A thousand years of church music in well chosen programme for voice and organ

‘Today the Lonely Winds’: Sacred music for organ and voice
(St. James’s Church and Wellington Organists Association)

Anonymous items; pieces by Frescobaldi, Monteverdi, St. Bernard of Claivaux, Jacob Regnart, Buxtehude, St Thomas Aquinas and Langlais

Heather Easting (organ), William McElwee (baritone)

St. James’s Church, Lower Hutt

Sunday, 24 April 2016, 3pm

The title puzzled me a little; it was a beautiful day without wind, and the winds of the organ pipes had plenty of company – there were over 70 people present.

It was a very well thought-out programme, revealing thought on how to present it, and which physical positions the baritone should take up. The choice of items obviously involved quite a bit of research. The climax of the recital was Jean Langlais’s organ suite Suite Médiévale en forme de messe basse. The five movements were each based on a piece of liturgical chant that was included in the rest of the programme.

The organ had been wheeled into a position in the centre of the sanctuary, side-on to the audience. This made it possible for the latter to see the organist’s hands and feet in action, and made for better communication between the two performers when they were both involved in items.

The opening antiphon, Asperges me from the 13th century, was intoned by William McElwee most tellingly, out of sight, from the west side of the sanctuary. It was followed by a Frescobaldi Toccata decima on the organ. The organ had a very bright sound, and the piece involved intricate rhythms and ornamentation; a most attractive work. Pedals were used for the final two notes only.

McElwee then sang from the back of the church, and moved slowly forward: Kyrie fons bonitatis, a 10th century piece, in Phrygian, or third, mode. Next was a solo motet by Monteverdi (the programme note said for solo tenor or soprano, but McElwee managed it pretty well): O quam pulchra es, accompanied by organ. The baritone managed the highly ornamented style of music readily. The accompaniment was written for a bass instrument, probably theorbo. Although this meant it was written for the bass end of the range, there was no pedal part.

McElwee followed this with a hymn attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux (12th century): Jesus dulcis memoria, sung unaccompanied as he walked around in the sanctuary, as if processing into church.

A major work on the organ was next: Frescobaldi’s Cento partite sopra passacaglia, from 1637. Whether there were one hundred variations I could not tell, but this quite lengthy work is in three sections. The first was charming, played on flutes. Later, other stops were added – diapasons? But no pedals. The third section was more ornate, and quite long.

Another antiphon: Ubi caritas et amor, the melody possibly from the fourth century was sung initially from a separate room to the right side of the sanctuary (with the door open), and then from the pulpit – very effective. New to me was the name Jacob Regnart (~1540-1599), whose Auf meinen lieben Gott was sung with organ. Wikipedia informs me that he was ‘a Flemish Renaissance composer [who] spent most of his career in Austria and Bohemia, where he wrote both sacred and secular music.’

Next up was one of the major organ composers, Dietrich Buxtehude (~1637-1707). His delightful Chorale Partita is a collection of four dance movements based on the same chorale melody utilised by Regnart. Heather Easting used a different registration for each movement, and the pieces were lively and attractive. Another hymn came from St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Adoro te devote, sung mainly from the chancel steps.

Buxtehude appeared again, with a cantata Herr, Herr wenn ich nur Dich hab. Some of the vocal runs in this quite demanding work were not quite secure, but William McElwee’s tone was very pleasing. This was the first time we heard (and saw) the organist using the pedals.

After an eighth century hymn Christus vincit, a solemn chant used at the coronations of the Holy Roman Emperors sung from the chancel steps, the singer moved off to the west of the sanctuary. In this hymn, as elsewhere, his words were very clear.

Now came the major work in the recital, the Langlais Suite, Op.56 (1947). Skipping the nineteenth century (and most of the eighteenth), we were suddenly confronted with full organ, much pedal work, the use of all three manuals and the Swell pedal in the Prélude (Introit) to the Suite. Particularly telling was the use of the reeds on the upper manual. The second movement, Tiento (Offertory) had the melody played alternately on the pedals and on the Swell manual. Notable also was the use of the tremolo.

Improvisation (Elevation) was the third movement, featuring initially very soft music, but also frequent changes of registration. Méditation (Communion) followed. It had charming running motifs, then a medieval melody on the Great, with a 2-foot stop over the 8-foot. Again, there was considerable change of registration, and much variation, such as the melody being played on the pedals.

The final movement, Acclamations was certainly consistent with its title, being loud and resplendent. There were many brilliant episodes, grandiose themes, and harmonic clashes.

The variety of content, yet with a connected structure, made for a most interesting recital, as did the changes in periods and styles of music. It was not only a demonstration of singer and organist in good form, but also of the excellent organ at St. James’s Church. We had a marvellous conspectus of church music through more than 1,000 years in this well-designed programme.


Secondary Students’ Choir celebrates thirtieth anniversary: stylistic and period adaptability, sheer quality

New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir in Concert directed by Andrew Withington, accompanied by Brent Stewart, with Rebecca Ryan (soprano)

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Friday, 22 April 2016, 7.30pm

As I said two years ago “I reviewed the choir almost exactly two years ago; now they are here for another school holiday course. My enthusiasm for their performance has not diminished, nor has the choir’s skill and versatility”. This year is the 30th anniversary of the choir’s formation, and those of its alumni attending the weekend celebrations helped to boost audience numbers so that the cathedral was almost full. The excellent acoustic for choral singing in this venue make the experience of hearing a choir of such high calibre an utterly pleasurable experience.

A full programme meant quite a long concert, including speeches at beginning and end, but the choir of 57 members did not flag; all items were performed in a thoroughly professional manner, despite the brief time that it had been together in Wellington. This speaks not only of expertise, but of disciplined work prior to the choir meeting together. Recognition of this expertise has come from Canada, where the choir will sing as Guest Choir at the 2016 International Choral Kathaumixw, where it has attended twice before as successful competitors. In addition, its Music Director, Andrew Withington, will be an adjudicator, and the choir will perform over 10 concerts, followed by a tour of centres on Vancouver Island. An emphasis will be on performing New Zealand music.

The concert began with the choristers stationed around the cathedral to sing Media Vita, a medieval Latin antiphon, arranged by modern Irish composer Michael McGlynn. A precentor intoned the words at first, from the front of the cathedral, then the men joined in; a drum gave an occasional beat, then the women joined in, as the choir processed to the front. This was a dramatic and effective way to start the performance. Singing without scores, the choir produced bold, confident singing. At the start, Andrew Withington conducted from the aisle, but after a while he ceased, and merely moved his head slightly to indicate cut-offs.

Items were announced initially by the choir’s vocal consultant Rachel Alexander, and later by members of the choir. This was perhaps unnecessary since everyone had a printed programme. However, it was a chance for the audience to hear from some of the young people.

Heinrich Schütz’s lovely Singet dem Herrn revealed a good sound from the choir and a wonderful range of dynamics. Although I could not see Brent Stewart from my seat, it seemed clear that in this item he was playing an electronic keyboard with a simulated harpsichord sound. The instrument carried considerable more resonance than a ‘live’ harpsichord would have. Many items in the programme were unaccompanied; for others he played the piano. The contrapuntal nature of this work did not seem to faze these choristers, and they produced the German language well. The bass tone was sometimes a little coarse.

The performance of Mendelssohn’s Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt (Psalm 100), again in excellent German, brought out the harmony, suspensions and other features very well. Chris Artley, an Auckland composer, gave us the first of two settings of ‘O magnum mysterium’. It was a very effective piece of writing, with overtones of American choral music; hints of Lauridsen. There were delicious harmonies and progressions. New Zealand-born, US-resident David Childs’s setting of the same text was very exciting, and featured excellent pianissimo singing, in which the choir exhibited great control. It was full of agonised tones.

More familiar was the ‘Alleluia’ from Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate, sung by choir alumna Rebecca Ryan. It was a pity to have piano accompaniment for this great piece (organ would have been preferable, since obviously there was no orchestra at hand). The soprano floated through the florid passages most competently, but occasionally there was a slightly metallic tone. When the choir joined with her in American composer Mark Templeton’s Pie Jesu her lower voice was used initially; here her tone was mellow and mellifluous. This piece also had some Lauridsen characteristics.

Loch Lomond was sung in an arrangement by David Lantz III (another American), with flute and cello, both played by choir members. After an instrumental introduction, the song was first sung in unison, and then in harmony. It was impressive that the choir adopted Scottish vowels for authenticity. The tenors’ sound was very fine in this piece, and the balance of the choir, as elsewhere, excellent.

Sarah Hopkins was the composer of an enterprising piece titled Past life melodies. Google led me to: “Past Life Melodies is currently the most performed Australian choral piece in the USA & has become a standard repertoire piece for many choirs around the world”. It started with the choir humming, followed by open-mouthed ‘ah-ah’ sounds with full tone, basses producing a continuous drone below, on single tones, with some of the choir singing a repetitive tune of nasal syllables ‘nya-nya’) against that background, demonstrating aboriginal influences in this a capella music. Most remarkable was the choir’s singing of harmonic overtones, giving the ethereal, ringing sound one hears in Tibetan throat singing. This was spine-tingling stuff!.

The choir changed formation to a semi-circle for the next work, Rotala by contemporary Latvian composer Juris Karlsons. It began with the choir making sounds like a train, whistle and all. Then the singers fell to talking to each other, getting louder all the time, and finished the piece with fortissimo singing.

After the interval, we were treated to some new Maori music, composed by the Puanaki whanau, domiciled near Christchurch. Ko te Tahitanga tenei and Pakipaki were performed with guitars and kapa-haka. Tihi Puanaki is an award-winning broadcaster on TV and radio as well as a composer. The performance was full of verve and variety; one would have sworn the whole team was Maori.

Another two New Zealand works followed: Altered Days by Richard Oswin, and ‘Whanau Marama’ by David Hamilton. The former was an arrangement of a New Zealand folksong, sung with appropriate accent, and the second an elaborate piece in both English and Maori, with electronic sounds. The first were like wind-chimes, later other sounds occurred. The fine soprano soloist was Michaela Cadwgan.

Lauridsen himself appeared, with ‘Sure on this shining night’, now quite a well-known, but always beautiful piece. Feller from Fortune followed; a traditional Canadian song arranged by prolific composer of last century, Harry Somers, then continuing in North America we heard It’s de-lovely by Cole Porter and I got rhythm by George and Ira Gershwin – the first from memory and the second using music scores. The Cole Porter was accompanied most effectively by piano, bass guitar and drums, the Gershwin by several instrumentalists from the choir, the latter adopting American accents; and again for I sing because I’m happy by American Rollo Dilworth, with similar accompaniment to that used in the Porter song.

Returning to this part of the world, we had Lota nu’u & Manuo le vaveao, a Samoan song arranged by Steven Rapana, one of the choir’s alumni. Choristers walked around clapping, after making lots of interesting sound effects at the beginning, including from drums and sticks, then changing to rich harmony. The presentation was very dramatic. Finally, alumni of the choir were invited to join in the final item, an arrangement of Hine, e hine arranged by Andrew Withington. It began with humming. The vocal arrangement was quite difficult, and at times it was not easy to discern the melody.

The Dilworth item was repeated as an encore, demanded by much applause. The unified sound of the choir, its adaptability to singing in very different styles and eras of music, and its sheer quality, all point to a successful overseas trip.

It would have been helpful to have at least a few programme notes, and to have the dates of the composers given in the printed programme.

NZSO and Madeleine Pierard with Ross Harris’s anguished Second Symphony to mark ANZAC Day

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich with Madeleine Pierard (soprano)
‘Spirit of ANZAC’

Frederick Septimus Kelly: In Memoriam Rupert Brooke
George Butterworth: A Shropshire Lad, Rhapsody for Orchestra
Ross Harris: Symphony No 2

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 21 April, 6:30 pm

I have been heard to utter unpatriotic feelings about the seeming endless attention paid in New Zealand to war and in particular the First World War and Gallipoli, which took place around 100 years ago. I have no problem with the stimulus the centenary has given to serious re-examination of the political background to the war, its pursuit and the catastrophic results of the Treaty of Versailles that sought to fix the world afterwards. But I wish more attention was given to those other aspects, involving other parts of Europe and the Middle East, for it is the outcome of the war in those spheres, and the self-seeking, diplomatic manoeuvering, the persistent imperial ambitions of all the main players that have created today’s ever-more insoluble crises, particularly in the Middle East. We are still led to believe, at least in much of the English-speaking world, that the war was all about Gallipoli and parts of the Western Front.

However, this evening’s music was concerned mainly with the war’s impact on individual people – soldiers and their families.  Not just with an amorphous ‘loss of life’ and ‘national tragedy’.

In Memoriam Rupert Brooke
It began with a string composition by one Frederick Septimus Kelly, an Australian, who was with his friend Rupert Brooke when he died and was buried on the Greek Island of Skyros. It was rather a moving piece, echoing some of the music of the early 20th century, Vaughan Williams, perhaps Elgar: pastoral, warm and reflective. An elegiac viola melody in the middle lent it a certain strength. It achieved its purpose very well, as McKeich led the orchestra through a sympathetic, unaffected though expressive performance.

George Butterworth, who was killed, with Kelly, at the Somme in 1916, has become a more famous name and his better-known A Shropshire Lad, for full orchestra, demonstrated a gift that might have had him rated with Bantock, Ireland, Moeran or York Bowen, perhaps even in the class of Holst, Howells or Vaughan Williams if he’d lived.

It begins in the character of Butterworth’s lovely The Banks of Green Willow, with strings and solo entries from clarinet, bassoon and cor anglais and follows an emotional path that reflects much of the pervasive emotion of Housman’s poems. In the middle section it expands notably with heavier brass and its pastoral charm is lost. This rather vivid section might have felt a little at odds with the character of many of the poems, though, admittedly, many in the big collection extend far beyond nostalgia and the English countryside, and are primarily reflections on mortality, on the loss of young lives in war (though of course they were published 20 years before the First World War): nevertheless, the rather extravert brass felt a shade too literal and specific.

Harris: Second Symphony
The major work was Ross Harris’s 2nd symphony. Like all his symphonies, this was commissioned and premiered by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, in 2006. It has rather surprised me that neither Wellington-based orchestra has commissioned a symphony from this major Wellington composer, as one after another has been written for Auckland; this one has even had a second playing in Auckland. (His sixth is scheduled for APO performance later this year). And I don’t think any have even been performed here; if so, this was a momentous occasion – the first Harris symphony to be played in Wellington.

This was one of the earlier collaborations between poet Vincent O’Sullivan and Ross Harris. Though cast in four movements, and obviously with an important orchestral element, it could as well be described as a song-cycle, as a symphony. There are eight stanzas, distributed through the four movements.

It tells a story, based on a newspaper report, of a young soldier in France, falling in love with a local girl, deserting, having a brief love, and coming to a sad, predictable end. I suppose it’s superfluous to say it reminds me of M K Joseph’s poignant novel, A Soldier’s Tale.

On stage was a large orchestra including large percussion, with tubular bells, though just double winds, under conductor Hamish McKeich who confirmed quickly his commanding grasp of the score and delivered a taut, dramatic and very moving performance.

Also on stage is Madeleine Pierard who sings the poetry through all the movements, taking first the soldier’s, then the French girl’s roles. It’s vividly descriptive music, starting in hushed strings, cor anglais, interrupted shockingly with mighty bass drum, violent brass, with military sounds, ironic marches; while the poem speaks soon of dreamy advances through poppy fields, with flashes of soldiers’ graves and snow and the sudden awakenings to reality. Pierard’s earthy, penetrating soprano kept the story anchored to real people and their emotional crisis, and even to their brief ecstasy.

The second movement deals with the love story, and the music opens in spell-binding unreality, in dread presentiment of its brief span, employing a limited tonal range, a momentary, almost subliminal echo of one of the Sings Harry songs. There were moments when the music seemed to strive too hard to reflect the words, though it was still the music that made the deepest impact, sometimes heart-stoppingly awful; so it was in the third movement where the violence of the soldier’s capture and killing are dealt with swiftly, violently, and the orchestral tumult is all that’s needed to understand.

In the fourth movement, poem 7, tubular bells, clarinet, strings, express the tragedy and the girl’s grief, perhaps better than the clarity of words can ever do. Though the last stanza, “Who, who is this young man…” with a cello solo accompanying the girl’s stricken loss, and her slow walking from the stage, to the fading music, was inevitably the most affecting part of the composition. The last lines are sung from back stage, as if from the grave.

Predictably, there were many empty seats, though the audience responded enthusiastically to soprano, conductor and orchestra, as well as to poet and composer who filed onto the stage.


Student guitar talents offer entertaining replacement concert at St Andrew’s

St Andrew’s Lunchtime concert

Guitar students from the New Zealand School of Music
Jake Church, Emma Sandford, Joel Baldwin, Amber Madriaga, Dylan Solomon, three of whom comprised the NZSM Guitar Trio: Madriaga, Sandford and Baldwin

St Andrew’s on The Terrace
(This review was posted late because of the replacement of one of the guitarists, whose name and the title of his choice of music I had asked for, but failed to follow up. My apologies to the players.)

Wednesday 20 April, 12:15 pm

This programme was a last-minute replacement for the scheduled performance by guitarist Owen Moriarty who will now play on 11 May. These students were to have played on that day.

There was another alteration, with the first player, Royden Smith, replaced by Jake Church who played a pot-pourri of tunes from La Traviata arranged by Julian Arcas. It made an engaging start to the concert.

Emma Sanders chose what might be Albéniz’s best-known piece, Asturias. It’s a piece I used to think was one of the big collection of piano pieces entitled Iberia. But Wikipedia says it was originally the Prelude to the early set, Chants d’Espagne, and later included, after Albeniz’s death, in an unauthorised ‘complete version’ of the Suite Española by the publisher Hofmeister. There it was entitled Asturias (Leyenda = legend).

The title had always puzzled me though, as the music is clearly Andalusian in spirit and rhythm, and not from Asturias, which is on the north coast of Spain where the folk music is quite different. Like Tarrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra, it’s one of the most popular pieces of Spanish guitar-style music. Though a bit much weight was given to big chords at the beginning of the repeated main phrase, Emma played with admirable fluency.

Joel Baldwin and Amber Madriaga both played parts of suites by Bach. Joel, the Prelude and Sarabande, from the E minor lute suite, BWV 996; Amber, the two minuets from the E major solo violin suite, BWV 1006a. Both demanded arrangements for performance on the guitar, but both players gave them most persuasive accounts, interpreting them as if conceived originally for the guitar, as if Bach himself was a master of the instrument.

An important contemporary of Bach’s, Sylvius Leopold Weiss, was one of the most famous lute players of the time and his music translates easily for the guitar. Dylan Solomon’s choice was Weiss’s Suite in F – three movements, the last of which demanded the bottom string being re-tuned down a tone to match the lute’s tuning. The Prelude, confident, the Allemande with moments of uncertainty, though I may have misinterpreted deliberate hesitations; and the final Gigue, probably not as complex a composition as say one of the gigues in Bach’s the cello suites, but thoroughly enjoyable.

Finally the New Zealand School of Music Guitar Trio (Madriaga, Sandford and Baldwin) came together to play Klaus Wüsthoff’s Concierto de Samba. Born in 1922 and evidently still alive, he is an extraordinarily versatile composer, working in a myriad of styles. Though I didn’t catch much of Baldwin’s introduction, the music presented itself buoyantly through an engaging performance.


New Zealand String Quartet, minus 2nd violin, avoids any string quartets in different combinations with pianist Jian Liu

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl, violin; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello) with Jian Liu (piano)

Schubert: String trio in B flat, D.471
Beethoven: Cello sonata no.4 in C, Op.102/1
Fauré: Piano quartet no.1 in C minor, Op.15

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University of Wellington

Wednesday, 20 April 2016, 7.30pm

This time, there was a different disposition of the quartet and the audience in the room; the players had their backs to one of the sections of raised seating and the audience sat either in the other section or at floor level, the latter with their backs to the raised seating, rather than being between the two upper levels.  The musicians usually have their backs to the large memorial window in the Council Chamber.  Initially, I thought this arrangement made for a little more echo in the sound, but this impression soon wore off.

After a spoken introduction from Gillian Ansell, Schubert presented us with a most mellifluous opening, full of rising cadences.  The trio, written when the composer was 19, was never completed, and consists of an allegro movement, plus fragments of an andante – the latter were not played.  The allegro is playful, and proved to be a splendid vehicle for demonstrating the unanimity of the players, who for their next concert in Wellington will return to being a complete quartet, with the commencement of their new second violinist.

I believe the players’ practice of standing to perform (with the cellist on a low platform, bringing him to a height equivalent to that of the standing players) projects the music better to the audience, especially in a room like the Council Chamber, which has a carpeted floor.

Soon, the warm sounds of the viola struck me, and the not-so-deep but gutsy, supporting tone of the cello.  Above was the light, airy and tuneful violin.  This was a beautiful, lyrical short trio.

Beethoven’s cello sonata was quite experimental, Rolf Gjelsten said in his introduction.  It was a late work by the composer, and not easy for his contemporaries to comprehend, but one later said that Beethoven was preparing his listeners for the great works to come.

Wikipedia says: “This short, almost enigmatic work demonstrates in concentrated form how Beethoven was becoming ready to challenge and even subvert the sonata structures he inherited from composers such as Haydn and Mozart.”  It consists of two movements, but with much variety within them: 1. Andante – Allegro vivace; 2. Adagio – Tempo d’andante – Allegro vivace.

Its opening was mellow and benign, with the piano echoing the cello’s phrases, as well having gorgeous ripples of its own.  Then came the more excited allegro vivace, and the swift, quixotic moves from soft to loud and apparently sudden changes of direction.  A certain amount of nasal accompaniment from the cellist was distracting at times, given the closeness of the instrumentalists to the audience.  A movement that was lively overall was followed by the calm, slow commencement of the second.  Here, the piano initially had more of the interesting material, but the cello soon took over, and in no time the conversation was going back and forth. The music became more excited and complex in the interchange between the instruments.

A short section with sforzandi at the ends of phrases underlined what Rolf Gjelsten had said about the work being experimental.  There were great flourishes from both instruments at the end.

The other musicians returned for Fauré’s piano quartet; they were seated, to be on the same level as the pianist.  Helene Pohl introduced the piece, and described the music as swirling, and noted that two of the movements were unusually in three beats in the bar.  She said that the work demanding virtuoso playing, especially from the piano; we had this amply demonstrated in the sensitivity and beauty of Jian Liu’s playing. The sound seemed to me to be more mellow when all players were sitting, but in this space it is not swallowed up, because of the high, wooden ceiling.

A grand but very satisfying beginning to the work led to impassioned expression, and motifs passed around from instrument to instrument.  There was, as we have come to expect over many years, highly skilled playing from all four musicians.

This urbane, sophisticated yet passionate work was engaging, enlightening and life-enhancing.  It is full of delicacy but also strength.  The first movement ended in a glowing calm.  The second movement’s pizzicato opening was echoed in the sprightly piano part, where there were also lots of running passages.  Mutes were then employed; Jian Liu produced a similarly muted tone on the piano. A kind of perpetuum mobile followed, with constant activity from all instruments.

The funereal music of the third movement was sombre and slow, with interesting harmonies and clashes.  There were emotional peaks and troughs, and cascades from the piano, while the strings returned to the sombre.

The final movement was quick, even skittish on all instruments.  A momentum built up which seemed unstoppable, but there was a sequence of solo phrases from each instruments, leading to renewed excitement for all.  A section of resigned hopefulness reminded me of passages in Schumann’s piano quintet.

Virtuosity was certainly required, and supplied, by all the players here, but especially the pianist.  What a master Fauré was!  And so are these players, demonstrated by their playing the second movement again as an encore.


David Guerin celebrates the new Hutt Little Theatre piano with the Goldberg Variations

Chamber Music Hutt Valley

David Guerin (piano) with Bach’s Goldberg Variations

Lower Hutt Little Theatre

Sunday 17 April, 3:30 pm

This special, extra concert was presented to mark the unveiling of a plaque recording the names of donors to the Little Theatre Piano Fund. It would have been hard to think of a more monumental piece of music for the occasion than the Goldberg Variations.

The last time I heard David Guerin playing was in an ensemble of four at the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson last February. Alone he played a piece from Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus, and with others, pieces by New Zealand composers.

This concert was a bit different: devoted to one great work alone.

It is a work that lends itself to almost endless performance and stylistic approaches. Some pianists get through the Goldberg’s in about 40 minutes; others can take round 90 minutes and there’s lots in between. Guerin was nearer the upper end. To me, each performance seems perfectly right after a couple of minutes. Though there are many piano aficionados who make a production of writing off one or another for reasons of tempo and many other displays of their erudition and refined taste, such as treatment of ornaments or performance on a modern piano instead of a harpsichord.

I don’t really remember David Guerin’s earlier playing of this work, for the Wellington Chamber Music Society, perhaps 20 years ago. Only that it was, I think, my first live hearing, and therefore a momentous occasion.

On Sunday I found myself in a totally accepting frame of mind, enjoying the extended playing time of the initial Aria, after which nothing else in this performance seemed too slow. When it’s played at such a deliberate pace, there’s room to hear every note individually, and they are exposed to the curious ear rather than caught up in great rushes of sound or electrifying cascades of decorative figuration. Very fast performances can create the impression for listeners that the piece is easy to play.

But I suspect that to play slowly and deliberately is more risky as the exact weight given to every note and the spaces between each, invites more awareness of any minor unevenness. So there can be a degree or two more anxiety or awareness by both player and listener of very minor blemishes that would simply not be perceived at speed. And so I was conscious of such things a great deal, and it brought me, someone with extremely modest keyboard accomplishments, to an even greater admiration for Guerin’s handling of the exposed technical demands of the music and of empathy with the suppressed nervousness that no doubt accompanied him.

And so it didn’t surprise me that the most virtuosic variations, some uncharacteristically fast, were among the most outwardly confident, for example, many of the so-called Arabesques, the second variation in each triplet: Nos 11, 17, 20, 26, 29 – this last particularly masterly. Several of these were specified by Bach to be played on a two-manual harpsichord, thus emphasising the importance he placed on achieving variations in colour and articulation.

Especially striking in Guerin’s performance were the last variations, which were variously, more bravura than most of the earlier ones, and some even slower. He seemed to spin out the Quodlibet endlessly, even to the point when I thought that he could be repeating certain phrases to create the sense of an endless experience. After all that, and after a Mahlerian length, seated almost motionless for an hour and a quarter, the return to the Aria was remarkable in its emotional impact, on the audience, and perhaps on the pianist; though as he slowly stood, he displayed neither relief nor exhaustion; not even exultation, which would have been justified.

The audience reaction left no doubt that they shared the latter emotion.





Full house for Edo de Waart and the NZSO in magnificent Eroica and an epic Double Concerto by Brahms

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Edo de Waart’s Masterworks: Brahms & Beethoven

Lilburn: Festival Overture
Brahms: Concerto for violin and cello in A minor, Op.102 (Double Concerto)
Beethoven: Symphony no.3 in E flat, Op.55 (‘Eroica’)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Edo de Waart (conductor), Nicola Benedetti (violin) and Leonard Elschenbroich (cello)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 16 April 2016, 7.30pm

In a review of the NZSO just over a year ago, I said “You can’t beat Beethoven on a good day – and this was a very good day”. That was one hundred percent true of this concert, with new Music Director Edo de Waart. I thought it was brilliant planning to get an audience in to hear a programme that was at least in part familiar. They would then be so delighted with what they heard that they would want to hear de Waart’s other programmes through the year (he returns in August and October). It was gratifying to see the Michael Fowler Centre completely sold out.

Lilburn’s overture is one of his most appealing orchestral compositions. After a splendid attack, a cello theme introduces an exchange of ideas, with delightful interplay between sections of the large orchestra, though in themselves the various themes are quite spare. Already in this early work (1939, while he was still a student in London), Lilburn’s characteristic dotted rhythm motif appears. The piece is bombastic and contemplative by turns, the big brass line-up contributing to the former characteristic. It was a good opener for a concert of grand music.

Violinist Nicola Benedetti is on her second visit to New Zealand; it is a first for her partner, Leonard Elschenbroich. The violinist wore a bright red-orange fitting dress; the cellist did not wear a tail-coat, but a simple jacket. Neither was de Waart in tails – is it time the NZSO itself phased out this anachronistic dress?

The Brahms required a slightly smaller orchestra: there were no trombones, and some sections were down-sized; the cellos were brought forward nearer to the centre of the stage, with violas behind them.

The work opened in typical Brahms style with a brief tutti, then immediately the cellist gave passionate utterance in a solo passage. What marvellous tone he produced! Then the woodwind gave us a lovely pastoral section before the violin entry.

Playing from music scores, the soloists were in absolute unanimity. It was very lyrical playing from Benedetti, but from my seat, her sound was not particularly strong. As a colleague pointed out, we do get used to hearing recorded music, where the technician or producer can twiddle the knobs to bring the solos out more. Later, the violin sound penetrated more, when the orchestra was not so full or loud.

Elschenbroich produced subtly gorgeous nuances. Of course, the cello is in touch with the floor of the platform, and so can gain more resonance than the violin is able to. His playing reminded me of a singer who reported that his teacher said “Do something with every note.” I could not help thinking that it would be great to hear this work in the acoustic of the Wellington Town Hall – bring it on! All the elements made up to an epic first movement. The horns were very important, and their parts were beautifully played.

The slow movement featured a warm string melody with many mellow asides for winds, and an exquisite ending for soloists and orchestra alike. The third movement began bouncily for the soloists, cello first. Elschenbroich was the more flamboyant of the two performers (some would say this is a characteristic of the players of that instrument), but not to an excessive degree. There was precision and attention to detail from both – and indeed from the orchestra also. The work demonstrated the power and the pathos of Brahms. Technique was always subservient to the music as art for these two outstanding soloists.

The large audience was very attentive, and besides lengthy, enthusiastic applause from the audience to the soloists there was applause also from orchestra members. A nice feature was that the two soloists played in the orchestra for the Beethoven symphony that followed the interval.

The Eroica symphony is familiar, but like all great works of art, one can always find new insights, new elements, in every good performance. And this was a very good performance indeed. The orchestra was reduced again from that used for the Brahms work, and the playing, particularly in the first movement, was more detached and precise than is often heard in Beethoven. The delicate passages were delicious. Despite the symphony being so well-known, the playing had a spontaneous feel, brisk and energetic.

The sombre theme of the funeral march of the second movement was a contrast after the cheerful first movement. Its piquancy was brought out in the minor key version of the initial theme. Oboe and bassoon underlined the mood. How astonishing this symphony, the longest so far written, must have sounded to audiences accustomed to Haydn, Mozart and their contemporaries! The theme passed magisterially from section to section of the orchestra. Basses had a wonderful statement all their own.

The scherzo third movement was exciting; how amazing it is that one who was already considerably affected by deafness (in 1803, the year of the Eroica’s composition) could write such music, with all its subtleties and variety. The tricky horn calls in this movement came off perfectly.

The finale is notable for the extensive use of syncopation. These passages and the clarion call responses are such unexpected features of a classical symphony. If we were not so familiar with it, we might find these quite comical. They are certainly warm-hearted and entertaining, as are the dance-like passages that follow. But Beethoven never lets us wallow for long. Soon, more aggressive themes interrupt, and the dance passages change their modality to the minor. The development of the themes is quite astonishing. More off-beat music from oboe followed, the orchestra taking up the theme in a heavy, almost parody fashion. After lots of magic of all kinds, the triumphant conclusion arrived, again syncopated.

Edo de Waart and the orchestra gave us a magnificent rendition of this ground-breaking symphony. Not only did the audience afford the conductor prolonged and enthusiastic applause, orchestra members did the same.





After fifty-seven years of public neglect – Farquhar’s First Symphony from the NZSM and Ken Young

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:

Martin Riseley (violin)
New Zealand School of Music Orchestra
Kenneth Young (conductor)

MOZART – Overture “The Magic Flute”
BEETHOVEN – Romance for Violin and Orchestra in G Major
FAURE – Masques et Bergamasques
YOUNG – In Memoriam David Farquhar
FARQUHAR – Symphony No.1

Basilica of the Sacred Heart
Hill St., Wellington

Thursday 14th April 2016

At last! – the drought has been broken! – the well has been newly dug! – and the field has been freshly ploughed! So, just what, you’re bemusedly thinking, am I on about this time round? I’ll tell you! – David Farquhar’s First Symphony, performed only once previously in concert in 1959, has finally received its SECOND public performance! – that makes, by my reckoning, fifty-seven years of shameful, and never-to-be-restored neglect! Well, there’s always a “better-late-than-never” component to this sort of thing, provided that whatever it is that’s been neglected actually delivers the goods when given the chance.

That chance was given the work in truly resplendent fashion by maestro Ken Young and his redoubtable band of heroes in the NZ School of Music Orchestra at Wellington’s Sacred Heart Basilica in Hill St, last Thursday evening. Farquhar’s Symphony shared the programme with several other items, in the first half an overture (Mozart’s Magic Flute), a miniature concertante work (Beethoven’s Second Romance for Violin and Orchestra) and a suite of incidental pieces by Gabriel Faure (Masques et Bergamasques). Then, after the interval the symphony was appropriately prefaced by a work for brass ensemble titled In Memoriam David Farquhar, one written by Ken Young in 2007 shortly after the composer’s death.

The effect of all of this was to judiciously “prepare the way” for the symphony – first came the overture whose mix of gravitas, festivity and fun shook and stirred all of the venue’s ambiences to perfection, followed by the violin-and-orchestra piece which delightfully brought out solo and ripieno textures to maximum effect. Though I confess to finding Faure’s Masques et Bergamasques of lesser interest than I did its first-half companions, I was still grateful for the opportunity of hearing something not often performed in the concert-hall. The most startling precursor to the symphony was, however, the In Memoriam David Farquhar piece, one which made a splendidly sombre and valedictory impression. So, when the time came to begin the symphony, our ears were nicely primed for what was to follow.

A few comments regarding the performances – I enjoyed the rhythmic “snap” of the chording at the very opening of the Mozart Overture, and the beautiful hues of both the wind and brass amid the string figurations, leading to the allegro – the conductor’s luftpause caught some of the players on the hop at the start, but things soon settled down, with crisp ensemble and plenty of ear-catching dynamic variation from the players. The voices tumbled over one another nicely throughout the “second-half” exchanges, and the trombones and timpani made the most of their moments towards the end – lovely playing.

Violinist Martin Riseley seemed to my ears a shade tense at the very beginning of the Beethoven Romance, his phrasing a little too tightly-wound for comfort – his second entry seemed to unwind the double-stopping rather more warmly and relaxedly, and the orchestra replied beautifully, the horns sounding particularly mellifluous. I enjoyed the capriciousness of the alternating “gypsy” episode, the violin-playing sweetly leading things back to the reprise of the opening, the music none the worse for its little romantic “adventure”.

Faure’s divertissement Masques et Bergamasques (“Maskers and Revellers”) originally included a piece that became one of his most well-known works, the Pavane, but it was published separately – the suite from the original 1919 stage work consists of just four movements, three of which come from a long-abandoned (1869) symphony, and one, the Pastorale, newly composed. We heard a bright, perky Overture, a limpid, atmospheric Minuet, with a grandly ceremonial Trio, a vigorous, high-stepping Gavotte also sporting a Trio, one with a beautiful melody, and finally a Pastorale, the only newly-composed piece, a flowing tune on strings nicely augmented by winds, followed by piquant phrases suggesting touches of melancholy. I thought it all pleasant enough without being greatly memorable.

Not so Ken Young’s In Memoriam David Farquhar, a piece for brass ensemble which immediately struck a deep and richly resonant vein of serious intent, while avoiding sentimentality. Trumpets took the themes to begin with then allowed the trombones some glory, the music featuring some well-rounded solos from both instruments. Composer Ken Young sought our pardon at presenting a piece of his own music at the concert, though he was forgiven readily under the circumstances. He also introduced the Symphony, making no secret of his admiration for and belief in the work as one of the most significant pieces of orchestral music to come out of this country.

Right from the opening bars of the work one sensed the purpose and focus of the sounds coming from the players, who were obviously inspired by the occasion – the opening phrase’s wonderfully angular and whimsical falling fifth/rising seventh combination here immediately opened up the music’s vistas to a range of possibilities, such as a delicious brass fanfare which the strings took over and tossed around. Then the orchestra suddenly lurched into a syncopated, upwardly progressive theme which galvanizes the music’s trajectories, the brass taking their cue, and excitedly giving the theme a Holst-like welcome.

Ken Young imbued each of these ideas with plenty of thrust and accent, the angularities building up the music to its last great climax, and to a kind of breakthrough into a strange and resonant ambient realm – a magical moment, as if one had suddenly looked up from some all-engrossing preoccupation and discovered that it was already evening. The players, after piling on their energies in layers, beautifully enabled a kind of glowing, almost crepuscular atmosphere, a territory to where the music was obviously headed, the opening angular theme now sounding like a bugle call heralding a fulfilled purpose.

To the second movement, now, and a world of magical and disconcerting transformations – ghostly shivers, mutterings and dry-as-dust timpani at the outset suddenly were swept up by toccata-like chattering fanfares which disconcertingly broke into dance mode a la commedia dell’arte, the dancers laughingly and mockingly circumventing the phantom figures of the opening, who eventually banded together and hoarsely cried “Enough!”

Here, Young and his musicians found exactly the right blend of mystery and sharp-edged attack which this music required to “speak” and work its enchantment. They brought off episode after episode with great aplomb, especially the sequence involving the Wagner-like brasses and chattering winds which conjured up Battle-of-Britain-like scenes, Spitfires and Hurricanes bursting though the clouds like avenging Valkyries. Again the commedia dell’arte dancers appeared, with their ironic laughter echoing down the music’s passageways, putting the portentous brasses to flight with a final flourish – a sequence of delicious ironies and enigmas, the orchestral writing masterly in every way.

Equally heroic was the orchestra’s full-blooded response to the finale’s tremendous “land uplifted high” gestures and textures, right from the moment the trumpet sounded the “call” to action. No more epic and heroic orchestral writing can be found in a home-grown orchestral work than in this movement, and after a trenchant ascent with the struggle made manifest every step of the way we were taken to the heights, and left there in wonderment at the place we’d reached and the wide-reaching range and scope of the journey.

I felt at the piece’s conclusion (a deeply-felt silence grew most movingly out of the final bars) that no more thrilling and satisfying realization of this long-neglected and deservedly relished work could have been achieved than here. Very great honour to Ken Young and to the musicians of the NZSM Orchestra, who enabled this music to come to life once more with the kind of commitment and sense of adventure and occasion that would have gladdened the composer’s heart.

Chamber Music New Zealand season opens with exquisite French baroque concert by Les Talens Lyriques

Chamber Music New Zealand
Les Talens Lyriques (Christophe Rousset – harpsichord, Gilone Gaubert-Jacques and Gabriel Grosbard – violins, Atsushi Sakaï – viola da gamba)

Marin Marais: Suite No 5
Antoine Forqueray: Première Suite
François Couperin: Les nations: ‘La Piemontaise’
Jean-Marie Leclair: Deuxième récréation de musique, Opus 8
Jean-Philippe Rameau: Pièces de clavecin – Troisième concert
Couperin: Le Parnasse ou l’Apothéose de Corelli

Michael Fowler Centre

Wednesday 13 April, 7:30 pm

As a rather excessive Francophile, I was more than delighted at the prospect of hearing the distinguished French baroque ensemble, Les Talens Lyriques, live in my home town. Knowing the strange and sometimes narrow musical tastes of some chamber music lovers whose horizons are often limited to the German and Italian lands, I rather feared that the unfamiliar music of the French baroque might have drawn a rather small audience. But I have misjudged my compatriots: there was a very decent-sized audience in the stalls of the Michael Fowler Centre.

This distinguished ensemble was born in 1991, inspired by its present leader, Christophe Rousset, and their name is mentioned in the company of the English Baroque Soloists, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Academy of Ancient Music, Musica Antiqua Köln, Concentus Musicus Wien, the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century or their compatriots, Les musiciens du Louvre. Though, being just a quartet on this tour, their repertoire is different from that of larger ensembles.

The programme was somewhat chronologically arranged, starting with Marin Marais, a Suite that reflected one extreme of the French style, melody that was so subtle and unassertive as to be hard to apprehend; its beauty lay in its elusiveness and the finesse and taste (words of Leclair quoted in the programme notes) of its embellishments. Though the dance-derived movements were stronger and of course rhythmic, and melody was of great refinement. It was the remarkable deftness and elegance of the performance however, that was the overwhelming impact of the music. The harpsichord is by nature almost excessively reclusive (we should have been in a more suitable venue, such as the Town Hall, its fixing disgracefully stalled, to capture its sound better) but its important support was audible if you really turned your attention there. The two violins, both in sublime duetting and alone, and above all, the astonishing virtuosity and beauty of Atsushi Sakaï’s viola da gamba held between them the essence of the style.

Most of Antoine Forqueray’s music has been lost but his Suite in D minor, for harpsichord and gamba, one of the five surviving, provided a vehicle for Sakaï’s almost supernatural command of his magnificent instrument which could sound in its upper register, more like a violin than either a cello or a viola ever does. Not only that, but this endlessly complex, fantastically embellished composition was played without the score.

Then we came to Couperin (next time you’re in Paris, visit the church of Saint-Gervais where the family dynasty reigned for generations; behind the Hôtel de Ville in the 4th arrondissement). The first of the two Couperin works was one of the four suites or, as Couperin wrote, Ordres, entitled Les Nations, each celebrating one of the Catholic powers: France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and the Savoy dynasty of Piedmont. This was the fourth, La Piémontaise. ‘Each is a combination of an Italianate trio sonata with its free-form virtuosity and a large-scale and elaborate French dance suite’ (quote from a Naxos recording). The first movement dominated the piece, with numerous switches back and forth from pensive to meditative phases, from the French to the Italian style, though the Piedmontese, or Italian, character rather dominated the suite. Again, the performance spoke of a deep-rooted idiomatic understanding of the essential Couperin on the part of Les Talens.

Leclair was the most nearly ‘classical’ of the five composers in the programme: he lived from 1697-1764; the notes refrained from retelling the tale of his death, murdered in a Paris street, believed to be related to his separation from his wife a few years before. (If you’re curious, read Gérard Géfen, L’Assassinat de Jean-Marie Leclair, Belfond, 1990, which offers a solution to the mystery). But there’s nothing shady about the music, the Second Récréation de musique, its full title adding ‘for easy performance by two flutes or two violins’. Bearing clear marks of his country, it is easily placed in its era and nationality, along with other composers of the early 18th century, not excluding Couperin; it contains occasional operatic gestures. The second movement, Forlane, in triple time, was quite an extended piece that carried echoes of German and Italian music of his period. And then came an un-Bach-like Chaconne – danceable, lively. And here was one of the places where I felt the harpsichord was a bit disadvantaged in this space.

Rameau is probably the French composer most familiar with the general musical public through the revival of all his operas, mainly by French companies, in the past 20 years. And indeed the tune in the last movement, Tambourines, reminded me of a tune in one of them. Almost a contemporary of Bach, Handel and D Scarlatti, Rameau’s life before opera, which began aged 50, consisted of theoretical treatises and harpsichord and chamber music. In fact the five ‘concerts’ or suites of the Pièces de clavecin en concerts, published well after the three books of Pièces de clavecin, were the only real chamber music he wrote. They played the third ‘concert’, which called for one violin (Gilone Gaubert-Jacques), gamba and harpsichord, with the latter playing an altogether more involved role than as merely a continuo instrument, and the result was three quite vividly characterized movements, brilliantly played. Particularly touching was the enchanting sotto voce ending of the second movement, La Timide.

And the concert ended with a second Couperin suite, Le Parnasse ou l’apothéose de Corelli, a famous musical excursion which speaks of his admiration for Corelli, the great Italian born fifteen years before Couperin. Here, all four players returned, and it was more entertaining as Rousset read (in French) the little introductory phrases before each short movement, describing Corelli’s reception by the muses as he arrives at Parnassus and he is introduced to Apollo. It seemed to reaffirm the return of French music to the mainstream, after the diversion to a somewhat contrived ‘French’ style cultivated by Lully and his followers.

All one’s hopes and expectations were fulfilled by these superb performers, admirable ambassadors for the revelatory music that they played.




Talented young pianist impresses at St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts

Nick Kovacev – piano

Haydn: Sonata in B minor, Hob XVI/32
Bach: The Toccata from Partita No 6 in E minor, BWV 830
Schubert: Impromptu in B flat, D 935, no 3
Ginastera: Danzas Argentinas (1937)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 13 April, 12:15 pm

The New Zealand School of Music is a major supplier of talent to the year-long series of lunchtime concerts at St Andrew’s on The Terrace. Most of those who play are at somewhat advanced degree levels, but this time it’s pianist Nick Kovacev who is in his first year at the school. I had not read the brief note about him in the programme at the start of the recital and had imagined that he was probably about a third year student, such was the polish and confidence of his playing. Even though there were occasional slips, which of course reassures us that we are listening to a live performer and not a highly enhanced recording playing behind an animated papier-mâché model of a pianist seated at the piano.

I’m sure others were misled too as he proceeded to dazzle the audience with one of Haydn’s more spectacular sonatas, Hoboken’s No 32 in B minor, from memory, as was the entire recital. It was not far removed from the more breathtaking of Scarlatti’s sonatas: staccato, animated, fluent, his playing displayed awareness of dynamic variety, produced through a well-applied palette of articulations. His posture suggested maturity with a flair for the pregnant pause and taste sufficiently cultivated to enrich the shapes of tunes which were never merely repetitious.

The Toccata from Bach’s 6th harpsichord partita provided Kovacev with a different idiom to explore. The improvisatory start and finish lent a sense of spontaneity, as if he was making it up as he went along; it compared strikingly with the sobering effect of a fugue which arrives a rather a surprise. His playing showed purpose and mastery, as he paid careful attention to the evolution of the fugue. The programme notes used the words ‘earnest simplicity’ to describe the next piece, by Schubert and it struck me that it applied to the Bach too.

Schubert’s big Impromptu in B flat (among the two longest of the eight) drew attention to yet another facet of Kovacev’s talent. His ability to sustain the musical line in a major piece of music was very evident; it is a set of variations on one of the rich, poignant melodies in his incidental music for the play Rosamund, and its structure can be compared with Beethoven’s sets of piano variations. The unexpected changes of mood though modulations sounded both inevitable and surprising and the performance proved a rewarding experience. Kovacev dealt skillfully with minor, understandable memory lapses.

If these pieces from memory were not impressive enough, Ginastera’s Danzas Argentinas was a sort of summary of his imposing technical and interpretive accomplishments at present. It begins with a dance by an old herdsman: bi-tonal, dissonant, heavy-footed and virtuosic, then lyrical, feminine and elusive in the second, and finally, to portray the arrogant gaucho: hectic, forceful and deliberately shapeless. It was a rather spectacular demonstration of a young pianist’s achievement and his ambitions for the future.

One will keep an eye on his progress.