Youth and experience: organ-playing at St John’s, Willis St.

Organ Recital at St. John’s Church

Bach: Toccata in D minor BWV 565
Couperin: Selections from one of his Masses
Franck: Chorale no.3, in A minor
Moritz Deutsch: nos. 9-12 from Twelve Preludes on Old Synagogue Melodies
Mozart: Adagio and Allegro for a Mechanical Clock, K.594 (arr. D. Halliday)
Bach: Prelude and Fugue in B minor BWV 544

Chelsea Whitfield and Dianne Halliday (organists)

St. John’s Church, Willis St., Wellington

Sunday 28 September 2014

It was interesting to be treated to a recital by two female organists, one a young student, the other long-experienced and highly expert.  However, the latter is currently a student too, working towards a doctorate (Doctor of Musical Arts) at Victoria University.

In St. John’s Church, with its fine wooden architecture, both external and internal, sits a splendid organ which needs some money spent on it to keep it in good playing order.  The series of recitals is one of the ways in which  the church is trying to meet that need.  It is a Lewis organ: Lewis and Company was an important firm of organ builders founded by Thomas Christopher Lewis (1833-1915), one of the leading English organ builders of late 19th century.

The organ, perhaps demonstrating its need of some restoration work, was a little out of tune in places on Sunday.

Chelsea Whitfield is an organ student at the New Zealand School of Music, but began learning the organ at 15.  She played first the well-known Bach Toccata in D minor.  It was probably nerves that accounted for quite a number of ‘fluffs’ in this piece – playing something so well-known compounds the difficulty, and also playing an instrument with which she would not be so familiar (she plays mainly at St. Paul’s Cathedral).  Of course, every organ is different in ways far more profound than is true of any other instrument, and it can take time to get to know a new one.  She chose a very suitable registration, nevertheless.

François Couperin’s Pièces d’orgue consistantes en deux messes (Pieces for Organ Consisting of Two Masses), were written around 1689–1690 when the composer was 21.  The pieces chosen from the first Mass, written for parish churches (many of which have splendid organs, of which I have recently had first-hand experience) gave variety of tempi, mood, and registrations.  There was a little blurring of notes on the flutes early on, i.e. they were not cleanly fingered.  But this was a rare aberration in Chelsea’s performance of the attractive music.  It was good to hear the different colours of the organ, as described in the titles of the pieces: ‘Recit de Chromhorne’, ‘Dialogue sur Le Trompette du G. C. [Grand Choir?] et sur la Montre’, the latter being the French name for Diapason.

Chelsea seemed very at home in this repertoire, and also in the Franck Chorale that followed.  This composer is not my favourite, but the Chorale was a brilliant piece well played – an exciting and highly competent performance.  The gradual build-up of volume and the selection of bright-sounding stops kept the work out of the mire into which Franck’s Chorales can fall.  There was plenty of contrast, and many tricky passages and turns were well mastered.  It was a fine rendition.

Dianne Halliday’s first pieces were something new to me, and I suspect to the rest of the audience too.  As I discovered in France, and as Dianne described, synagogues in some European countries have had organs for a long time, and music was written specifically for them.  Moritz Deutsch lived from 1818 to 1892, in Germany.  The first two of the pieces was written for the festival of Rosh Hashanah, and the next two for Yom Kippur, both festivals taking places around this time of year, as Dianne explained (in a voice projected so as to be easily heard, despite not using a microphone).

The first was rather ‘square’, with an improvisational feel to it; the second prelude brighter and without that improvisational character.  No.11 was solid, rather like a church chorale, but with some interesting chord progressions.  Nos.11 and 12 both began in the bass, on pedals.  No.12 was very bright, with contrasts.

Dianne’s arrangement of Mozart’s piece for an even more mechanical instrument than the pipe organ (in reality a minute pipe organ mechanically operated) had its delights.  The charming adagio was followed by a fast allegro with lots of trills.  The use of a 2-foot stop perhaps equated to the high tones of the tiny pipes of the original, and made for a brilliant, almost bird-like tonal quality.  The last section was quiet on flutes, and without the bright top.

Playing Bach was a great way to end the recital.  What ample interest Bach built into his organ music!  In his company both Franck and Mozart seem dull (no reflection on the arranger of the latter’s piece!)  Bach’s progressions, counterpoint and cadences promote a mood of certainty and cheerfulness – yes, even in a work written in a minor key.  The complexities of the fugue held no fears for Dianne Halliday’s capable technique.  Some of the harmonic modulations would be astonishing even if Franck had written them.

While organ recitals never attract a large audience (except the free ones that were held in Wellington Town Hall, of happy memory), there was a respectable number present to take in the diversity and interest of the programme and its performers.

Tests of character – Wellington Chamber Music recital from Ludwig Treviranus

Wellington Chamber Music 2014 presents
Ludwig Treviranus (piano)

PAUL SCHRAMM – Nine Preludes
MAURICE RAVEL – Miroirs (Reflections)
SERGE PROKOFIEV – Three Pieces from “Romeo and Juliet”
MODEST MUSORGSKY – Pictures at an Exhibition

Wellington Chamber Music Concerts 2014
St Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 28th September

Midway through pianist Ludwig Treviranus’s recent St.Andrew’s recital I was ready to tell anybody who would listen that this was shaping up to be a concert in a thousand – the Paul Schramm Preludes represented for me a major pianistic discovery, and I’d never heard parts of Ravel’s Miroirs played better by anybody, in concert or on record.

Of course, I needed at that stage to bear in mind one of the exchanges in Carl Sandburg’s anecdotal poem The People, Yes – the one where the city slicker asks the farmer, “Lived here all your life?” and the farmer replies “Not yit!” – that there was, at the half-way point, still a lot of musical  water still to pass under the pianistic bridge, and that I had better, like Carl Sandburg’s farmer, remain circumspect until all had run its course.

As it turned out, I thought the young pianist wasn’t able to recapture the “first fine careless rapture” of those first-half items after the interval – in  contrast to the elegance, finely-wrought detailing, deep evocation and well-tempered exuberance of the Schramm and Ravel items, neither the  Prokofiev “Romeo and Juliet” pieces nor Musorgsky’s epic traversal of an intense friendship, “Pictures at an Exhibition” seemed to my ears  sufficiently “owned” by Treviranus, despite some wonderful moments in each of the works.

So, I thought it was very much a “concert of two halves”, with the pianist seeming to give his all right from the start, and then, faced with the  complexities of the programme’s second half, perhaps running out of steam a little. It appeared also as though the post-interval items were  here prepared less thoroughly and meticulously than were the Schramm and Ravel works. The Musorgsky in particular lacked surety in places –  not only were there a number of finger-slips and lapses of memory but some of the sequences weren’t focused, weren’t “held” with enough through-line to fully transport us into the world of the particular impressions of time, place and the composer wanted to convey.

I was somewhat surprised that “Pictures” didn’t have the whole of the second half to itself, as it’s of reasonably “stand-alone” length and has a wide range of expression, needing nothing to act as either filler or foil. Generous though Treviranus was in giving us the scenes from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet, I thought their back-to-back positioning with “Pictures” actually detracted from our concentration and focus upon the latter. It’s a work that, I think, cries out for “stand-alone” placement in any concert, especially as it’s really a kind of ritual, with an inevitability of advancement shared by all great works of art. Part tragedy, part celebration, it’s a unique amalgam of descriptions and emotions, gathered together by the circumstance of one individual’s painful and debilitating loss of a friend.

Enough! – various pianists of my acquaintance have testified as to their own love of excess when young, armed with energy to burn, with generosity of nature, and with oceanfuls of delectable, mouth-watering repertoire to play and enjoy. As the conductor Sir John Barbirolli once said, referring to ‘cellist Jacqueline du Pre’s whole-hearted, super-charged music-making – which he loved, but which some critics found too fulsomely expressed: “When you’re young  you should have an excess of everything!” Sir John adding, “you have to have something which you can pare off and refine as you grow older….”

So – there we were at St.Andrew’s Church, in the company of the personable Ludwig Treviranus, smilingly welcoming us to the recital and telling  us his thoughts about each group of pieces he was about to play. This was all very much of a piece with his music-making, delivered as if it  were the most natural thing in the world to do. Particularly interesting to hear about was his discovery and advocacy of the Paul Schramm  Preludes, a project derived from his involvement with a collection of New Zealand piano pieces in a volume “Living Echoes – The First 150  Years of Piano Music from New Zealand”, researched and edited by Wellington teacher Gillian Bibby.

Paul Schramm, along with his wife, Diny, arrived in New Zealand in the late 1930s as refugee émigrés from Germany. Making their home in the  capital, they brought considerable musical skills to Wellington, Paul as a performer and Diny as a teacher – activities which the war years all but curtailed, treated as they were like aliens by the establishment for the duration. Paul left New Zealand for Australia after the war, where he died  in 1953;  but Diny remained in Wellington and continued to teach here for many years afterwards.

Schramm’s Nine Preludes reflected his own musical tastes, influenced as the writing was by Prokofiev, Debussy, Ravel, Bartok, and  Scriabin. It seems the pieces were conceived as a set of nine, or perhaps even ten, though “Number One”  was missing when the original discovery of the music was made in the Alexander Turnbull archives. A later search turned up another Prelude – perhaps the missing one, perhaps another altogether – so that today we got the original number of pieces, whatever the origins of the first of the set.

Though derivative in style and content, each of the pieces, with Ludwig Treviranus’s vividly-projected and sharply-focused advocacy, sparkled with the glint of rediscovery and impinged their essences upon the memory. Analysis of each piece and its performance  would fill a book, so I’ll content myself with remarking on a couple of the pieces and their juxtapositionings. First came the the imposing and  impressively-wrought “Biblical rhetoric” of the writing in the opening Prelude “On the Death of a Great Man: FD Roosevelt 12th April 1945”,  complete with echoes of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. It was a piece whose direct appeal to the emotions contrasted immediately with the  following “Satyr’s Dance”, a mischievous, spikily-harmonised part-waltz-part-scherzo, the pianist making the most of the interplay between  massive, Prokofiev-like momentums and Ravelian delicacies.

I particularly liked the “Ritual Dance of a Javanese Warrior”, a dark-hearted waltz flecked with glinting colours, cruel in its “snapping” figurations  and remorseless harmonies, its effect made all the greater in retrospect through being followed by “Hommage a Scriabine”, with its  shimmering textures and insinuating modulations. Perhaps along with the Debussy-like “Glittering Thirds” it’s the most unashamedly imitative,  as Schramm’s titles, of course, do readily suggest. I admit I did wonder about Treviranus’s performance of the Seventh Prelude, “Distortion of a Viennese  Waltz”, though, as Schramm’s original subtitle for the piece (quoted in the programme) was “arrogantly performed by a German General Staff  Officer”. As played here, I thought the pianist largely ignored this directive – the performance was far too musically sympathetic and lilting in  manner to evoke any kind of arrogance or brutality!

From these marvellous pieces we went on to Ravel’s “Miroirs”, where more pianistic riches awaited our ears! – Treviranus brought out almost  everything one could wish for in the music – the opening of “Noctuelles” (Night Moths) all impulse and feathery excitement, the textures wrought of magic, and the subsequent evocations of night sublimely realised, the darkness suggestive rather than sinister. “Oiseaux tristes” featured a different kind of ambience, the pianist able to tellingly “place” the birds’ calls in the silences, stressing the solitariness of the listener’s experience.

But I thought the performance’s most sublime moments were in the following “Une barque sur l’ocean” (A boat on the ocean)  – Treviranus conjured from his piano some of the most beguiling keyboard sounds imaginable, the playing suggesting as readily the oceanic depths as the surface play of light and air on the waves, everything – even the glissando – gorgeously “touched in”. He brought out Ravel’s utterly seductive interplay of melody and figuration in a finely-activated liquid flow, and with almost lump-in-throat delicacy as the ship passed by, leaving only impressions on the memory.

That same delicacy of utterance and feeling for atmosphere was evident in the final piece of the set as well – “La Valée des cloches” (Valley of the Bells). Pianist Robert Casadesus was quoted in the programme notes as having been told by Ravel that “the piece was inspired by midday bells in Paris”. However,  the music has never seemed that way to my ears – nor, I think to those of Ludwig Treviranus, judging by the almost crepuscular ambience he wove with and around the sounds. These bells were more nostalgic and dreamlike than real, middle-of-the-day angelus-bells, activated by deft stroke-making on the part of the pianist, the oscillations continuing to enchant the imagination’s ear long after the actual sounds had ceased. I thought it simply lovely playing.

No, I hadn’t forgotten the jester and his morning song (Alborada del gracioso)! – we got some exciting playing from Treviranus, just missing, I thought, the last ounce of rhythmic “swagger” through a shade too quick a tempo, but still capturing plenty of thrust and volatility of the opening, and enabling a great flourish at the end of the first section. But the expressif en recit of the middle section was where I would have liked a more marked contrast with the livelier outer sequences, a freer, deeper, canto-jondo-like feeling of a singer caught and held by some deep emotion, interrupted by the physicalities which come back at the piece’s end. But I realise that I’m quibbling, here – it really was marvellous playing!

Still, after these stellar feats of re-creation, I sensed that the pianist had begun to tire, and his focus lose its edge. Prokofiev’s famous “Montagues and Capulets” sequence from the “Romeo and Juliet” ballet certainly strutted its stuff with real menace, arrogance and swagger, and the ghostly ambience of the trio section was well-caught, as the disguised Romeo and his friends sneaked into the Capulets’ Ball. But the impish fun of “The Young Juliet” needed a lighter touch throughout to REALLY scintillate, and the opening “Folk Dance” had some untidy figurations in-between the episodes of young-braves’-bravado from both of the warring families.

Following this came Musorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” – and there were moments from Treviranus of brilliance and rapt insight into a unique world of contrasted expression. These were flung, teased and dragged across the surface of a creative canvas with great panache – the opening picture, Gnomus, for one, gave off a gorgeously volatile and unashamedly malicious aspect, one whose acerbities set “The Old Castle” into rich, darkly-lit relief. I also thought “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” a pair of vividly characterized gentlemen, one assertive and overbearing, the other wheedling and pathetic. And, as a double-whammy kind of crowning conclusion to the work, the witch Baba Yaga’s wild rides were savagely and outlandishly celebrated, her music spectacularly disintegrating against the bulwarks of “The Great Gate at Kiev” with its pomp, splendor and introspective moments of ritualistic piety.

However, it was, I thought, for the pianist, still a work in progress – a number of uncertainties inhibited the kind of breathtaking identification with the music that had characterized Treviranus’s earlier playing of “Miroirs” and the Schramm pieces. Just to take one example – I’m certain he will, in time, delve more deeply into and relish the stillness that marks the transition from those stark, remorseless structures of “Catacombs” to the mystical revelations of “Cum mortuis in lingua mortua” – the place where the composer was, for a few moments, reunited in quiet ecstasy with the spirit of his dead friend, Victor Hartmann, the artist of the “Pictures”.

Of course, Musorgsky’s tragedy was that, even while celebrating his friend’s memory he was on a downward path to an alcohol-soaked oblivion which put a premature end to his own life and creative career – sobering (sic) thoughts indeed, and especially with which to conclude this celebration of a major pianistic talent here in Wellington.