Nelson chamber music festival: the second three days, with a trip to St Arnaud

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

Part Two

The Nelson Cathedral and Old St John’s church

Monday 2 to Wednesday 4 February

Monday 2 February

PianoFest I: Dance
Sunday’s rain which had been threatened to continue today, disappeared and there was sun first thing, but clouds soon returned and umbrellas reappeared as we set off for the 10.30 PianoFest I: Dance.

It featured four prominent New Zealand pianists: David Guerin, Jian Liu, Stephen de Pledge and Sarah Watkins. ‘Dance’ was a rather approximate term as the first piece, Ravel’s Mother Goose, in the original piano duet form, was not designed for dancing; though Ravel’s later orchestration was in fact expanded into a ballet in 1912. I don’t know how successful it was or how much it is performed today. But predominantly it consists of charming, quiet depictions of some of Perrault’s (and others’) famous fairy stories. It was played by Jian Liu and Sarah Watkins, who brought to each scene a wonderful delicacy, precision, an awareness of the spirit of each tale and the pianistic colours demanded by that character. There were vivid revelations in each of the five movements – a special finesse in the depiction of the Beauty and the Beast (Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête).

There were three pieces by New Zealand composers: David Hamilton’s Three Rags were genuine dance material, closer to the Scott Joplin originals than the elaborate and over-sophisticated rags by Novacek, heard the day before. These were for eight hands at two pianos, positioned face to face, Watkins and de Pledge on the Steinway on the left and Guerin and Liu at the Yamaha on the right. Lilburn’s rather untypical Tempo di Bolero written when he was flatting in his twenties in Christchurch with Leo Benseman and Lawrence Baigent, both pianists. So it was for three pianists, in very close proximity; the three this time were, treble to bass, Guerin, Liu and Watkins. It was an energetic piece, that rather burdened the bolero rhythms with complexity, but nevertheless made one rather wish that Lilburn had been drawn into the business of composing for the theatre, to find the sort of popular success that Farquhar found with his Ring round the Moon music. Though the three Canzonettas, that were played on Wednesday in the Stabat Mater concert were teasing hints at what might have developed if the climate had been different.

The last piece in the programme was an extended exploration of Bottom’s characterisation in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘A Tedious Brief Scene: Bottom’s Dance’ by Leonie Holmes. The employment of all four pianists (left: Watkins, Guerin; right: de Pledge and Liu) imposed a certain chaos on the music that depicted Bottom, the butt of jokes and teasing, through rhythms and in the handling of musical ideas.

Also in the hour-long programme was the third Slavonic dance from Dvořák’s first set, in the composer’s original piano duet form. It occurred to me that we could use a couple of nationwide recitals featuring the two pianists, de Pledge and Guerin, doing the entire two books of these small masterpieces.

The only music by Scharwenka that I knew till a few years ago was this Polish Dance (Op 3 No 1) that both my wife and I were surprised to confess to have played, after a fashion, in our youth. The programme note explained how commonplace our experience was, noting that it had been one of the ‘greatest hits’ of its time, the sheet music selling in millions.

Prokofiev’s own piano arrangement of parts of his Romeo and Juliet ballet is for one pianist – here, Stephen de Pledge alone. The Lily Dance of the Maidens: curious and careful, contrasting with the heavy, confrontational Montagues and Capulets.

In the afternoon we got PianoFest II
It was advertised as ‘World Voyage’, for the usual reason of widespread composer birthplaces, though the distribution was pretty normal: France and Germany, the United States and a couple of pieces by New Zealanders.

This festival has been given a certain quirky interest by pairing music that has been transformed, generally by the composer from the original instrumentation to something else.

Beethoven featured twice. Late in his life, he had rewritten his third piano trio (heard on Sunday), as a string quintet (heard on Saturday); and on Monday we heard his Piano Sonata in E, Op 14 No 1 which he later transcribed as a string quartet to be heard on Wednesday from the young Nelson quartet, The Troubadours.

The Piano sonata was the first piece in the PianoFest II programme and it was played by Jian Liu.

I was enchanted by Liu’s playing of this unpretentious sonata, evincing a very carefully considered, understated performance of beautiful delicacy, with fleet little decorative passages, that, again, made me long to hear Liu in performances of a lot more Beethoven.

The contribution from France was Messiaen’s Regard du silence from the huge canvas, the Vingt regards sur L’Enfant Jésus, played with enormous authority by David Guerin. From the United States: John Adams’s Hallelujah Junction for two pianos, from Stephen and Sarah who exploited the interesting sonic possibilities that Adams wrote into his boisterous piece.

New Zealand composer Sarah Ballard wrote a set of four pieces representing the four medieval elements: earth, air, fire and water, and here we heard the four pianists (treble to bass, left to right: de Pledge, Guerin, Watkins and Liu) in two that portrayed an ancient Mexican cave and Mount Erebus.

A different disposition of the four pianists then played Gareth Farr’s Bintang, probably danceable enough, but a stimulating and impressive listen.

Bach by Candlelight
The evening concert was the focus on Bach which has become a key element in the festival. It was made particularly distinguished as the first appearance of The Song Company; and the forces also included both resident string quartets Douglas Mews (organ), Robert Orr (oboe) and Loan Perernau Garriga (double bass).

To start, Ying Quartet’s leader Ayano Ninomiya gave an impressive performance of the Prelude from Bach’s Partita No 3 for solo violin, and followed with Eugène Isaÿe’s astonishing treatment of the music  in his second sonata for solo violin. The performances of both pieces were distinguished by extremely high technical brilliance and artistic integrity.

The first of Bach’s vocal pieces on the programme was Jesu meine Freude. This is one of Bach’s real masterpieces and demands exquisite balance and blending between parts and both richness and dramatic characterization. Inner parts sounded too prominent, and though each voice was technically assured, the tone was not uniform; I am not bothered by vibrato in baroque music, but here it obtruded occasionally. Here was an example, I felt, when the possibly authentic use of one voice to a part made it very hard to meet achieve a simple, beautiful, dramatic performance.

Hannah Fraser sang the best-known aria from the St Matthew Passion, ‘Erbarme dich’. I’d loved her Brahms songs the night before, but was not so convinced by this, perhaps on account of a voice that was so warm and emotional, beautifully adapted to the 19th century, but didn’t meet the stylistic expectations that have become normal for Bach today. Her lovely accompaniment was from a blend of players from the two quartets plus bassist Joan Perarnau Garriga and organist Douglas Mews.

Soprano Mina Kanaridis sang the gorgeous aria, ‘Mein gläubiges Herze’, from Cantata No 68, with a real sense of ecstasy and conviction. But the real triumph of the concert was the performance by bass Alexander Knight of the cantata Ich habe genug (Cantata No 82), with a simply superb voice, and a stage demeanour that commanded the entire space both by means of his penetrating gaze at his audience and the sombre expressiveness of his singing. He was supported admirably by oboist Robert Orr, and again bassist Perernau Garriga and Mews at the chamber organ, all three of whom had given comparable backing to Mina Kanaridis.

A second instrumental piece was the third of Bach’s not often played Gamba Sonatas (BWV1029): on Gillian Ansell’s viola, accompanied by Douglas Mews, it was modest and unpretentious, and free of artifice of any kind.


Tuesday 3 February

To St Arnaud on Lake Rotoiti
This was the day of the lake: when the music and the pass holders go to St Arnaud on Lake Rotoiti where the Ying Quartet play in the lovely little chapel whose windows give on the beech forest and to the distant mountains. We walk to the School of Music where the bus will depart at 9.30am. The uncertainty of the weather, though the sun was shining then, means there is a wide variety of dress, from optimists to pessimists: I was in the middle with a light jacket and proper shoes.

Most of the way in through varied farmland and the series of villages south of Nelson till we turn off after about half an hour; the road becomes more winding and we travel through more plantation forest; almost no native trees apart from occasional patches of totara till within about five miles of St Arnaud. Why did the State allow land sales and native forest felling to make way for exotics so close to this beautiful lake? However, the immediate environment is largely beech.

After morning tea at the Visitor Centre we go to the little chapel where the Ying Quartet is already seated, backs to the windows, while the audience gets lovely views of close kanuka and more distant beech.

Quartets by Haydn and Tchaikovksy and a trio by Anthony Ritchie
The acoustic is gorgeous in the small timbered space with its curved laminated beams that create the feel of a vaulted gothic crossing; and the first few minutes are spent wallowing in the immediacy of the individual and collective sounds of the Haydn first movement. Better than at earlier performances we could here enjoy the quartet’s elegant and sensitive playing, Haydn’s wit and teasing, all with such care for the ebb and flow of phrases and dynamics.

The programme is Haydn, Op 20 No 4, Tchaikovsky, Quartet No 1 and a trio by Anthony Ritchie, entitled Spring String Trio. The Tchaikovsky drew more power and drama from the players, their painstaking attention to fluctuating dynamics and rhythmic effects more exploited.

In introducing Ritchie’s little piece, in which leader, Ayano Ninomiya stood down, giving the violin part to second violin Janet Ying, Phillip Ying referred to the piece as Spring String Ying Trio. Though commissioned as a birthday present, its tone was initially serious though quite brisk: getting older is no laughing matter.

But it was a delight to hear Janet Ying’s fine, confident violin playing, unobscured by her leader’s dominance, which is the common fate of the second violin. Its slower second section cemented its place as a small but substantial work.

Helene Pohl talks with the four PianoFest pianists
Back in Nelson later in the afternoon, it was the turn of the four pianists participating in the PianoFest, to chat with Helene Pohl. As well as exploring each pianist’s early experiences, and how a commitment to a professional career emerged, there was interesting discussion on the sense or otherwise of multi-pianist performances such as we had at the first and second ‘PianoFests’: the consensus was that it was fundamentally an eccentricity and perhaps stupid, except for Schubert’s which were justified as a means of getting very close to members of the opposite sex.

Kathryn Stott
Kathryn Stott’s major piano recital was in the evening. It demonstrated her special interest in French music with Ravel’s Sonatine, a nocturne by Fauré, L’Isle joyeuse by Debussy and Franck’s formidable Prelude, chorale and fugue. Their variety, and the rare hearing of the splendid Franck made it a memorable and, for the many probably unfamiliar with Franck, a revelatory event. The second half was dominated by Stott’s illuminating playing of the original piano version of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, too rarely heard, that restored Grieg’s place as a great piano composer; the rest was from South America, Villa-Lobos’s Choros No 5, Guanieri’s Danza negra and Ginastera’s Dance No 2 from Argentinian Dances. It ended terrifyingly with a rather extended, killer piece she had commissioned from Graham Fitkin called Relent, evidently a mark of his sense of humour since its speed, ferocity, complexity and sheer impossibility for anyone less than a Stott, was utterly unrelenting.

Wednesday 4 February  

The anchors of the festival
Three main groups provide the backbone of this year’s festival. The New Zealand String Quartet of course; the Ying Quartet from the United States; and the Song Company from Australia. Some festivals are very particular in the range of musical genres, but most like to include players that lie perhaps a little apart from the popular central element of a festival’s character.

Several times it has been a singer or singers. That is excellent because the world of chamber music tends to give rise to somewhat narrow areas of acceptability for quite a few, who might just surprise themselves if they ventured out of their narrow comfort zone.

So the Song Company had an important role to play in a festival like this, and they tackle it on several different levels: inserting a couple of Brahms Lieder in a chamber music programme; doing several of Bach best loved choruses and arias alongside violin pieces; testing the water with a wide variety of styles and musical periods – Medieval and Renaissance polyphony and madrigals, the Baroque, the classical and the romantic periods, the modern or twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

And of course, there are factions within each of those categories, those who turn off early music, or scorn romantic music, or art songs, or opera but love religious choral music, find English music boring, and so on.

Roland Peelman and The Song Company
A challenge to all these limiting fads and fashions was offered on Wednesday morning in the vigorous and wide-ranging discussion between Rolf Gjelsten and Roland Peelman, the director of The Song Company.

As with all these sessions designed to shed light on the making of a musician, this began with Peelman’s description of the unmusical life in a small Flemish town in Belgium where, from nowhere, a strong musical impulse arose, that sought out a music teacher at about age eight and induced the family to buy a piano. Then a quite rich musical life at a boarding school, a useless year at a local conservatorium (he mentioned almost no Belgian place names apart from Ghent), but more fruitful general education at university.

His learning went on to Cologne, the base of the post-Darmstadt, avant-garde school led by Stockhausen, and it included the important (for Peelman) teaching of Alois Kontarsky (you’ll remember him from a chamber group at one of the very early New Zealand Festivals in Wellington in the late 1980s).

Insights into conducting came mainly from those with almost no standing as a conductor but with a flair for giving invaluable guidance and inspiration. One had said he could tell him everything about conducting technique in an hour but it would take a lifetime to learn.

While he had initially said that the impression of Australasians that Europe was seething with culture was delusional, his later account of rich and flourishing arts and music scenes in at least the main centres of Europe, hardly supported his argument. Much of what he said seemed to place high value on wide general cultural awareness and knowledge instead of on narrow, music-only, highly technical, and detailed analytical study.

His own wide exposure to literature, several languages, history, the arts generally and music in particular was enviable, especially in a country with steadily narrowing cultural and intellectual horizons.

Peelman was interesting about the close relationship between musicians who inhabited the avant-garde and those who explored early music performance practice from the 1970s. The one had spawned and informed the other; especially the realisation that one could not live on the former but there were growing audiences for the latter.

To Australia
His account of his shift to Australia in 1982 was fascinating. His contact with Aboriginal ‘Dreaming’ music at Waggawagga left a mark on his brain; his first job was at Mt Gambier on the South Australia/Victoria southern border teaching keyboard and singing and conducting the brass band.

Life became serious when he was appointed assistant chorus master at Australian Opera in Sydney, in the far-off days when the company had 22 productions in its annual repertoire (now about half that in a good year; it was the late 80s when I started going to Australia to make wonderful opera discoveries). Though he allowed himself reservations about aspects of opera as spectacle and its perception as amusement for the wealthy (“music takes second place”, he said – maybe, but not for me), he gained varied and valuable skills, describing the hectic, non-stop life as intoxicating.

Then in 1990 came an offer of appointment with The Song Company, Australia’s only full-time professional small choir. He had much to say about its evolution, about the fundamental contrast between four and six voices. A finally he disclosed that, after 25 years, he’s ready to take on something else.

PianoFest IV
After lunch on this fine day, when the rain had gone, the fourth in the series of PianoFests, which had been planned and organised by Stephen de Pledge as a mini-festival-within-a-festival, took place in Old St John’s, as its deconsecrated embodiment is now known.

More multi-pianist performances, this one subtitled ‘Opera’. Official participants were: David Guerin, Jian Liu, Stephen de Pledge, Sarah Watkins.

The first, played by De Pledge by himself was Liszt’s transcription of Isolde’s ‘Liebestod’ from Tristan und Isolde. Liszt had the taste to ensure that Wagner’s scoring did not lose anything in the process, and the piano version moved just as ecstatically from calm grief to necro-erotic frenzy.

Nor did the transcription of the prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg suffer with four hands at two piano (Stephen on piano A, left, and David Guerin on piano B, right); in the transcription by Max Reger, its lines were if anything etched with more clarity than in the original.

But the real revelation was the fantasia drawing melodies from Bellini’s wonderful opera, Norma, by Czerny, a contemporary of Bellini, as well as of Rossini and Schubert. He was a piano teacher and composer of piano etudes and impossible exercises: this one for six hands at one piano. The emotions remained alive and well, and the rhythmic pulse under the final heart-rending melody, rather undid me.

It lay in the way he spread the melodies to the very limits of the keyboard, with not inappropriate adornments; inter alia, it called for De Pledge, in the treble position, to reach repeatedly with his right arm across Sarah Watkins to plant notes outside of his own territory; Sarah was wedged between, with David Guerin at the bass. The combination, towards the end, of exciting, pulsing bass rhythms and gorgeous, heart-rending melody, rather undid me. As I remarked yesterday, I felt, as the result of the glorious music that Bellini wrote for this great opera, and Czerny’s sensitive and exciting treatment, that this piece had a serious independent existence, vindicating the genre of six or more hands at one piano.

Then came another kind of novelty, though it was not altogether clear whether Double F for Freddie, had another life as some kind of opera, it was, as described, a humorous romp at the very limits of one piano: viz. four at one keyboard – from top to bottom, Guerin, Watkins, Liu, with de Pledge offering, as far as I could see, just the final deep bass note at the end.

Carmen for the madhouse
Then came an indescribable, extraordinary party piece devised by De Pledge for all four pianists in riotous disarray. It’s mainly Carmen, but there are other impertinences: Die Fledermaus, and Sarah suddenly interrupting Stephen doing Micaela’s act 3 aria with the opening of Grieg’s piano concerto, which was the signal for the arrival of other players, of growing chaos, of shifting piano stools, of forcible position changes at different keyboards, some corruptions like the Habanera delivered by Jian with feminine delicacy.

Carmen herself arrives (Rae de Lisle), tosses the rose to the pianists and then joins the riot. Five at two keyboards is unbalanced however, and De Pledge set out to find another pianist in the audience, and finally forcibly arrests Kathy Stott; she puts up a considerable fight to avoid this unseemly press-gang musical recruitment but joined the chaos of six at two keyboards with gusto to deliver the coup-de-grace to Carmen.

The third event of the day was at 6.30pm in the Cathedral, restoring a more orderly and civilised tone. The Troubadours, the noted student string quartet, who have been spotted around the city during the week, playing at schools and charities, were here to play Mozart’s Divertimento K 136, and the old filmic hit, Over the Rainbow. In particular, they played Beethoven’s own arrangement for string quartet of his piano sonata in E, Op 14 No 1.

These players, students variously at Auckland, Waikato and Victoria universities, were Julian Baker, Hilary Hayes, Jin Kim and Heather Lewis. Their playing was stylistically idiomatic, beautifully articulated, nicely phrased and judged for gentle rhythmic and dynamic variations.

Stabat Mater
This title referred of course to the great Pergolesi cantata that filled the second half. Sung by two sopranos from The Song Company, Mina Kanaridis and Anna Fraser, it was accompanied by the Ying Quartet, minus Janet Ying, plus Donald Armstrong and Douglas Mews at the chamber organ.

For a work that is so famous and so well-loved, I have heard it too few times, more in other countries than in New Zealand. I think it is no longer spoken of as it once was, with a degree of scorn or superciliousness, the result of a piece of music being too much loved on account of its beauty, not a virtue in mid-20th century avant-garde circles.

This performance was truly beautiful, fully justifying the employment mainly of the festival guests from Australia and the United States. The voices expressed the overwrought religious grieving that lies at the heart of the medieval poem, with sobriety and restraint, as well as extraordinarily sensitive control of tempi and expressive gesture. Led by Ayano Ninomiya’s strong but scrupulously handled violin, the ensemble gave a performance that would have impressed the most discriminating audiences anywhere in the world.

The earlier part of the concert had comprised a lovely Song without Words by Gillian Whitehead from Rolf Gjelsten’s solo cello. Donald Armstrong and Gillian Ansell played Lilburn’s entrancingly lyrical Three Canzonettas for violin and viola. Ayano Ninomiya delivered a Kreisler piece of high virtuosity and musical interest, breathtakingly.

Then the Song Company appeared to sing El fuego by Mateo Flecha, a 16th century (and so, contemporary with Tudor England) Spanish (Catalan) ‘ensalada’, in five parts, or was it six?  Vividly Hispanic, it and its performance were a delight.

All this highly heterogeneous material made it one of the most unexpected and delightful programmes of the festival.


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