Piano Music by Douglas Lilburn
(2015 – Lilburn 100th Anniversary)

Works and performers

Sonata (1949) – Jian Liu
Prelude (1951) – Gillian Bibby
Sonatina No.1 (1946) – Gabriel Khor
Sonatina No.2 (1962) – Louis Lucas-Perry
Three Sea-Changes (1945-81) – Jian Liu
Nine Short Pieces (1965-66) – Richard Mapp
Chaconne (1946) – Xing Wang
From the Port Hills (1942) – Gillian Bibby

Adam Concert Room, Kelburn Campus
Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music

Friday 31st July 2015

Robert Hoskins’ typically perceptive programme notes for this concert quoted a significant remark made by painter Toss Woollaston to Douglas Lilburn, which the composer later recalled. Talking specifically about work by New Zealand artists, Woollaston stated that “environment should give it character”. Lilburn seems, on the showing of some of the most important of his piano pieces in this concert, to have taken Woollaston’s remark to heart.

One is tempted to suggest that this wasn’t music for the city-dweller by inclination – as with most of the work by one of Lilburn’s compositional heroes, Sibelius, these sounds consistently evoked a more-or-less solitary interaction with nature, evocations of wild, uncultivated spaces, with detail wrought by natural, rather than man-made forces. It’s a world that the average New Zealander still “knows”, even though many such environments are increasingly coming under threat of compromise by various hermetically-sealed variants of so-called “progress”.

However, in the Adam Concert Room, listeners were invited by the composer through his music and the excellent performances by different pianists, to re-explore and enlarge their experiences of and attitudes towards these worlds – here were works whose structures connected us with familiar, mainstream frameworks and procedures, but whose language brought those techniques into a more localized context of relevance and meaning. Tones wrought vistas of all kinds and characters known to us, while rhythms illustrated detailing of lines, textures and sounds readily associated with these places.

As with the music of Vaughan Williams (a tutor of Lilburn’s at the Royal College of Music in London), the pictorial and atmospheric qualities of these works were merely the beginning for the listener – it was the distillation of feeling that came of the interaction that mattered more, one that surprised by its depth (as Schumann said of listeners to his music) for “those who listen secretly”. All music has a “face”, supported by underlying flesh and bone, and more deeply, with a brain in behind – and here, Lilburn’s music, like any other composer’s when investigated properly, responded in its own unique and powerful way, with what pianist Margaret Nielsen, perhaps this music’s greatest interpreter, would undoubtedly call “character”.

Whatever one’s interpretation of the interpretative and listening processes, it became obvious as the evening went on that the music’s unique world was here responding to the enormous care and attention to detail demonstrated by each of the pianists called upon to pay homage to the composer to mark his hundredth anniversary birth-year. The performing line-up was indeed impressive, as much through its range and scope of age and experience as its remarkable consistency of executant skills and strongly-focused individual variation of interpretation.

Jian Liu, Senior Lecturer in piano at the NZSM, welcomed us to the concert, readily conveying both his delight in being able to celebrate such an important centenary with an event such as this, and his great respect for the composer’s work, before beginning musical proceedings with the Sonata (1949), music whose innate strength was here given a kind of tensile quality, played as it was with enormous thrust and volatility. The sounds have a geographical quality – the sky above, the earth below, the hills all around – and Liu’s “glint” of tone and spring” of figuration made certain utterances leap forward, while imparting great strength and depth to more reflective passages.

I’d forgotten how uncannily reminiscent this music was in places of Schubert’s A Minor Sonata D 784 (no great surprise, really, as Lilburn was a devotee of the composer), the sounds similarly resonating around great octave statements, and ringing with bell-like tones amid the more urgent figurations. However, being rather less concerned than Schubert’s work with human sorrow and solace, the lines here readily “wreathe” around and about the shapes of each of the landforms, drawing in and impulsively intertwining the human spirit with the strange wildness of it all. Liu’s playing generated pangs of loneliness at the slow movement’s opening, though he also caught the grace and ease of those rhythmic trajectories which beautifully leavened the tensions for a few precious moments. And he gave full play to, the granite-like sounds which welled up towards the end , and just as quickly dissolved.

The finale begins almost like a ritualistic Spanish dance, before presenting us with a kind of “song of the high hills”, the wanderer perhaps giving vent to energetic exuberance (and in the process disturbing rabbits who seem to scamper across tussockland in mock fright!). Expectations, doubts, fears and satisfactions cross the wanderer’s face as the journey is launched further into unknown regions, and the journeyman is left to go on alone.

Gillian Bibby was next, giving us the Prelude (1951), and demonstrating an entirely different quality of sound to Jian Liu’s, richer, mellower and deeper-voiced, not, I feel merely a matter of different music, but of the pianist putting all of herself “into” the sound-spaces with great feeling. Especially resonant were the great chordal passages in the piece’s middle section, the warmth and feeling of those rolled chords an almost palpable experience for the listener!

To Gabriel Khor was entrusted the Sonatina No.1, another piece which for me evoked the spirit of Schubert at the onset with a running octave figure, the mercurial lines punctuated with powerful chords, delivered with, by turns, poise and energy. In this music sounds of birdsong alternated with sterner realities, the throwaway ending of the movement a portent of further austerities (the work of an intense young man!). After this I thought the second movement’s ritual-like opening a kind of paean of praise of creation, the movement’s wonderful contrasts of tone and dynamics fully realized by the young pianist, with an especially sensitive, beautifully ambient stillness in places. Then, what quirkiness the finale surprised us with! And how cleverly the composer maintained the obsessiveness of the rhythmic patterning, while managing both lyrical and declamatory sequences woven into the textures – here, it was all given a creditable and accomplished performance.

How interesting to experience so many different pianists in a concert! For here was another young player, Louis Lucas-Perry, ready to tackle the Sonatina No.2. proclaiming his own way of doing things by promptly changing the piano stool, and then embarking upon the “rhapsody of natural immersion” which informs the work’s ringing, singing opening, the music seemingly living upon impulse, as if in the grip of a “bright dream”. Louis Lucas-Perry’s playing took us into this world of ambient entrancement, the music’s peregrinations coloured by impulsive nature-rhythms and textures rising out of the composer’s much-cherished “then-and-now”identifications, something of a “landscape and memory” realization.

Jian Liu returned after an interval with the well-known Three Sea-Changes, the title containing an oblique tribute to Shakespeare and his magical oceanic evocations.  The music draws from different times and scenarios in the composer’s life, the first bright and lyrical, recalling a mood of exultation, obviously a feeling he associated with Brighton, near Christchurch, one which Jian Liu “orchestrated” magnificently at the piece’s climax – how different to this “exuberant and sunlit” view is the second evocation, that of Paekakariki, which Lilburn called “a more expansive view”, one with much longer lines and swirls of impulsive energy, Debussian in their impressionistic colour, and creating far more of a solitary view than the opening piece. Finally the last piece is more of an inscape, here played with great sensitivity by Liu, mingling an inner tenderness with ceaseless oceanic murmurings. Margaret Nielsen has said that these three, independently-written pieces were brought together by the composer as a kind of commentary on the three stages of human life.

The next item, Nine Short Pieces, brought the all-too-infrequently-heard Richard Mapp to the keyboard to play parts of a collection once famously characterized by the composer to Margaret Nielsen as “Crotchety at 51”. She chose nine of the pieces the composer had given her, and put them in what seemed to her like an effective sequence. Robert Hoskins sees these pieces as a kind of extension of the “Sings Harry” song-cycle, Lilburn’s settings of Denis Glover’s poetry. Even without analyzing the music, one can hear things like the self-deprecation of “Harry” the hero of the poems, in sequences such as the mock-Gothic opening of the first piece, the speech-like exchanges of the third (the piano writing recalling Musorgsky!) and the spiky, almost twelve-tone character of the fourth – “Soliloquies for piano” would have suited these pieces as a title equally well, especially as reflections of the thoughtfulness of the composer’s other music and the wondrous results of parallel homegrown artistic activities wrought by his contemporaries.

Richard Mapp played them with characteristic insight, all such evocations and angularities delineated for our pleasure and wonderment. In his hands the opening piece rumbled and resonated amid punctuating shrieks, alarms and other surprises, suggesting a kind of “savage parade” to follow – an expectation completely disarmed by the quirkiness of the following “question answered by a question” exchanges, and after that, a twelve-tone-like series of impulses bristling with abrupt agitations. I enjoyed his lovely “voicings” in pieces like No.5 with its tenor-and-baritone duetting, the lines long-drawn and resonant Denis Glover’s “Harry” in full philosophical flight, perhaps?), and similarly relished his skilful treatment of the different “characters” of No.6 – cool, crystalline and sharp-edged lines set against wonderfully resonant and vibrant ambiences filled with light.

Set amid such characterful performances of the rest of his music, the great Chaconne here became a larger-scale version of Lilburn’s established preoccupations – the way into this music had, in other words, already been well-prepared. PIanist Xing Wang brought out those attendant resonances and after-glowings in her beautifully-shaped exposition of the work’s opening, giving the sounds plenty of space, and allowing the music’s shape to guide her in places. Here she encouraged the many celebratory cascades of sound to take on a kind of free-fall aspect, before rounding out our trajectories and leading us more circumspectly into the heart of what resembled a pulsating organism, her playing tracing the sounds along delicate lines reaching out to distant realms, as if defining the work’s spaces.

In general terms hers was a whole-hearted engagement with all of the piece’s requirements, were they massive, deeply-rooted chords, steadily-pulsed outlines of melody arching over great spaces, or skitterish irruptions of impulse scattering their energies like unexpected sunshowers. And at the end she made a virtue of the abrupt challenge of Lilburn’s Sibelius-like coda to the work, giving us a direct, straightforward statement of arrival, reminiscent of the final moments of the Finnish master’s Tapiola.

Finally, what better way to conclude this composer-tribute than to have one of the pieces performed by a fellow-composer? The task fell to Gilian Bibby, who gave us a rendition of the 1942 piece From the Port Hills, the surviving item from a collection of five Bagatelles written during Lilburn’s Christchurch years. One responded immediately to the pianist’s warm, beautifully-rounded tones, which imparted a Brahmsian feel to the textures in places, the sonorities at such times deliciously rich and deep at appropriate points, but serving to highlight the delicacy with which some of the secondary material was floated so freely and radiantly.

At the end one’s impression was of having experienced a truly significant and unique body of work – music whose sounds draw their inspiration from the places we ourselves know, and which we can justifiably claim as our own. Very great credit to Jian Liu, to the NZ School of Music, and to all the pianists who contributed to the concert. One feels certain the composer wouldn’t have wished for a better-organised and more satisfyingly-realised tribute in this “marvellous year”.











Recorders and piano leap into the 20th century with attractive, interesting English music

Bernard Wells (recorders) and Thomas Nikora (piano)

Antony Hopkins: Suite for Descant Recorder and Pianoforte
Colin Hand: Plaint for Tenor Recorder and Piano
Edmund Rubbra: Meditazioni sopra “Cours Désolés”, Op.67
John Golland: New World Dances for Recorder and Piano, Op.62
Herbert Murrill: Suite (Largo, Presto, Recitative, Finale)
Geoffrey Poole: Skally Skarekrow’s Whistling Book
Lennox Berkeley: Sonatina for Treble Recorder and Pianoforte

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 29 July 2015, 12.15pm

This was an unusual concert.  Recorders play early music, right?  The music played this time was not early or baroque, but contemporary. And it was written for recorders and piano.  All the works were by twentieth century English composers.  I suppose that only the names Edmund Rubbra and Lennox Berkeley would be familiar.

Antony Hopkins (not the actor) was the first of seven such composers featured.  His suite of four short pieces was delightful, and the instruments were well balanced.  A very charming allegretto quasi pastorale was followed by a sprightly scherzo, after which came canon andante tranquillo: lyrical and meditative.  The jig vivace finale had plenty of fast finger-work for both players and was a truly lively jig that one could imagine dancers performing.

After this, Bernard Wells spoke about the famous Carl Dolmetsch (1911-1997), whose father revived the recorder and other early instruments almost single-handedly in England beginning in the late nineteenth-century.  Carl performed throughout his long life, and was the reason for the  composers writing these works.

The character of Colin Hand’s short work was appropriate to its title, while Edmund Rubbra’s piece, with its mixture of Italian and French in the title (Wikipedia gives it entirely in French), was played on the treble recorder.  A range of moods and dynamics were revealed.  Here, there was a problem, later explained and apologised for by Bernard Wells.  It seems that the very breathy, even harsh tone in louder passages that spoilt the music at times was caused by a build-up of condensation in the instrument.  The passing of his absorbent cloth through the instrument did not really fix the matter.  I always think of the treble as the most mellow and melodic of the family; not today.

Wells explained that the treble recorder he was playing was of a new design, the bore being flared, not straight like the regular recorder.  This had been developed for playing modern music, not for baroque music.  It has a bigger range and a few keys to assist in playing lower notes.

The descant instrument returned with John Golland’s Suite of dances.  The ‘Ragtime Allegro’ opening movement was good fun, Nikora varying the dynamics agreeably.  The composer died in 1993 (born 1942), one of several of the composers featured who died rather prematurely.  His second movement, ‘Blues Lazily’, on treble recorder, demonstrated some of the more unexpected moods of which the instrument is capable.  Back to the descant for ‘Bossa Nova Vivo’, its tricky tempi and finger clicks from both musicians adding to the enjoyment.

Interposed but not printed in the programme was an item by Herbert Murrill (1909-1952): a suite of well-contrasted movements.  The Recitativo employed the lower register of the instrument, and the quick finale rounding off an enjoyable work.

The works by Geoffrey Poole and Berkeley had the recorder amplified by a small speaker; I had not noticed it in use earlier in the concert.  Wells explained that it was used to obtain a better balance with the piano.  ‘Clouds’, Poole’s first movement was in a minor key, and of a dreamy nature.  ‘Spring Breezes’ featured appropriate flutterings, while ‘Sunshine’ was smooth with a rippling accompaniment.  Finally, ‘Hailstones’ were darting here and there in the final movement, sometimes heavily, sometimes lightly.  The passing of themes and effects between the two instruments was most appealing. There was a jolly ending.  Again, Wells apologised for the instrument.

Berkeley’s sonatina again had the treble recorder with a very ‘chuffy’ tone.  The middle movement (adagio) was very calm, slowly building in tension and volume, then dying, while the allegro moderato final movement was a racy romp, but obviously tricky to play.

I did wonder whether the use of the mike should have enabled playing more softly to overcome the problems.  Of course, the mike made the harsh sound worse than it would have been otherwise.

Given the recorders’ relatively small range, it is surprising what varied music these composers wrote for the instruments.  Bernard Wells is an accomplished recorder of long standing, and Thomas Nikora proved a worthy accompanist, producing delightful effects on the piano.


Music Futures’ praiseworthy venture with young Wellington musicians

Music Futures

The Sound of Wellington Youth Music 2015

Manu Tioriori (selected students from the combined choir of Wellington College and Wellington East Girls’ College), conducted by Katie Macfarlane
Claudia Tarrant-Matthews (violin and piano)
Trio Glivenko (Shweta Iyer – violin, Bethany Angus – cello, Claudia Tarrant-Matthews – piano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 26 July, 3 pm

This was the second annual concert by a group set up last year to help young musicians in Wellington. The organisation exists to provide performance opportunities, access to masterclasses and workshops, mentoring by professional musicians, financial awards and the hire of musical instruments.

The choir which opened the concert showed one of the advantages of co-education while at the same time being in nicely segregated institutions; the two colleges virtually share the same property, though emphatically apart when I attended the boys’ institution a long time ago. Then, the only (illicit) contact was at the corner of the tennis courts close to Paterson Street or (licitly) at dancing classes tutored by Wellington East’s physical education mistress and graced by a phalanx of girls who marched after school across our segregated territory.

Katie Macfarlane achieved lovely effects in three songs, balanced, unforced and comfortable; the second was , two Maori and one in English though French by origin: one of the better, certainly more touching, songs from Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Les misérables: ‘Empty chairs at empty tables’.  (Intriguingly, the song is not in the original French version of the musical; it was added later for the revised French version as “Seul devant ces tables vides”). The talented young William Pereira sang it, an attractive, natural voice; he sang with feeling and nice sentiment.

Their second bracket consisted of the Psalm-derived ‘I will lift up mine eyes’, the Zulu wedding song ‘Hamba Lulu’ and the locally-relevant ‘Poneke E’, a highly characteristic, catchy Maori song. Each performance caught the widely varied character of the three songs.

The presence of the pair of NZSO players earlier known as Flight: flutist Bridget Douglas and harpist Carolyn Mills, purported to be to offer something to aspire to. That was hardly necessary but the piece they played Persichetti’s Serenade No 10, was good to hear again; it’s been in their repertoire for several years. It’s just eight short movements, none of them around long enough to tire or to require the services of musical elaboration, counter-melodies, development, what-have-you…

Claudia Tarrant-Matthews offered examples of both her violin and piano gifts, both without ostentation, with discretion and insight: the 3rd and 4th movements of Bach’s violin sonata in A minor and later, Rachmaninov’s Prelude in D, Op 32 No 4.

Tarrant-Matthews also took part as pianist in the Glivenko Trio’s (which also involved violinist Shweta Iyer and cellist Bethany Angus) performance of Shostakovich’s first piano trio which they played at the NZSM Queen’s Birthday Chamber Music Weekend on 1 June (see my review of that date, where the name is explained).  This performance, like that in June in the Adam Concert Room, was played with an understanding that seemed beyond their years.

The whole enterprise was another admirable initiative that in a small way fills the great gap left by our educational authorities in the area of the arts and music especially.

Mellifluous reeds hold sway at St.Andrew’s

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series
NZSM Clarinet Students’ Presentation
Tutor: Debbie Rawson

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

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

Having recently enjoyed the concert given by the NZSM’s saxophone students, I found myself looking forward to hearing their “wind cousins”, the clarinettists, do their stuff.

On the way to the concert I found myself thinking of what one would call a group of clarinettists  – of course, players themselves may well have devised their own unilaterally-accepted collective term, of which I’m unaware.  Nevertheless I had fun turning over words in my mind such as “colony” or “chorus” (both rather humdrum), before more enterprisingly (and more naughtily) entertaining descriptions such as “conundrum”, “coven” or “calamity”.

Whatever the case, and whatever the reality, there was certainly nothing calamitous about the playing of these young musicians. Right from the very beginning there was delight to be had, beginning with Laura Brown’s sensitive and flowing performance of the third Movement Andante Grazioso from Brahms’ First Clarinet Sonata. Especially winning was the player’s delivery of the Trio, beautifully withdrawn tones shaped convincingly into a whole, and with lovely support from the pianist, Hugh McMillan.

A different kind of sonority was presented to us by bass clarinetist Patrick Richardson, relishing the chance to demonstrate the distinctive tones and timbres of an instrument whose raison d’ete seems little more than to “double” other instruments’ lines in orchestral works.

I was delighted to encounter a work I’d never heard before, Vaughan Williams’ Six Studies in English Folksong. Written originally for ‘cello and piano, these pieces have been transcribed for any number of instruments, the bass clarinet being particularly suited to the composer’s original choice in terms of range and colour.

Patrick Richardson played these short pieces with such evocation as to banish thoughts of winter and take our sensibilities to times and places that seemed like a world away. I was particularly taken by the beauty of the playing in the fourth study, featuring a tune I didn’t know but which nevertheless seemed to open my “nostalgia floodgates” – this despite the somewhat quirky title of the original, “She borrowed some of her Mother’s Gold”. Again, there was support of great sensitivity from the pianist, this time Kirsten Simpson.

The relationship between clarinet and saxophone was underlined by the next item, featuring saxophonist Genevieve Davidson – an Etude (No.3 from a set of 15) written by Frenchman Charles Koechlin (1867-1950), a prolific composer who was a contemporary of Debussy and Ravel, and who associated with and influenced people like Poulenc, Roussel and Mihaud but whose music has been since overshadowed by theirs.

The études (written in 1942, for saxophone AND piano) are less “display virtuoso” pieces than “examinations” of the former instrument’s resources – and Genevieve Davidson’s gorgeous, seductive alto-sax tones brought out all of the music’s tender and contrastingly energetic characteristics. Her playing captured both the waltz-rhythms’ graceful manner and the livelier polka-like mid-section’s insouciance – a delightful performance.

Laura Brown returned with a small but heartfelt 100th birthday gift for composer Douglas Lilburn, in the form of the second movement from his 1948 Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano. We were told by Brown to “listen for the morepork during the music’s middle section”. Beginning with characteristic pianistic sonorities, the music allowed the clarinet some opening declamation before requiring from the player some deeply-wrought, withdrawn tones, pushing back the work’s vistas with every utterance – the morepork’s voice chimed clearly in the piano part. Apart from some difficulty in voicing one or two high-lying notes, Laura Brown’s sounding of the movement was as ambient, flowing and lyrical as one could wish for – a birthday treasure, indeed.

Came the colony/chorus/what you will onto the platform next to perform a different kind of delight – an arrangement for clarinet quintet (if I remember rightly, Debbie Rawson thought possibly by New Zealand composer Ken Wilson) of the allegretto movement of Beethoven’s Op.10 No.2 Piano Sonata. Joining Laura Brown and Patrick Richardson for this exercise were Jess Schofield, Rebecca Adam and Brendan Agnew.

Well, whomever “Anon” was, or is, the arrangement worked splendidly, in my opinion. Beginning with the bass and B-flat clarinets, the music’s purposeful opening gestures grew gracefully upwards to their flowering-points (with double-note figurations for Beethoven’s octaves when the passage was later repeated – a deft touch), the lighter-toned instruments nicely “opening out” the sonorities. The players beautifully observed the more “relaxed” aspect of the Trio section, giving the phrases time to breath, and affording some relief from the ever-so-slightly vertiginous swing of those opening ascent

The group sprung a nice surprise upon us at the piece’s conclusion – we were treated to an ungazetted performance of Bach’s famous “Air on a G-string” , again, an arrangement that fell most gratefully on the ear, the players sensitively augmenting the dynamics in places, which served to confirm something of the music’s inner strength and indestructibility.

Back to Genevieve Davidson and her saxophone, for a performance of music by another lesser-known French composer, Florent Schmitt (1870-1958), whose music is regarded in some quarters as “the greatest that nobody has ever heard of” – among the laudatory critical appraisals of his work that I found was the following: – “it (the music) shimmers with bold conviction, elemental intensity and and a fearless harmonic vocabulary”. Given that there’s nothing like a “cause” to bring out shoals of enthusiasm for a neglected genius, on the basis of the short but intensely beautiful work we heard, the rest of Schmitt’s output would be well worth investigating.

Songe de Coppelius was a work inspired by a well-known tale of E.T.A.Hoffman, one also used by another French composer Leo Delibes as the story for a full-length ballet, Coppelia. Brief, but in places hauntingly beautiful, the music’s depth of feeling was here expressed by both players, Genevieve Davidson coaxing from her soprano sax a beguiling variety of colours and dynamics. The music’s  sense of mourning at the outset was gently interspersed in places with more rhapsodic languishment – it all further demonstrated the innate musicianship and judgement of this gifted young player.

Finally we were treated to the distinctive timbres not merely one reed but two, in the form of a work for oboe, the instrument played by Annabel Lovatt. This was a piece by Johann Wenzel Kalliwoda (1801-1866) yet another prolific but neglected composer whose work was “given an airing” by people involved with this concert. Incidentally, “Kalliwoda” is the somewhat unfortunate Germanised version of the composer’s “proper” native Bohemian name, Jan Kalivoda, which I’ve actually never seen written as such on recordings or in reviews of his music.

Unaccustomed as I normally am to such things coming my way, I was pleased to be able to indulge in some one-upmanship regarding Kalliwoda’s name, as people I spoke with after the concert had never heard of him (I must, however, shamefully admit to not having heard any of his music!). Annabel Lovatt told us that at the time this work was written, pieces for solo oboe were rare indeed, and that she would “do her best” to bring it all to life for us. She was too self-deprecating, as she gave a terrific performance of what turned out to be a full-blooded virtuoso work.

Entitled “Morceau de Salon”, the music began gently on the piano, the oboe joining in with melancholy tones, here intoned beautifully, and confidently dealing with technical hurdles such as wide leaps and exposed phrasings with admirable fluency. As the piece proceeded the virtuoso demands made of the player seemed to crowd in, as if jostling one another out of the way – there may have been one or two notes missed in the florid hurly-burly, a phrase or two snatched at a little too eagerly – but Annabel Lovatt certainly engaged with the music, and emerged at the piece’s conclusion triumphant, having obviously given her “all”.

A highly entertaining and informative concert, then – expert playing and presenting of some highly diverting and fascinating music.

















Young pianist Stella Lu plays delightful recital for Pataka Friends

Stella Lu (piano)
for Pataka Friends

Bach: Prelude and Fugue in D minor, Book 2 of ‘The 48’, BWV 875
Chopin: Nocturne in G , Op.37, no.2
Beethoven: Sonata no.5
Chopin: Polonaise in C# minor, Op.26 no.1
Nielsen: Five Piano Pieces, Op.3
Madeleine Dring (1823-1977): Blue Air

Helen Smith Community Room, Pataka Art + Museum, Porirua

Sunday 19 July 2015, 2.30 pm

The first observation was of Stella Lu’s extreme youth; I understand she is still at school, yet she passed her Grade 8 piano examination in 2012.  The second observation was that the walls of the Helen Smith room have been painted since I reviewed Ludwig Treviranus’s concert there two years ago, and they now appear to be covered with a matt paint, not the glossy paint they had then, which made the sound too bright and brittle at times.  In addition, the placement of the piano, and the audience chairs, was different.  I did not experience that over-brightness this time; the instrument sounded very well, although occasionally the fortissimos were a little too loud for the size of the venue.

Stella Lu appears to be quite an entrepreneur, putting on her own concerts and playing with other groups.  A couple of matters to be borne in mind: it is usual to stand and acknowledge the audience’s applause after each item, not just at the end, and it is good for the audience to be able to see the performer’s face while she is playing, so a hairstyle that allows this (such as a pony-tail) can be the means to enhance the audience’s rapport with the player.  It may also be to Stella’s advantage to have the piano stool a little lower.  The convention is (with good reason, I believe) that the thighs should be parallel with the floor.  All the pieces were played from printed scores.

The Bach chosen was quite difficult, and playing without resort to the sustaining pedal was most commendable.  Stella brought out the themes well, particularly in the Prelude.  She has a good piano technique, and plenty of flexibility in her wrists and fingers.  A nice feature was that before playing, she paid tribute to her teacher, who was not able to be present.  The room was not full, but nevertheless, the audience was of quite a healthy size.

The Chopin Nocturne provided a complete contrast, and was played with some delightful pianissimos, and much expression.

Beethoven’s fifth sonata is one that I do not know at all well.  Stella maintained the interest, despite a few fumbles in the first movement.  It is relatively short, but full of surprises and innovations.  Stella exhibited a good range of dynamics, and the adagio molto third movement was very expressive.

Nielsen’s five pieces proved to be delightful and varied.  The first, ‘Folketone’ was charming in a darkly northern way.  By contrast, ‘Humoreske’ was very bright, like Scandinavian sprites dancing.  However, the pedal muddied their activities a little.

‘Arabeske’ had alternate soft and loud passages; perhaps this was the naughty sprites getting up to mischief.  ‘Mignon’ was full of heady, sultry perfume, while the final dance, ‘Altedans’ continued that feeling in a dreamy mood, after opening with ambiguous tonalities.  Stella played them all with clarity and feeling.  However, the final piece, much the most contemporary on the programme, suffered a little from too much pedal.  It was another sultry piece, in a swing rhythm, and was a bright, relaxing way to end the recital.

There seemed to be a lot of noisy tweaking and rattling from the paper programmes – perhaps it might be possible for the promoters to find a softer grade of paper.

This was a worthy start to the Friends of Pataka’s winter series of concerts.



Kapiti Chamber Choir tackles highly ambitious all-Jewish programme including a major Bloch work

A Festival of Jewish Music

Kapiti Chamber Choir conducted by Eric Sidoti with Douglas Mews (organ), Miranda Wilson (cello) and Jenny Scarlet (piano)

Ernest Bloch: Avodath Hakodesh with Roger Wilson (baritone) as the Cantor

Marc Lavry: Song of the Valley; La Rosa (Sephardic folk song arranged by Paul Ben-Haim; Hasidic Niggun (Hasidic folk song arraged by Bonia Shur; Bloch: Suite No 3 for solo cello; Schoenberg: ‘Ei, du Lütte’ (Platt-Deutsch song); Richard Fuchs: Hymnus an Gott; Mordecai Seter: A Woman of
; Lavry: Hora, Song, Op 206 No 3; Bonia Shur: ‘The Rain is over’; Paul Ben-Haim, arranger: Adon Olam (Benediction)

Kapiti Uniting Church, Raumati Beach

Sunday 19 July, 2:30 pm

Two hours of composers who, I imagine, would have been no more than names to most, even those with a fairly good knowledge of 20th century music, might have looked a bit unappetising to an audience for choral music. So to start, I was surprised to find the church pretty full. And though there was nothing to suggest that other than Jewish music would be in the programme, I rather expected that music director Eric Sidoti might have thrown in a couple of more familiar pieces.

The main thing was Bloch’s big Jewish liturgical work, but the first half was given over to non-Bloch, apart from a piece for solo cello, his Suite No 3, played by Miranda Wilson.

The rest comprised music entirely by Jewish composers, mostly religious in character. Four Israeli composers featured, no doubt familiar to any aficionado in the audience: Paul Ben-Haim born 1897 in Munich, Marc Lavry, born in Riga in 1903, Mordecai Seter, born in Novorossiysk in Russia in 1916 and Bonia Shur, also born in Riga, 1923.

Bloch’s Cello Suite: Apart from its shape, five movements alternating quick and slow, suggest Bach as a model, though a glance at Wikipedia’s list of music for solo cello will deter most people from seeking influences. In contrast to the emotional warmth of the popular Schelomo for cello and orchestra, the piece sounded a wee bit remote and soulless; perhaps the performance could have risked more expressiveness and colour, though my impression is likely to have more to do with things that don’t reveal themselves at first hearing.

The first piece, Lavry’s Emek, or Song of the Valley: Rest in coming, unaccompanied, began hesitantly, but soon gained confidence, comfortable in its modal character and staccato rhythms, the kibbutz setting hinting at a kinship with early Soviet workers’ songs and dances. A similar spirit existed in Lavry’s Hora Nirkoda (‘Let’s dance’. Greek for ‘Dance’ is ‘Choros’: a borrowing?).

The first arrangement by Paul Ben-Haim was of a song in Ladino, the Spanish dialect language of the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain by Philip II round 1492, and fled to the Levant, Greece and other parts of Europe. La Rosa, like Emek, was unaccompanied, carrying a beguiling tune. The last piece in the first half was a Benediction (Adon Olam) also arranged by Ben-Haim. Roger Wilson, as Cantor, alternated in this with the Choir, in a serious six/eight rhythm.

Bonia Shur contributed an arrangement of a Hassidic folk song, with piano accompaniment, vigorously pulsed, charmingly sung. His own song, The Rain is over, comes from The Song of Songs; though I hadn’t heard it before, it struck me as a rather more alluring song than it actually sounded here.

Mordecai Seter’s Eschet Chayil (A Woman of Valour) began with a couple of women’s voices in duet, soon joined by the rest of the choir which became quite animated, with changing dance rhythms in the piano.

That left two songs from unexpected quarters: Schoenberg’s setting of a Platt-Deutsch poem, ‘Ei, du Lütte’; a delightful, sprightly little song from the young composer, aged about 30.  Richard Fuchs was a German/Jewish composer who sought refuge in New Zealand in 1939 and was ignored as a composer during his eight final years here, but was rediscovered through the efforts of his grandson, theatre director Danny Mulheron.  Fuchs’s Hymnus an Gott was sung by Roger Wilson, a Hasidic religious poem expressing emphatic belief.

So, although there was no departure from a Jewish/Hebrew musical programme, I found the variety of the generally unfamiliar music interesting and enjoyable, prompting me, as I write this, to explore these paths further by means of the communication and information technology now at our disposal.

Then in the second half came the 50 minute-long Avodath Hakodesh, a setting of the Jewish Sabbath morning service. Though Bloch is still known (in his lifetime, much to his annoyance) as a Jewish composer, he struggled to shake off the image. Little of his music was Jewish, though critics have been unable to resist finding signs of Jewish music in his work. A generous commission prompted this large-scale work (though he didn’t get paid in full). He thought of it as an oratorio though there is no narrative element, a necessary feature I suppose.

He wrote: “It far surpasses a ‘Jewish’ service, it has become a cosmic poem, a glorification of the laws of the universe.” Rather than an oratorio, it has been compared to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

He wrote it, he said, “not for the Jews – who would probably fight it – nor the critics” but for himself. Nevertheless, the music, at times harsh and austere, has the warmth, sensuality, passionate intensity, and the fervour of Hebrew literature, as critic Olin Downes wrote about a New York performance.

It is hard to detect details of the overarching musical structure at first hearing, the repetition of musical motifs and their relationship to liturgical elements, yet such things are present, and they make their impact in a subliminal way.

Though not quite a substitute for the orchestra, the digital organ in Douglas Mews’s hands was much better than a piano would have been, particularly in the Symphonic Interludes which Bloch uses to create a sense of unity.

There were many parts that were impressive, for example in the Toroh Tzivah in Movement III where
Cantor and choir alternate in the commanding verses about the laws of Moses; and at the peaceful, pastoral Etz Chayim he in Movement IV. And in the more eventful Fifth Movement where the Cantor, chanting in English, expounds on universal ideals of human behaviour and the tone becomes impassioned; and a calm spirit returns with the soulful Adon Olom.

Though the demands of such an ambitious and spiritually infused work are frankly more than a choir of this kind can be expected to bring off very convincingly, the whole was impressive, and one admired the conductor’s endless energy in the guidance of singers with clear entries, and gestures that characterized the ever-changing moods and tone of the music.

Conductor, choir, baritone Wilson and organist Mews have done us a favour in exposing this rarity, and the accompanying pieces in the first half, to our awareness: now we know there’s more to Jewish-coloured music than Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, Schelomo and Kol Nidrei.


Miranda Wilson – bringing it back home from Idaho

Miranda Wilson (‘cello)
Jovanni-Rey de Pedro (piano)

Solo and chamber works
by Pärt, Ginastera, Bloch, Norton and Beethoven

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

Friday, July 17th, 2015

Trying to think of an appropriate heading for the review of this concert presented me with something of a challenge (as I find words do in general). After wrestling inconsequentially  with a number of thoughts, I finally hit upon the idea of celebrating what seemed to me a particularly distinctive Trans-Pacific connection through music, one which had happily resulted in this concert being presented here in Wellington for our very great pleasure.

The “Idaho” link in this case involved both Wellington-born ‘cellist Miranda Wilson, and her musical collaborator for this concert, Filipino-American pianist Jovanni-Rey de Pedro. Both are Assistant Professors of their respective instruments at the University of Idaho, situated mid-state in a city rather wonderfully called Moscow (well, why should the Russians get ALL of the fun?)

I last heard Miranda Wilson perform with the Tasman String Quartet here in Wellington goodness knows how long ago – previously I had heard her as a soloist, playing part of one of the Bach ‘Cello Suites. I remember on that occasion being struck by her “classic cellist” appearance (even though there’s probably no such thing!), a Suggia-like presence (there’s a famous portrait of the latter) and an intense concentration which came across in her playing via a direct and beautifully-focused sound.

Here she was heard both as a soloist and collaborator, bringing those same qualities of presence, focus and intensity to her playing throughout. She was certainly matched in most of these respects when performing with her colleague, pianist Jovanni-Rey de Pedro, even if I found myself somewhat distracted at the concert’s very beginning by the pianists’s constant activating of a computer-screen, presumably taking the place of a printed score, throughout the opening of Arvo Pärt’s haunting Spiegel im Spiegel (“Mirror in the mirror”).

This is a work whose raison d’être involves exchange and enrichment through collaboration –the combination of instruments beautifully activated the silent spaces, the sound sound waves set a-rippling with piano arpeggios, the vistas widened by the ‘cello’s two-note phrases and deepened with occasional piano bass notes. Once Jovanni-Rey de Pedro had gotten through the opening measures, he kept his left hand largely away from the screen and down at the keyboard, to my great relief – yes, I know, it says very little for my powers of concentration on the music, but nevertheless I couldn’t help being diverted by it in situ!

However, once the composer’s “mirror images” had cast their spell, and the music run its course, Miranda Wilson graciously welcomed us to the concert and introduced her pianist colleague to us. The duo then undertook Ernest Bloch’s “Prayer”, one of three movements from his 1924 work From Jewish Life.

As one might expect from the composer of that wonderfully passionate work Schelomo (also for solo ‘cello, together with orchestra), the music has what Bloch described as the “Hebrew spirit…..the complex, ardent, agitated soul” found in the pages of the Bible, with all its “sorrow….grandeur (and) sensuality”.  All of that was here in spades from both players, ‘cello and piano by turns flamboyantly rhapsodizing, and gently musing, each taking the lead, then acting in accord, right up to the work’s final, generously-held note.

Jovanni-Rey de Pedro then played for us Alberto Ginastera’s flamboyant and exciting Op.22 Piano Sonata. This music was a “discovery” for me, as I had known only Ginastera’s Ballet Suites “Estancia” And “Panambi”, the former a kind of Argentinan version of Copland’s “Rodeo”, the latter owing something of its energies and exoticism to Manuel de Falla. But the Piano Sonata, though bringing to mind in places Ravel’s “Scarbo” from Gaspard de la Nuit, impressed most of all on my mind the idea that its composer knew well the rhythms and movements of his native land, whether driving, forceful and exciting, or gentle and insinuating.

The first movement’s two contrasting ideas were here delivered so characterfully – firstly the high-impact, funkily driven, sharp-contrast sequences of the opening, followed by more lyrically-centred passages, still buoyed along by the  toe-tapping rhythms, but here working a kind of “other-side -of-the-coin” magic with the material. Jovanni-Rey put it all across with tremendous volatility of expression – a mode that in the second movement “went underground”, its “misterioso” marking making for somewhat “Latin Gothic” effects at the beginning, everything bursting out only momentarily from a kind of “organ toccata” texture. The pianist’s exemplary control of dynamics throughout made for an eerily agitated effect, the playing’s obvious brilliance placed at the service of the music’s enigmatic character.

Again, what a contrast with the slow movement! – here, laden, arpeggiated figures loomed out of the mists and disappeared again as mysteriously as they formed. In Jovanni-Rey’s hands it all resembled a bluesy dream-sequence to begin with, the swirling notes then coalescing into bigger, Rachmaninovian statements before retreating into the half-lit ambiences once again, intent upon consolidating gained territories. As for the finale, it seemed like there was a force of nature at work, an overwhelming, fiery pianistic display from this young man, with toccata-like figurations showering sparks in all directions – so very exhilarating!

The programme’s second half opened up an entirely different world of expression, in the form of Bloch’s Third Suite for solo ‘cello. One of three written towards the end of the composer’s life, the music obviously owes a structural debt to Bach, while using twentieth-century harmonies and figurations. Miranda Wilson’s playing allowed plenty of both lyrical expression and rhythmic poise throughout each of the five movements, demonstrating, for example, in the opening Allegro deciso, a lovely “encircling” quality, rhythm taking its turn with line amid touches of volatility and occasional ascents to beautifully-breathed stratospheric places.

But throughout the work, the performance seemed to me to “light from within” the music’s different characters, from the first Andante’s quizzical processional, through the leaping jocularities of the Allegro and the visionary yearnings of the second Andante, to the ritualized “song-and-dance” of the concluding Allegro giocoso movement. The player certainly deserved the sustained applause which followed the Suite’s final movement, brought off here with élan and confidence.

Next, Christopher Norton’s Eastern Preludes and Pacific Preludes, somewhat tongue-in-cheek arrangements of various melodies from different countries, provided a good deal of surface entertainment, especially in Jovann-Rey’s polished renditions. For those familiar with each of the “originals” and their individual geographical contexts there could well have been as many amusing incongruities of style identifiable as there were to Australasian ears in the “Waltzing Matilda” and “Pokarekare Ana” versions – the spirit of Fats Waller seemed to bubble up from within the cracks between the keys during parts of the former, while one was reminded of the wicked sense of fun brought to bear in similar arrangements to that of “Pokarekare” by the late, lamented Larry Pruden.

Appropriately, both musicians featured in the concert’s final item, Beethoven’s Variations on Mozart’s “Bei Männern, welch Liebe fühlen” from The Magic Flute. Beginning with that warmest and richest of musical sounds, the E-flat chord, an exposition-like opening gave way to a more decorated variant with running accompaniments, the pace hotting up in the succeeding variation to edge-of-seat excitement, before the composer dropped a few anchors to get the music’s bearings thus far on the journey. Into the minor mode we were then taken by a wistful piano and a dark-browed ‘cello, the instruments simply being themselves, both played with all the character the musicians could muster.

The piece’s youthful composer obviously being out to show us what he could do, a skipping, syncopated figuration was occasionally made to pick up its skirts and run, to everybody’s bemusement. That established, the musicians relished the melody’s long-breathed cavatina-like treatment, ‘cello joining the piano, and both players treating the lines with that amalgam of freedom and responsibility which indicates true interpretative judgement, as much when to hold as when to let go. The latter moment came with the final variation, a playfully-launched waltz turning into a minor-key display of high spirits, each musician relishing the unbuttoned expression required by the composer – a brief luftpause made the brilliant final flourish go off like a glowing firework.

We loved the music and the duo’s playing of it – very great credit to them both, individually and as a partnership.



















School of Music voices on display with varied and interesting programme

Voice Students, New Zealand School of Music

Songs and arias

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 15 July 2015, 12.15pm

It is always interesting to hear the voice students.  Some are undoubtedly more advanced in their studies than others, although the good-sized audience were not vouchsafed that information.  All were accompanied by Mark W. Dorrell.  It was interesting to note that the piano lid was not raised at all – a very sensible decision when accompanying young singers.

Declan Cudd, tenor, was up first, with ‘Ah, se fosse intorno al trono’, from La Clemenza di Tito, by Mozart.  He has a strong voice and great breath control, making for flowing lines.  It was a very good presentation, and there was a lovely top note.

He was followed by perhaps the highlight of the concert: Olivia Marshall (soprano, as Susanna) and Lisa Harper-Brown, one of the lecturers in voice (Countess), with ‘Sull’aria?  Che soave seffiretto…’ from The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart).  Semi-acted, this duet had Susanna, the maid, taking instructions from the Countess – which she wrote down and then handed the list to her ‘employer’.  Here were two fine voices, neither one dominating.  Olivia Marshall proved to have quite a big voice, easy vocal production and splendid tone – a joy to hear.

Joseph Haddow sang ‘Come raggio di sol’ by Antonio Caldara (1670-1736).  The bass-baritone made a good sound, with a lovely dark quality.

He was followed by Luka Venter (tenor).  This was a different type of voice from that of Declan Cudd.  There was not a lot of power or volume, but his German language was good in his aria ‘Mit Würd und Hoheit angetan’ from Haydn’s Creation.  He used the music score (others sang from memory) but did not appear to refer to it much. Other repertoire might have suited him better (see below).

Another duet followed, with Esther Leefe and Alicia Cadwgan (sopranos) singing from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the operato be presented next month by the School of Music.  Dido is usually sung by a mezzo rather than a soprano; one thinks of Kathleen Ferrier and Janet Baker, and their mellow tones.

Alicia Cadwgan was not really suited to this role.  However, she next sang ‘Mattinata’ by Leoncavallo, which was much more appropriate for her voice, and she performed it in fitting style, featuring fine top notes.

Declan Cudd returned, singing Verdi’s ‘Il poveretto’ with smooth production.  He is certainly on the way, but to be a Verdian tenor he will need more volume.

Next came a Russian bracket: Rebecca Howie sang the first of three Rachmaninoff songs: ‘Before my Window’.  She has a clear soprano voice with apparently easy production and good top notes, plus plenty of volume without apparent effort.  It was an appealing song, tastefully sung.

Luka Venter returned, with ‘Lilacs’ (without score this time). There was better projection and more variation of dynamics.

The third song was given by Alicia Cadwgan: ‘Oh, never sing to me again’.  Actually, I would happily have her sing again in this mode: words were particularly clear, and she gave an accomplished performance of a song full of emotional content, which she conveyed strongly.  She varied the tone and
expression superbly.

A confident Olivia Marshall sang a Tchaikovsky song: ‘It was in early spring’ (words by Tolstoy).  What a beautiful voice!  It is even throughout the range, and she uses the words (I’ve heard it described as ‘chewing’ the words), emphasising the important ones.  She has ample volume, and filled the church with this exquisite song.

Joseph Haddow returned, with an aria from Bellini’s La Sonnambula: ‘Vi ravviso’.  What a contrast this was to the Russian songs!  Some notes were a little raw, but the low ones were delicious.  The
dynamics were handled judiciously.

Following this, there came a French bracket of songs, pointing to the other work in the forthcoming opera season: L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, by Ravel.  Olivia Marshall began with his ‘Chanson de la mariée’. This was a beautifully varied rendition, as was her Russian song.  In every other respect, the French songs were very different from the Russian ones; this different character seemed to be lost on some of the singers.  Marshall was thoroughly in command of her performance, with again excellent voice production.

Rebecca Howie’s ‘Les Papillons’ by Chausson was sung rather too heartily for its character.  Butterflies are fragile, floating, flying creatures, and the poet is contemplating them, but the rendition we heard was more like a speech than a subtle observation.
(Grove and my record both say the poem is by Gautier, not Jean Richepin as given in the printed programme.)

Similarly, Luana Howard’s ‘Après un rêve’, Fauré’s magical song, required more subtlety.  It’s not about volume and projection in this case, but about nuance and meditative musing, after a dream.  This was missing.  We need the words to be clear, but it is not a declamation; it’s a solo song, not an operatic aria.  More variation of dynamics was needed.

Esther Leefe had the right approach to Ravel’s ‘Le Paon’.  Singing with the score, she had a quieter, more pensive style.  Her words were beautifully enunciated.  It is notable that her teacher is Jenny Wollerman, a mistress of the French repertoire.  This one had the French ambience, not least due to Mark Dorrell’s accompaniment.

She then sang ‘Thanks to these lonesome vales’ from Dido and Aeneas with again much attention to the words and their meanings.

The concert ended on a lighter note with ‘Mister Snow’ from Carousel by Rodgers and Hammerstein.  Rebecca Howie sang it in the appropriate style.  Her voice is suited to this repertoire and she used it well, expressing the meaning of the words with clarity and very musically.

A very varied programme and a variety of voices made for an entertaining and interesting concert.



Brilliance, poetry, power and passion from Trpčeski, Petrenko and the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

LISZT – Piano Concerto No.2 in A Major
MAHLER – Symphony No.5 in c-sharp Minor

Simon Trpčeski (piano)
Vasily Petrenko (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 10th July, 2015

Friday evening’s NZSO concert in Wellington promised to fully live up to its hyperbolic “Power and Passion” description, with Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski at the keyboard and St.Petersburg-born Vasily Petrenko on the podium. Expectations were high, each musician having made a profound and enduring impression when performing previously (on separate occasions) with the orchestra.

As well, the coupling of Liszt with Mahler was undoubtedly an inspired piece of programming, bringing together works by two of music’s most revolutionary creative spirits, each of whom also found lasting fame as a performer. Something of the flavour of that historic interpretative aura seemed to me to be recreated on this occasion by pianist, conductor and orchestra players – a sense of a unique and distinctive event, rather than “just another concert”.

Each of the works of course had its own distinctive world of expression, both composers sharing a gift for thematic invention and organic transformation – and as a programme-opener in this particular context Franz Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto seemed even more-than-usually startling and original. Vasily Petrenko coaxed characterful, almost rustic-sounding timbres from the opening wind chords, to which Simon Trpčeski’s piano responded with beautiful, upward-floating tones, the music shaped freely and rhapsodically, evoking such poignant feeling!

Having suffused the opening vistas with magic and beguilement, Liszt suddenly shakes and stir us from our reverie with charged impulses from the keyboard, which soon lead to terse exchanges between piano and orchestra, a confrontation whose urgency builds into a fierce orchestral tutti, carried on by the piano. In places taking the lead, and elsewhere responding to and mirroring the orchestral patternings Trpčeski constantly caught our ears with his beautifully dovetailed passagework, awaiting his chances topush out out the melodic and harmonic material, in aid of the composer’s on-going transformation of themes and rhythms into new worlds of feeling.

An example of this came with the ‘cello solo that grew out of one of the music’s luftpauses, here played by section principal Andrew Joyce with such rapt beauty as could perhaps have tempted the other musicians to simply stop and listen! Such is Liszt’s inventiveness throughout this work, it often seemed as though such moments were not so much ‘composed’ as freshly created – certainly Trpčeski’s playing frequently gave that impression (and included an unscheduled and extremely forgiving (almost mischievous) smile from the pianist at one point, flashed in the direction of the audience in response to a mercifully faint but still errant cell-phone ring)……

Anyone expecting or looking for moments of bombast or flashy brilliance of the kind some commentators still take pains to try and besmirch the composer’s work with, would have been disappointed with this performance – both Trpčeski and Petrenko drew playing from piano and orchestra which took no passage or episode of the music for granted – each phrase, sequence or episode was characterized in a way that brought out both its intrinsic effect and its place in the whole scheme of the work.

Liszt manages, for example, to use exactly the same thematic material heard throughout the work’s beautifully-wrought opening in the triumphal, swaggering march-like passages that take us to the work’s final pages. Here, it was the music’s finely-judged  emotional focus which the performers brought out consistently, instead of indulging in any vainglorious striving for effect, and sentimentalizing or making vulgar the music. And thus it was throughout – brilliance there was a-plenty (Trpčeski’s playing of the spectacular glissandi near the work’s end raised the hairs on the back of my neck!), as was poetry frequently in evidence as well (any number of breath-catching moments) – but all was swept up in a purposeful whole by the musicians, who did the music’s innovative, and in places daring character full justice.

Trpčeski was able to display more of his pianistic brilliance in an encore, again featuring the work of Liszt, but with another composer present! – one of Liszt’s many transcriptions of the work of Schubert, the sixth of a set of waltzes, a Valse-Caprice Soirées de Vienne. Here was old-world Schubertian charm allied with the feathery brilliance of execution one always associates with great performances of Liszt’s music.

So it was that we then prepared ourselves for the second of the evening’s two works – Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, written almost fifty years after the Liszt work was revised and first performed. The NZSO is no stranger to the symphony, performing it at least twice in relatively recent times that I can remember. But having previously heard Petrenko at full stretch conducting Shostakovich, another composer renowned for his ‘epic’ symphonic creations for orchestra, we in the audience were brimful with expectation that this performance of the Mahler work would be just as vividly realized as was the Russian composer’s Leningrad Symphony.

And so it began – a lively, though ever-so-slightly throaty trumpet solo got the symphony under way, leading to those crashing, lumbering chords which establish the ‘funeral march’ mood of the movement. As much depth as there was in the lower reaches, I found the full orchestral sound had an ‘edge’, giving the more explosive aspects of the music’s grief a kind of glint, a sharpness, adding to the unease. Contrasting with this was such sweetness from the strings with the melody, singing over the top of the black, menace-laden foot-treads of the brass and percussion.

Petrenko then whipped the precipitous mid-movement turmoil into a frenzy, the brass performing miracles of articulation at speed, the strings and winds galvanizing each other, and the percussion thunderous – not until the tuba called things to order with a wondrously full-girthed solo (ending with a similarly breath-catching diminuendo!) did the mourners recover their poise, and take up the cortege’s journey once again. We heard, to great effect along the way, a bleak rendition of the symphony’s opening from the timpani, and some heartfelt lamenting from the solo violin, with yet another surge of audibly-expressed anguish from the orchestra, before both trumpet and flute returned again to that opening fanfare figure, just before the final, non-negotiable pizzicato note.

Without undue delay the second movement erupted in our faces, the notes hurled straight at us with tremendous force from the players! The music subsided as suddenly as it had begun (echoes of the Second Symphony’s finale), seeming to take up a similarly funereal aspect to that of the slow movement, the strings in tandem with the winds moving forwards in mournful procession once again, but then set upon with as much vehemence as we heard at the opening. Again, these agitations fell away – and Petrenko allowed his ‘cellos what seemed like all the time in the world to give voice to their recitative – so inward, concentrated and heart-stopping, a ‘dark centre’ of emotion, it seemed – an unforgettable moment!

Then came the build-up to the movement’s climax, a magnificent cross-beam of gleaming tones, the symphony’s centerpiece, here magnificently delineated by Petrenko and his players –  a sequence that would return even more triumphantly at the symphony’s end. But there were miles and miles of music still to go before then – a scherzo in the rhythm of a waltz-landler was next, the symphony’s longest movement, in fact, here dancing its way across the composer’s world with wonderful insouciance. Punctuating the dance at certain points were richly-evocative horn-calls, sounding as if they were coming from all directions, from romantic forest vistas at all points of the compass – it all brought forth truly magnificent playing from guest (and former NZSO principal!) horn Samuel Jacobs and his band of cohorts!

The dance having whirled to its exuberant conclusion, the symphony ‘turned a corner’ and took us straight to the most well-known part of the work, the fourth-movement strings-and-harp Adagietto, used by Visconti in the film Death in Venice, and a classical ‘hit’ ever since. As it turned out, this performance stole the show,  Petrenko’s direction inspiring such diaphanously-woven textures as to persuade us that the music was of the air rather than created by man-made instruments. In certain places the textures dressed the drifting phantoms of the opening sequences with enough flesh-and-blood to bring them down to earth, exuding breath and energy in pursuit of love and fulfillment (double-basses so sonorous at the very end!) – a superb performance!

In fact, such was the Adagietto’s focus and intensity, the Rondo-Finale didn’t for me take wing to the extent I was hoping for. It was if the work had ‘peaked’ at that point, making it difficult for the music that was still to follow to grip the attention. Of course, at the level of intensity the Adagietto performance operated on, it would have been impossible, even suicidal, to try and sustain such voltage – but  It seemed, in a sense, the reverse of what took place when Pietari Inkinen conducted the same work a couple of seasons ago with the orchestra, giving a performance that spent two movements trying to truly “find itself” before opening up in the latter stages and culminating in a finale that was truly celebratory in feeling.

Mahler never ‘plays himself’ – and I wanted in places in the finale a bit more bucolic warmth and big-heartedness of manner. Perhaps the players were ‘spooked’ by a rare brief lapse of ensemble among the winds in one of their concerted passages – but whatever the cause the performance seemed to take a while to find the music’s definite character. I didn’t really care for the conductor’s ‘teasing-out’ of one of the lyrical episodes before the end, as it involved a lessening of the momentum that helps to makes this movement such a contrapuntal pleasure. Fortunately, it was a brief aberration – and the coda, in which the second movement’s great ‘cross-beam’ theme reappeared and silenced the chattering voices, was here overwhelming in its impact and splendor, Petrenko and his players then ‘letting their hair down’ over the final pages of joyous orchestral abandonment.

“No wonder they love him in Liverpool!” was the comment regarding Vasily Petrenko made to me afterwards by a friend – there was no doubt in my mind, with Simon Trpčeski’s glittering Liszt concerto performance as an additional treasure in itself, the concert was of a quality which truly enriched one’s store of musical experiences, adding wonderment to life’s meaning and stirring the blood most satisfyingly.


Excellent singing from Choir of Christ’s College, Cambridge with minor non-musical shortcomings

Howells: Requiem; and anthems by Tallis, Brahms, Harris, Stanford, Walton,
Vaughan Williams, Philip Ledger
Vierne: Organ Sonata in B flat minor

Choir of Christ’s College, Cambridge, conductors and organists Joe Ashmore and John Ellse

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Thursday 9 July 2015, 7pm

Considering the atrocious weather, it was a pleasant surprise to find a sizeable audience at the church; the main body of the church was well-filled, and more than a handful of people occupied the seats in the raised section at the back.

However, it was disappointing to find a poor substitute for a printed programme. The composers and titles were merely listed, with below a description of the choir’s role and activities.  The Director’s name and career details were given, but in fact he did not conduct or play the organ; the two who did both were not named in the programme.  Moreover, the brief document was as scant of font size as it was in information.

The conductors introduced items verbally, but without benefit of microphone or of sufficient volume, and spoke far too quickly to be understood by those of us who like to sit in the rear
section.  The front half of the audience laughed at comments from the conductors – what were they?  I gather that among the remarks were one pointing out that all the composers had an association with Cambridge University.

Gripes aside, it was an excellent concert, much appreciated by the audience.  It began with Tallis’s ‘Sancte Deus’, in which a lovely tone was produced, after a slightly husky start.  The choir, a mixed
one, has good balance.  There will be those who will say that ‘It’s not the same without boy trebles’.  Indeed, it is not the same.  It has a warmer, fuller tone, and less of the ‘hooty’ sound that the traditional English cathedral and chapel choir often has had.  There is an attractive range of dynamics and expression.  The choir includes one male alto, 11 women and 8 men.

Judging by the chord given for the next piece (most of the programme was sung unaccompanied), the choir was slightly flat at the end of the Tallis.  A couple of other pieces finished slightly sharp. However, these little aberrations did not really matter – the choir never sounded out of tune during the singing.

Brahms’s motet ‘Warum ist das Licht gegeben’ was typical of many of the composer’s choral pieces in that the tonality was not quickly established, and it took some time to find a ‘home’ key.  This makes for an interesting quality.  There was some unpleasant, strident tone from the tenors here.  The long and complex work contained some gorgeous cadences.  The choir’s German pronunciation was good, and Brahms’s unusual harmonies and suspensions were brought out splendidly.

‘Faire is the Heaven’ is a beautiful setting of words by Edmund Spenser (1552-99), the music composed by William Henry Harris (1883-1973).  I am familiar with this popular piece, but I have never heard it more effectively and sensitively sung.  The slightly less well-known ‘Bring us, O Lord’ was another attractive item from Harris.

Charles Villiers (not Villers, RNZ Concert please note!) Stanford wrote very much music for the Anglican Church, and this accompanied item, ‘For lo, I raise up’ (composed in 1914) was a rousing piece.  There was an elaborate organ accompaniment.  Words were clear, and the pianissimo from the choir was beautifully judged.  However, there were some undisciplined sounds from the men.  The style of the piece made me think of our English-born twentieth-century professors of music in New Zealand: Victor Galway and Vernon Griffiths; indeed, the latter studied at Cambridge and may well have been taught by Stanford.

The Stanford was followed by an organ solo from John Ellse.  The programme did not divulge what it was, and again, I could not hear the announcement clearly.  However, a choir member told me in the interval that it was Organ Sonata in B flat minor by Vierne; I had picked that it was one of the French school; its character was that of his mentors Franck and Widor, with a colourful range of registrations, melody and harmony.

The Requiem by Herbert Howells (1892-1983) began the second half of the concert.  It is a most delicate and affecting work, and was conducted by John Ellse.  The singing featured gorgeous mellow tone; quite a different style of singing from that of the Tallis work that began the concert.  Throughout the seven movements (some in Latin, some in English) there were fine solos (as elsewhere in the concert), especially from sopranos.  The effect here, and throughout the concert, was enhanced by the splendid acousticsof Sacred Heart Cathedral.

Walton’s ‘A Litany’ (Drop, drop slow tears), written when he was only 16, featured multi-tonality, which was managed well by the choir.  His other anthem ‘Set me as a seal’ had the conductor and organist swap places again, for the organ accompaniment to this exquisitely sung piece.  Vaughan Williams lovely ‘O taste and see’ used the organ only for the introduction.  The concert ended with ‘Loving shepherd of thy sheep’ by well-known former King’s College Choir music director Philip Ledger; a striking piece, also accompanied.

As an encore, the choir sang Parry’s grand and well-known ‘I was glad’, with its majestic organ part.  Again there was some coarse male tone.  I observed one of the bass singers who seemed to ‘holler’ when the music was loud, which was a shame when all others seemed to manage their breathing well, and maintained good tone throughout the dynamic range.

Some choristers, particularly men, held their music copies too low down to enable them to see the conductor readily.  This can also inhibit the vocal production fully reaching the audience.

The overall effect of the performance was very fine indeed, and that the choral tradition continues in good heart and good hands in Cambridge was proved beyond reasonable doubt.