Faust Quartet with a different view of Schubert and a perplexing study of mythological horses

Wellington Chamber Music Trust

Schubert: String quartet no.12 in C minor, D.703 ‘Quartettsatz’
Helena Winkelman: Quadriga for string quartet (2011)
Schubert: String quartet in D minor, D.810 ‘Death and the Maiden’

Faust Quartet (Simone Roggen and Annina Woehrle, violins; Ada Meinich, viola; Birgit Böhme, cello)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 31 August 2014, 3.00pm

Yet another European ensemble (the other was the Dalecarlia Quartet in July) with a New Zealand member – Simone Roggen, the first violinist.  This group, too, had a change of membership from that originally advertised.  There were several striking things about this ensemble; their handsome appearance on stage, their intense concentration and the performers’ remarkable techniques among them.

Another striking thing was the extremely pianissimo entry to the first item on the programme.  The playing was delicate and subtle, with an astonishing range of dynamics.  Thoroughly musical sounds conveyed the bitter-sweet nature of Schubert’s sublime music.  Was the range of dynamics too extreme?  It was certainly more so than in other performances I have heard of this wonderful single-movement quartet, yet the playing revealed the Romantic nature of the work to the fullest degree possible.  It was beautifully balanced and blended, making for a blissful experience.

Helena Winkelman (spelt with only one ‘n’ by Wikipedia; Helen Winkelmann is a New Zealand judge who was prominently in the news recently) was born in 1974.  Like the players she is Swiss, and well known to the Faust Quartet (yes, Roggen’s origins are Swiss too, and she now lives in Switzerland).  Roggen gave a spoken introduction to the work, and musical examples from the various movements were played, to illustrate the points being made.  These employed a variety of string techniques.

The narrative of the work dealt with horses: the first movement was named ‘Kelpie’, a Celtic water-demon which in this case was a horse.  The second, a scherzo, was entitled ‘Alwakr and Alsvidr; two horses who pulled the sun-chariot in Norse mythology.  The third employed seven fragments from the poet Osip Mandelstam’s Voronezh notebooks.  While the opening line of the first fragment as printed in translation in the programme speaks of ‘leading a storm cloud by the bridle’, the subject matter is nature, flight and escape rather than horses.  The final movement is titled for an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir, Odin’s horse of Norse myth.

This horse has the power of flight, and epitomises the last of the four elements, air.  The first movement employs one voice, though not purely unison playing, and symbolises the water in which Kelpie lives; the two horses (and two voices) of the second movement represent fire, being captives of Sol, the sun-god.  The third movement speaks of the earth (the third element).

The opening movement incorporated numerous extended techniques for the players; watery sounds could certainly be heard.  The scherzo was very angular in musical character, and obviously difficult to play.  I found the sharp contrast with Schubert’s music not easy on the ear at times.

Despite my admiration for the skill of the performers, I did not find the composition at this stage stimulating. In this movement there were very intense, insistent sonorities, which worked up to furious interplay, which died away towards the end.  The horses fought each other, but they seemed to come to a mutual understanding and respect.

The Mandelstam movement featured exceptional playing, and employed a great variety of rhythms and complexity; the young women exhibited astonishing energy and skill.  Here, there was high-pitched interplay and excitement, but much was harsh and discordant.

The final movement began with angry turbulence. The horse was wilful and did not succumb happily to discipline – whereas these players do!  There were extended passages of double-stopping, making for thick textures. In this movement, passages incorporating vocalisation from the players gave a pleasing change of sonority before they returned to the gut-wrenching (in both senses of the term) timbres.

I have to say I found some of the timbres and sounds excruciating in the very lively acoustic of St. Andrew’s, especially in the final movement, and I was not the only one to feel this way.  The work was challenging for the players – and for the audience, but not a challenge I enjoyed rising to.  At times I envied those in the audience who found it possible to fall asleep.  Others had more positive attitudes to what they had heard, I discovered during the interval.

Schubert’s wonderful ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet is familiar, yet there is always something new to find in it, especially in the hands of the Faust Quartet.  I have these two Schubert works on the same LP (yes, I still play them).  Again, that great dynamic range these performers have was something new.  The little subtleties in their treatment of the rhythms and figurations were delightful to hear, as was their beauty of tone.  Nothing was skirted around – it was all there, in glorious technicolor.

The opening allegro was somewhat faster than is usually heard, but the melody was treated with gorgeous tone and expression.  The Faust finesse ensured that Schubert’s profundity was all there.

The andante con moto second movement contains the well-known Schubert song of the quartet’s title; the melody and exquisite harmony pull at the heart-strings.  Is there anything more sad in music than this?  The solo lines were deliciously played, principally, but not only, by Simone Roggen.  The tragic mood was sustained throughout the movement’s variations on the theme.  The seductive beauty of this movement is beyond compare, in my opinion, not least the cry of despair that ends it.

The Scherzo (allegro molto) is boisterous but unsettling at the beginning, then it becomes wistful and perhaps regretful, ending emphatically.  The playing of the Faust’s members conveyed all of this very directly.  Their technical expertise was such that they as individuals never got in the way of the music, and their cohesion and unanimity were astonishing.

The presto finale was almost feverish, rushing whence?  The music was ethereal and mysterious then frightening by turns, and the false endings added to the effect.  What enormous facility these players have!  We can only thank Chamber Music New Zealand and Chamber Music Wellington for enabling us to hear fine ensembles like this.  This was a stand-out performance in a year of excellent music-making.


Brilliant, rewarding performance of The Creation from NZSO and Orpheus Choir

The Creation (Sung in English) by Haydn

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Orpheus Choir of Wellington, conducted by Nicholas McGegan, with Madeleine Pierard – soprano, Robin Tritschler – tenor, Jonathan Lemalu – bass

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 29 August 2014

This concert was billed as one where “Haydn brings forth magnificence from silence as he retells the creation of the world, taking inspiration from the Bible’s Book of Genesis and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Haydn once confessed, ‘I want to write a work that will give permanent fame to my name in the world’. With The Creation, he has certainly achieved this.”

This was the work that provided the striking platform on which this performance was built, guided by renowned Baroque and Enlightenment interpreter Nicholas McGegan, with contributions from outstanding soloists and the exceptional talents of the NZ Symphony Orchestra. There was a most informative pre-concert talk from Peter Walls which presaged an evening of rich musical rewards.

The Creation was met with great enthusiasm when first heard in both Britain and Germany (Haydn set the libretto in both languages). Over time it lost some ground in the fickle swings of the performance fashion stakes, but more recently it has enjoyed wide popularity again. Astonishingly this concert was announced as the first ever full performance of the work by the NZSO.

The opening introduction is an orchestral Representation of Chaos on the First Day of creation, and its elusive, shifting tonalities and stark dynamic contrasts were explored to wonderful dramatic effect by the orchestra, followed by Lemalu’s evocative vocal painting of the formless universe in the first, almost whispered, words of the archangel Raphael. The blinding arrival of Light from the heavens and the panic stricken flight of hell’s black spirits was wonderfully portrayed by both Robin Tritschler as the archangel Uriel and the large force of choristers, who hurled themselves into their first dramatic number to stunning effect.

The Second Day of creation was laid out in recitative by Lemalu as he painted a musical canvas of amazing breadth, ranging from the frightful rolling of “awful thunders” to the most “light and flaky snow” which one could almost sense alighting on one’s hair. Then came the first entry of soprano Madeleine Pierard with Gabriel’s spectacular celebratory aria, supported by the massed angelic chorus. Her clarity of notes and diction at speed, and beautifully shaped phrases, were quite breath-taking and set a technical and musical standard that she maintained unwaveringly for the rest of the performance.

There were many other special moments in the first four days of creation which comprise Part One of the work, spanning the formation of the cosmos and planet Earth. Not only the soloists and chorus but the orchestra too exuded a joy in the privilege of performing this masterpiece – the players obviously relished the wonderful pictorial opportunities in Haydn’s score, and not only the more obvious ones assigned to the upper woodwind. The contrabass line depicting rivers flowing across the open plains “in serpent error” was deliciously rich and sinuous, and the section made the most of this rare melodic treat, as they painted the scene in tandem with Lemalu’s evocative description.

Part Two of the oratorio spans the creation of the animal kingdom, including humans Adam and Eve.  The emergence of sea life, land forms and the creatures of the air gave Haydn great opportunities for pictorial and onomatopoeic writing, which he lavished not only on the soloists and choir, but almost more so on the instrumentalists. His amazing variety of creative melody and evocative sound effects were swooped on with glee by the players who had a real night out on the musical and technical opportunities they were offered.

The solo obbligato conversations with the soloists were a delight, and the percussion and brass had a field day in the rousing choruses. The choir was very impressive in their clean fugal lines and exemplary diction even at a galloping allegro, and their sheer power in the forte tuttis was extraordinary.

There were some moments in the work where, from our seats in the gallery, the male solo voices singing at a piano dynamic did not clearly penetrate the very considerable orchestral forces. And I similarly craved more bass weight in the vocal trios. But Madeleine Pierard, with the advantage of the upper register, consistently floated through or over the orchestra apparently quite effortlessly, never losing the satiny timbre of her voice at even the topmost pitches.

Part Three of the work is a pastoral idyll depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before the first apple is plucked and they are catapulted into “The Fall”. Their sights are initially focused on praising the glories of Creation, supported by full hearted contributions from the choir. Lemalu and Pierard made the most of every musical opportunity offered by the poetic libretto and evocative melodies that here span everything from the “rosy mantle” of “the morning young and fair”, the brilliance of the sun and moon, the “dusky mists and dewy streams”, “purling fountains” and all the “living souls” that people the new planet.

Then the “happy pair” turn to one another to express their mutual bliss. The writing builds to nothing short of a love duet, albeit within an oratorio, and it was masterfully choreographed by the duo. They opened with almost shy, hesitant overtures , but as each caught an answering light in the other’s eye, they became ever more daring in their protestations. At the end they teetered on a knife edge between ravished fulfilment and sentimentality, but they judged it to absolute perfection in both body language and voice, giving a finale that brought the house down.

It was a real privilege to be at this performance, and so pleasing to see that two of the three excellent soloists were New Zealanders – an all too rare occurrence in my view. The orchestra and chorus were brilliant, and under Nicholas McGegan’s inspiring and creative guidance the audience was treated to a most rewarding evening of music making.


Chamber Music New Zealand hosts exciting concert by pianos and percussion

Chamber Music New Zealand: “Rhythm and Resonance”

Mozart’s Sonata for two pianos, K 448; Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin (arr. Guldborg); Bartók: Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion; Lutoslawski: Variations on a Theme by Paganini (arr. Ptaszynska)

Diedre Irons and Michael Endres – pianos; Thomas Guldborg and Lenny Sakovsky – percussion

Michael Fowler Centre

Tuesday 26 August, 7:30 pm

This step outside the usual range of string-dominant chamber music attracted a big house in the Michael Fowler Centre; the welcome by CEO Euan Murdoch also suggested that a larger number of younger people had been drawn by this programme, with its less familiar instrumental context, yet of major works.

And he drew attention to the use of an overhead camera that projected a bird’s eye view of the array of instruments – mainly the percussion – on the stage.

But the concert began with the only sonata that Mozart wrote for two pianos (the only other piece for two pianos is a Fugue in C minor, K 426). It’s a magnificent richly melodic masterpiece that responded whole-heartedly to treatment by four hands on two Steinways – the thought of any possible advantage from fortepianos never entered my head. The performance exploited the sonic possibilities of two instruments without producing sounds that were too dense or cluttered.

The two instruments were lined up side by side rather than facing each other with their bodies curling intimately together; so the primo player (in this case Diedre Irons) was visually dominant. The two have not dissimilar approaches to performance, devoted to playing of clarity and vigour as well as a scrupulous treatment of the varying dynamics. Even more impressive was their subtle rhythmic elasticity which, from the very percussive nature of the piano, poses a considerable challenge for two players: mere ensemble is hard enough.

In brief, this was music of genius played by two pianists who were virtually flawless in ensemble and musical spirit, and their performance entranced me from start to finish. There are so many beguiling phases, among the most charming the exquisite trill-opened motifs near the beginning of the Andante which were crystal clear yet imbued with magic.

The performance of Ravel’s Tombeau might have surprised an audience unprepared for the arrangement of the stage, pianos removed, leaving it dominated by three marimbas to be played by the two NZSO percussionists. From the start I found myself quite accepting of the altered quality of the music: much as I love the piano original, I am particularly partial to the marimba. Yet I wondered whether there might have been some monotony in the sound after a while. But that was at least partly avoided as Sakofsky moved, at the beginning of the Forlane, from the marimba at right angles to the audience, to one facing the audience, that produced a somewhat brighter, keen-edged tone. The spirit of Ravel survived excellently, since the eight mallets flourished by the players seemed to encompass all the notes in the piano score.

After the interval there were further re-arrangements: marimbas moved to the rear and xylophones, along with tam tam, side and bass drums, timpani and cymbals filled the stage. Oddly, this was one of the first truly ‘modern’ pieces of classical music I came to know through the small but curious collection that my girl-friend (later my wife) brought to our joint LP collection when we were about 21. It’s one of those works that seems to sound just as shocking and barbaric now as it did then (and that performance, an Argo recording paired with Contrasts for piano, violin and clarinet, still surprises me by its violent sounds and extreme dynamic contrasts).

What we heard on Tuesday was rather more well-mannered and less fierce. In addition, the big acoustic of the MFC subdues the harshness and acerbity of extreme sounds, and it was no doubt the more civilised sound that the four players produced that allowed the audience to enjoy this classic of modernity as they evidently did, judging from the applause. I think it loses little with less hard-edged sound and brutalism and that was the way it came off the stage; though it would have been too much to ask that such music be flawless in togetherness and finesse.

Incidentally, instead of being on the medium level stage as earlier chamber music concerts, including the Houstoun Beethoven concerts, had been, these performances which involved more instruments were at the usual high level of the stage which makes visibility difficult for the front dozen rows – hence the usefulness of the view from above, projected on the screen.

The last item had not been on the advertised programme or otherwise conspicuously announced: Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini. It is shorter than other famous treatments of this piece (Paganini’s 24th violin Caprice), though there are about twelve variations (the programme note did not disclose and that was my slightly uncertain count).  Lutoslawski wrote it in the early years of the war in German-occupied Warsaw, when he and Panufnik lived by playing piano duets in cabarets (for a revelatory account of that, read Panufnik’s autobiography Composing Myself). It was about the only one of Lutoslawski’s pieces to survive the horrendous German onslaught on Warsaw to put down the famous Warsaw uprising, as the Soviet army sat on the other side of the Vistula and did nothing to support the Polish resistance.

What we heard was an arrangement of the two-piano original commissioned by the Danish Safri Duo, made not by the composer, but by Polish Chicago composer Marta Ptaszynska. Compared with that original, I have to confess to finding the percussion additions a little superfluous. The original, which contains echoes of the Rachmaninov version, is sufficiently percussive and the addition of percussion instruments seemed to reduce the unique impact of the two pianos which, in good hands has all the brilliance, excitement and visceral scariness that is needed to bring a concert like this to a thrilling, hire-wire climax.

To hear and see what I mean, look at You Tube for a recent performance by Anastasia and Liubov Gromoglasova in Moscow. However, that is a small matter alongside the otherwise brilliant exhibition of skill and musicality that these four splendid musicians demonstrated in all four works. I had the very clear impression of a delighted audience leaving the MFC at the end.



Searing contribution from the WYO to “Recovering Forbidden Voices”

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:
SHOSTAKOVICH – Symphony No.8 in C MInor Op.65
BEETHOVEN – Two Romances for Violin and Orchestra Opp. 40 and 50

Malavika Gopal (violin)
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
Wellington Youth Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington,

Monday, 25th August, 2014

This concert was associated with a series of performances, presentations and discussions entitled “Recovering Forbidden Voices” –  programmes organised by Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music and the History and German Programmes of Victoria University of Wellington, and held over the previous few days (22nd-25th August) in the capital. The “Forbidden Voices” referred to music and composers who fell foul of the Nazis in Europe, resulting in many works, particularly by Jewish composers, being suppressed or banned over the period associated with the rise of Hitler to power in Germany.

The music of Shostakovich came under fire in his native Russia at the same time for different reasons – the composer had, during the 1930s, famously fallen foul of the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin with his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” but had rehabilitated himself somewhat as a “people’s artist” with his Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, the latter work celebrating the siege of Leningrad and the heroism of the Russian people. What the composer privately thought of the war, its effects upon his homeland and the events surrounding the conflict was more realistically delineated in his Eighth Symphony.

The work wasn’t received with any great acclaim, reviews being tinged with disappointment and bewilderment at the music’s bleak, pessimistic tone – “significantly tougher and more astringent that either the Fifth or Seventh…..unlikely to prove popular…” commented a colleague of the composer. These were prophetic words, as in 1948 the infamous “Zhdanov decree” issued by the Central Committee of the Communist Party attacked the composer and his work, accusing him of “formalist perversions”. As a result, the Eighth Symphony wasn’t performed again until 1956.

The Russian view of the symphony that has endured was expressed a number of years later later by the great pianist and associate of the composer, Sviatoslav Richter, who called it “the decisive  work in Shostakovich’s output”. While perhaps not as popular in the West as the aforementioned Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, the C Minor work’s greatness and incredible  depth of tragic expression has come to be acknowledged everywhere.

While the symphony’s performance readily associated the occasion with the “Recovering Forbidden Voices” theme, the concert’s first half presented a dramatic and perhaps a welcome contrast in anticipation to Shostakovich’s conflict-torn work. This was supplied by both of Beethoven’s Romances for violin and orchestra, performed by soloist Malavika Gopal, currently a player with the NZSO, and back home in Wellington after a period of study and performing experience overseas (including a stint with the famed Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra).  However, before the concert proper began we were properly welcomed by three speakers, firstly Professor Donald Maurice representing the School of Music, and then by the Mayor of Wellington, Celia Wade-Brown, and the Government Minister for the Arts, Chris Finlayson, all of whom talked about the “Forbidden Music” venture.

Once the music got under way, Malavika Gopal’s quality as a violinist was instantly apparent, the opening solo of the first of Beethoven’s Romances as sweet-toned as one could wish for, and the contrasting middle section properly gutsier and grainier, as befitted the music. Naturally all the attention seemed to be on her, except that if Hamish McKeich and the orchestra’s accompaniments had faltered in any way we would surely have noticed!

I have a slight preference for the less ritualistic, more rhapsodic No.2 of the pair of Romances, and Malavika Gopal didn’t disappoint with this one either, if anything sounding even sweeter-toned in the music’s freer, more soaring lines.Though reluctant to pass judgement to any great extent on her musicianship after such brief encounters with her playing, I would nevertheless be anxious to hear her tackle some more extended solo repertoire, which her return to take up a place with the NZSO “firsts” will hopefully enable her to do here in Wellington.

An interval decently distanced the two very different listening experiences for us, after which it was “all posts manned (sic)” for the Shostakovich. Though feeling hopeful as regarding the capabilities of these young players (thanks in part to my hearing a wonderful recent performance by the School of Music Orchestra of Vaughan Williams’ difficult “Pastoral” Symphony) I did have reservations regarding their abilities in sustaining Shostakovich’s vast and bleak vistas of pessimism and deep sorrow, punctuated by frighteningly intense outbursts of fear and anger. And I wondered how on earth this group of young players was going to be able to generate sufficient tones to fill the spaces of the Michael Fowler Centre. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried.

Right from the beginning, the playing seemed galvanised by a kind of spirit akin to grim determination, Hamish McKeich getting the lower strings to dig furiously into the textures, and, together with the chilling entries of the winds and the brasses, catch the “edge” of the music. Each section of the orchestra seemed to “speak its name” and assert its character in full measure, the treble voices across the sound-spectrum by turns plaintive and shrill, the middle voices properly insistent, and the basses both brooding and massively weighty as required.

Though the upper strings occasionally had problems with their intonation when essaying those great contrapuntal passages, the players kept the intensities to the fore, keeping the argument strongly and inexorably ploughing forwards, the winds and brasses rising spectrally from growing disquiet mid-movement and brutalising both the themes and their interaction, with incredibly powerful onslaughts of sound, leaving the cor anglais and the clarinets to try and pick up the pieces. Despite the strings’ on-going struggle to hold those long mezzo-forte lines together, and the trumpet with its sudden declamatory phrase having a bad moment (probably after the player had delivered the passage  perfectly at rehearsal umpteen times!) the music’s purposeful strength was tenaciously held to the movement’s end.

What amazing, garish, full-on sonorities were hurled at us over the course of the two following scherzo-like movements! Such tremendous, playing-right-out work from the winds – and to such ghastly, ghoulish effect – in the first scherzo, Allegretto, piccolo, bassoon, clarinet, and then piccolo again, were all superb! Here, the strings occasionally had that nightmarish “wartime air-siren” aspect, which galvanised the brass and percussion into brutal sequences, harrowing ostinati torn by savage climaxes – however, Hamish McKeich took care to preserve the music’s shape with his players, maintaining a sense of ebb-and-flow, which held things in check, albeit temporarily, the contra-bassoon having a few droll soundings of its own, helping to ease the tensions.

All, it seemed, to little avail, as the savage, relentless viola ostinati which began the third movement allegro lashed out and flailed away at our sensibilities. My favourite part of the symphony (sensation-monger that I secretly am), I’ve always found the Russian recorded performances of this movement in particular streets ahead of those made in the West, with conductors like Kondrashin and Mravinsky requiring of their players such raw, unbridled attack and relentless, unequivocal savagery when addressing the music’s machine-like rhythms. I had been told by McKeich that he had studied the work with Valery Gergiev in Europe, and that he was fully aware of the special “Russian” performance characteristics, which for him informed the playing of that repertoire. In this movement, as with the rest of the symphony, his direction was as good as his word.

It actually sounded for much of the time as if a Russian orchestra was playing, so determined and up-front were the efforts of the players to give what their conductor was asking for – and for me it put some of the professionally-polished, but much-too-genteel efforts of some crack ensembles I’d heard on record in the shade. Full marks in particular to the trumpeter and side-drummer in the crude, ironic trio section – the strings couldn’t quite match the “bite” of the solo instruments here, but they made up for it when the opening returned. And the brass and percussion at the climax overwhelmed, as they ought to have done, the timpanist lashing out mercilessly, underlining the brutality of the composer’s nightmarish depiction.

So it was we were plunged into the great Passacaglia of the fourth movement, brass announcing the crack of doom and the string lines utterly despairing, the winds adding to the desolation with their helplessly-lost utterances, piccolo, bass clarinet and tongued flutes expressing the “fumbling in the despairing dark” referred to by one commentator – here it all sounded exactly like that, the impulses and gestures well-and-truly “gutted”.

Which is why the transition to the finale effected by the bassoon solo was such balm to the senses, even though the resolutions which followed remained properly haunted and bruised to the end. When questioned, the composer told a friend that the C Major transition to the concluding Allegretto had cost him “so much blood”, but that the end of the symphony was optimistic, despite the reiterate of moments of anxiety – though nothing further from the tub-thumping of the Fifth Symphony’s finale could be imagined than this work’s closing pages.

What these young musicians and their conductor gave us was a deeply-felt, incredibly-committed and stunningly-delivered emotional journey, thrills and spills all part of the human experience. It deserves to be remembered as a landmark performance by any standards, but certainly as a glowing achievement on the part of Hamish McKeich and the orchestra, and a cause for warm appreciation on the part of those fortunate enough to be present.



Forbidden Voices: Documentary film on German/Jewish composer Richard Fuchs, also neglected in New Zealand

New Zealand School of Music: Conference: Recovering Forbidden Voices 2014

Film: The Third Richard
An 80-minute documentary of the life of Richard Fuchs, made by Danny Mulheron and Sara Stretton

Embassy Theatre, Wellington

Sunday 24 August

“Richard Fuchs was a composer believed by his father to be ‘the third Richard’, successor to Strauss and Wagner. He loved German culture above all others. Unfortunately German culture hated him. His music was banned by the Nazis and he was banished, so he fled to New Zealand in the 1940s. No longer persecuted, just ignored. A man out of place and out of time. An enemy in Germany because he was Jewish and an enemy alien in war-time New Zealand because he was German. Through this film, Danny Mulheron discovers the life and work of his grandfather, Richard Fuchs.”

These few lines, which billed this particular event, gave little hint of how extraordinary a story this film uncovered. Richard Fuchs was born in Germany in 1887 and died in Wellington in 1947, From an opening portrayal of privilege and rich cultural life in pre-war Karlsruhe, it followed the heart rending vicissitudes of Fuchs and his family in their struggle to escape from Hitler’s Jewish programme and the Holocaust, and make a new home in New Zealand.

This was the historical framework for the film, against which unfolded an artistic and musical life of amazing creativity that spanned architecture, drawing and painting, and an astonishingly broad and versatile musical oeuvre. Such a rich outpouring of creative talent could be only lightly touched upon in 80 minutes of film, but viewers were treated to some wonderful samples of his musical repertoire that left one with the impression that New Zealanders will be in for some profoundly rewarding listening if more of Fuchs’ music can be performed here.

This composer stands in the grand German Romantic tradition of Wagner, Mahler and Bruckner, yet I found all the musical excerpts in the film had a refreshing quality about them that refrained, even in the major Symphonic Movement played by the NZSO, from straying into the overblown heroics of his predecessors. The dark experiences of his life uncovered by some of the other excerpts were deeply moving and full of pathos, yet again free of the almost stifling weight of some Romantic pens.  Fuchs wrote piano compositions (he was an accomplished pianist), chamber music, lieder, choral and orchestral works, and what remains is today housed in the Turnbull Library.

Every excerpt I heard in the film made me want to hear more of this remarkable talent, and I was pleased to be alerted by director Danny Mulheron, to a very comprehensive website covering all aspects of his life and work www.richardfuchs.org.nz.  Under Recordings one can listen to over thirty items – more than enough to whet the appetite for more of this lovely music. There are also sections covering The Archive, Catalogue, Composer (with 2 CDs available), Publications (including a biography by Steven Sedley) and the Documentary film (available on DVD). This is a rich musical resource, well worth exploring, and there is provision to expand it into his visual arts as well.

I came away from this screening with the clear understanding that New Zealand, and the wider world, deserves to hear much more of this enriching music. The NZSO and regional orchestras are clear candidates for airing his work; it would also sit well in Radio NZ Concert’s Made in New Zealand
slot, and in Chamber Music NZ’s programmes. An ideal “sampler” for this last could comprise a showing of the DVD, informed by the willing attendance of the film makers or Richard Fuchs’ Trustees, plus perhaps a live or recorded performance of some shorter works. I think it would not be long before there were requests to hear more of this haunting and evocative voice so long neglected, very much to our musical cost.



“The Knight of the Rose” (Der Rosenkavalier) delights at Days Bay

Opera in a Days Bay Garden presents:
Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose)
An Opera by Richard Strauss (edited and arranged by Michael Vinten)
Libretto by Hugo von Hoffmannsthal (English translation by Alfred Kalisch)
Producer:  Rhona Fraser / Director:  Sara Brodie
Conductor:  Michael Vinten

OperainaDaysBaygarden Orchestra / Leader:  Blythe Press

Cast:  Rhona Fraser (Marshallin) / Bianca Andrew  (Octavian)
James Clayton (Baron Ochs) / Barbara Graham  (Sophie von Faninal)
Matt Landreth  (Herr von Faninial) / Imogen Thirlwall (Annina)
Tehezib Latiff (Italian Singer) / Simon Christie (Police Commissioner)
Frederick Jones  (Major-Domo / Landlord) / Marian Hawke (Marianne)
Lachlan McLachlan  (Mahomet)
also:  Bethany Miller, Coshise Avei, Elizabeth Harris, Luka Ventner,
Declan Cudd, Isabelle van der Wilt, Kahu Rolfe, Pania Rolfe, Finlay Barr-Clark

Wellesley College Hall, Days Bay, Wellington

Sunday 24th August 2014

I readily admit that I approached this Days Bay Opera production of “Der Rosenkavalier” with mixed feelings and with expectations somewhat on edge, wondering how well one of my  favourite operas would emerge from the processes of being not only shortened but also rearranged for chamber-like forces.

It’s just that a goodly part of Rosenkavalier’s appeal for me has always been its sheerly sumptuous quality, with  gorgeous late-romantic orchestral writing, and, in stage productions I’d previously seen, costume and set designs reflecting wealth and lavish display – everything, in a word, resplendent.

Counter-balancing these feelings was my previous (and it must be said) resoundingly positive experience of productions at Days Bay –  I had seen operas by both Handel and Mozart successfully performed there, on each occasion in the open air of producer Rhona Fraser’s magnificent garden, in presentations where singers and instrumentalists turned in strongly focused performances that triumphantly invigorated the music and brought the characters engagingly to life. So I was thus nicely poised between both pleasurable and doubtful anticipation as the opera’s beginning-time approached.

This time round, instead of staging the production outdoors and risking their audiences’ exposure to the cold and wet of winter, the organisers wisely took the step of securing the use of nearby Wellesley College’s beautifully-appointed assembly hall, whose harbour-view vistas served as a stunning introductory backdrop to the performing area for we in the audience before the show.

So, it was a production more-or-less “in the round”, with the orchestra at the back, and audience taking up the remaining three sides around the performing area, the singers making their entrances and exits from any of three of the corners. I thought director Sara Brodie’s use of the area beautifully conveyed both fluidity and stillness in her deployment of personages, around and about a centrally-placed bed in the first act, and across the more unimpeded spaces of Acts Two and Three.

I found to my great delight production and performances thoroughly engaging and in places enchanting – in short, most satisfying, even if I’m certain my reaction was partly due to pleasurable relief at experiencing so very much more of the work’s magic than I thought would be possible to convey under the circumstances. Of course, even in a full-scale production a good deal of the essence of Rosenkavalier as a piece of theatre can be found in the intimate exchanges between the characters and in the composer’s own chamber-like scoring of the accompaniments to these, however thrilling those big, fulsomely-upholstered moments remain.

In this sense the production’s excising of certain sequences (conductor Michael Vinten making the adjustments and rearrangements) enhanced the chamber-like nature of what we saw and heard, most definitely to this particular setting’s advantage. We lost detail here and there,  but gained in overall sweep and flow, dropped a couple of minor characters as well, but lightened the musical and theatrical textures in doing so.

A substantial cut was the lengthy orchestra-only preamble to Act Three, normally accompanying the “booby-trapping” of the room at the inn organised by the lascivious Baron Ochs for his illicit dalliance with the Marshallin’s “maid”, Mariandel (Octavian, the Marshallin’s young lover, in disguise). Most adroitly, Michael Vinten had merged Acts Two and Three together as one, so that the Baron, tricked by Octavian’s letter at the end of Act Two suggesting the “tryst” goes straight from the music of his beautifully lascivious Waltz-tune to meet up at the inn with Octavian/Mariandel.

So, all the “ghostly” irruptions intended to unnerve Ochs, and usually demonstrated during the Prelude were dispensed with, shifting the focus of the Baron’s discomfiture to the appearance of a bogus ex-wife and children, and of course, the arrival of the Faninals, father and daughter, and the Marshallin herself, to properly put the seal on Och’s downfall.

In light of these divergencies from the original the venture required a surety of focus, a kind of determination, even zeal, to bring it off – and right across the spectrum of production, of stage and musical direction, of singing and acting, and of orchestral playing one sensed this burning commitment to make it all work, a veritable glow which settled over certain moments in particular, but which for me resonated in ambient terms most satisfyingly thoughout the entire performance.

Three things got the proceedings away to a wonderful start – firstly, the playing of the famous Act One Prelude, with its bubbling energies capped by those notoriously orgasmic horn passages (Ed Allen’s playing gloriously exuberant at that point), followed by some extremely tender, beautifully-realised instrumental sounds of all persuasions, from the players.

Secondly we enjoyed director Sara Brodie’s inventive ploy for getting the lovers into the bed for their opening exchanges,  the Marshallin and Octavian entering in the midst of a flourish of bodies (a “chorus of many characters”) and quickly and unobtrusively sliding under the covers as their cohorts stood and bowed to us, by way of acknowledging our presence, before leaving as quickly as they had come.

Thirdly Bianca Andrew’s singing of Octavian’s opening lines (the opera was sung in English), had such a refulgent glow, a sound one wanted to simply bask in for a blessed time, getting the opera off to a most mellifluous beginning, voice-wise, one amply and characterfully furthered by Rhona Fraser’s dignified, worldly-wise Marshallin, Marie Therese. A pity we were distracted more than we ought to have been by the latter’s wig which seemed to be giving the singer cause for concern every now and then – the Marshallin could, at the very opening, surely have displayed her own hair as befitted the intimacy of the situation, as her young lover’s semi-clothed state certainly did!

Throughout the opening Act Bianca Andrew brought out the full gamut of her character’s youthful bravado, very much an infatuated youth prone to extremes of feeling, with great and natural exuberance followed by episodes of near-debilitating despair. And her acting when disguised as Mariandel was sheer delight, by turns engagingly gawky and irresistibly coquettish.

Equally as absorbing, but in an entirely different way, was Rhona Fraser’s Marshallin – as previously remarked, a dignified portrayal, if more than usually sober and reflective a figure from the outset, making us feel as if, perhaps even from the moment of waking she had already begun distancing herself from her young lover. The opportunities for lightness, even coquettishness between her and Octavian weren’t relished and pointed as one might have expected, in places such as her cool response to the young man’s’s angst at her hastily retracted “Once…..”, suggesting that he was by no means her first illicit lover.

So we got more of a progression in the Marshallin’s demeanour and attitude away from Octavian throughout the Act rather than a contrast before and after her encounter with her boorish, gold-digging cousin Ochs. However, Fraser’s circumspection gained full force with her “growing old” soliloquy after her cousin’s departure, as well as in the terms of her dismissal of her lover with the words “One day you will fall in love with someone younger and prettier”. She gathered in all of our sympathies throughout this scene by dint of her firmly-centred singing, and a patient, gently-etched delineation of the predicament faced by an older person enamored of somebody more youthful. And Michael Vinten’s control of the finely-woven orchestral texturings at the end, made for moments of such magic.

As for the force of rustic gallantry gone awry that was Baron Ochs, this was a part splendidly brought to life by Australian baritone James Clayton, all the more telling because of his and the production’s avoidance of excessive caricature. Clayton was a younger, more virile and physically personable Ochs than usual, whose oafishness lay more in his arrogance and sexist behaviour than anywhere else, a far more believable, and potentially dangerous figure than the usual boorish and physically repulsive character presented in the role. In his unfussily elegant eighteenth-century costume he actually cut a splendid figure, though the depiction of his attendant “love-child”, Leopold, sailed perilously close to caricature.

Act Two burst upon our sensibilities like a firecracker, the relative lack of tonal weight in the orchestra countered with plenty of “glint” and wonderfully incisive playing. Matt Landreth’s Herr Faninal wanted only a tad more metal in his tone to further resound his great excitement when announcing the “wondrous day” of his daughter Sophie’s betrothal to Baron Ochs. As for Barbara Graham’s Sophie, the portrayal would, I’m sure, have ticked everybody’s set of boxes  – she was girlish, pretty, vivacious, tremulous, exuberant and impulsive, and her singing was clear, unforced and accurate, both radiant and charming in her responses to Octavian and the Silver Rose. The actual presentation scene was as breath-catching and for me as goose-pimply as ever, those gorgeous wind arabesques cleverly supported by the piano when sounding their usual lump-in-throat progressions. Both singers “caught” and superbly held the intensity of exchange and the growing of emotional experience of each of their characters.

The reintroduction of Ochs and his father-in-law elect properly burst the scene’s romantic bubble, and the subsequent business culminating in Octavian’s wounding of the Baron in a duel went with a roar and a swing – this production “made do” with only one “conspirator” rather than the usual Machiavellian pair, Imogen Thirlwall using her comic talent and gift for characterization as Annina to great effect. She nicely teased the wounded Baron with Octavian’s “Mariandel” letter, and set him up to positively revel in his famous Waltz Song – a nice “stage-business” touch was allowing Ochs every opportunity to seize the opportunity to waltz suggestively with the nearest available female every time the music appeared!

Without the “haunted-room” aspect, the final act centered much more on the “gulling”of the Baron by public exposure of his intentions, the setting up of the bogus wife’s arrival and her children more of a comic diversion here than a significant nail in his coffin. At the end I thought the innkeeper and his cohorts standing in a group bearing their sheaves of bills could have profitably contributed to the choreography of swirling bodies around and about the befuddled would-be-Casanova, rather like an added circlet of punishment from Dante’s Inferno! – the children’s efforts, complete with their compromising cries of “Papa! Papa!” were sturdy and valiant, but more of a maelstrom of activity around the Baron would have heightened the effect even more hilariously. Still, the Baron’s penchant for waltzing to his “tune” was nicely inverted by Imogen Thirlwall as the “bogus wife” grabbing hold of him and putting him through his reluctant paces once more, for all to see!

By this time Ochs’ undoing had been well-and-truly gazetted, with all the major players plus a Police Commissioner on the stage re-aligning the situation (the latter a sturdy comprimario from Simon Christie), and Octavian having put “Mariandel” to rest, to the unfortunate Baron’s eventual and bemused realization. With his exit came the famous trio for the Marshallin, Octavian and Sophie, here sung and acted as heartrendingly as if there was to be no tomorrow, by the three principals, followed by the Marshallin’s dignified exit with Herr Faninal, and the final duet for Octavian and Sophie. It would be churlish of me to comment that I thought Bianca Andrew’s delivery of the final ascending phrase a fraction too full to “balance” properly with Barbara Graham’s, so I will conclude instead by conveying a sense of the feeling which, among other things, overtook me as we listened to the opera’s final pages of being made to feel young once again – the efforts of all concerned with this production had, for this listener, resulted in a memorable and intensely-moving outcome.















Forbidden Voices liberated in NZSM conference on music and musicians banned by Nazis

New Zealand School of Music: Recovering Forbidden Voices:Responding to the Suppression of Music in World War Two

Die Welt von Gestern (The World of Yesterday)
Schreker: Sonata for violin and piano in F major
Zemlinsky: Serenade in A major
Korngold: Violin Sonata in G major, Op 6

Duo Richter-Carrigan (Goetz Richter – violin and Jeanell Carrigan – piano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 23 August, 8:15 pm

This evening’s concert was session number 11 in the weekend’s conference of talks, concerts and panel discussions dealing with the suppression of music and other arts during the second world war, primarily through the Nazi suppression of what they considered ‘Entartete Kunst’ – ‘Degenerate Art’. It’s been a mixture of music and the spoken word, the latter examining aspects of the hideous impact of Nazism on art and artists wherever the regime gained control. Jews were by no means the only artists, musicians, writers to suffer, and music by Shostakovich and Messiaen have been heard in the concerts.

To this point there had been a performance of Hans Krasa’s children’s opera Brundibar (reviewed by us), concerts of chamber music by Schulhoff, Weinberg, Ullmann, Gidon Klein, Schoenberg and Shostakovich, as well as contemporary composers whose lives were deeply affected by fascism and communism; lectures and discussions about the repression of Jews and other minorities, and musicians in exile like Martinu; a celebration of the work of conductor/composer Georg Tintner, who sought refuge in New Zealand from WW2, but was largely ignored. He began to make musical headway only after going to Australia in 1954.

One of the ironical effects of the Nazi treatment that made so much art, music and literature disappear, was the West’s pursuit of the avant-garde in many of those fields since the end of World War 2, resulting in those composers remaining ignored for several decades, only now being revived, as here.

For Middle C the conference has presented a bit of a problem as various things have prevented each of us from paying the kind of attention that we should have liked, and which it deserved.

This lecture-recital began with a brief talk by the violinist Goetz Richter expanding on the theme music and the aesthetic of revenge – the revenge being that of Hitler against the bourgeois society that had rejected him as a creative artist (according to Richter). Unfortunately I was not sitting close enough to hear it well and Richter delivered it at a pace that was not well adapted to a thesis that was dense with complex propositions and argument.

Goetz Richter is a violinist, trained at the Hochschule für Musik, Munich. with a PhD in philosophy from Sydney University, a past associate concertmaster in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, now an
associate professor at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Jeanell Carrigan is senior lecturer in ensemble studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, having obtained her musical education in universities in Queensland, Sydney, Wollongong and studies in Europe with various piano pedagogues including Alfons Kontarsky and Karl Engel.

The duo has been playing together for 30 years.

The programme included works by three German or Austrian Jewish composers born with 25 years at the end of the 19th century. Each was written when the composer was young: the Schreker aged 20, the Zemlinsky at 24 and the Korngold at the age of 15. It was the Korngold piece that was the longest and most ambitious, and may have proved the most challenging in execution.

The three movements of Schreker’s piece are: Allegro Moderato, Andante con Moto, Presto. While his sonata bore the marked influence of Brahms, and sounded the most conventional of the three, given the time of its composition, after major chamber music by Debussy for example, Korngold’s sonata of only 14 years later was much more complex technically. Though, unlike the music that Schoenberg was writing by then, it was melodically still accessible; however, it does not sound as imposing or perhaps as promising as does Strauss’s violin sonata of ten years earlier.

Schreker’s second movement was quietly meditative, breathing calmly with a performance that was warm and burnished, yet quietly adventurous harmonies peep through. There may well have been hints of the later Schreker of the operas such as Der ferner Klang, Die Gezeichneten, Der Schatzgräber – which I’ve just missed during visits to Germany over the past decade as they have been unearthed, given interesting productions and been widely acclaimed.

The Zemlinsky piece of 1895 was a Serenade (or suite) in five fairly short movements: Massig; Langsam, mit grossem ausdruck; Sehr schnell und leicht; Massiges Walzertempo; Schnell. It was a charming piece, distinctly lighter inspirit than a sonata, its rhythms and melodies more striking and engaging than some of Zemlinsky’s music of more serious intent. The main theme of the first movement was quite joyful, while the second, that I’d noted, in the absence of movement names in the programme, as a Largo, was lit by its variety of twists in melody and rhythm and quixotic mood changes, ending with a passage of heavy piano chords. The fourth movement, a waltz, risked becoming schmaltzy had it not been so well crafted, so inventive and playful – tossing the waltz rhythms back and forth between the two instruments. The last movement called the Schumann of the early piano pieces to mind.

Then the astonishing Korngold sonata. One of the characteristics that caught my ear was the melodic tendency of spirit-lifting upward grasps such as Scriabin performs, and from then on I tended to feel the presence of the Russians like Rachmaninov and Medtner. A long work, it presented the players with daunting technical challenges with mighty fistfuls of notes at the piano and passages of both dazzling virtuosity and quiet beauty from the violin – in the third movement especially. Though later in the Adagio it slipped into a commonplace, late romantic character.

The four movements are: (1) Ben moderato, ma con passion; (2) Scherzo: Allegro molto (con fuoco) and Trio – Moderato cantabile; (3) Adagio: Mit tiefer Empfindung; (4) Finale: Allegretto quasi andante (con grazia).

The last movement impressed me however as more rigorous in shape and structure, with quite striking melody: the piano soon announced a fugue which evolved interestingly between the two instruments. Perhaps as a result of the discipline imposed by the fugue, and the commanding and illuminating performance by Richter and Carrigan, it came to seem the most imaginative and substantial music in the whole sonata.

So this was one of those recitals that the timid or unadventurous would avoid, but which revealed three composers and three works by those composers that were revelatory and most important of all, thoroughly engaging and enjoyable at the hands of two musicians of the top rank. It served to show how little we know of the Australian music scene that such splendid players, who have been playing as a duo for three decades, were unknown to me and, I imagine, to almost all the audience (which was sadly small).


Product of Terezin concentration camp survives as admirable, enjoyable children’s opera

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music

(on the first day of the Recovering Hidden Voices conference-festival)

Hans Krása: Brundibár (Bumblebee)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

21 August 2014, 7pm

The soloists for this production are members of the NZSM’s Young Musicians Programme with a chorus from Kelburn Normal School and a chamber orchestra of NZSM Classical performance students. It is conducted by NZSM Lecturer Dr Robert Legg and directed by NZSM alumni and artist teacher Frances Moore.

Hans Krása was a German Jewish composer who studied with Zemlinsky and also at the Berlin Conservatory and under Roussel in Paris.  He was born in 1899, and died in Auschwitz (it is assumed) in 1944.  The opera was completed in 1939, with a libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister, and it was performed many times in the Terezin ghetto (Theresienstadt).  This performance used a new English adaptation by Tony Kushner, which was often humorous with unexpectedly funny rhymes.

While the significance of the story about an evil organ-grinder (Brundibár) who prevents two children from getting milk for their sick mother can be seen in terms of Nazi persecution, on the surface it is a fairy-tale.

The production was enhanced by wonderful costumes and a colourful set.  The confined space on the platform at St. Andrew’s made it difficult, however, to see everything that was going on.  It would marvellous if the cast could stage it again in an auditorium with more room on its stage.  The large cast of mainly children plus a few singers from NZSM’s Young Musicians Programme and Classical Performance Programme (in one case) was complemented by an 11-piece student orchestra, plus at a couple of junctures a children’s orchestra of two violins, two descant and two tenor recorders.

The director, Frances Moore, also acted in the show.

Coincidentally, I had a couple of days before been alerted to the children’s opera with music by Gareth Farr that had been produced in 2009. Although I did not see that, it seems from the review I had just read that there were similarities. And there were occasions that reminded of Janáček’s wonderful opera The Cunning Little Vixen, recalling the characters of Cat, Dog and Sparrow.  There were also an ice-cream seller and other sellers, doctors, pickpockets, mayor (and Celia Wade-Brown was present) and mechanicals.

The villain was played in an accurate and bright, if not particularly threatening manner by Niklas Best.  Other important parts were performed by Canada Hickey, Bronwyn Wilde, Francesca Moore, Alexandra Gandionco and Beatrix Carino.  Notable too was Lucia McLaren-Smith as the milk seller, whose words were wonderfully clear.

The orchestra was very skilled, played accurately and made a good sound in both the bright, jolly music of much of the score, and also in the more solemn, thoughtful and sad passages.  However, given the light children’s voices, solos were in danger of being overwhelmed by the instruments if the singers were near them.  The same went for some of the spoken dialogue.

The show was full of variety and colour, not least when two girls dressed in dirndl skirts danced.  Throughout, the music was charming, as was the ensemble of violins and recorders.  The more experienced singers certainly stood out, not only from the excellence of the projection of their voices, but also in their greater use of facial expression.  Some of the chorus singing was in two or three parts, and the young performers acquitted themselves well here.  Intonation was usually very good, and it was obvious that a lot of work had gone on in rehearsals and at home, with the young players memorising their parts.  Words were very clear when the singing was in unison.

I was surprised, however, that the composer had much of the music set in the lower register of the children’s voices; where children excel is in the higher pitches, and the music would have been even more telling if these had been used more.

On the whole the singing was better from the middle of the performance onwards; the children were well warmed up by then, and also more confident.  Hopefully the second performance will have them in good form throughout.

The show was preceded by a specially made brief film titled Conversations with Vera, about Vera Egermayer, who survived Auschwitz and came to New Zealand, and had been a small child in Terezin when the performances took place there.  She is currently in Prague, and was interviewed actually in the theatre in Terezin where the first performances took place.  Aside from short clips from a film of an original performance in 1942, the remainder of the film had children either acting the part of Vera, or talking about her and their own reactions to her life and experiences.

Some of these were very good, but others spoke their lines too quickly to be clearly understood.  The last girl was excellent, and spoke clearly, with expression and sincerity.

All in all, this was a worthwhile and enjoyable children’s opera, and the performance was a tribute to all have worked on it.  The entire show, including film, was about an hour in duration, and so not too taxing for children in the audience.  Another performance will be held on Friday, 22 August 2014 at 6pm.


LUDWIG TREVIRANUS – at ease with the music

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:

HAYDN – Piano Sonata in E-flat Major Hob.XV1/52
MENDELSSOHN – Variations sérieuses in D MInor Op.54
CHOPIN – Ballade No.4 in F Minor Op.52
GERSHWIN (arr.Wild) – 2 Etudes : Embraceable You / I Got Rhythm
SCHUMANN – Carnaval Op.9

Ludwig Treviranus (piano)
at the Lower Hutt Little Theatre

Thursday 21st August 2014

What a programme and what a performer! Ludwig Treviranus won all hearts and engaged all sensibilities besides at his Lower Hutt Little Theatre recital last week, with playing and presentations of real, flesh-and-blood character. In his hands the music sprang into life – he could well have echoed the Oscar Wilde character who  famously remarks, “…anybody can play accurately – but I play with wonderful expression…..”

But there was more to the evening than Treviranus seating himself at the piano and pouring forth the music via the instrument – we were warmly welcomed by the pianist the beginning of it all, and made to feel as though we were giving to him, rather than the other way round, by our presence. He talked a little about each of the pieces, about what we would hear and how the music came into being. It all underlined our sense of the music being for him a living, meaningful entity, whose beauties he wanted to share.

We began with a piano sonata by Haydn, the very last of his sixty-two works in that genre. There’s still a tendency afoot to regard Haydn’s productivity as a composer with some condescension, to the effect that a lot of his music is that of a somewhat “watered-down Mozart”, that those vast numbers of symphonies, string quartets and piano sonatas are the result as much, if not more, of industry as of artistry.

Well, I’ve yet to encounter a symphony, string quartet or piano sonata by Haydn that I thought unworthy of its composer – of course there are “apprentice” works in each genre, as there are in Mozart’s output, but each has its particular interest and insight into one or more aspects of the composer’s writing which matured and flourished throughout many years of composing, not merely in the works of his old age.

So it was the somewhat confusingly catalogue-numbered Hob.XVI/52 in E-flat which began the evening’s music. Treviranus’s response to Haydn’s writing was typically whole-hearted and orchestral in effect – big-boned in gesture, while finely-wrought in detail. But he demonstrated the ability to maintain the line, the music’s overall coherence, while keeping a certain spontaneity, a sense of surprise and delight at what he was playing – all very engaging.

I did wish at the time that he’d played the first-movement repeat – but philosophies vary regarding this whole issue, ranging from those held by the omnivorously-inclined to the positively austere. Of course, ignoring a repeat can be like leaving something unspoken in conversation, sometimes to great effect. But it’s an attitude I’d mostly care to disregard in favour of that enrichment of the discourse, that chemistry of ripening experience which a repetition can heighten between music, performer and listener.

We relished Treviranus’s traversal of the composer’s quixotic development with its wonderfully discursive harmonic explorations. The musical flow took on a tremulous tightrope-tightening aspect in places, and there was a wobble and rhythmic stumble just after the recapitulation’s entry – but, more importantly, the rest went with a flourish!

And we enjoyed the richly-toned Beethovenian slow movement, with its anticipatory echoes of the latter’s Les Adieux Sonata, and its expressive impulses of energy – the pianist’s tones took on a warmth and glowing aspect towards the end that temporarily and wondrously stilled time, pulse and movement.  Then, the finale’s brilliant repeated notes and scintillating runs whirled us through paroxysm of pleasure – an occasional suspicion of “rattling over the points” in one or two places was countered by an overall exuberance which suggested to us a joy of recreation, served up for our delight.

Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, next on the program, provided a perfect foil for the Haydn – at the outset, a dignified, baroque-like theme, followed by seventeen variations which energized the material in various ways, some of them remarkably Schumannesque in effect. Almost a compendium of early romantic pianism, the work brought forth both poetry and brilliance from Treviranus’s fingers, the pianist readily and wholeheartedly evoking the different character of each variation.

I particularly liked Treviranus’s playing of the parts of the work which seemed to take the composer “out of himself” – those sequences which had real glint and fire and sinew and muscle, including, of course, the Schumannesque Florestan-like bits.  These seemed refreshingly removed from the usual stereotypal image of Mendelssohn as not much more than a sentimental Victorian “Songs-without-words” composer. In fact the austere beauty of the work’s more thoughtful sequences played its own part in this revelatory “recasting” process.

Of the pre-eminence of Chopin in romantic piano music there can be no doubt, exemplified by the last of four Ballades written by the composer – each a dramatic narrative superbly sculptured, balancing heroic energy, romantic feeling and reflective poetry. The Fourth Ballade, in F Minor, is said to have been inspired by a Polish folk-tale of three brothers who, send to fight and destroy the enemy, win instead three brides – but I can testify to as much appreciation and enjoyment of the music over the years without knowledge of any such accompanying programme.

In any case, Treviaranus’s involvement with the music and the vividness of his characterization of the different episodes readily took me to a world of my own fashioning, with characters, ambiences and scenarios disconcertingly intermingling with the sounds. The playing seemed to me to convey all the right instincts for this music, the mood dreamy and tender at the work’s beginning, before darkening with resolve and quickening with energy as the narrative aspect took shape, but ever ready to entertain a remembrance of that opening tenderness at appropriate moments.

Not even a momentary derailing within a sequence impeded the music’s flow from the pianist, as the piece’s second half inexorably tightened its grip upon the music’s phrasing  and pulse, detailings and dynamics, and left us nicely breath-bated as we awaited the coda’s onslaught. A pianist friend who accompanied me to the concert admired the “coolness under pressure” of the young musician, the misdirected impulse and its retraction very adroitly making good part of the territory of live music-making.

After an interval we were treated (literally) to two delightful manifestations of the arranger’s art, in the form of a pair of  Etudes, virtuosic re-enactments of Gershwin’s songs contrived by the great American pianist Earl Wild. First came the flowing ease of “Embraceable You”, deliciously replete with arpeggiated counterpoints to the melody; and then followed “I Got Rhythm”, the music all angularity at the start, before galloping away with exuberant joy, returning for a kind of fox-trot, at which I’m sure people would have got up and danced to had there been available floor-space on which to strut their stuff.

The principal business of the evening’s music-making was, of course, Schumann’s Carnaval, a colourful collection of character-pieces depicting people both real and imagined, in the guise of revellers at a masked ball. Schumann had, in his earlier work, Papillons, produced a similar, if smaller-scale scenario, with particular reference to a novel Die Flegejahre by Jean-Paul Richter. By comparison, Carnaval is a grander design, incorporating not only character  sketches but a whole creative philosophy, embodied in the work’s triumphal finale, where Schumann’s artistic brothers and sisters, the Davidsbündler, put to flight the “Philistines”, the composer’s name for the musical reactionaries of the day.

To an extent all performances of great music represent work in progress, with artists continually and repeatedly striving to realise, unto themselves and their listeners, what these works have to offer. By turns forthright, quixotic, tender, philosophical, playful and enigmatic, this music requires of the performer a disconcerting range of abilities and sympathies for the composer’s purposes to be sufficiently activated.

Ludwig Treviranus had, by this stage of the evening, impressed with his vivid and engaging characterisations (Haydn), his concentration and strength of purpose (Mendelssohn), his poetic and dramatic instinct (Chopin) and his sense of fun and gaiety (Gershwin/Wild). All of these things were brought to bear in his playing of Carnaval, so that Schumann’s parade of colourful personalities was brought vividly to life.

Two things, each playing a part in prompting my “work-in-progress” remarks above – I did sense at the work’s beginning and end a whiff of caution in the playing in places where full-blooded exuberance (Schumann did nothing by halves!), even at the risk of inaccurate detail (a frisson of which briefly happened, to no deleterious effect whatever, during the work’s Preamble) needs to be the order of the moment. Unfortunately, in today’s chromium-plated world of piano technique, wrong notes are regarded as unforgivable – whereas a different generation of pianists knew well the value of their galvanising effect!

More importantly, I thought the decision to leave out most of the repeats throughout the episodes had a diminishing effect on the work as a whole – turning parts of it to my ears into a kind of “Visions fugitives”! Perhaps Treviranus thought that the repeats would make the piece too much of a long haul for the audience – being of the omnivorous rather than of the austere persuasion I simply wanted the music’s full measure – and my remarks regarding the enriching effect of being able to spend more time as a listener with a characterisation, an ambience, a mood, a state of being, apply here as strongly.

Enough of this carping! – the rest of my scribbled notes bear testimony to the life and colour of Treviranus’s performance, with far too many felicitous details for me to individually dwell upon. We were then prevailed upon by the pianist to applaud the piano (which we did) and afterwards help conclude the proceedings in singular fashion by singing along with the final encore “Show me the way to go home”. These Hutt Valley people certainly know how to do things properly.

Many Magnificats in interesting Bach Choir concert

“Songs of Mary”

The Bach Choir of Wellington

Magnificats by Tavener, Stanford, Andrew Carter, Herbert Howells and CPE Bach; Totus Tuus by Górecki

Stephen Rowley, (conductor), Lisette Wesseling (soprano), Megan Hurnard (contralto), John Beaglehole (tenor), David Morriss (bass), Douglas Mews (organ)

St. Peter’s Church, Willis Street

Sunday, 11 August 2013, 3pm

Another interesting and imaginatively programmed concert by the Bach Choir was presented to a well-filled (but not full) St. Peter’s Church.  The first half comprised pieces composed by mainly British composers of the twentieth century (aside from the late nineteenth-century Stanford piece), while the second commemorated the three-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.

John Tavener’s Magnificat Collegium Regale featured chromatic writing progressing in semitones, giving a mysterious, other-worldly feeling to the music.  The programme note described it as having “a melody with a drone in the Greek style.”  The verses of the canticle were interspersed with a statement in honour of Mary.  Much of the tessitura was very high, especially in this reiterated statement.  Some strain was evident, especially in the soprano section of the choir.  While varied dynamics were employed, greater variety of expression from ways of phrasing and delivering and emphasising the words would have added interest.

This was a difficult work, sung in English.  The choir did not entirely rise to these difficulties, and certainly not above them.

Górecki’s piece was unaccompanied, as was the Tavener, but this time the language was Latin.  A slow, extremely effective work, Totus Tuus utilises most affecting harmony.  It is not easy to sing, as I know
from experience.  The high tessitura in all parts, and much repetition of the high passages can be quite an effort.  The measured, sustained nature of the chords make it difficult to retain correct intonation. Here, the voices blended very well, the tone was lovely, and though occasionally everyone was not together, there was good attention to detail.  The pianissimo passages were beautiful.

Also in Latin and unaccompanied was Charles Villiers Stanford’s Magnificat.  It was a difficult work for double choir, and given the paucity of tenors in particular for this concert, the pressure showed. Here and there, mainly on top notes, intonation was suspect.  The main problem was that the work did not hang together well; it was probably a little too difficult for the choir.  Blend was not consistently good, with one or
two voices, particularly in the sopranos, too prominent.  Dynamics served the text well, and though this was not on the whole great performance, it had good moments.

Mary’s Magnificat by contemporary British composer Andrew Carter was completely different. Accompanied by organ, this Magnificat is in the nature of a Christmas carol.  An attractive setting, it featured clear solo singing from a soprano in the choir.  It was delicious music, evoking both a pastoral setting and a lullaby, and received a fine performance.

The high point of the first half for me, both in the calibre of the music and its performance was the Herbert Howells work.  It was a highly accomplished setting for choir and organ.  The contrast between soft and loud sections was most effective.  One could, in the mind’s eye (and ear) hear and see a skilled Anglican choir performing this lovely Magnificat.  It had the best word-setting so far, and the use of the organ, thrillingly played by Douglas Mews (also helping pitch-wise) added immeasurably to the beauty and grandeur of the work, especially in the Gloria.

After the interval, CPE Bach astonished us with a brilliant organ introduction.  The choir’s opening was slightly flat, but there was plenty of attack and spirit; a truly joyful hymn of praise.  The soprano solo was stylish, accurate and clear from Lisette Wesserling, who has a fine technique, although sometimes the singing was a little shrill for a church of this comparatively modest length.

The tenor solo followed.  ‘Quia fecit mihi magna’ was difficult, but sung in a very accomplished fashion, with good word-painting and very clear words.  Tricky runs were managed successfully.

The chorus ‘Et misericordia eius’ was notable for excellent phrasing.  As the programme note stated, the writing was indeed in both the baroque style of Bach’s illustrious father, and ‘points forward to the Classical style’.  The higher tessitura was rather taxing in this chorus.

‘Fecit potentiam’ was the bass aria, and David Morriss gave a fine account.  Its jolly dotted rhythm was sung with strength, suiting the music to the words.  Douglas Mews’s organ part was delightful,  as was Morriss’s enunciation of the words – a thoroughly accomplished performance.

The following alto and tenor duet began with a high entry for the tenor; John Bealglehole was spot on.  Megan Hurnard sounded quite gorgeous, with variety and richness of tone, great control and evincing excellent blend with the tenor.  Again, the composer’s word-painting was highly skilled, but subtle, and intensely musical.  This was an extended duet, skilfully and appealingly brought off.

The alto solo, ‘Suscepit Israel’, received a fine involving and committed performance of quite a complicated aria.  The singer’s evenness of tone throughout her range and her excellent voice production blended well with the calm, lilting organ part.

The final Gloria for chorus was introduced by a scintillating passage that continued to be the backbone of this cheerful litany of praise.  The ‘Amen’ was very florid and complex, but was performed with panache; obviously it was thoroughly rehearsed.  The polyphony was clearly and accurately rendered.

A lot of hard work has gone into producing a concert of varied interest, and on the whole, good quality.  It gave the audience an admirable opportunity to hear Bach’s excellent writing for voices.  The choir stood throughout; perhaps this accounted for their sounding  a little tired at times, towards the end.

There was an excellent printed programme (owing a good deal to the Internet).  It included the Royal Festival Hall (London) statement about the decibels produced by an uncovered cough, and concluded “Please be considerate to others in the audience”.  Bravo!  While it did not eliminate the phenomenon totally, it may well have reduced its frequency of occurrence. A little heating in the venue would have enhanced the pleasure.

A disappointment was that when conductor and a choir member spoke to the audience, their voices were not loud enough for the back rows in the church to hear.