Fine choral concert spanning the centuries from The Tudor Consort

‘Sweet Sixteen’
The Tudor Consort conducted by Michael Stewart, with Richard Apperley (organ)

Schütz: Jauchzet den Herrn, SWV36
G. Gabrieli: Jubilate Deo
Benevoli: Confitebor
Strauss: Der Abend
Fasch: Kyrie
Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music
Mendelssohn: Hora est

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Saturday, 5 September 2015, 7.30pm

The first half that comprised perhaps normal Tudor Consort fare, the second half plunged into the nineteenth and even the twentieth centuries.

The title of the concert derived from the fact that most of the pieces performed were written for sixteen voices; some in two or four choirs, some for sixteen separate voices.  A few of the works were sung by 20 or 21 voices, as was the opening work, sung antiphonally, with 7 or 8 singers performing from the organ gallery, with the remainder at the front of the sanctuary.  The others were sung by 16 or 17 voices.

The Heinrich Schütz extract from his Psalms of David was a most joyful work, a setting of Psalm 100: Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth, and it was given full rein by the choir.

It was followed in like mood by Jubilate Deo written by Schütz’s teacher, Giovanni Gabrieli.  Again the
choir was in full voice, with joyful music-making using words from Psalm 100 and other Biblical passages.  The choir made good use of the acoustic of the church, with gorgeous tone, especially from the women, and a strong rhythmic pulse, despite the multiple interweaving parts.  Like the previous item, it was with organ – the Cathedral’s own organ.

Sitting well back in the Cathedral, on the raised seating, is my usual spot, because I like to see the choir, but also I find it good acoustically.  However, it sometimes proved a disadvantage to the hearing all of Michael Stewart’s spoken introductions, and sometimes the organ was too loud for the singers because of my proximity to it.

The third item was by an composer unknown to most of us; Oratio Benevoli (spelt by Wikipedia and Grove as Orazio Benevolo or Benevoli), who lived from 1605 to 1672, and was a Franco-Italian composer of large scaled polychoral sacred choral works.  His style was called the ‘colossal’ style, because of his use of many choirs together.

His setting was of Psalm 110, for four four-part choirs.  This was a big sing – both as separate choirs and as one entity, the singers faced many demands.  There were frequent solos.  The work opened with a cantor singing a capella; after his words, the organ joined the singers.  The individual voices varied in their ability to project the words and music; the massed sections were the most effective.  There is no doubt that this was pretty difficult, virtuosic music, with complex ornamenting melismas.  Towards the end, women’s voices sang together a series of harmonic suspensions that were electrifying; and the further concerted sections were exciting.

Now for something completely different.  After the interval, the first piece was ‘Der Abend’ from Zwei Gesänge by Richard Strauss.  The Tudor Consort singing Strauss!?  A poem by Schiller was the text, about evening, love and rest. The unaccompanied choral song opened with two voices singing an octave apart.  As the programme note stated, the music did indeed sound orchestral – it was written between Also sprach Zarathustra and Don Quixote, extremely colourful tone poems.

At times the tonality was hard to pin down – parts entered in seemingly different keys from what preceded or accompanied them.  Such was the complexity the words were hard to identify.  The different timbres of the voices did not always serve the words or the music well.  Nor did the melismatic treatment of the words assist in making them out.  On the whole, the men’s voices blended better than did the women’s.  The ending set the words (translated) ‘Ascending in the sky with quiet steps / comes the fragrant night; / sweet love follows. / Rest and love! / Phoebus, the loving one, rests.’  The music here was appropriately dreamy and lovely.

Carl Fasch (1736 – 1800) was, Michael Stewart told us, influenced by Benevoli, and in turn influenced Felix Mendelssohn, whom we were to hear later.  Fasch’s ‘Kyrie’ from his Missa a 16 voci was written for the Berlin Singakademie, which he founded in 1791.  It was the first mixed voice choir in Germany, consisting of amateur singers.

That did not mean it was an easy sing, despite being the first work he presented to his choir.  It was sung with organ (though originally with instrumental accompaniment).  Near the beginning I wondered if it was the organ or the choir that was slightly out of tune; it had to be the latter.  After the more dramatic music we had already heard this piece sounded rather stodgy.

Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, written for 16 different soloists in honour of Sir Henry Wood’s fiftieth anniversary as a conductor, is as sublime as is the blank verse of William Shakespeare, which it sets.  The wonderful speech by Lorenzo to Jessica in Act V Scene i of The Merchant of Venice has its own music, but Vaughan Williams does not obscure this.  The opening words ‘How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!’ is evoked in the calm, flowing music.  The timbres of the organ do not enhance the vocal lines as does the original orchestral setting.

Shakespeare’s reference to the stars (‘There’s not the smallest orb…like an angel sings’) recalls the belief in the music of the spheres, which the composer echoes. Towards the end, where Shakespeare has a kind of new start to the verse: ‘Music! Hark!…’, Vaughan Williams appropriately reiterates the music of the opening lines.  The ending ‘Becomes the touches of sweet harmony.’ Is sublime, and was beautifully rendered.

When singing as a choir, the Consort was very fine, but the solos were very variable in quality.  The words could have been clearer, but again, my proximity to the organ may have been a factor.

To end, we heard Hora est by Mendelssohn.  The piece was inspired by Fasch’s work, with organ ‘ad libitum’.  The tuning seemed a little suspect at the opening.  The first section, ‘Hora est…’, was an antiphon for male voices only, then the women join for the response ‘Ecce apparebit…’.  This was difficult music, and the result was not the best I have heard from The Tudor Consort.  However, the brightness of the women’s response to the darkness of the antiphon certainly created a jubilant effect.

It may have been the diversity of the programme’s composers and styles of music, but the concert was out of a drawer further down the cabinet than is the case with The Tudor Consort’s usual performances.  The audience was rather smaller than we have come to expect for the Consort; there were competing classical music events.

Although the printed programme had its usual excellent notes and meticulous full translations, it was undated, and nowhere acknowledged the huge contribution of Richard Apperley at the organ.

It was an innovative and interesting idea to present a variety of works for 16 voices. In the event, I did not feel that all the items came off equally well, but it was an enjoyable and instructive concert nevertheless.

Breaking the concert mould, with fateful results – Orchestra Wellington

Orchestra Wellington presents :

RODRIGO – Concierto Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra
SHOSTAKOVICH – Piano Concerto No.2 in F Major Op. 102
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No.4 in F Minor Op. 36

Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Andrey Lebedev (guitar)
Michael Houstoun (piano)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday September 5th 2015

Breaking the mould, as Marc Taddei and Orchestra Wellington have done repeatedly and successfully over the last few seasons, this concert presented no less than TWO concertos, and for different instruments! The orchestra could have gone the whole hog and asked Michael Houstoun to play the Tchaikovsky Second Piano Concerto after the interval (the one with the concerto-like parts for violin and ‘cello) – but the name of the concert would have then had to be altered, from “Fate” to something like “Concertomania”, or something.

Wisely, no such deviation was allowed, and so we were given the next Tchaikovsky Symphony in the composer’s numbered series, one whose theme was responsible for the concert’s “fateful” title. And, after the success the orchestra had achieved thus far with the first three of these works (I can testify to the excellence of the performances of No.1 (“WInter Daydreams”) and No.3 (“Polish”) – to my chagrin I missed that of the “Little Russian” – it was necessary that “the big three” (as Marc Taddei referred to them) needed to be tackled, and put across with the same kind of verve, brilliance and sensitivity as we’d already heard.

But the concert introduced a new and somewhat geographically removed element, a work which has nothing whatever to do with Russia – Spanish composer Joachim Rodrigo’s world-famous “Concierto de Aranjuez”. Wonderful though the music is, it was a slightly unnerving choice, followed immediately as it was by works associated with that part of Europe as far removed from the Iberian peninsula as it’s possible to get.

All was explained by a brief note in the programme leaflet available at the concert’s beginning – the presence of Rodrigo’s “Orange Juice” Concerto (as it was amusingly referred to by none other than Marc Taddei, speaking as part of a “between-the-items” presentation by Radio New Zealand Concert’s Clarissa Dunn) was part of a promotion by the Orchestra presenting winners of the Gisborne International Music Festival. This competition has certainly done its work in promoting the careers of many musicians well-known to New Zealand audiences, and others who have established themselves in musical careers overseas.

The 2013 winner of the Gisborne Competition was Australian guitarist Andrey Lebedev. I’m not sure whether he performed this concerto at Gisborne as one of his winning performances – but the work has certainly become the defining piece for any guitarist wanting to break into the “big time” world-wide. There are other concertos for the instrument – but none so popular and instantly recognizable. And yes, the ‘big tune ” of the slow movement has been made a hit in its own right, arranged for all different kinds of solo and ensemble combinations (the spoken presentation made reference to a well-known film “Brassed Off” in which the music was played by a solo cornet with a brass band accompaniment).

In a purely conventional context, players of the cor anglais everywhere have a lot to thank Rodrigo for, along with Dvorak in the “New Word” Symphony, of course – it’s a real gift of an orchestral solo, and was beautifully played, here – Marc Taddei got the player up for some well-earned applause at the concerto’s end. Rodrigo’s is actually a remarkable piece of composing – the concerto’s popularity has highlighted the luscious Hollywood-like tunes, but I think at the expense of some inventive treatments of the theme and parts of the theme, culminating in a very beautiful epilogue – a rhapsodic exchange between orchestra and soloist before the music just drifts into the ether – and straightaway, the march-like theme of the final movement begins, with again, inventive and endlessly beguiling treatments of the theme and harmonic variations of it, lots of piquancies and evocative guitar-like figurations from the orchestra.

The solo guitar was given a degree of amplification – expecting an acoustic guitar to make any great impact next to an orchestra in a concert hall like the Michael Fowler Centre is unrealistic, so it’s accepted that the instrument will, in some circumstances have some “help”. It must be a very hard thing to judge technically,and especially when one has to take into account the difference the presence of an audience makes. To my ears, it was here slightly overdone – it put the instrument slightly “out of scale” with the orchestra, and also into a different kind of acoustic regime – and it also made it difficult for the soloist to play really quietly in places, most notably in the “sotto voce” endings.

But I got used to the sound-picture, as one’s ears do with almost anything. One certainly didn’t miss any detail (including what sounded like a false entry – quickly corrected – from the guitarist during the slow movement!), and even within that slightly amplified sound-world there was a lot of light and shade in his playing, which was what I enjoyed. In some of the exchanges between guitar and the wind instruments, it was obvious that the guitar was in its own electro-acoustic world – but the difference was more realistic, for some reason, with the solo ‘cello in its lovely solo. Having said all of this, Andre Lebedev I thought brought out everything that was in the music for our absolute delight. I thought his playing really relished the piquancy of Rodrigo’s harmonies, and served notice to us that there’s a lot more to this music than the “big tune”, however important that is in getting people interested in the work in the first place – it’s really only the beginning!

The orchestra was a sensitive accompanying body – the playing, from both single instruments and from different sections nicely echoed the “guitar-style” manner of the work, much the same as most Spanish music for orchestra (and for solo piano) does. By contrast, in the work which followed, the orchestra found itself much more of an active protagonist, far more feisty and combatative in its interactions with the soloist. This was, of course, Michael Houstoun, playing his fourth Russian concerto in the concert series, and seemingly relishing every note. His brief on this occasion was the second of Shostakovich’s two piano concertos. Here, the transition from Rodrigo to Shostakovich wasn’t quite the schizophrenic experience it might have seemed on paper, because each work was in its way, merry, witty, festive and romantic.

Shostakovich wrote the concerto for his son Maxim as a nineteenth birthday present (the sort of things composers do “for” their children, one supposes!). One of Shotakovich’s first biographers, commenting on the music’s high spirits and sense of well-being, wrote “it was as though the composer’s youth had returned to him”, which puts the work’s dedication to Maxim in its appropriate context, far removed from the existentialist anguish of the symphonies, such as the recently completed Tenth. It’s no accident that the makers of the 2000 version of the Disney film Fantasia chose the first movement of this concerto to tell the animated story of the steadfast tin soldier, who goes into battle to defend a ballerina’s honour against the attentions of a malevolent jack-in-the-box, and after various heart-stopping adventures is able to return to reclaim his place beside her in the toy nursery.

We didn’t need the Disney film to “fill out” the scenarios, as the performance had all the energy, humour, theatricality and sentiment one could ask for. The orchestral winds which opened the concerto were spot-on with their perkiness, which Michael Houstoun’s piano lost no time in taking up. And though the Shostakovich fingerprints were soon in evidence – motoric energies and rising tides of harmonic ambience – it was all in the cause of generating high spirits and well-being, enormous washes of orchestral tone giving way to a cadenza from the soloist which picked up the energies again and whirled the movement to its exciting conclusion.

But it was then that the music would have REALLY raised the eyebrows of people familiar with the “usual” Shostakovich – we heard begin one of the most tender, lyrical and romantic pieces of writing for piano and orchestra imaginable. “It was like – well, like Chopin!” I heard one person say. And it was indeed, with bits of Rachmaninov thrown into the mix – in fact, one sequence sounded SO like the latter’s Second Piano Concerto, it was almost disorienting!  (I nearly said “disconcerting”, but thought better of it……). And then, out of these romantic ambiences came a chirpy-voiced piano figure, which returned us to the bright-eyed character of the first movement, summoning all the exuberance that was waiting in the wings onto the stage! This was the movement whose performance set everybody talking at the interval – I kept on hearing comments like “breathtaking!” “exciting!” “hair-raising!” and other expressions to that effect. It was all of those things, but especially the 7/8 sections where the missing “beat” tightened the music’s momentum and gave it a kind of headlong, unstoppable quality, firstly for orchestra and then the piano – it  was “Russian Dance” material with a twist, one that made it even more exciting and exhilarating.

So then, the “grim business” of the evening swung into play, with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Marc Taddei said, when introducing the work, that he had asked the orchestra to play the “Fate” theme as broadly and darkly as he could get it to go, and the orchestra brasses certainly delivered the goods, right from the start – first the horns, then the heavy brass underneath snarling down the scale, and finally, gleaming at the top, the trumpets – and it all sounded fantastic! In short, the brass players did an incredible job, providing tremendous weight and brilliance. I must admit, any “live” performance of the opening of this symphony I hear puts me on edge, ever since my experience of hearing in concert, over forty years ago, Antal Dorati conduct the then NZBC Symphony in this work. At the rehearsal on the morning of the concert (so I was told by a friend who was there) Dorati walked out on the orchestra after telling the brass players they were incompetent – and so that evening the brasses were out to prove him wrong, which they did, a cracked note or two notwithstanding……..but the experience, though very exciting, was also, for those in the “know”, too razor-edged to be comfortable!

Well, Dorati would, I think, have been pleased with the Orchestra Wellington brass players – they did as good a job with this work as did the NZSO players the week previously with the Bruckner Eighth Symphony. The first movement of the Tchaikovsky seems to me to be one of the composer’s most demanding works, because it carries so much tension over such wide spans of music – and even the more lyrical bits sound as though they’re stepping gingerly upon coiled springs, which could go off at any moment. It all requires tremendous reserves of physical and emotional stamina to do the music proper justice – in fact the only other thing Tchaikovsky had written up to that point that was remotely as wild and full-blooded as this symphony’s opening movement was the tone-poem “Francesca da Rimini”, the previous year (1876). The players did the music and its composer proud – if the most tremendous moments seemed the preserve of the brass and timpani, the strings and winds also played their part. At the movement’s conclusion there was a sense of things being wrung out and exhausted, of having to pick things up once again from all over, and gradually rebuild and refurbish the spirit once more.

The two middle movements certainly did that – firstly by way of a typically Russian folk-song-like slow movement, and then a very exciting pizzicato-strings dance interspersed with droll interludes for wind and brass – all part of the “refurbishment of the spirit” whose devastation by fate had been presented to us by the opening movement. Again, the orchestra played marvellously (especially in the pizzicato-ostinato movement), and only a few bars of imprecise ensemble during the slow movement, caused by a late entry from one of the players, disturbed the brilliance and sheen of the playing (the sort of mishap that probably didn’t happen at the rehearsal!). As for the finale it was overwhelming in its impact, no more so than when the “Fate” theme returned unexpectedly, announced by no less then three sets of hand-cymbals (a spectacular sight!). From this “stroke of fate” Taddei and the orchestra gradually and patiently built up the “return to life” impulses, banishing all caution and plunging into frenzied expressions of excitement with great panache – “taking pleasure in the joy of others”, as the composer succinctly put it.

Onward to the remaining two symphonies – and, amid the on-going delights of this series with Michael Houstoun and Tchaikovsky, one wonders what Marc Taddei and his orchestra have got up their sleeves for 2016?