Cello jamboree at the school of music and Nota Bene’s light-hearted 10th anniversary

Cellophonia IV – an ensemble of some 25 cellos, led by Inbal Megiddo, Andrew Joyce and Ashley Brown

Arrangements of music by Vivaldi, Grieg, Beethoven and Bach, and some carols

Adam Concert Room, Victoria University

Sunday 14 December, 4 pm, 2014

And carols of all kinds from Nota Bene at the Prefab, Jessie Street

Thursday 11 December, 7 pm

The fourth annual jamboree for several of the professional and many students and amateur cellists took place this year, not in the Hunter Council Chamber as previously, but in the School of Music’s Adam Concert Room. A smaller audience than I recall at earlier concerts was perhaps the effect of a slightly  less interesting venue.

But the acoustics are very good and the big body of cellos produced a very well-upholstered and satisfying sound. The sheer numbers and the less than exemplary precision of playing from some of the less experienced seemed not to reduce the musical pleasure. As with a choir where, if well led, a sufficient body of singers can produce a thrilling sound.

Vivaldi’s Concerto for four violins, No 10 of Opus 3 was a splendid way to open. The arrangement of one of the set known as L’Estro Armonico, pitting four of the most experienced players – Megiddo, Brown, Joyce and Heleen du Plessis (cello lecturer at Otago University) against the extra large ripieno of amateurs and students, was most convincing. The very opening was compelling, grunty and full of arresting solo episodes. The uninformed might never have guessed that it was not conceived for cellos. The character of each movement was strikingly contrasted, interestingly thoughtful in the Largo and there was some spectacular playing by the four principal players in the final Allegro.

Grieg is a composer who, in my youth, was routinely ranked among the great, but in recent decades seems to have lost some of that renown, slipping somewhat to the fringe with only Peer Gynt, Sigurd Jorsalfar, Symphonic Dances, Holberg Suite, Piano Concerto and Lyric pieces, a number of which are familiar. I suspect it was his very strong melodic gift and lack of music of symphonic structure that caused his demotion, especially as the exclusivity of atonalism and serialism tended to discourage the valuing of melody. But recently, as those academic forces have lost much of their exclusivity, I detect a re-evaluation of Grieg’s earlier recognized music and more interest in and admiration for his other chamber music, songs and orchestral music.

Here we had charming and idiomatic arrangements of a couple of the well-known Lyric Pieces of Op 17 and Åse’s Death from Peer Gynt: after this rich and somber performance, who’d want to hear Åse’s Death played by any other instruments? The Shepherd’s Song responded beautifully with the cellos’ rich handling of Grieg’s harmonic palette. The Peasant Dance was highly diverting – phrases and parts moving from group to group, according to pizzicato or bowed melodic or in the performance of accompanying figures.

The four leaders changed places in the Grieg: Joyce, Du Plessis, Brown and Megiddo.

The first two pieces were arranged by Canadian cellist Claude Kenneson. The second two – Beethoven and Bach – were by English cellist Stephen Watkins.

The first of the latter’s arrangements was the Allegretto movement from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in which the young players handled much of the very manageable exposition, the echoing responses by the professionals. Its fugal section emerged with fine clarity, the cellos demonstrating their wide tonal and pitch range.

As Margaret Guldborg took her place as one of the four principal cellists, the most impressive of these arrangements was presented: the Chaconne from Bach’s second violin partita. Here it was, in a version whose opulence and variety, along with a few fleeting references to the cello suites, rival the great piano version by Busoni. I realised at once that Bach had intended it for a cello ensemble, and that the discovery of his original autograph for such an ensemble is only a matter of time. All the harmonies implicit in Bach’s violin version were here, not in full colour perhaps, but in surprising variety and heart-warming richness.

The last part of the programme  comprised a string of well-known carols played with the help of a few audience members who happened to have their cellos with them (I’d left mine behind). These were fairly straightforward, possibly played somewhat by ear. Without the feeling of obligation to do all the verses (one of the trials with normal hymn and carol singing) each was just enough to enjoy before tedium set in. The length and style of this episode was well judged; the whole was a fine variety of novelty, reward, revived interest and fun.

At the concert’s end the newly appointed director of the school of music (now back under the sole patrimony of Victoria University), Euan Murdoch, spoke, in part to introduce himself returning to the school where he had taught earlier for some years, and as a cellist.

This concert was indeed a vivid example of the kind of activity that Murdoch will surely be encouraging – the engaging with young performers and amateur musicians as well as reaching effectively to the general musical population of Wellington, which I hope will be accomplished if the school can move as suggested into the Civic Centre (WITHOUT, please, touching the Ilott Green! – Wellington is very short of green spaces in the CBD).


Carols from Note Bene

While I’m at it, I must mention a different concert, on Thursday the 11th. In a fairly new café on Jessie Street, the Prefab, the adventurous choir Nota Bene, established ten years ago by Christine Argyle, held an anniversary concert at which a variety of carols familiar and unfamiliar were sung. Food was supplied free by the café management and donations from the crowd were for the Wellington City Mission. It was also announced that Christine, who conducted this concert,  was departing as director of the choir.

The café was furnished with its normal chairs and tables and the bar was open: there was not a seat to be had, as crowds hung over the rail along the mezzanine balcony and up the stairs.

Offerings were delightfully varied, starting with the 15th century carol ‘There is no rose’ and the Caribbean carol ‘The Virgin Mary had a baby boy’. A Latvian carol followed coached by the choir’s Latvian member (Inese Berzina?), John Rutter’s ‘What sweeter music’, Grieg’s ‘Ave Maris Stella’, a Catalonian carol and Bob Chilcott’s ‘Nova, Nova’, as a Latin language tabloid daily in Bethlehem might well have printed the news on what we now call Boxing Day.

And it ended with a few super-well-known carols whose names escape me.

It was all very much as one has come to expect from this very special bunch of singers who seem to present a choral voice and face of unusual, irreverent fun and serious enjoyment.

For sale was their anniversary CD which proved, as soon as I got home, to be one of the most delightful choral recordings I’ve heard for a very long time: it’ll have a permanent place in the car for many months I’d guess.


Splendid Orpheus Choir and NZSO shine along with Madeleine Pierard in Trans-Tasman Messiah

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Orpheus Choir of Wellington conducted by Stephen Mould

Handel: Messiah

Soloists: Madeleine Pierard – soprano, Jacqueline Dark – mezzo-soprano, Paul McMahon – tenor, James Clayton – bass

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 13 December 2014

Handel’s Messiah remains a work of perennial popularity, be it in great cities of the Old World, or in tiny provincial settlements clinging to specks of land in far flung southern oceans. Whether presented by massed singers and a huge orchestra or a small parish choir with traditional harmonium, its magic never fails to evoke wonder and worship. There must be very few works which can claim such status across all sectors of the public – from the regular cognoscenti of classical concert goers to the family from the local gospel hall making their sole visit each year to a concert hall. Saturday’s performance saw an NZSO ensemble of 37 players plus harpsichord and chamber organ, in tandem with 150 voices from the Orpheus Choir, four soloists with extensive experience in professional operatic roles and oratorio, and conductor Stephen Mould from a predominantly opera background.

As always, the NZSO provided an impeccable contribution of total technical skill and musicianship with never a hint of laissez faire from musicians who must have played this work umpteen times. Rather, they responded to Handel’s mastery and magic with the freshness of discovering Messiah for the first time. The choristers too threw themselves into the performance with a fire that suggested they’d been waiting all year for this opportunity. Considerable demands were made on their technique through the tempi imposed by Mould in many of the highly elaborate fugal numbers, but the choir was quite undaunted. Soprano and bass lines managed to survive, in fact the sopranos sparkled, but the middle voices were less comfortable. However accurate their high speed runs, they could not be cleanly discerned at such speeds, and were therefore denied their rightful place in the wonderful complexity and richness of Handel’s contrapuntal textures. It was an approach to Baroque interpretation that had me sympathizing with a fellow listener who remarked that “the conductor must have an early train to catch”. Handel had gone to the trouble of selecting every single one of those notes in the amazing florid lines of his fugues, and such quick tempi seemed to cloud his intentions. All power to the choristers that they stepped up to the plate with such determination and aplomb. The tempi of the grand chorale-style sections was, by contrast, almost always stately and dignified, and Mould’s shaping of dynamics enhanced every number in the work, so I was left wondering how that same sympathy and sureness of touch had deserted him in the fugues..

The soloists were all Australian bar New Zealand soprano Madeleine Pierard, who proved to be the standout performer of the four.  (Though James Clayton now lives in Wellington. Ed.), With effortless grace and consummate technical command she traversed the whole gamut of soprano numbers: her great artistry in ‘He shall feed His flock’ left her duo partner mezzo Jacqueline Dark somewhat in the shadows – a position she occupied throughout the evening as her voice simply did not have the power needed to project the mid-range in the Michael Fowler Centre. By contrast Pierard’s incisive technique made mincemeat of numbers like ‘Rejoice greatly’, where she was in full coloratura flight that was frankly riveting, even while the Mould’s challenging tempo was imposing undue haste upon Handel’s music.

Tenor Paul McMahon sometimes had problems with projection too, but his numbers were always competent if in places lacking sufficient energy. Bass James Clayton, however, had the commanding stature, presence and voice to excite considerable attention in his more dramatic arias, particularly in the fury of those like ‘Why do the nations?’ But all up I was left wondering why New Zealand conductors and singers were, yet again, passed over by NZSO management in favour of those from offshore. There is an abundance of New Zealand talent which could have done, in some instances, a better job. The Australians may be able to best us consistently on the cricket pitch, but that is no reason to behave as though they do on the concert stage. I thought we were supposed to have grown out of the cultural cringe, but it seems not yet. New Zealand audiences deserve better, but it appears one must still live in hope………

On that cultural note, I could not help reflecting on how extraordinarily fortunate we may be tucked away on these tiny islands falling off the bottom of the planet but our musical heritage is incredibly rich and varied. Not only is there the great Judeo-Christian tradition which has given birth to innumerable musical treasures like Messiah, but from the mid C20th century we have been discovering our own unique musical voices, be they Maori or pakeha. These in turn reflect the character of our land, where none lives far from the sea, the mountains, the lakes, or the grinding tectonic plates – so totally different from those other European and Levantine origins. Here we can enjoy it all, and the enthusiasm and appreciation of Saturday’s full turn-out demonstrated that we relish the opportunity to do so. In spite of some interpretive qualms, this Messiah was a splendid ending to the NZSO’s concert year.


Aroha String Quartet’s tenth anniversary concert offers excellent, varied, exquisite programme

Aroha String Quartet: Haihong Liu and Blythe Press (violins), Zhongxian Jin (viola), Robert Ibell (cello)

Tenth Anniversary Concert

String Quartets:
Beethoven: in A, Op 18 No 5
Shostakovich: No 1 in C, Op 49
Ravel: in F major
Chinese pieces:
Hua Yan-Jun: Er Quan Ying Yue
Traditional: Fan Shen Dao Qing

Old Saint Paul’s

Sunday 7 December, 3 pm

The first performance by Wellington’s Aroha String Quartet took place in this venue at this time on 5 December, just 10 years ago. I wrote a review of it in The Dominion Post, ending “This is one of the finest ensembles to emerge from the NZSO ranks. I hope they can find the time to give many more concerts”. I’ve always felt pleased to have been there. This time, too, their concert clashed with another, the same, by the Wellington Chamber Orchestra, which again had the result of smaller audiences at both.

Membership has changed from that at the first concert, then entirely of Chinese-born players. The original second violinist, Beiyi Xue, and cellist, Jiaxin Cheng, have departed and their places taken by several others: Robert Ibell now as permanent cellist and Blythe Press as interim (before heading overseas) second violin. This afternoon there was no hint of any absence of homogeneity in their ensemble, lack of stylistic command in their approach to the music’s character.

Old Saint Paul’s is a lovely venue for chamber music, though sight-lines can be a bit obscured by posts. But the players are now on a new platform making them generally visible.

The fifth of Beethoven’s Op 18 quartets is in A major and the happiest and most extravert of the six. It began with some slight diffidence. But its energising speed, driven by the fast, darting lines of the first violin quickly generated assurance in all the players, and the first movement became a simple delight. And, come to think of it, so did the other three.

There was charming swing in the minuet (what a huge range of tempi, rhythms and moods seem to be encompassed in the old dance called the ‘minuet’). The Trio in its middle was in marked contrast, a bit blowsy perhaps, a strong triple beat with emphasis on the third note.

The another facet of the happy A major spirit (though this starts in D major) came with the almost swooning opening of the Andante Cantabile, though each of the following variations was expressed with delightful individuality (the programme note called them ‘variants’ – a form of the word that I’m only familiar with in Vaughan Williams). There’s the bustling third variation and the dreamy beauty of the fourth and then the extended fifth variation that recovers the determination and spirit, as well as the calm of the other movements.

The last movement also shifts moods quixotically, carrying us along with a strong current: all so compelling even to the teasing final bars.

What a change to be offered other than No 8 out of Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets! No 1, written just before the second world war, and in the shadow of Stalin’s devastating attack on Shostakovich and others, opens in a somewhat secretive manner, with no big tunes or distinct mood till Ibell’s sunny, peaceful cello pronouncement arrives. Jin’s viola soon picks it up and the viola also opens the second movement with a tune that grows on you, with a certain unease as the cello weighs in heavily. Lots of fast scales characterise the Allegro Molto, with little decorative flourishes that don’t actually decorate anything other than themselves. It seems to avoid certainties, mutes giving a feeling of indirection.

But the last movement, violin-led, turns on the light and pushes up the speed, and this splendid revelatory performance leads me to hope that this could be the group to pursue a complete Shostakovich series over the next year or so (one of the most memorable highlights at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland a few years ago was a complete late-night series of them all from the Aviv Quartet from Israel).

After the interval came a couple of engaging Chinese pieces: one by an early 19th century composer, Er Quan Ying Yue by Hua Yan-Jun, for the erhu (which you will hear being played by a singularly musical player in the subway to the Wellington Railway Station every Friday). It lay very high on the violin with the other instruments playing tremolo before the others took turns with the tune.

The following piece was an arrangement of a traditional folk tune called Fan Shen Dao Qing; from the early communist period in the 40s, it energetically reflected the optimism, hopes of the dawning of the new age, then a slow, more pensive middle section and finally a virtuosic fast-fingered finish with a short bluesy episode before the return of the upbeat character.

The two pieces were an ideal return from the pause: an introduction to the highly individual sound of Ravel’s string quartet. The quartet approached it in a spirit of huge familiarity and musical intimacy, smooth and suffused with magic light: the performance was bewitching. The second movement is much dominated by pizzicato not written to be played by beginners and the ensemble and general execution suggested high talent and scrupulous, detailed rehearsal of Ravel’s demand: Assez vif, très rythmé; the muted middle section is languorous, allowing the players a short respite (though no less demanding) from the brittle outer parts.

The breathtaking changeability continues through the Très lent third and Vif et agité last movement. The third emerged pensive though not sad, opening with the viola; then a creepy, growling cello in the middle. Though it’s slow and outwardly uneventful, the exquisite playing sustained rapt attention, saying rather beautiful things quietly.

The energetic rhythm of the last movement, with tremolo and pizzicato and little exclamations, continued to throw up hints of earlier phrases in new ways and in new contexts. The entire performance was beautifully executed, warm-hearted, perfectly attuned to Ravel’s intentions. How sad that Ravel left us so little music, particularly chamber music!

Though there was not a huge audience – a few more than 100? – the enthusiasm of the applause might have suggested several hundred.


Wellington Chamber Orchestra – a wonderful concert and a promising conducting debut

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:

BEETHOVEN – Overture “The Creatures of Prometheus”
BRUCH – Kol Nidrei with Andrew Joyce (‘cello)
VIVALDI – Concerto for 2 ‘cellos
with Ken Ichinose and Andrew Joyce (‘cellos)
MENDELSSOHN – Symphony No.3 in A Minor “Scottish”

Wellington Chamber Orchestra
conducted by Andrew Joyce

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

Sunday, 7th December, 2014

This was a programme whose contents promised delight at every turn – although one listener’s favorite can be another’s aversion, there are surely pieces which have such a wide range of appeal, that even the most hardened, narrowed-down listener would find it difficult to resist their blandishments. Such was this happy assemblage – in fact I haven’t been able to find a single person who attended and DIDN’T say “What a programme!”.

Having scored with the raw materials, the Wellington Chamber Orchestra furthered its cause by engaging none other than Andrew Joyce, principal ‘cellist of the NZSO, to conduct. As this was (so he afterwards told me) Joyce’s actual public debut as a conductor, the prospect of hearing him direct the orchestra was one fuelled entirely by expectation built upon people’s awareness of his stature as a soloist, chamber player and NZSO section principal.

While orchestral players (or pianists, not to mention singers) do not necessarily great conductors make, most notable exponents of the baton have had some experience “in the ranks” as it were. As well, the “born not made” adage is trotted out fairly regularly whenever the conductor’s art comes under scrutiny of discussion. Because of the conductor’s persuasive function, there certainly has to be some kind of force of personality, however expressed, intertwined with the musical skills, one which carries (sometimes recalcitrant) orchestral players along, and achieves the necessary unanimity.

By the end of the concert’s first half, I was wanting to hail Andrew Joyce as a “natural” in the job, based on the results of the splendid orchestral playing and the focused, characterful interpretations. Because amateur orchestras play together far less often than do professional ones, there’s a Janus-faced frisson of excitement and tension surrounding every public performance – on the one side, the thrill of bringing wonderful music to life, and on the other, the precariousness of technically keeping “on the rails” both individually and as part of the ensemble.

Throughout much of this concert these excitements and tensions brought out the musicians’ best. At the very beginning we enjoyed the conductor’s  sharply-etched focus, a snappy, attention-grabbing opening to the Beethoven “Prometheus” Overture, followed by a lovely, warm cantabile from the winds, the tones and textures beautifully filled out by the strings and the horns golden-sounding. The allegro which followed used nicely-pointed rhythms rather than just speed to get the music’s character across, with everything given a real sense of shape and form. Again, the winds distinguished themselves in the perky second subject, the whole orchestra gathering up the various threads and driving the music through the composer’s varied treatment of his material with real élan.

Having impressed with his conducting, Joyce then turned to his ‘cello for the next item, Max Bruch’s adorable Kol Nidrei, whose full title includes the description Adagio on 2 Hebrew Melodies for ‘Cello and Orchestra with Harp. As ‘cellists normally sit directly facing the audience, I wondered how the performance would fare, as Joyce would ostensibly be directing the orchestra as well as delivering the not inconsiderable solo part, all with his back to most of the players! From where I was sitting I couldn’t see the concertmaster giving any “cues” to the band, as often happens in these circumstances. Still, whatever alchemic means was used to direct the musicians’ playing certainly worked, as, a touch of dodgy wind-tuning apart, the orchestra was able to deliver a well-nigh impeccable accompaniment to Joyce’s performance of this beautiful work, throughout.

It was touching to read in the programme notes of Joyce’s grandfather’s association with this piece, the latter a keen amateur ‘cellist himself, whose desire to take up music as a career was thwarted by the onset of World War II and his conscripted service as a soldier. At his grandfather’s funeral, sixteen years ago, Joyce played this piece in his memory, a circumstance that would naturally give any subsequent performance by him a special significance. Thus it was with the playing, here, though there was no excessive heart-on-sleeve emotion wrung from the music – everything seemed to flow naturally and inevitably, and with a real sense of ensemble (I need to mention the lovely harp-playing), the exchanges between the solo instrument and the orchestral strings drawing the threads of melody beautifully together.

In the past the orchestra’s enjoyed partnerships with an impressive array of soloists, and this concert was no exception – one of Joyce’s colleagues from the NZSO cello section, Ken Ichinose, joined his section-leader to play a Double-‘Cello Concerto by Antonio Vivaldi. As Ken Ichinose’s pedigree as a player includes experience with both the Philharmonia Orchestra of London and the renowned Academy of St.Martin-in-the-Fields, it was luxury-casting with a vengeance for this music! What gave even more pleasure was Vivaldi’s writing for a “trio” of ‘cellists at various parts of the work, giving a third player almost as much of the spotlight as the “soloists” – the WCO’s principal ‘cellist Ian Lyons held his own throughout in fine style.

But what energies this music has! – Vivaldi’s motoric impulses gave every member of the ensemble a fine old workout in the outer movements’ tutti sections – the Largo movement by comparison was almost lullabic in its effect, augmented by a harp towards the end. As one would expect in this company, the exchanges between the two soloists were spectacular in places, with the third ‘cello an impressive back-up when needed, which was often. The work’s concluding tutti threw sparks in all directions, creating plenty of edge-of-seat excitement amongst the audience, which burst out as applause at the end most enthusiastically.

Our vistas were thrown open even further after the interval by Mendelssohn’s evocative “Scottish” Symphony – its “teething troubles” (it took Mendelsson ten years, on-and-off, to complete this work – though numbered as the Third, it was the last of his five full-scale symphonies to be completed) belie what seems like its ready fluency and energy of utterance – only the somewhat “tacked-on” coda to the final movement suggests that its composer might have had certain difficulties “placing” his material in a convincing and organic manner. Certainly the composer’s “Italian” Symphony (No.4) is a tauter, more obviously “focused” work, though the “Scottish” has its own expansive and treasurably unique epic character.

Conductor and players seemed to relish the symphony’s first movement with playing by turns freshly-wrought, finely-crafted and vigorous (and, to my surprise and pleasure, even giving us the repeat!) Those distinctive, plangent wind-tones at the symphony’s beginning sang with such flavour, getting a real “out-of-doors” feeling to the sounds; and the tricky opening of the allegro was negotiated without undue mishap by strings and winds alike, the later “martial” moments splendidly ringing out. With the repeat, one felt there was more confidence among the strings as they launched into the allegro once again, though every section – winds, brass, timpani – hove to with focused, on-the-spot playing.

For instance, the cellos did well with their beautiful development-recapitulation-transition melody, singing their descant-like line over the top as if their lives depended on the outcome. When it came to the storms of the coda, the strings, though sounding undernourished of tone, launched into things with everything they had, wind and brass shouting out their support and pushing the music on as energetically as they dared. As for the winding down of the coda, the winds did a lovely job bringing us quietly and surely to those final pizzicato chords, concluding what I thought was a sterling orchestral effort from all concerned.

Alas, the tricky scherzo took its toll – the opening solos, though fluently-phrased, had difficulty keeping up with the pace set by the conductor, and the strings came adrift with some of their entries. For a while the music’s pulse was confused until the winds, with their “Midsummer Night’s Dream”-like figurations managed to pull everything back together with the conductor’s guidance – the horns also did well with their distant calls at the end. A happier impression was made with the slow movement, the strings enjoying the lusciousness of the opening, and their “tune to die for” (rather like an extended version of the famous melody in “The Hebrides” Overture) – the playing was beautifully nuanced, throughout. The dark-browed interludes made a powerful impression each time, with climaxes wonderfully capped by the brasses.

But oh! – that tune! – Though not particularly suited to “symphonic” treatment, it must still be one of the world’s great ones. As well, I learned for the first time that when the cellos’ repeat it, they’re supported by a single horn, with the others harmonizing in places. Gorgeous, as here! And the clarinets in thirds (again there are parallels with the “Hebrides” work) held up well at the end, as did the rest of the winds.

The finale’s dotted rhythms were always going to be hard to keep buoyant, and so it proved, though the very opening produced a terrific snap! Brass and wind produced a great effect with their two-note snarls, though those rhythms tended to lumber rather than dance, throughout, as well as come adrift at times. Better was the coming-together of the two-note motifs of various kinds, both repeated-note and octave-leap calls, dying away to allow the clarinet and bassoon to mellifluously return us to the symphony’s opening mood, in preparation for the aforementioned coda.

One of the horn-players had told me he was looking forward to this moment in the work – and it certainly proved a real blast for the brass, here! Though blipping a little with their calls, they certainly let ‘er rip to great effect, joined by the winds and then by the strings – a grand apotheosis, which the performance certainly made the most of, to everybody’s delight.  So, a fine way for an orchestra to finish a year, and a wonderful public debut for Andrew Joyce as a conductor – we would welcome any opportunities to see and hear him do more, though we definitely don’t want to lose him as a ‘cellist!

Bach Choir’s Stephen Rowley bows out in style

The Bach Choir of Wellington presents:

JS BACH – Cantata No.140 “Wachet auf, ruft die Stimme”
– Cantata No.191 “Gloria in excelsis Deo”
Traditional Carols for choir and audience

Nicola Holt (soprano)
Adrian Lowe (tenor)
Simon Christie (baritone)
The Bach Choir of Wellington
The Chiesa Ensemble (Rebecca Struthers – leader)
Douglas Mews (organ)
Stephen Rowley (conductor)

St.Joseph’s Church, Mt.Victoria, Wellington

Saturday 6th December 2014

This concert marked the conclusion of conductor Stephen Rowley’s tenure as music director of the Bach Choir of Wellington, a position he took over from Nigel Williams in 2008. A glance at the repertoire performed by the choir during this time attests to the rich variety of music experienced by the group under Rowley’s expert direction. Appropriately, his final collaboration with the choir featured the music of Bach, as well as appropriately involving the audience via a selection of well-known carols.

I had not been in the venue, St.Joseph’s Church in Mt.Victoria, since the old church was demolished in 2003 and the completely new building constructed. I must confess that the updated result feels to my antediluvian sensibilities less like a church than a concert hall, and, in fact  the acoustic amply justifies its use as such. Being a last-minute arrival at the concert I had to be content with seats that were so far to one side of the centre that I thought the performing balances would seem somewhat awry – but I was instead charmed by the clarity and warmth of the sound from my ostensibly unfavourable position.

Centrally-placed and to the back of the altar-area was the choir, with the soloists in the front row, immediately behind the orchestra, the Chiesa Ensemble (a period-performance ensemble made up of a group of NZSO players), and with the organist over to one side at the console, the conductor standing midships in front of the audience.Though the soloists and instrumentalists weren’t facing me, their tones were given sufficient ambient warmth to carry throughout the venue.

Cantata 140 began the concert, a gorgeous work, though one with the initial misfortune to have been written for the 27th Sunday after Trinity, a liturgical date which occurs only when Easter is more than usually early. Fortunately, present-day performances of these works rely far less on prompting by actual dates, even if the occasional co-incidence brings extra festivity and feeling for the occasion.

Some extraordinarily difficult part-writing in the opening “Wachet auf” for chorus in places tested but didn’t defeat the choir, and the instrumental support was glorious. The following tenor recitative, “Er kommt, er kommt, der Brautigam kommt” brought out both clarion tones and sweetly-turned lines in other places from the soloist, Adrian Lowe, after which Nicola Holt and Simon Christie undertook their aria duet “Wenn kommst du, mein Heil?” to my ears taking a few measures to get the “pitch’ of the lines, before settling down with some lovely “floated” notes.

Then came the famous “Zion hört die Wächter singen” with its much-loved melody dancing in tandem with the chorale-like step-wise utterances of the tenor soloist, the juxtaposition of the two making for a fine edge of contrasted separation which kept the contact-points open. This was a lovely, buoyant performance, giving the lie to the famous conductor Sir Thomas Beecham’s amusing but gratuitous remark about the dreariness of Bach’s “Protestant counterpoint”.

From here on the performance really fired, with the deeply-felt bass recitative “So geh herein zu mir” galvanized by another duet from Nicola Holt and Simon Christie “Mein Freund ist mein”, during which the pair really sparkled, aided and abetted by lovely oboe playing and strong continuo support from Eleanor Carter’s cello, with Douglas Mews, as always, a tower of strength at the organ. Stephen Rowley’s direction produced a full-throated response from the choir throughout the final chorale “Gloria sei dir gesungen”.

A warm sense of audience involvement was established through interspersing a performance-bracket of carols with some traditional favorites. We all enjoyed ourselves no end, being entertained in between times by the choir’s performances of Terence Maskell’s arrangements of various medieval carols. The men introduced Alleluya, a new work is come on hand in great style and with terrific verve, contrasting this with a gentler treatment of In dulci jubilee. A trio of women’s voices nicely projected There is a flower over wordless accompaniments, with well-controlled variants (some nervous “alleluias” notwithstanding), and finishing with the original threesome over gentle wordless harmonies once again.

Though these weren’t the Maori words I taught my school choirs back in the days of yore, I nevertheless enjoyed the colour-tones of the Maori-English sounds in Silent Night. I loved the choral writing for A spotless rose, all wind-blown and out-of-doors, giving the choir plenty of vertiginous lines to hold onto, though the descents into quiet concluding cadences obviously brought some relief. Everybody sounded more at home with Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, the women energetic and true, and the men’s off-beat entries nicely managed. I didn’t know the concluding Wexford Carol but it was a joy to hear the piece open up and knit together, the writing allowing men and women a varied and satisfying interaction of dynamics and colours.

Cantata 191 was one I didn’t know – or so I thought! – how wonderful, therefore, to be presented with the opening of the B Minor Mass’s “Gloria” right at the outset! This, the only cantata that uses Latin, is based on an even earlier work written by JSB in 1733, one which, in true Baroque fashion, he used in his B Minor Mass fifteen years later – but three years earlier he had put together this cantata for a Christmas Day service in Leipzig from much the same music. What a guy!

As with the opening of other “festive” works by Bach – the Christmas Oratorio, and the Magnificat come immediately to mind – this music instantly galvanizes the spirit, the thrill of those opening brass calls punctuated by timpani giving one goosebumps (especially when, as here, the pleasure was an unexpected one!). And the choir held its own up splendidly in the midst of these festive sounds, all of the voices matching the instrumentalists in exuberance at the beginning, and the women doing well with their lines at “bonae voluntatis”, the different sections handling the ensuing contrapuntal lines with aplomb.

The work’s second part is a shortened setting of the beautiful duet “Domine Deus” from the same “Gloria”, here, using a different text – this was an enchanting sequence, beautiful flute-playing at the beginning, and soprano and tenor completely at ease together, filling out their lines with winsome grace, and intertwining their voices most beguilingly, as did the flutes with and around the string accompaniments.

The choir’s vigorous attack at the finale’s beginning “Sicut erat in principio” was echoed by brass and timpani, the performers relishing both words and musical phrases, keeping the momentum buoyant and the tones festive and bright. The voices kept their trajectories on task throughout the demanding “et nun et semper” sections – Bach’s writing is characteristically challenging, and at times the ensemble lost its poise for a measure or three, though never for too long, strings, flutes, oboes and brass made bright, pungent tonal combinations, underpinned by the timpani, the music joyously driving to a heartwarming conclusion.

A presentation to Stephen Rowley from the Choir itself followed immediately after the concert – the occasion made for a happy and successful conclusion to what seems to have been an interesting and colourful era in the Bach Choir’s history.


Michael Houstoun’s Beethoven on Rattle

BEETHOVEN – The Piano Sonatas
Michael Houstoun (piano)
Rattle RAT DO48 2014

Recording published by Rattle, a division of Victoria University Press 2014
(supported by Sir James Wallace and The Wallace Arts Trust)

(reviewed December 2014)

With his recently-released set of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas recorded for Rattle Records, Michael Houstoun joins a select number of pianists who have recorded the cycle more than once. And though he’s in pretty stellar company, here, alongside luminaries such as Wilhelm Kempff, Alfred Brendel, Wilhelm Backhaus, Daniel Barenboim and Friedrich Gulda, with this latest issue Houstoun can, in my opinion, hold his head up proudly in their company.

Had the pianist’s previous cycle for Trust Records, dating from the mid-1990s, been better and more consistently recorded, we would have had two “classic” performances of the works to savour and enjoy, each wholly characteristic of Houstoun’s playing at the time of recording. Alas, that earlier set remains compromised in places by variable sound, the promise of the first instalment of the Middle Period” sonatas thwarted by later production efforts which to my ears don’t do the pianism throughout the rest of the cycle proper justice.

Happily, the latest set, recorded in the New Zealand School of Music’s Adam Concert Room at Victoria University of Wellington by Steve Garden, in tandem with producer Kenneth Young and piano-tuner Michael Ashby, has caught a consistently true and (one or two reservations notwithstanding) eminently listenable sound-picture. It’s one that I can readily equate with what I heard of Houstoun’s playing in no less than three different venues during his 2013 concert performances of the cycle. I would still go back occasionally to that very first “Middle Period” Trust set of CDs to remind myself of how good Houstoun’s Beethoven was at that time, but it’s to the new set I would now almost unreservedly turn for a more far-reaching (and, of course more current) view of these works.

The presence and clarity of the sound is just one of the strengths of the new enterprise, though I would recommend that listeners to the set play the recordings at as high a volume setting as they dare, without offending neighbours, unsympathetic family members or musically recalcitrant pets. Before plunging into this “Beethovenian ocean” on my own, I had taken the set to a friend’s place to “sample” one of the discs, and the “Tempest” Sonata was chosen as a “test” piece – it didn’t impress as much as I had hoped, the sound seeming to lack both brightness and warmth as well as sufficient detail. But at home, and then at another friend’s house I listened at a higher volume – and the sound-picture was practically transformed! – now, the notes had plenty of “ring” and Houstoun’s detailing of the passage-work was opened up through being brought closer, and revealed as replete with interest.

A particular feature of the new set which I’ve really enjoyed is the arrangement of the sonatas upon each of the fourteen discs. Houstoun tells us in the accompanying booklet notes that back in the 1990s he initially resisted the idea of interfering with the published order of the works – so, by way of preparing them for his first public performance of the cycle he would play them through repeatedly “in order”. He gradually came to feel that in concert something different was needed, and so he devised seven programs, all of which featured sonatas from the composer’s different compositional periods. This proved so successful, that when it came time to repeat the cycle in 2013 the pianist made no changes to his “recital order”.

That same order is replicated on these new CDs, each of the seven recital programmes being allocated two discs. It makes for uncommonly satisfying listening, whether one decides to play any single CD or replicate any of the original recital programs. Unlike the “one-period-at-a-time” grouping of the sonatas in the previous Trust recordings, this newer project justly reflects the “holistic” way with which Houstoun conceived the undertaking right from the outset. To be fair, that first Trust set of the “Middle Period” sonatas was at the time a ground-breaking flagship venture, by no means assured of continuance after the first issue – so it was deemed necessary for each step to have a more “stand-alone” aspect.

How things have changed! – to the point where a new recording by Houstoun featuring all thirty-two of the sonatas was deemed not only possible but necessary! And how wonderful to have such a closely-associated sound-reminiscence of those actual recital programmes performed up and down the land during 2013!  So, when one turns to Programme One, on the set’s first two discs, one can begin that amazing journey all over again, with the pianist as a skilled and insightful guide. The thoughtfulness of Houstoun’s approach can be gleaned by his choice of the D Major Sonata Op.10 No.3 as the opening work, because, as he puts it “of its wonderful Largo”, what he goes on to call “Beethoven’s first truly great slow movement”.

Which brings me to mention of another of the new set’s qualities – its reproduction of the pianist’s own commentaries from the notes accompanying the live recitals, illuminating and enhancing our appreciation of what we hear at almost every turn. This was also a feature of the Trust issues, though Houstoun has rewritten these in accord with his “latest thoughts” – invariably the message is the same but worded differently, often more simply, as with the “refreshed” note about the “Waldstein” Sonata. (I do regret the omission of a footnote to the earlier set’s remarks about the E-flat Op.81a Sonata, usually subtitled “Les Adieux”, one which nicely made the point that Beethoven wanted his own description “Das Lebewohl” used in the published edition – in the new set, the traditional French subtitle stands at the head of the note once more, as if to say “Oh, well….”).

But the stylish, sturdily-bound booklet has much more – there’s a detailed, fluently-written biography of Houstoun penned by Charlotte Wilson, a true celebration of the pianist’s life and career, her account properly inclusive of all the people whose influence made a difference to the pianist’s life-course, as well as being revealingly candid in places (for example, I found the portrait of Houstoun’s relationship with his father somewhat chilling). Obviously written for local consumption (it has an engagingly first-name-parochial style), the essay provides an exhilarating, but nicely-balanced account of a remarkable career, one which, by dint of both success and setback through injury, has had its ups and downs, and emerged all the stronger.

Booklet and discs are beautifully and securely encased, with everything conveniently accessible, as per Rattle’s usual attractive standards of presentation – there’s a time-line of the pianist’s career for quick reference, a discography, and numerous photographs, both from different stages of Houstoun’s life and from his two Beethoven cycle recital series (the later ones in colour). Decorating both booklet and discs is detail from a painting by Christchurch-based artist Philip Trusttum, helping to give the issue a strongly-flavoured, uncompromisingly abstracted home-grown feel, which suits the enterprise perfectly.

As for this review, it’s obvious that to do full and detailed justice to Houstoun’s playing of the whole cycle would require a lengthy treatise that might take longer to read than it would the pianist to play through the music! But I thought that, in the midst of the inevitable generalities an examination of one of these “programmes” would give the reader something of a sense of its specific flavour, and an idea of the range and scope of the whole. With these objectives in mind I decided I would examine the first of them, and sneak in veiled references to other individual sonatas along the way of things, as opportunities  “crop up” to do so.

So, Programme One! – it begins with a hiss and a roar, as the opening declamation of Op.10 No.3 exuberantly announces its presence as would a character in an opera buffa. The music is a kind of comedy overture, replete with spontaneous energies, extravagant gestures, sly asides, quizzical looks and enigmatic smiles – and, while Houstoun isn’t a nudge-wink Shura Cherkassky kind of performer, his playing suggests something of this tumbling warmth and po-faced humour, with plenty of dynamic variation and flexibility of phrasing.  As one might expect he gives the “wonderful Largo” full measure, exchanging the comic mask for a deeply tragic one, and making the most of sequences like the wonderful ascending triplet passage which then tightens the screws on the tensions towards the conclusion, before breaking off and returning to the opening “stasis of sorrow” that frames the movement. The strength of his playing leaves a relatively dry-eyed impression at the movement’s end, but that’s in keeping with making coherent what’s still to come, the “tragedy to the mind and a comedy to the intellect” idea supported by the playfulness of both Menuetto and Finale. What marvellous music it is!

Then comes the first of the two “Fantasy-Sonatas” of Op.27 (the other one being the “Moonlight”, of course), here played and phrased a shade coolly at the outset, tempering its early romanticism, perhaps in deference to its more famous companion – though Houstoun revealingly muses in his notes that, for him, “Beethoven hasn’t quite made up his mind what to do” – and the touch of abruptness at the beginning certainly supports that view. Later in the Sonata Houstoun’s playing is less equivocal, for instance, giving full measure to the “held” chord that connects the scherzo with the heavenly-voiced third-movement adagio. In places like this one admires the connectiveness of the artist’s thinking about and playing of the music.

The bright, chirpy opening of the E Major Op.14 No.1 Sonata does emphasize the recording’s touch of dryness, though better this than too “swimmy” an acoustic – I like the slightly questioning air Houstoun brings to the first movement’s repeated ascending chromatic phrase, one whose delivery I find here more quizzical than the pianist’s description of “unsettling”, but certainly in consistent accord with what happens throughout. There’s a flexibility of response that to me suggests greater ease and circumspection than was the case with the more tightly-wound Trust performance. Something of the severity of Beethoven’s previous sonata, the “Pathetique”, does come across in Houstoun’s way with the Allegretto middle movement, a sense of sombre ritual, nicely “warmed” by the pianist during the major-key trio. But what a tour-de-force is his playing of the triplet-dominated finale, capturing the music’s “rolling-down-the-hill” exuberance and moments of quirky harmonic exploration in one fell swoop – a most exhilarating first-half closer!

An interval of sorts comes with a change of CD for the recital’s second half, opening with the Op.26 A-flat Sonata – a work which Houstoun describes as a “new beginning” for the composer’s use of sonata-form, one containing both a theme-and-variations movement, and a funeral march! The opening is the theme, resplendent and rich in its A-flat finery, to which Houstoun brings a fine nobility, before gently teasing out the variations, none of which are of the showy, flashy variety – though perhaps the last of them, with its more filigree aspect, sounds a tad more self-conscious than the rest. (Beethoven ushers it demurely out of sight at the end via a brief coda!)

Houstoun has always done well with this particular sonata, achieving miracles of finely-gradated touch in the scherzo, while relishing the music’s syncopated accents. But when it comes to the Funeral March movement, I have to say I prefer the pianist’s more expansive tempo on the earlier Trust recording. Compared with the newer, sterner reading, the former sounds more inwardly-felt, with the playing supported by a warmer and slightly more giving acoustic. This is especially noticeable in the drum-roll sequences, which, on the new Rattle recording convey to me a more dispassionate, almost abstracted impression – perhaps Houstoun was concerned that anything more theatrical and dramatic in manner might, as he put it in his notes, “sound meretricious”. Fortunately, the finale restores the music/listener relationship to a more even keel once again, Houstoun nicely realizing for us the babble of the semiquaver voices as they collect, intensify, dissipate, and then finally disappear, as abruptly as they first appeared.

Already these two discs have taken us on quite a musical journey, so to have the “Waldstein” Sonata at the recital’s end is akin to experiencing a kind of homecoming – I remember the live concerts consistently supporting that sense of completion in different ways, depending upon the works involved in the various traversals. With sonatas such as Programme Two’s Op.101 in A (No.28), Programme Five’s Op 109 in E (No.30) and Programme Six’s Op.110 in A-flat (No.31), the sense of “return” at their conclusion I found very strong and satisfying, in complete contrast to the programs that left one in wondrously transfigured worlds from which one gradually found one’s own way back afterwards! – such were Programme Three’s “Hammerklavier”, Programme Four’s “Appassionata” and (despite an overall sense of grand summation) the final programme’s stellar Op.111 – all far-reaching conclusions!

So it is, here – Houstoun’s way with the “Waldstein”, instantly engaging, nevertheless has a grand cumulative effect, proceeding from the brightly-alert opening pulsations and their contrasting lyrical counterweights to a rigorous engagement between the two in a working-out section, standpoints that are steadfastly restated at the recapitulation of the opening, but quite gloriously “worked out” by the time the movement’s concluding musings and final flourish come upon us. The deep-throated “song of the earth” that follows is beautifully voiced, the spaces as eloquently shaped as the notes, our progress through the void led instinctively to that matchless moment of impulse when the light from a single note points the way forward.

The way Houstoun takes us through all of this is an art that conceals art, one which repays the closest attention in kind. Though one feels the inevitability of the pianist’s conception throughout, there’s still an “in situ” chemistry of engagement that transfixes every moment – it’s a quality that I’ve come to associate with Houstoun, that he can persuade you of the rightness of his interpretation at the time of listening, even when, in retrospect, you might find you prefer what you’ve heard others do. Here in the Waldstein, there’s no doubt that a kind of greatness is at work, as each of the work’s episodes is characterized so strongly and sharply – one doesn’t think of isolating any particular sequence, but instead, of simply “going with the flow” and reflecting on life’s richness and diversity when the music finally leaves off.

Others that stand out for me among these recorded performances are those programme-concluding works I’ve already mentioned – and, of course, that’s the way any kind of assemblage works best, like the Biblical wine for the guests at the marriage-feast at Cana, where the “best” was also kept to last!  Each of those works speak for themselves, in a sense, though it would be true to say that they show Houstoun’s playing at his most inspired, the music’s greatness matched by the pianist’s response accordingly. It would be wrong of me to make much of one performance at the expense of others, but I thought Houstoun’s playing of the “Appassionata”, as in the recital (Programme Four), some of the most remarkably abandoned pianism I’ve ever heard from him (the playing literally brought the Wellington Town Hall audience to its feet!).

At the spectrum’s other end, of course, is the final sonata’s concluding Arietta movement – surely one of the most remarkable, inter-galactic acts of creation ever devised by a human being – while my allegiance to the young Daniel Barenboim’s first EMI recording of this work as a “desert-island choice” remains unshaken, Houstoun’s performance is a “thinking-man’s alternative” to the likes of the more visceral, spontaneous-sounding Barenboim. And, in any case, from the beginnings of those trilled murmurings after the near-manic “boogie-woogie” variation has subsided, Houstoun “has me in thrall” right to the piece’s end, as overwhelmingly as any. Yes, I know it’s supposedly all in the music, and the performer is merely the conduit through which it passes – but that’s a superficial observation. It DOES make a difference who’s sitting at the piano – and with Michael Houstoun there, that difference has its own precious distinction.

By any standards this new set is a wondrous achievement from all concerned.