Last three days of the triumphant 2015 Chamber Music Festival in Nelson

Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson 2015
29 January to 7 February 

Part Three

The Nelson Cathedral and Old St John’s church

Thursday 5 to Saturday 7 February

Thursday 5 February

For the first time, at this festival, two trips out of Nelson were organised, primarily as part of the full festival pass package; on Tuesday it was St Arnaud on Lake Rotoiti; today, to Upper Moutere to visit Höglund’s glass studio, the Neudorf Winery and a concert by The Song Company in a beautiful country church.

I decided to remain in Nelson in spite of that meaning foregoing the concert which included songs from the late Middle Ages – the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The song, Crist and Sainte Marie by St Godric, is one of four, ‘the oldest songs in English for which the original musical settings survive’, according to Wikipedia. I will record a personal reference, that Godric spent many years in the famous Lindisfarne Priory (indirectly giving me my name), where the beautiful illuminated eponymous Gospels were probably written in the early eighth century.  There was also a song by the enlightened Castilian King Alfonso X (13th century), English madrigals by Tomkins, Morley, Gibbons and Weelkes; and then a song cycle by Gareth Farr, the Les Murray Song Cycle, and modern madrigals from Australia and Denmark.

In Nelson the concert by the Ying Quartet that I heard on Tuesday at the lake was repeated.

French piano music
Thus there was only the 7:30 pm concert at Old St John’s, entitled Joie de vivre. That was on account of the full programme of French music in which Kathryn Stott was the still point of the turning world.

The earliest piece was five dances by Marin Marais (recall the film, Tous les matins du monde). Phillip Ying took Marais’s viola da gamba part on his viola which might not have altered it materially, but did remove the music from a particularly idiomatic 1700ish sound, partly the effect of a piano in place of a harpsichord or similar instrument of the period. The dances were varied and charming.

A Ravel rarity, which I’d not heard before: Trios beaux oiseaux du paradis, was sung by the Song Company, a cappella.

Kathryn Stott returned to join Rolf Gjelsten’s cello to play first, Fauré’s Après un rêve and then Debussy’s Cello sonata. Rolf read us a translation of the poem by Romain Bussine, a poet and singer who co-founded, with Saint-Säens, an important society in Paris, the Société nationale de musique, for the promotion of French music in the face of, mainly, Germanic influence. It included Franck, Fauré, Massenet and Duparc and several others. The former is very well-known and its performance was enchanting, not at all sentimental (which it rather lends itself to). The Debussy sonata may not be quite as assured a work as the violin sonata but this was a most attractive performance that both distinguished and brought together the distinct lines of the two instruments.

The New Zealand String Quartet joined Stott in César Franck’s Piano Quintet, in a performance whose spirit was very much guided by Stott’s playing, poised and restrained, with space between the phrases, her chords lean and clear. These remarks were true for the first two movements, following the composer’s indications, but in the third, Franck’s marking ‘con fuoco’ was licence for the release of the feelings it was rumoured that Franck had for a particular student at the Conservatoire. The big throbbing melody seemed steadily to increase in speed and dynamics, to quite a climax.

This most welcome performance added to the little effort initiated with Stott’s performance on Tuesday of the splendid Prelude, chorale and fugue, no doubt driven by the pianist, to pay attention to Franck’s unjustly neglected masterpieces.

Friday 6 February

Waitangi Day has usually fallen during the festival and offers an obvious excuse to explore New Zealand music, familiar and unfamiliar.

Nicola Melville remembers Judith Clark and shared friends
The 1pm concert served to showcase former Wellington pianist Nicola Melville who now teaches at Carlton College Minnesota, in music associated with her teacher and mentor at Victoria University, Judith Clark who died last year.

The programme note explained that the pieces were by composers dear to Judith’s heart. And there was a second set of pieces by composers who are among Nicola’s favourites.

The first played was Lilburn’s Three Sea Changes, the first two written in 1946 and the last in 1981. They have become familiar through the sensitive performances by Margaret Nielsen of 40 years ago, and it was good to hear them played by a pianist with a couple of generations’ longer perspective, of their acceptance as among the most characteristic of Lilburn’s piano music.

Then followed a new commission called simply, Gem, by Gareth Farr, a kaleidoscope of shifting tones, sentiment and sparkle. Its performance was full of affection and delight.

Ross Harris recorded in note about his offering, In Memory – Judith Clark, which was written for her 80th birthday, that she addressed him ‘you flea’. In it there was an immediate feeling of sadness, the notes spaced in a gentle and thoughtful way. It seemed to touch a deeper vein, especially in Nicola’s delicate and sensitive performance.

Eve de Castro-Robinson marked her tribute to Judith, “free, capricious, whimsical”, and that was the case. It might have been a characterisation as much of Eve as of Judith, with its scampering, quirky wit, that may well have enlivened the meetings between the two.

Jack Body’s offering was changed from the advertised Five Melodies to two pieces labelled ‘Old Fashioned Songs’, in Body’s inimitable treatment of them: Silver Threads among the Gold and Little Brown Jug. The expected and the unexpected in ‘Threads’, diversions from cadences that the ear and mind might have expected, yet enough of the original remained to tease. The ‘jug’ was treated to semi-staccato, spaced plantings of notes, it increased steadily in complexity, liveliness and interest, and Melville played them both with clarity and a keen sense of their wit and eccentricities.

Nicola in America
The music then moved abroad, to the United States. The first composer was an avant-gardist with wit and a mind to entertain: Jacob TV which is the American version of his Dutch name, Jacob ter Veldhuis. The Body of Your Dreams is a scathing look at the mindless world of TV advertising, using tapes and loops, rock idioms, of an advert for an electronic weight-loss programme, using repeated words a few of which I could pick up like ‘fat’, ‘press the button’ ‘no sweat’, ‘amazing’, the language of the bottom end of youth culture, advertising and the electronic media.

The piano was very busy in collaboration with the junk-burdened noises on the tape, good for a moment’s contemplation of the meaning of music, satire and what passes for culture.

And finally, a return to a composer I think ranks high in Melville’s pantheon: William Albright who wrote a number of rags, among much else. These two were entitled: Dream Rags, comprising The Nightmare Rag, with the parenthesis suggesting Night on Rag Mountain (though I detected no hint of Mussorgsky) and Sleepwalker’s Shuffle. They were, I have to confess, closer to the idiom of ragtime than the pieces by Novacek heard a few days before. In any case, Melville was very much at home with them and they delighted the audience.

Verklärte Nacht in the evening
The 7:30pm concert called on The Song Company and both string quartets. The Song Company sang songs from the 14th and 16th centuries. William Cornish’s ‘Ah Robin, gentle Robin’ with the singers taking varied roles, the men first and then the women while conductor Peelman accompanied with a drum; voices and the drum steadily rose in pitch and intensity, as the words revealed the singer’s despondency at the realisation of his lover’s likely faithlessness.

‘Where to shud I expresse’ possibly by Henry VIII followed, along with the anonymous, c1350 song ‘The Westron Wynde’, each a lament on a lover’s fickleness, or at least, absence. Here was the style of singing that best suited The Song Company, capturing lovers’ troubles with individual voices most advantageously on display, between their coming together to create beautiful vocal fusion.

Two New Zealand pieces were Lilburn’s Phantasy for Quartet, and John Cousin’s Duos for violin and viola of 1973. The Lilburn was a 1939 exercise written at the Royal College, for Vaughan Williams, winning the William Cobbett Prize. Here was a nice link with the previous song bracket, as Lilburn used the tune from The Westron Wynde, at first with restraint, and then increasingly energetic. The New Zealand String Quartet gave it a sweet, loving performance; apart from an early performance in Christchurch, I think it was said to be the near premiere in New Zealand.

Cousin’s three duos were Waltz Lee, Lullaby for Peter and Polka for Elliot, very much a family affair. These early examples of the composer’s work are charming, characteristic, offering a nice opportunity to hear other than his more commonly encountered electro-acoustic music. They were played engagingly by Janet and Phillip Ying.

The Ying Quartet returned in full to play their own arrangement of an Alleluia composed by Randall Thompson in response to the early years of the Second World War. There were hints of Samuel Barber sure enough, but its somewhat incongruous lamenting character in contrast to its title, led to an interesting, quite complex contrapuntal piece; the quartet may well have made it something of a personal utterance.

Which left the rest of the concert to Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night (Verklärte Nacht). The programme note described it rightly as ‘his glorious Sextet’, and this performance by the New Zealand String Quartet, plus the violist and cellist from the Ying Quartet, made a wonderfully rich and emotional job of it.

Saturday 7 February

Cornerstone Classics – Haydn and Mozart
Here, on the festival’s last day, was the chance to hear three New Zealand players not otherwise represented. Their style however, conformed with the approach to early music that was one of the hall-marks of the Song Company. Douglas Mews at the fortepiano and Euan Murdoch on the cello are well-known exponents of ‘period performance practice’; the violinist replacing the advertised Catherine Mackintosh, Anna van der Zee, is a regular member of the NZSO’s first violins, but proved to be fully sensitive to the playing style considered appropriate for the ‘classical’ period.

Two Haydn piano trios (Hob.XV/18 and 19) enclosed Mozart’s violin sonata in C, K 403. The feathery decoration applied to Haydn’s G minor trio enhanced the fortepiano’s lightness of sound, which in turn coloured the playing by the two stringed instruments. Even for one who is perfectly used to music played in accordance with historical practice, the first impression when a new and, I must confess, unfamiliar piece is played, is of a touch of the insubstantial. But the ears quickly adjust. Haydn’s trio in A (No 18), played after the Mozart, was as full or ornaments as was No 19, but more lightened with wit, and quirky gestures as well as the modulations that even one quite used to Haydn’s behaviour finds surprising.

I really enjoyed Mozart’s violin sonata, played in comparable, genuine style, it sounded closer to the Romantic era than Haydn, even though written ten years earlier; it’s part of an incomplete set that his friend the clarinettist Anton Stadler tidied up/completed. The first movement is marked by a strong rhythm, with an unusually emphatic first note in the bar, or at least that is the way it was played (I hadn’t heard it before). It seemed that the Andante might have been marked molto andante on account of its rather imposing slowness. I found the whole thing very attractive and so it did surprise me that I hadn’t come across it before.

Grand finale –cries of the cities
No doubt the big crowd at the final concert in the cathedral was there mainly for the Brahms Sextet. Yet there may well have been a good deal of curiosity about the set of seven ‘cries’; they filled the first half.

They involved, again, both quartets and the Song Company. The order departed from that in the programme. First came not the earliest, but the Cries of London by Orlando Gibbons, inspired by the earlier Cries of Paris. It’s a far cry from Gibbons’s familiar madrigals and keyboard pieces with its colourful and probably sociologically interesting words and atmosphere.

Louise Webster’s Cries of Kathmandu succeeded in using music of a generalised Indian character embroidered with Hindu religious imagery to paint an intriguing though on balance, distressing picture of a once charming subalpine city largely ruined by capitalism and mass tourism.

It was a short step to Jack Body’s Cries from the Border, a piece typifying the composer’s profound human and political concerns, now coloured by his own imminent mortality. The tale of the fate of German-Jewish philosopher, Walter Benjamin, trapped on the French-Spanish border attempting to escape from Vichy France and the Nazis in 1940. Body wrote: “Unlike Benjamin, I am a traveller reluctant to transit. But the sentence has been pronounced…”. Musically it expressed these complex emotions committedly and convincingly.  Jack Body was there to stand for the applause.

The Cries of Paris of c. 1530 by Clément Janequin was a predictable sequel. Like that of its imitator Gibbons, it did contain the cries of the city’s street vendors, which were no mere medieval phenomenon, but petered out only around the First World War. The performance left no doubt about the reason for their survival and now renewed popularity.

Then came two New Zealand latter-day efforts: Cries of Auckland by Eve de Castro Robinson which dealt with the anti-Springbok Tour and the cries of the protesters throughout the country, still vivid in the memories of all of us who were involved: “1 2 3 4, we don’t want your racist tour! … Shame! Shame! …Amandla, Amandla”  and hints of later protests about asset-sales and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

And Chris Watson contributed a comparable political offering from Wellington. More words, and a wider lens: the morning commuter trials (cries of frustration?), the dramatic revealing of Wellington Harbour at the bottom of Ngauranga Gorge (cries of spiritual uplift?), but then the realities of political Wellington at the time of the negative, dirty politics, election campaign – the cries of debate, perhaps the cries of hopelessness, from the victims of the victory of inequality.

Brahms Sextet
The Ying Quartet plus the violist and cellist of the New Zealand String Quartet had the last word, with the glorious second string sextet by Brahms (Op 36). Reference is usually made, and was here, to the belief that it contained hidden reference to Agathe von Siebold with whom he had been in love with a few years before, encoded in the first theme of the first movement. Typically, Brahms shied away from commitment, which he apparently later regretted. The work’s high emotional intensity, especially the Adagio, slow movement, can colour the listening experience, but it hardly matters what specific narrative the listener allows to accompany a performance, for it is such a transcendent experience from the young composer, aged 33.

These festivals have often succeeded in bringing things to a conclusion with a musical creation of unusual splendour and emotional power. This one achieved that very movingly.


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