite a tough work nevertheless; and there was no doubt that the relationship between conductor and cellist lent the performance a special energy and displayed a belief in and an affection for the music.

Then came Mahler’s First Symphony. The orchestra reassembled after the interval, at full strength (which I discuss later). It opens with the most uncanny, ethereal sounds, such as no symphony at that time had approached in any way, an exploratory feeling, as off-stage trumpets and then cuckoo sounds on clarinet suggest a pastoral scene, reinforced by one of the most beguiling Wayfarer songs; and quotes from other songs, his own and ‘Frère Jacques’. From the very first, the orchestra created a sound world that was vivid and full of character.

For a first symphony, it is impressive both for its individual character, its novelties of shape and structure and in the size of orchestra used. Much of that character derives from its evolving growth and the revisions which the programme note covers to some extent – born as a five movement symphonic poem in two parts, begun when Mahler was 24 and first performed in Budapest when he was 29. That version included a movement known as Blumine (Flower piece) lifted from an earlier work most of which has been lost. That one movement, found in 1966, had been between the first and second movements when it was played in Budapest in 1889 and again in 1893 and 1894. The Budapest version was called ‘Symphonic-Poem in 2 Parts’.

Between the Budapest performance and the revision for Hamburg in 1893 Mahler added the name Aus dem Leben eines Einsamen (From the Life of a Lonely-one). Just before the Hamburg performance the name Titan was added, though he made it clear that it was not in any way about Jean Paul’s novel. But he removed that title after the Hamburg performance in 1893 and there is no reason for it to be so-called now. (Titan, published in 1800-03, is a somewhat wild, Romantic novel a prominent feature of which is its beautiful and evocative nocturnal landscape descriptions, a feature that can be easily visualised in the symphony).  The third performance was in Weimar on 3 June 1894. Here, the Blumine movement was deleted.

The orchestration of the Budapest version was conventional for the time, with double woodwinds and four horns, but by the 1893 Hamburg performance Mahler had supplied it with three of each woodwind instrument.

For Weimar in 1894 Mahler increased his winds: four each of the woodwinds, and 3 additional horns making a total seven horns. There are two sets of timpani as well as additional wind instruments to lend extra power in climaxes, mainly in the last movement. It still included the title from Titan.

The present form was only arrived at for the fourth performance in Berlin in 1896 when the title Titan was deleted and it was named for the first time, ‘Symphony in D major’.

Its provenance from a tone poem contributes to its greatness and its permanent place in the repertoire: a miraculous combination of imagination and narrative with the structure and discipline of the traditional symphony. This explains the remarkable originality of this first symphony, but it hardly accounts for the confidence its composer displays in handling very disparate materials and the triumph of creating a soundscape that met initially with strong criticism but which really assured its eventual and permanent success. It is that strong, original voice, along with a very rich melodic gift, that has kept it among the most popular symphonic works.

But music does not play itself, and it proved the ideal subject for a young conductor with exceptional energy as well as great musical imagination and the ability to inspire an orchestra that sometimes shows a certain resistance to the efforts of young, gifted, ambitious conductors. This time the orchestra was very obviously won over.

The other aspect of this and of Mahler’s other earlier works is the absence of any impact from the horrors of war, which were to affect to a greater or lesser degree, most composers who lived beyond the second decade of the 20th century. Mahler knew no wars. (There might be no wars to account for the more complex emotional landscapes of the later symphonies, but an increasingly tortured life can explain that).

He was only ten when the short but awful Franco-Prussian war took place and died three years before World War One began. I often contemplate the enormous emotional gulf between Mahler and the composer who was probably most influenced by him – Shostakovich, who grew up surrounded by the effects of the Revolution and then lived through Stalin’s terrors and the Second World War.

Out of the long peace that had brought the Austro-Hungarian Empire to its condition of decadent complaisance, the artist could indulge in the self-absorption that gave rise to Freud and a bit later, Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben and Salome, and compose a finale ending in huge triumphalism, with horns and trombones standing to point their instruments into the audience in an uproarious spirit of invincibility. And the house went wild, with far more noise and clamour than reticent Wellington audiences usually allow.


The lyrical and the spectacular from Thomas Gaynor at TGIF Cathedral lunchtime recital

Thomas Gaynor – organ

Bach: Prelude and Fugue in G, BWV 541
Bach: From the Leipzig Chorales: “Schmücke dich”, BWV 654 ; Trio super: “Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend”, BWV 655
Saint-Saëns: Fantaisie in E flat; Danse macabre
Widor: Organ Symphony No 6 – Allegro (1st movement)

Cathedral of St Paul

Friday 27 June, 12:45 pm

This year is the 50th anniversary of the dedication of Wellington’s Anglican Cathedral, and so the concerts staged this year celebrate that.

This particular recital was apparently organised by the late John Morrison, who, among many activities that helped the arts, particularly music, to flourish in Wellington, was chairman of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Wagner Society. Your reviewer, as a member of the society, wants to record that link.

I arrived as Gaynor was about four minutes into the Bach Prelude and Fugue, the sounds thrilling about the great space of the cathedral. I’d missed the Prelude but the fugue was proceeding with energy and, given the great reverberant cathedral, was emerging with as much clarity as was consistent with the character of dense contrapuntal music and the need for it to resound in a way the echoed what Bach saw as life’s enigmatic meaning. There was an elasticity in the tempo and a familiarity with the capacities of the organ illuminated the music through well contrasted registrations.

Two pieces from what are known as the Leipzig Chorales followed: they are among the relatively few purely organ compositions written at Leipzig, BWV 651 – 668. “Schmücke dich” (‘Deck thyself’), a beautifully calm piece in which Gaynor played the prominent chorale melody on a distinct stop in sharp contrast with the comforting, weaving, quaver accompaniment. And the ‘Trio Super’ “Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend” (‘Lord Jesus, turn to us’) followed without a break. I can find no explanation of the term Trio Super; its character was very similar to the preceding piece with the vocal line played, again, on a more prominent stop than the accompaniment (not being an organ expert, just a lover of the instrument, I hesitate to guess at the names or ranks of the myriad stops).  It was joyous and lively, moving colourfully through a number of keys.

In some ways the leap of 150 years or so from Bach to Saint-Saëns’s seemed less remarkable than the dates might have suggested; a commentary on Bach’s sophistication rather than any conservatism in Saint-Saëns. His Fantaisie in E flat is one of his earliest works (1857, age 22), evidently before he had developed any particular melodic individuality; after an unobtrusive opening, it struck out bold and fluent, demanding of the player plenty of virtuosity and Gaynor’s employing of a colourful range of stops allowed detail to be heard clearly.

Then came the most spectacular piece on the programme – the very popular Danse Macabre which I’d never heard played on the organ before. It’s had several incarnations: it began as a setting of a poem by Henri Cazalis with piano accompaniment, then came the orchestral tone-poem, with a violin replacing the vocal line; it was transcribed for piano, famously by Horowitz, and the standard organ version is by Edwin Lemare. Lemare’s arrangement exploited the organ’s most flamboyant characteristics and the organist’s skills and flair: it called for the most unusual individual stops and combinations thereof, re-creating the spooky effects, the dark rushes of all-stops-out of the climactic crescendo. In fact, the organ version seemed to capture the unearthly, dehumanised feeling of the piece even more dramatically than is possible with the orchestra, and Gaynor lost no opportunity to overwhelm us.

Charles-Marie Widor was ten years younger than Saint-Saëns, and so impressed the latter that he appointed Widor his assistant at the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, age 24, in 1869, and the next year lobbied for his appointment to St Sulpice, in which the famous organ-builders, Cavaillé-Coll, had built their most spectacular organ; Widor was there till 1933.

The Toccata from his Fifth Symphony is his most famous piece. But here we had the welcome chance to hear something from another symphony, the first movement of the 6th. Quite a lot of rhetorical writing, clamorous flourishes, hectic turbulence, then arresting chorale-like passages, all adorned in authentic registrations that illuminated the intriguing contrapuntal writing and the variety of tones and colours that are there to be enjoyed.

Gaynor will spend the northern summer at courses in France and Germany before returning to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester for further post-graduate studies. Quite a large audience heard this recital and will have been highly impressed both by his committed and virtuosic playing and the chance to hear the wonderful resources of the organ being fully extended.

Stroma’s third “Mirror of Time” – thoroughly engaging fun


Vesa-Matti Leppänen, Rebecca Struthers (violins)
Andrew Thomson (viola), Rowan Prior (‘cello)
Rowena Simpson (soprano), Kamala Bain (recorders/percussion)
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
Michael Norris (artistic director/visuals/programme)

Sacred Heart Basilica, Hill St., Wellington

Thursday 26th June, 2014

As I listened to this highly diverting and thoroughly engaging assemblage of music old and new, expertly put together by Stroma’s artistic director Michael Norris and stunningly performed by the ensemble and its conductor, Hamish McKeich, I was struck repeatedly by the profoundly unoriginal, but nevertheless compelling thought that this presentation was great fun!

Perhaps that observation might appear trite to some people, unworthy of inclusion in a “serious review”. But given that music of all kinds is performed for people to enjoy rather than endure, I imagined that for a good many concert-goers who regularly attend symphony, choral and chamber concerts, the thought of any encounters with “serious” music written after 1950, would straightaway come into the “endure” category. The idea of attending a contemporary music concert would be as remote for some as going to a lecture on, say, ancient Etruscan circumcision practices.

For a goodly number of years I’ve been going to exciting and innovative contemporary music concerts presented by both Stroma and Auckland’s 175 East, as a critic treading a fine line between being an enthusiast for new music and a representative of the general music-listening public. It’s certainly true that some of the works played by these groups are challenging and cutting-edge – but it’s good to keep in mind that so Beethoven’s music was to many music-lovers in the early 1800s!

For me part of the process of dealing with this music’s unfamiliarity was to accept it totally as a “new” experience, rather than try and unduly analyze or anatomize it – again and again I told myself that “these sounds are to be enjoyed”, and I reacted to them as wholeheartedly as I could on that basis. But to a greater extent than ever before, I think, during Stroma’s latest “The Mirror of Time” presentation, I found myself actually connecting with the music-performance as I would that of any of my favorite music – on a visceral, emotional and (I flatter myself!) intellectual level of response.

True, I didn’t go so far as race down to the library the following day and get a book out on the ancient Etruscans! But Stroma’s organization of the concert and wholehearted, skillful playing of these pieces of music, ancient and modern, convinced me, once and for all, that contemporary music can engage, excite, inspire, soothe, stimulate and satisfy as profoundly as can any music from any era. Of course, this was something I knew in theory, but was here enjoying as a practical, real-time, flesh-and-blood phenomenon. Exhilarating!

From the concert’s very beginning, we in the audience were made to feel as though we were part of the performance, encircled as we were by a quartet of string-players, each one positioned in a corner of the church’s nave. Stroma director Michael Norris put it well by remarking in the program note how “the spatialized position of the quartet gently sets in motion the resonance of the church”.

The “timelessness” of the sounds created by the musicians well reflected the music’s origins – a 1400BC Hurrian hymn to Nikkal, wife of the Moon God, a melody preserved for 3,500 years on clay tablets found in the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit. Various attempts to “render” the melody, written in cuneiform, or “wedged script”, have been made by scholars, with one by Marcelle Duchense-Guillemin used here by Michael Norris, who reworked the tune for strings which play entirely in harmonics and in the form of a “prolation canon” – ie, one in which the individual voice-parts use variations of speeds and synchronizations. The result was totally mesmerizing.

Most of the subsequent pieces in the concert demonstrated different ways of presenting canonic treatment of music, the following Agnus Dei by Josquin des Prez being a particularly closely-worked example, with a delay of only one beat between the top two lines and a “crab-canon” (the same line, with one played BACKWARDS against the other!) taken by the two lower voices – wot larks! It must have helped that each of the higher voices was taken by a “pair”, but nevertheless it must have seemed for the performers like high-wire acrobatic work, at times! Soprano and recorder were interestingly paired, the singer (Rowena Simpson) bright- and shining-voiced, the recorder (played by Kamala Bain) mellow and dusky, but the timbres still coming through, the blendings with the strings in places exquisite.

Simon Eastwood’s work I had encountered previously at a 2008 NZSO/SOUNZ Readings Workshop, on that occasion a piece called Aurum, which I liked a lot. Here the composer’s starting-point was a quotation from Plato’s Republic, words describing a kind of journeying of souls to a point where universal structures of the cosmos are perceived as spheres and axes of light – the Spindle of Necessity is the thread-gatherer which collects and plays out these lines, enabling the revolutions of all the spheres and their orbits.

Ethereal, almost mystical in effect, the words were mirrored by the sounds of this work, the tones “analogizing” to and fro, up and down, stretching, bending binding, and loosening, growing in intensity and rising in pitch before falling away to almost nothing – subsequent irruptions, clusters, tensions, even a claustrophobic scream! – were all gathered in by the spindle, at the end a single note around which the sounds were safely bound. It was a case of new music that in some ways to my ears sounded strangely old.

14th-Century composer Johannes Ciconia provided some diversions from these play-for-keeps austerities with some lively, dance-like four-part (one part added by Michael Norris!) canonic interweaving, involving both pizzicato and arc strings accompanying voice and recorder in a song Le ray au soleyl, the words a kind of long-term medieval weather-forecast. The work’s exuberance in performance contrasted with the inner world evoked by Mary Binney’s work Enfance, which followed, a setting of haiku-like verses by Rimbaud dealing with past happiness and present disillusionment – spare music, whose silences serve to underline the focus of each note played and sung, a remarkable demonstration of “less is more”.

Another Agnus Dei, this time from Pierre De La Rue, who here demonstrated an almost Tom Lehrer-like mathematical exactitude in his setting of part of his L’homme arme Mass, by way of producing a richly-canopied, ritual-like processional. It was something whose textured framework provided a telling foil for Rachael Morgan’s Interiors II, which followed. Written for string quartet, these were sounds whose very fibres proclaimed their intent, from the opening solo violin’s initial single note through harmonics, octaves with gorgeously “bent” unisons and curdled timbres, the opening’s silvery tones wonderfully besmirched by later guttural, claustrophobic utterances, dying away as light and life were consumed.

The excitement continued with sixteenth-century composer Cipriano de Rore’s Calami sonum ferentes (The pipes that sound), a convoluted but hauntingly beautiful setting – one that might have temporarily unnerved soprano Rowena Simpson, who pitched her opening notes too high, and had to begin again! The music made an excellent match for the highly expressive manner of the author, the Roman poet Catullus – the poet’s weeping at the start was depicted graphically by the obsessive chromatic figures, as both voice and recorder in thirds and fourths firstly sounded the lament of loss, then at “Musa quae nemus incolis”, ravishingly invoked the Muse through whom the former’s grief could be expressed.

A different kind of Muse was summonsed by the recorder-playing of Kamala Bain during Maki Ishii’s anarchic Black Intention, a work that featured the gradual undermining of a Japanese folk-tune played on a single recorder by the introduction of a second recorder played by the same player, immediately striking a discordant note – like a disputation! As the second recorder attempted to “muscle in” on the first, player Kamala Bain firstly vocalized agitatedly while still playing, then suddenly roared at the top of her voice, and bared her teeth as she picked up a stick and furiously and resoundingly struck a nearby tam-tam!  We were thunderstruck – almost literally!

What better release after such demonstrations of frustration than to ride into battle and indulge in some sabre-rattling? Which is what the musicians did under the auspices of Heinrich Biber, with Die Schlacht (The Battle) from “Battalia”, a 17th Century equivalent to the 1812 Overture, strings angrily snapping and biting at the air. How different a scenario to that of Jack Body’s Bai whose sounds alternatively suggested playful “Make love, not war” energies, Andrew Thomson’s viola imitating a traditional Chinese “dragon-head” lute-sound in its characteristic ‘sliding” melodic aspect, supported by pizzicato violins and ‘cello.

And by way of refuting the “music should be heard and not seen” idea, the fourteenth-century French composer Baude Cordier provided us, by way of the musicians’ performance and a projected image of the manuscript – exquisitely “drawn” – with an example of “eye music”. This was a chanson whose words Tout par compas suy composes (With a compass I am composed) describe the notated layout of the music as well as its circular canonic motion – a refined and cultured game of chase, with the voice closely pursued by the recorder.

Chris Watson’s piece sundry good was a celebration of the musical device called the “ornament”, a kind of dissertation with gestural examples, instruments talking with one another in a playfully stylized way – in exchanges that varied both tempi and timbre, and which coalesced and deconstructed just as quickly – a middle sequence sounded to my ears like a kind of descent, from which tendrils began to push their way upwards and intertwine, before seeming to “take fright” with individual scamperings, patternings, and thrummings. It was as if the “ornaments” of the title were looking for love, but finding the dating sites a bit rough for comfort. As with Flanders and Swann’s famous Misalliance from their “At the Drop of a Hat” revue, I sadly feared a tragic end to the story (only to the heart, of course!) – the hushed tremolandi which concluded the piece suggested as much – a kind of ambient wilderness (or “what-you-will”) at the end.

Afterwards, it was all on deck for Carmina Burana with which to finish – the ensemble hove to with a lusty rendition, complete with handclapping, percussion and vocalizations, of a song from that famous manuscript, Tempus Transit Gelidum (The time of ice is passing), with the piccolo recorder “jigging” the rhythm, and giving a kind of medieval “hoe-down” feeling to the music. Verses and choruses enjoyed plenty of dynamic variation, and the strings’ harmonics most engagingly sang some of the accompanying lines, for all the world sounding like little piping wind instruments.

Yes, a good deal of “critical babble”, I know – but it all delighted me so much – I couldn’t have imagined a more enjoyable evening of music-listening.




















Gamut of emotions – Orchestra Wellington’s second 2014 concert

Orchestra Wellington presents:

HAYDN – Symphony No.82 in C “The Bear”
MAHLER (arr.Leeuw) – Kindertotenlieder
MOZART – Symphony No.40 in G Minor K.550

Bianca Andrew (Mezzo-soprano)
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Opera House, Wellington,

Sunday, 22nd June, 2014

The phrase “What Love Tells Me” which gave its name to this concert given by Orchestra Wellington is irretrievably associated with the music of Mahler. It’s the original title the composer gave to the sixth and final movement of his Third Symphony, titles that were dropped by Mahler after the work’s first performance, but have still “hung around” the work ever since. Mahler was often to experience this initial need for programmatic titles relating to a work’s composition, followed by a Janus-faced distaste for those same titles after the work had been completed.

So, although we didn’t get the gargantuan Third Symphony (the longest of the Mahler symphonies), we had instead a song-cycle, Kindertotenlieder (“Songs on the death of children”), a work which at one point quotes a melody from the Symphony’s sixth, “What Love Tells Me” movement.

However, just to make matters more interesting, the other two works on the program inhabited somewhat different worlds again – Haydn’s wonderful Symphony No.82 in C, subtitled “The Bear” – and the most famous of all of Mozart’s Symphonies, No.40 in G Minor, for a while during the 1980s and 90s beloved of aerobics instructors and aficionados, though nevertheless a powerful and tragic work.

Conductor Marc Taddei had talked about the current orchestra concert-sequence being one of “experimentation” regarding venues, due to the present unfortunate (and hopefully temporary) closure of the Town Hall for “earthquake strengthening”. After the success of the opening concert in Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul, the orchestra found itself this time in the Wellington Opera House, which I recall was where one of the previous season’s concerts had taken place.

So far this year the combinations of venue and repertoire have worked tolerably well. Though not ideal for all the music on the program, the first concert’s Bruckner Seventh Symphony flourished and bloomed in the ample Cathedral acoustic. Conversely, the dryish and very theatrical acoustic in the Opera House suited Haydn and Mozart to a tee. The other pieces in each of the cases weren’t too disadvantaged – only the Haydn Symphony in the first concert suffered from an excess of reverberation in places like the finale.

I’m not sure whether there are other “halfway-house” venues in the capital which the orchestra could use – the truly wonderful St Mary of the Angels (with a reverberation perhaps not quite as marked as that of St.Paul’s Cathedral’s) is also out of commission at present, and other churches I know of are simply too small for orchestral forces. Which, of course, brings us back to the necessity of restoring the Town Hall – but like poet Philip Larkin’s “priest and doctor in their long coats”, mention of earthquake-strengthening procedures unfortunately brings the accountants, “running over the fields”.

Well, the show goes on, thankfully – and as with Orchestra Wellington’s opening concert it was a real cracker! There are purists who look down their noses at classical music works with nicknames, but I’m certainly not one of those. Haydn’s work in this case is “doubly-named” in that respect, being one of the six “Paris Symphonies” to begin with (itself a handy “signpost” for identifying a group of pieces within a body of over a hundred symphonies!), and then having its own descriptive label to boot – as do, of course, some of the later “London Symphonies”.

Here was a terrific performance by the orchestra, under Marc Taddei’s invigorating direction, of the work known as “The Bear”, so-called because of its rustic drolleries and drone-pipe sonorities in the finale, redolent of a circus bear’s dancing antics (a much happier animal, it must be said, than Stravinsky’s piteous, bedraggled fairground beast in his “Petroushka”). The playing here caught and delivered the tangy flavours and angularities with great gusto, the dryish sound allowing the instrument’s timbres full and direct impact, in particular those of the timpani.

Haydn actually wrote this set of works for a larger orchestra than he’d ever before encountered as a composer, the renowned Concert de la Loge Olympique, in Paris – a band which reputedly had forty violins and ten double-basses alone at its disposal. So after years of “making do” with the relatively limited ensemble numbers employed by his prince at Esterhazy, the composer could really let himself go with these works, in terms of imagining larger, weightier, more impactful sonorities.

Next came Mahler’s somewhat grisly-titled song-cycle, Kindertotenlieder (“Songs on the death of children”). Mahler chose texts written by Friedrich Rückert, who had himself lost two of his children to scarlet fever – the poet, in fact, wrote over four hundred poems concerning the deaths of children, presumably in an attempt to come to terms with his loss, as they were never intended for publication.

The composer’s choice of these texts appalled Mahler’s wife, Alma, in view of the couple having at the time of the music’s composition two young children. It’s well-known that fate did, actually seem to take a hand in things, as one of Mahler’s children did, in fact, die, also of scarlet fever, four years after the composer completed the songs.

Bianca Andrew, the mezzo-soprano, gave what I thought a somewhat inward, very sombre performance of these works, choosing not to bring out the overtly emotional angst of some of the writing, but singing the first four of them, at least, almost as if in a state of shock – and though I missed the warmth of her usual refulgent tones, they simply weren’t appropriate for this music. As well, the vocal line seemed in places somewhat low for her voice – but the singer put across the texts with her usual clarity and focus.

In the fifth song In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus (In this weather, in this storm), she responded to the more volatile orchestral sonorities, and gave us moments of properly chilling force. Interestingly, as with Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, performed at the orchestra’s last concert, a chamber version of this present cycle was here used, one by Dutch composer Reinbert de Leeuw. His reductions mostly affected this final song, doing without the more overt percussion orchestrations, as well as replacing the glockenspiel throughout with a piano.

So keen, vital and vigorous was the orchestral attack in places, readily conveying the storm-tossed ambience of that last song, I can’t say I yearned for the missing instruments. Elsewhere both the oboe- and horn-playing, vital in this work, was of a particularly high standard. Oboist Merran Cooke smartly sent what sounded like a first-note-frog packing, before giving us some beautiful playing in tandem with Ed Allen’s horn, weaving melodies and counterpoints around and in lieu of the voice with comparable feeling throughout the whole cycle.

On paper, the second half – Mozart’s G Minor Symphony K.550 – did seem light in terms of playing-time, but Marc Taddei gave the work with all the repeats, making it all seem and feel more than usually substantial. Benjamin Britten made a famous recording of the work in the 1960s which did the same – and I remember some critics complaining that the repeats made the work too long!  Well! – there’s simply no pleasing some people!

Certainly the repeats helped reinforce the work’s gravitas – but the music’s dramatic utterance, sense of great unease and depth of feeling was in the first place recreated by conductor and players with unerring focus. Right from the urgent, insistent accompanying figure that began the work, through the plaintive opening melody and the harsh rejoiners from wind and brass, there was drama and energy aplenty – not a comfortable listening experience, just as I’m sure the composer intended.

This was music that kept on fighting to the end, without resolving into any kind of resignation or acceptance. In the finale, there’s a kind of angular, part-syncopated “bridge-passage” for strings, which most conductors keep in time with the music’s pulse – Marc Taddei elongated the pauses here, distorting the pulse and keeping us guessing as to when the next chord was coming – a wonderful and unsettling gesture! As with the playing elsewhere, the music was allowed to express its character – something that conductor and players achieved most successfully throughout.

Winner’s tour for Nikki Chooi, 2013 Michael Hill Violin Competition: a finished artist

Nikki Chooi – violin, Stephen de Pledge – piano and Ashley Brown – cello
(Chamber Music New Zealand and the Michael Hill International Violin Competition)

Mozart: Sonata for piano and violin in E flat, K 302
Smetana: Piano Trio in G minor, Op 15
Beethoven: Violin Sonata in E flat, Op 12 No 3
Jack Body: Caravan
Ravel: Tsigane

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 20 June, 7:30 pm

Canadian Nikki Chooi won the 2013 Michael Hill International Violin Competition and this concert was in the middle of a series of sixteen concerts and recitals around New Zealand, which forms part of the prize.

Oddly, the biographical notes in the programme only listed the competitions in which he’s had success, orchestras with which and places where he has played. It neglected to say where and when he was born and had his early music education. Almost all the concerto engagements mentioned, like those in New Zealand, seem to have followed competition successes, mainly in Canada and Belgium.

He was born in Victoria, British Columbia, to parents of Chinese descent, began to learn the violin at the Victoria Conservatory at the age of four, and at  fourteen entered the Mount Royal University in Calgary. In 2012, he graduated Bachelor of Music from the Curtis Institute of Music and was awarded the Milka Violin Artist Prize upon graduation. Though no website discloses his date of birth, he was under 28 when he won the Michael Hill Competition. He now studies at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, under Ida Kavafian and Donald Weilerstein.

Chooi played three programmes round the country, the common pieces throughout being Ravel’s Tsigane and the piece Jack Body was commissioned to compose for the competition itself.

Wellington’s allocation began with one of Mozart’s two-movement sonatas (in E flat, K 302) that he wrote for his ill-fated Paris tour of 1778.  The players eschewed any attempt at ‘historical practice’ since, after all, few halls are equipped with a fortepiano or harpsichord and one such as the Michael Fowler Centre would lose a lot of the sound. In truth, the character of Chooi’s playing seems to flourish with the music of the 19th century, with its warm, voluptuous tone and his genuine instinct for expressive ‘Romantic’ music.

These sonatas are titled with the piano first and the violin seeming to be the accompanying instrument. But there was no sign here of the violin being secondary, their contributions were equal and in accord. The two movements are not strongly contrasted, as the second, Andante grazioso, though different in rhythm and mood, was not markedly different in tempo.

Chooi’s violin was flawless, its tone opulent. It might have been a Beethoven of 20 years later.

After the interval, they did play Beethoven of 20 years later: the last of Beethoven’s first three violin sonatas, Op 12. It is common to approach Beethoven’s early, pre-1800 music as if it was more like Mozart and Haydn than his own later music. But the current broadcasts by RNZ Concert of Michael Houstoun’s piano ‘re-cycle’ series of all the piano sonatas last year has illuminated the gulf that exists between even his early works and his predecessors.

This E flat sonata was evidence. Again, the two musicians were in total sympathy in this, the most sophisticated of the set, with its combination of bravura and melodic inventiveness. In the slow movement, with charming quavers rippling from the piano, there was delightful ease and gentleness quite without self-attention. Can musicians who produce music of such evenness, tonal beauty and fluency really get to the heart of Beethoven? Well, yes, in this instance.

I became familiar with Smetana’s piano trio when it seemed to be quite frequently played, twenty years or so ago – perhaps in the days when Czech musicians used to visit more often; perhaps it was coincidence that led me to think it was somewhat central to the trio repertoire. But what prompted its inclusion here? It flows from the piano trio phase of the competition, in which cellist Ashley Brown was involved.

The Romantic character of the piece seemed to suit the players, especially the violinist for whom Smetana’s elegiac and tempestuous music offered broad scope. Opening with the violin, alone, in a strong, sombre announcement of the work’s prevailing character, even the first movement develops in various ways after cello and piano enter.

The Trio section of the second movement is divided into two distinct parts, continuing the quixotic mood changes that characterize the whole work, and which the players handled with aplomb. Often passionately rhetorical, occasionally calm, then agitated, this music offered the players scope for more passionate and grieving performance than they actually embraced, especially the violinist, whose commitment to producing beautiful sounds played down the pain in the music.

The last two pieces fall into the class of bravura, designed to tax the player(s) to the utmost. Caravan, for solo violin, might have seemed a little out of character for Jack Body for, in spite of its origin as a Persian song, there seemed little Persian in the style of the ‘arrangement’, as it was rather overwhelmed by the flamboyant music that proved ideal for its purpose. Chooi had its measure and delivered a spectacular performance. The same went for Ravel’s Tsigane in which the violin has a long, virtuosic, solo introduction before the piano entry. The piece is no mere aural spectacle however; it has musical substance and both musicians handled its pianissimo phrases and subtlety with considerable musical discretion.

Beautiful Britten, sterling Brahms – a heartfelt tribute to Norbert Heuser

Old St. Pauls, Thorndon Lunchtime Concert Series presents:
Peter Barber (viola) / Catherine McKay (piano)

BRITTEN – Lachrymae, for viola and piano (after John Dowland)
BRAHMS – Viola Sonata No.2 in E-flat Op.120/2

Old St.Paul’s Church, Thorndon

Tuesday, 17th June 2014

What would have been planned originally by violist Peter Barber and pianist Catherine McKay as an occasion featuring a richly-wrought and most gratifying pair of contrasting works for viola and piano took on an additional note of elegiac sadness by the time the two musicians came to present their concert. Two days before, the death had occurred of a former NZSO colleague of Barber’s – in fact, a fellow-violist, and a prominent member of the orchestra for no less than thirty-eight years, Norbert Heuser.

How appropriate and moving, then, to hear Peter Barber speak of his esteemed colleague and friend before the concert, in effect dedicating the performances to Heuser’s memory. Fittingly, the music we heard featured the viola, the instrument that each of these musicians played, of course – but even more appropriately, the venue (the exquisite and richly-appointed Old St.Paul’s Church in Thorndon) was that which was to be used the following day for the memorial service – a circumstance which obviously carried its own particular poignancy.

And what music had been chosen! – unwittingly, of course, as regards making any specific commemorative gesture, but with an unerring instinct on the part of both players for focusing on love and its power to heal all sorrows and restore what could be held fast of “this worlde’s joye”. The Britten work, which I had not heard previously, was particularly enthralling in this respect, though the Brahms sonata had, too, the capacity to express a kind of fierce joy occasionally tinged with loss and regret.

What power music which one encounters for the very first time can sometimes have! – and especially so when the performances are proper, flesh-and-blood, live, here-and-now experiences, delivered with skill, focus and rapt concentration! True, in situations such as these one’s critical responses are perhaps coloured (I very nearly wrote the word “clouded”!) by the delight of first sensations – rather, in fact, like falling in love! Thus it was here with me, upon hearing the Britten work.

A rich, sombre opening brought forth sounds that seemed to be wrung and resonated from the depths of feeling – in places tremulous and almost Mahlerian in effect (reminiscent of the finale of that composer’s angst-ridden Sixth Symphony). Here, the piano constantly oscillated with tremolando-laden emotion while the viola sounded Aeolian-like strands which were stretched across the vistas as if to resonate in sympathy.

More angular and quixotic, the following sequence exchanged ascending/descending figurations between piano and viola, before halting the vertiginous flow and setting viola pizzicati against richly-sounded piano chords – for all the world the sounds to my ears conveying the sense of a beating heart…..the string textures graduated towards rich double-stoppings as the piano’s chordings climbed, explored and intensified.

Britten was reputed to be no lover of the music of Brahms – in fact he’s on record somewhere as remarking to an acquaintance: – “I make a point of playing one Brahms recording a year, just to remind myself how awful the music is!”……such anecdotes are often relished more for their wit and outrageous sentiment than for veracity, and perhaps aren’t as such to be trusted. In point of fact, the very next exchange between the instruments – the piano stern and commanding, the viola dogged and determined – sounded to my surprised ears extremely Brahmsian, especially the way the piano chords were echoed and resonated by the viola’s energetic figurations.

Piano chords turned into flowing rivulets under Catherine McKay’s fingers, along with string figures coalescing into melody, seeming to want by this time to clothe the gestures in less angular and disparate utterances – though the night ride had a little way to go still, before the sunrise. The muse was yet to show her hand, waiting for her moment while still more quixotic gestures mockingly returned to the piano, Peter Barber’s viola dancing to the mood, though impishly punctuating the phrase-ends with pizzicato notes.

And then it was as though worlds gradually began to intertwine – at first through the gloom, then through coruscation and upheaval, and finally through rapture and ecstasy! Firstly pianistic tintinabulations sought to comfort the viola’s sorrowful sighings, but then tried a different tack, building huge blocks of sound with progressive portentous chords, the viola running between the great columns of sound towards the growing light, becoming more and more excited, and finally throwing itself into the piano’s open arms in a passionately-voiced embrace, an unashamed love-song!

From this it seemed at first something of a Brahmsian (sorry, Ben!) take on an Elizabethan melody, rich and pulsating! But both musicians were inspired at this stage, moving with ease and fluency into those leaner, sparser, more focused realms of Elizabethan sensibility – Peter Barber’s viola “centered” the melody as if it were a prayer, and Catherine McKay’s piano song resounded like a lute paying homage to love. How touching it all seemed by the end – more powerfully so, I think, by Britten’s deconstruction of his own sound world to connect with Dowland’s.

My apologies to the reader for indulging thus far in what seems far more like a fanciful commentary on the music itself rather than the performance of it – though having never seen nor heard the music previously, my remarks above can be taken as a set of reflections on the way it was played and interpreted, just as relevantly as regarding the actual work.

I almost needed somewhere to go and lie down after such an intense listening experience – but there was no rest for the wicked, as, after a short re-alignment of things we were off again, this time into a world of expression the previous composer loved to hate! The work by Brahms was a transcription by the composer of a sonata originally written for clarinet, one of two such pieces (incidentally both have been thus transcribed, to my great delight!).

The string timbres really make the sonata a freshly-minted work, more youthful, immediate and “striving” I think than does the rather more serene, somewhat Wordsworthian clarinet. Thus it was that, despite its opus number it seemed in places a young man’s work, borne out especially by the piano part. In places, it’s really of an order of difficulty which another pianist at the concert with me confirmed afterwards, by laughingly describing a certain sequence on the opening pages as “a pianist’s graveyard”!

Catherine McKay’s playing was, however, seized with such purposeful focus that the music, spills and all, leapt off the page most satisfyingly!  Neither player emerged completely unscathed from the more agitated of the opening exchanges, but the energy and teamwork was of an order that carried the music’s message with all the élan and presence that one would want for these sounds.

No let-up for the second movement’s Allegro appassionato – at the outset a dark, impetuous waltz-like trajectory gripped the music’s order, Peter Barber’s playing digging deeply into the instrument’s tones, and Catherine McKay’s in turn responding with real heft and passionate utterance. What a gorgeous hynm-like middle section this work has! – part ceremony, part deep forest mythology music, the Old St.Paul’s piano speaking in suitably nostalgic, somewhat forte-piano-like tones in places, charming and even rustic in effect. Processional-like, too, was the Andante con moto opening of the finale, in these players’ hands sounding like a “turn for home”, the tones and phrasings speaking to this listener of places “where the heart is”.

The variations that followed explored both according and contrasting exchanges between the instruments, with the players barely able to contain themselves in the excitable fifth variation, piano, then viola tearing into the fray, pulling the melody about every which way!  Finally the sounds were allowed a brief few moments of composure before a brilliant and emphatic coda gave us an ending we acclaimed with enthusiasm.

Rare and strange to find oneself within what seemed a matter of hours back in that same building, with the previous day’s concert’s tribute to Norbert Heuser still faintly resonating as people gathered for the memorial service. Came spoken tributes and more music from family and friends and ex-colleagues – daughter Brigitte Heuser sang JS Bach’s Erbarme dich mein Gott from the St.Matthew Passion, and a quartet of string-players performed Haydn, the “Emperor” Quartet’s well-known Adagio cantabile – and we watched projected images and heard recordings of other music that, with the spoken reminiscences very properly brought both laughter and tears. Life, as with music-making and concert-giving, is what happens when you’re planning something else. What happened here – sadly, not the life’s “something else” that was originally planned – was instead a response to the unforeseen that was on all sides affecting and memorable.





Choral Symphony in a triumphant end to NZSO’s monumental Beethoven symphony cycle

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Orpheus Choir, conducted by Pietari Inkinen
Soloists: Tiffany Speight, Anneley Peebo, Simon O’Neill, Peter Coleman-Wright

Beethoven: Symphonies No 8 in F and No 9 in D minor (Choral)

Michael Fowler Centre

Sunday 15 June, 3 pm

In the NZSO’s Beethoven cycle of 1995, the Choral Symphony was accompanied by Symphony No 1, an arrangement just as interesting as linking it with No 8. Each is similar in length, and both represent Beethoven writing in a style more traditional than some of those he would write or had written.

These juxtapositions, that have illuminated each concert, have been as rewarding as the performances themselves; probably none has looked as dramatic as this one. To begin, No 9 is nearly three times the length of No 8: I’d guess it clocked in at a bit over 70 minutes, and it breaks conventions by setting a famous poem as its last movement.

Unlike any of the earlier ‘classical’ examples, there is no slow introduction; instead it hits the ground running. It’s in the same key as the Pastoral and though its first movement is faster than that of the Pastoral, it’s also in triple time and there is a distinctly similar tone, that suggests the flavor of the Ländler of the countryside.  Yet neither at its first performance nor in the centuries since (and this year in the two hundredth anniversary of its first performance) has it become a popular work.

I guess it was pure chance that it was the first complete symphony that I bought – 78s of the pre-WW2 Weingartner performance with the Vienna Philharmonic, for 18 shillings and sixpence – at the age of about 19. It’s generally slower than Inkinen’s and most modern performances.  The records are still enjoyable: I have a soft spot for it.

The second movement, Allegro scherzando, led by a bright tune in the strings, is in common rather than triple time and so it’s a cross between traditional slow movement and a bright dance-like episode. The orchestra seemed to relish the abrupt ending.

To add confusion for the traditionalists, the third movement is Tempo di menuetto with a slower, more convincing minuet character than the minuets in either Symphonies 1 or 4. However, the bassoon lent it a kind of comic, peasant character that might reinforce a link with the Ländler rather than the genteel minuet.

If speed had given me a bit of trouble elsewhere, that of the last movement, Allegro vivace, seemed entirely justified: speed was of the essence, even though my Weingartner benchmark hardly supports it. What I enjoyed about the whole performance was a kind of serious-minded joyfulness.

Perhaps it was hardly fair to have it play the part of a light-weight curtain-raiser to the main event.

When we came back after the interval the empty choir stalls were full of singers in black and white, ranged from sopranos on the left to basses on the right, opposite to the orchestra where cellos and basses were arrayed on the left behind the first violins. Was there some arcane intent here?

The Ninth Symphony broke all sorts of conventions, the most obvious of which are the inclusion of a choral element with soloists in the fourth movement, and its length, which can take between around 65 and 75 minutes. I didn’t time this, but it was brisk and I’d guess would have been nearer 65 minutes, about 25 of which are taken by the last movement.

Though it is more common to dwell on the character of orchestration in the music of the later 19th century as more instruments, particularly percussion were incorporated and wind instruments became more varied and numerous; and technical improvements made them more versatile and in theory a bit easier to play. But in the hands of a Mozart or a Beethoven the imaginative employment of what was normally available in orchestras of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was often very beautiful, rich in nuances and arresting effects.

Beethoven’s increasing deafness mattered (especially to him), but his years of good hearing had filled his memory and he could obviously hear in his mind what his imagination created and could write down a good representation of it. So the very talented body of wind players in the NZSO could take full advantage of his colouful use of wind instruments in these two symphonies. Beethoven’s dramatic use of timpani was a relatively new phenomenon as was the introduction of trombones, in the last movements of the 5th, 6th and 9th, and four horns in the Choral. In the 9th he also uses a bass drum (tucked under the wall on the right side), cymbals and triangle. Thus one could well enjoy the diverting instrumental effects that Beethoven created, especially if one felt, for example, that the metronomic games in the Molto vivace (Scherzo in all but name) were a bit prolonged.

So a little more flexibility with the tempo might have better held attention. The fact is, however, that variety consists in the rallentandos that Beethoven marks at structural junctures in each movement, and in the dynamic changes that Inkinen marked vividly. It’s also true that the dramatic turning points deliver so much more power and impact if relative calm has preceded them, and Inkinen’s management achieved that most effectively. It was the slow (third) movement that seemed to lose its way; beautiful as it is and regardless of the care and subtleties of the playing, I lost concentration during the repeated episodes, though tiredness may have been to blame.

Everything that can be said about the fourth movement has been said: there are so many ways in which its structure can seem problematic or awkward, and commentaries these days often dwell on those. However, the unassailable aspects of Sunday’s performance were the orchestral playing: painstakingly careful dynamics, well balanced against choir and soloists, bluster set against ethereal moments, as the famous choral theme arrives, pianissimo, before chaos interrupts, and the violent fortissimi at climaxes that might be heard as ‘cheap’ effects but are usually wonderful.

The splendid chorus (rehearsed with obvious rigour and insight by Mark Dorrell, whose work hardly gets noticed in the programme) that filled the auditorium with clearly articulated German words was almost too vivid, exposing the (wash-your-mouth-out!) bombastic poetry, all in honour of something called “JOY”. Surely poetry of such passion and high-mindedness is about something of greater, more profound significance, even given that “joy” doesn’t seem to represent such a universal emotion as “Freude”! The substituted word “Freiheit” (freedom), which has often been suggested as what Schiller actually expected to be inferred from “Freude”, was in fact used at the famous 1989 concert under Bernstein at the Brandenburg Gate to celebrate the smashing of the Berlin Wall.

The soloists are a special problem. Here, we had Peter Coleman-Wright in the bass part, launching the singing with the mighty exhortation to warring parties, “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne…”.  But surely “joy” is not the medicine for the chaos that prompts this mighty command; the word the chorus is looking for in response is surely “Freiheit”. Coleman-Wright’s name is familiar both in Australia and Europe; I’ve heard him several times in principal baritone roles for Opera Australia. In addition, at Covent Garden for example among many major opera companies, he has sung Dandini, Billy Budd, Papageno, Marcello, Gunther and Donner as well as Beckmesser.

It’s cruelly exposed, and he made a strong impact even if the sound, slightly uneven in production, was not a perfect fit for the job. Soprano Tiffany Speight (Australian) and mezzo Annely Peebo (Estonian) had a well projected duet of good clarity, and both displayed, as far as the roles allowed, attractive and theatrical voices. Simon O’Neill was the only New Zealander to make the cut (really! – surely we could have done better! On the other hand it’s important for us to hear top class overseas singers); he clearly relished his big solo moment, with commanding vocal incisiveness and physical stature – he looked as if he enjoyed singing this part, back home. When tenor and baritone reopened a soloists’ episode at Allegro ma non tanto, with “Freude, Töchter aus Elysium…” the low-pitched line didn’t allow their voices to emerge so well; otherwise the following quartet was glorious.

The great final peroration with the orchestra and choir in sublime and ecstatic accord leaves the soloists standing helplessly, contributing only with their faces in a semblance of engagement. But O’Neill could be detected participating, mouthing the words, quietly, with every appearance of involvement in the music and its message.

This time there was no hesitation from the audience. All able-bodied members of the audience sprang to their feet, clapping, shouting and whistling. A triumphant conclusion to a landmark symphonic cycle.


In the marvellous heartland of Beethoven’s symphonies: concert No 3

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen

Beethoven: Symphonies No 6 (Pastoral) and 7 in F and A, respectively

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 14 June, 6:30 pm

On Friday, after posting my Thursday review, I was reminded that this was not the first Beethoven cycle that the NZSO has undertaken – a fact that I should have remembered for I reviewed them for The Evening Post, in November 1995.  Then, the symphonies, conducted in the Town Hall (give it back to us!) by Janos Fürst who died in 2007, were spread over five concerts over three weeks, from 1 to 18 November; the performance of the Pastoral was accompanied by the 5th (Emperor) Piano Concerto, with Michael Houstoun, and the other pairings were: 2 and 3, 4 and 5, 7 and 8, 1 and 9.

On Saturday evening we heard the 6th and 7th symphonies. The dynamics were rather different from the first two concerts: the Pastoral is the second longest of them; it is a departure from the normal classical four movements, has a pictorial programme, and is one of the most loved of them all. Though the evening was becoming cloudy, the sun shone in the Michael Fowler Centre and the air danced.

Sitting centre stalls, one hears things in perfect balance and the large orchestra delivered a sound that was opulent, clear and balanced both spatially and between sections. As in the earlier performances one’s ears became attuned particularly to the ten cellos and eight basses, as large and as beautifully played as in the most famous orchestras: bass weight and sonority are fundamental to an emotionally satisfying performance.

This lent the first movement, ‘cheerful feelings aroused on arriving in the countryside’, glowing warmth and colour, the colour mainly from the woodwinds and horns, though they tended to be a bit covered by the strings, the writing for which must be held partly to blame.

The second movement, a ‘scene by the brook’, is slower but the playing was no less resolute, holding the attention in the gentle embrace of a languid summer’s day. Inkinen’s guiding of the third movement was characterized not only by playing that portrayed an unsophisticated gaiety, a sort of rhythmic stiffness, but also in playing that was, at one point presumably deliberate, a little wayward in articulation, simulating amateurs. Though I could see little of the wind players, I did glimpse Peter Dykes playing the lovely oboe solo here.

The storm was most effective with a sudden calm and a shocking return of the thunder which leads to the rapturous finale, cellos seeming to lead the choir in singing a sort of hymn of thanksgiving to end a wonderfully varied and beautiful performance.

The seventh symphony, after the astonishment and excitement of its discovery when I was about 19, has not really held its place in my heart. It has its moments, such as the inviting though remarkably long introductory passages, but there has always seemed to me too much unadorned thematic repetition, too little plain beauty. The exception is the slow movement, merely an allegretto, but which is a refuge for a few minutes with a heart-warming melody; it was performed here with sufficient rhythmic flexibility to overcome the constant pulse that, to me, imposes a shade too much rhythm to perform the role of bringer of repose in the midst of wildness and ecstasy.

The symphony, nevertheless, makes big demands on an orchestra, and Inkinen took every advantage of abrupt dynamic changes, of opportunities for grand or exciting tuttis, long stretches of molto vivace figures and passage-work, to showcase solos, such as the frequent ethereal or sparkling flute passages from Bridget Douglas.

I suppose it is the third movement, Scherzo in all but name, that seems to repeat once too often.

The Finale which is marked as a modest Allegro con brio – not Molto allegro or Prestissimo, or some such – is usually played as fast as possible and was here. Merely very fast doesn’t work, and I think this performance verged on using speed rather than intensity and emotional integrity as its driver. Nevertheless, Inkinen set the audience by the ears as he changed gears, aborting a third repeat of the Presto. The compulsive theme that Weber thought proof of Beethoven’s madness took hold of the auditorium and there was a sense of mesmerized astonishment as it drove forward with a sustained momentum to a climactic ending.

There was shouting and long applause and many of the audience came to their feet (though not as many as those who stood at the end of No 5 the night before) through a sense of exhilaration as the music seems to express some kind of triumph shared by all mankind, foreshadowing the mood of the Choral Symphony we are to hear on Sunday afternoon.


Beethoven from Inkinen and the NZSO – the excitement continued…..

BEETHOVEN – Symphonies 4 and 5

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Pietari Inkinen (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 13th June, 2014

This was the second concert in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven symphony traversal with conductor Pietari Inkinen. Putting the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies in the same programme brought listeners face-to face – perhaps cheek-to-jowl would be a more apt expression – with one of the most cherished cornerstones of critical appraisal of these works. This is the long-established idea of a dichotomy that separates the composer’s odd- and even-numbered symphonies.

Well, perhaps the exception to the rule is the First – it’s demonstrably not of the range and scope of grandeur and tragic expression of the “Eroica”, or the Fifth, and doesn’t have the Dionysian energies of the Seventh, much less the cosmic reach of the Ninth. Even so, in its own way the work could be honorably counted among the composer’s symphonic “movers and shakers”, setting its first listeners on their ears with its very opening dissonant chord, and later in the work rumbustiously re-defining the concept of a “dance movement” in a classical symphony!

But as for the other odd-numbered works, it’s true that they’re invariable made of sterner stuff than their immediate neighbours in the canon – though closer examination hardly bears out some of the descriptions these “happier” latter works have garnered from well-meaning commentators over the years. In particular, the Fourth Symphony has  been both misrepresented with faint praise and castigated roundly, to the point where it became for a while a kind of “Cinderella” work, especially set against either of its two illustrious and more overtly “grunty” neighbours.

That usually perceptive and erudite critic Robert Schumann really did the work few favours by famously describing it as “a slender Grecian maiden between two Norse Giants”, unless he had some kind of Hellenic tomboy idea at the back of his mind, certainly romantic and dreamy in some moods, but mischievous, angular  and energetic in others. What’s surprising is the polarity of comment that the work has inspired in other quarters – Berlioz waxed lyrical about it, writing of the crescendo in the development section of the first movement as “one of the happiest inspirations we know in music”, and that the second movement Adagio “defies analysis….. so pure are the forms, so angelic the expression of the melody….one is gripped by emotion which by the end has reached an unbearable pitch of intensity…”

Contrast this with the reaction of the composer of “Der Freischütz”, Carl Maria von Weber, who, in a stylized critique set within the framework of a nightmare, had characters variously describe Beethoven’s work as “a musical monstrosity, revolting alike to the nature of the instruments and the expression of thought, and with no intention whatever but that of a mere show-off…” and the slow movement in particular “full of short, disjointed, unconnected ideas, at the rate of three or four notes per quarter of an hour…”. Evidently, in the realms of music appreciation, as in life, there’s “nowt sae queer as folk!”

Be it fulsome appreciation or savage criticism, it does put this so-called “Grecian maiden” of a work in a new light when encountering these responses. And it’s in that spirit that I offer these “contemporary” takes on a work that’s since been somewhat put in a “lesser” kind of category by its companions on either side – in my view, most unfairly. To my delight the NZSO’s performance of the music this evening demonstrated that Pietari Inkinen and his musicians thought so as well.

We were taken right from the first chord at the outset into a mysterious twilit world – somewhere, I’ve read someone’s description of the ambience created by this introduction as that of 4am, which I rather like! – one from which the steady tread of time led towards a sudden burst of light and energy from the whole orchestra, here superbly delivered, and followed by a number of whiplash chords which joyously launched the allegro, the playing replete with energetic, exuberant spirits.

Pietari Inkinen’s policy of employing (so far in the series) all the first movement repeats allowed us extra pleasure here, after which the players purposefully dug into the music’s development sequence, shaping the impulses towards the beginning of that amazing crescendo so vividly described by Berlioz in his analysis of the work. Alongside sterling work by the strings, the performance featured some magical wind-playing throughout, as well as on-the-spot support from brass and timpani.

The winds particularly came into their own in the dreamy, rhapsodic slow movement (what starry stillnesses were evoked at times!), as well as in the dynamically-driven finale – in the latter, both bassoon and clarinet literally threw themselves at their insanely manic solos and brought them off spectacularly!

In these performances it was the finales of both symphonies which capped off the pleasure for me – while I thought the Fourth’s Scherzo a shade bland in effect, wanting more rhythmic “point” and greater dynamic variation, the finale was a great success. In Inkinen’s hands, it took on the aspect of a whirling dervish, a molto perpetuum, exhilarating and positively vertiginous in its impact.

If the Fourth Symphony delighted the audience, the eponymous Fifth had an overwhelming impact, and especially so the finale – here, an unbridled victory celebration, at once exhausting and life-enhancing! So prodigious was the effect of it all that, in fact, conductor and orchestra received a well-nigh standing ovation at its end, one justly merited in direct relation to the excitement and sense of involvement with the music that was generated and communicated to listeners.

Conductor Inkinen made clear his intentions right from the outset, no sooner returning to the podium and acknowledging our applause than turning and instantly signalling his players to hurl those opening notes upwards and outwards, to galvanizing effect. Allowing only touches of rhetorical broadening with each appearance of the famous motto theme, he kept the music’s urgency and thrust well to the fore throughout the movement.  After this had run its course, the Andante movement which followed might have initially seemed unremarkable in its sweetness, but in fact it became for us a miracle of dramatic contrast, the orchestral playing by turns lyrical, rapturous and majestic in the music’s service.

Then, with the scherzo and trio, we were returned to dark, C Minor business with louring ‘cellos and basses and vigorous, forcible and heroic figures from the horns. The orchestral basses had already impressed with their sonorous playing of parts of the Funeral March of the “Eroica” on the previous evening, and here they demonstrated tremendous power and agility with the Trio’s rapid fugato-like lines, before finally giving way to the upper strings and the winds, who ushered in the work’s most mysterious and eerie passages.

These, of course, inspired one of writer E.M.Forster’s characters in the novel “Howard’s End” to imbue the music with the idea of a “great goblin walking across the world” – and the music’s stealthy, treading aspect was evocatively conveyed by winds and arco/pizzicato strings. It was here my only, very slight disappointment throughout the whole performance occurred, with that brief but potent strings and timpani transition passage from scherzo to finale.  I wanted to feel those sounds even more “cut adrift” amid the darkness and mystery, as if for a few pivotal moments the music and its performers and listeners had abandoned all sense and reason to a process of elemental coalescence!

Still, even if chaos seemed to me less-than-fully engaged, the goal, once achieved, burst about us all with unbridled exultation!  Here, Beethoven’s finale was a proper life-affirmation, moments of pure joy climbed towards and fiercely grasped again and again by a composer expressing the purpose for which he was put in this world – and we loved him for it and revelled in these musicians’ wholehearted and briilliantly-played celebrations of those moments and of the journeying towards them. The acclaim which greeted conductor and players at the end was richly deserved.