Music Futures diverting showcase for rising young musicians

Music Futures: The Sound of Wellington Youth Music 2016

Blue Notes (Tawa College Chamber Choir, conductor: Isaac Stone, accompanist: Martin Burdan)
Mendelssohn and Daughters; Zephyr Wills (violin), Vanessa O’Neill (piano) and Emily Paterson (cello)
Guest artists: Malavika Gopal and Anna van der Zee (violins), Thomas Guldborg (percussion)
Lavinnia Rae (cello) and Hugh McMillan (piano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 31 July, 3 pm

Music Futures is an independent enterprise set up by a group of people who felt there was a need for something more to help talented young musicians through financial awards, performance, opportunities, workshops and masterclasses, mentoring, and lending and hiring instruments. This was their first public performance this year. Members of the NZSO are among the tutors and mentors.

This concert set out in part to illustrate the range of musical genres: a chamber choir, a cut-down concerto, a chamber group and an arrangement of an Indian raga from some of the grown-up participants.

The Tawa College’s small choir, Blue Notes, demonstrated a quality that would, for any average listener, demand top place in any choral competition, such as the Big Sing in Dunedin, where they have been nominated as finalists later this month. Three small pieces, one by their suburban mentor Craig Utting (Monument), slow, clear harmonies and, like all their items a display of admirably sensitive dynamics. Their other offerings were from almost the extremes of western music, from the ‘Agnus Dei’ from Palestrina’s Missa Brevis to Stephen Sondheim’s The Miracle Song. They also contributed at the end of the concert with a careful studied a cappella choral piece by Brahms: ‘Dem dunkeln Schloss der heil’gen Erde’ and Karimatanu Kuicha by Ko Matsushita, that involved tricky intonation and rhythms: all from memory.

The first movement of Mendelssohn’s piano trio in D minor, Op 49 was played by three players from Kapiti and Wellington Girls’ colleges, two girls and a boy, named as if they were Mendel’s son and daughter. Though it’s such a gorgeous work and I know it so well, I can’t remember when last heard it. They played it with a certain languorousness, not altogether inappropriate; but an excellent way to prolong the delicious experience of that rapturous second theme.

Three NZSO players then recreated an arrangement by violinist Malavika Gopal of a raga by Ravi Shankar, entitled La Danse, for two violins and tabla. That offered an attractive contrast to the rest of the concert.

Then we had a foretaste of the concerto that NZSM student Lavinnia Rae was to play the coming Wednesday at the combined concert between the NZSM orchestra and the Wellington Youth Orchestra: Shostakovich’s first cello concerto (first two movements), the orchestra’s part played by Hugh McMillan. Played without the score, this was a remarkably mature and accomplished performance that revealed a real dramatic awareness, as well as brilliant handling of false harmonics in the second movement.

I regretted the likelihood of missing that concert.

There will be two further concerts from Music Futures: on 18 September and 13 November. They too are bound to be highly rewarding experiences for the audience.



Oleg Marshev – pianistic pleasures at Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society presents:
Oleg Marshev (piano)

BRAHMS – Piano Sonata No.3 in F Minor Op.5
RAVEL – Valses nobles et Sentimentales
Gaspard de la nuit

Memorial Hall, Waikanae

Sunday, 31st July 2016

This was the sort of programme that, on paper, would quicken the pulse of anybody interested in the romantic piano repertoire in general – and with Oleg Marchev’s name attached to the enterprise, would settle the issue for the majority of piano-fanciers, myself among them. And while I might not have put Brahms’ name forward as a composer whose music I would have liked to hear Marshev play ahead of people such as Liszt, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, I confess was eagerly anticipating the chance to hear in recital that seldom-played titan among piano sonatas, Brahms’ Op.5 in F Minor.

Is there a more confrontational, cheek-by-jowl, eyeballing opening to a piece of solo piano music in the romantic repertoire than the beginning of this work? My first-ever live encounter with this music was at the hands of the great Peter Donohoe (until recently, well-known to New Zealand audiences), on a never-to-be-forgotten occasion I witnessed in a Midlands English town twenty years ago, when he too began his recital with the piece. There I felt as if the piano was in danger of coming apart out of sheer strain generated by the power and physicality of the playing! – and even with Marshev’s slightly more controlled responses to the music, I still got the impression of a fist being shaken at the heavens, though with rather more nervous energy and urgency than sheer, granite-like power and muscle.

As important as these moments were the contrasting lyrical sequences, which Marshev presented in beautifully-appointed paragraphs, building the ensuing surges of tone up into noble climaxes. What the playing might have lacked in raw visceral impact, it gained in cumulative effect, Marshev’s control excitingly let off its leash at the development’s opening, the pianistic textures jagged and attention-grabbing, leaving our sensibilities exhausted and gratefully receptive to whatever solace the music brought us in the aftermath. A noble, golden-toned major-key version of the opening reassured us for a few moments before the music plunged back into the opening, everything once again magnificently orchestrated and awe-inspiring. How wonderful it was to be again relieved by Marshev’s way with those poignantly contrasted, rolling lyrical paragraphs once again, persuading us that life’s storms are to be stoically endured rather than suffered without any hope or consolation.

The second movement of this work, Andante expressivo, has frequently provided ammunition for commentators mindful of the conflict between rival musical factions in the latter part of the 19th Century. A war of bitter acrimony sprang up between the conservatives, who upheld Brahms as their champion, and the supporters of the “New German School”, who promoted the music of people such as Liszt, Wagner and Bruckner. The reactionary critic Eduard Hanslick was a particularly virulent opponent of the latter group and their ideals, in particular the idea of “programme music”.

Hanslick at one stage famously declared that “music has no subject beyond the combinations of notes we hear, for music speaks not only by means of sounds, it speaks nothing but sound.” However, here was Brahms, the darling of the conservatives, prefacing a movement in one of his works with three lines of poetry from the work of the poet Sternau: – “The twilight falls, the moonlight gleams, two hearts in love unite, embraced in rapture.” It didn’t go unnoticed in some quarters that Hanslick was strangely silent concerning this “self-indulgence” on the part of his young champion!

Leaving aside Brahms’s use of poetic imagery as inspiration, I’ve always thought a separate irony regarding this music was that it sounded so much like Liszt in places! Marshev sang it all so beautifully, seeming to echo the legendary pianist Claudio Arrau’s words, “..the most beautiful love-music after Tristan – and the most erotic”, building the piece’s amplitude to majestic proportions at the climax, and rounding off the resonances with properly bardic tones at the end. Then, again, with the mighty Scherzo that followed, bursting in on the tranquility of the Andante’s aftermath, Marshev gave the “motorcycle kick-start” aspect of the music plenty of muscle and flair without making an absolute meal of it, keeping the waltz-rhythm poised throughout, and taking care to preserve the slightly creepy, almost spectral aspect of those descending arpeggio figures.

If the Andante enshrined a kind of love-tryst, the fourth-movement Intermezzo (subtitled Rückblick -“backward glance”) seemed to negate the former’s sentiments, giving us sorrowing descending figurations and fraught declamations of despair punctuated by muffled drum-beats – again, to my ears, the shade of Liszt flitted among the music’s textures, Brahms’s utterances echoing gestures found in places in the older composer’s Annees de Pelerinage collections. As for the finale, Marshev nicely energized the angular, whimsical opening, enjoying the contrasts of the instrument’s different registers, and pointing the contrast with the warmly-flowing second subject, bringing out the cascading accompaniments and the beguiling mix of elfin playfulness and portentous gesturings which whirl the different episodes through to the celebratory coda, as festive and exultant anybody would wish for.

Despite all of these felicities, I found myself struck by the feeling, when Marchev came out after the interval and began the first few measures of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, that here was the music this man was born to play – those first sounds had a kind of insouciance which felt so right, a glowing kind of poise which instantly captured the listener’s attention and enchanted the ear. Here was a cool, spacious, limpid, completely malleable sound-world recreated before us by a master musician, completely at one with the music’s composer and his particular vein of magic.

Marshev brought out in places the links with the composer’s own orchestral work La Valse, which appeared nine years afterwards. We got a teasing foretaste of the latter in the fourth waltz, Assez animé, and again in the ninth piece, Moins vif, whose halting, hesitant steps at the beginning gradually coalesced into the most outrageous and unequivocal of dance-gestures, beautifully and commandingly brought into being. The final waltz, Épilogue, lent, was all magical, nostalgic driftings, forms delicately shaped, and colours wondrously subtle, making for a heart-rending, lump-in-the-throat experience. It was all a rare evocation of creative mastery, spread out before us like W.B.Yeats’ Cloths of Heaven – “Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams”.

Ravel himself regarded the Valses as “…le plaisis délicieux et toujours nouveau d’une occupation inutile” (“the delicious and ever-fresh pleasure of a useless occupation”) – but his 1908 work Gaspard de la Nuit by contrast seemed to have engaged his sensibilities to an unprecedented degree. A group of poems, notable for their preoccupation with the surreal world of dreams written by the French Romantic Poet Aloysius Bertrand (1807-41) and published under the title Gaspard de la Nuit provided the composer with his inspiration – Ravel chose three from a set called La nuit et ses prestiges (“The Night and its Distinctions”), the first being the poet’s version of the age-old story of Ondine, the water-sprite who falls in love with a mortal.

Having said that he wanted “to say with notes what a poet says with words”, Ravel did precisely that, evoking the world of the mischievous nymph teasing and tantalising the sleeper with a dream of delight which at the end dissolves in a shower of waterdrops flung against the “resonant panes” through which shone the moonlight. Oleg Marshev was this music’s ideal interpreter here, magically evoking the liquid playfulness of the nymph’s appearance. His playing of those repeated notes and floated arpeggiations conjured up a beguiling world of enchantment, holding us in thrall to the apparition’s beauty and beguilement before bringing dream and reality together in a frisson of alarm and confusion as the nymph mocked her would-be mortal lover and vanished – the pianist caught, in those moments immediately afterwards, those vast spaces between dream and consciousness, echoing with hints of distant laughter and/or weeping.

Just as evocative was the second piece Le gibet, after Bertrand’s bleak depiction of a corpse hanging from a scaffold in the reddening light of the setting sun. Marshev caught the mood of utter desolation with his spacious, patient unfolding of the grisly scene, his playing of the tolling bell’s ostinato pitiless and inexorable in its effect. I have heard those eerie, descending chords played even more creepily than here, somehow “prepared” even before being sounded, held back fractionally so that there’s a sense of a kind of horror whose depiction is about to take its toll on both player and listener, a feeling which Marshev’s cool and dispassionate reading didn’t explore. Instead I felt the playing had a disconsolate feeling of finality, the ending superbly wrought, with the bass notes shrouding everything in gloom.
Ravel apparently wanted the last of the three pieces, Scarbo, to surpass in difficulty Balakirev’s tone-poem for piano Islamey, thinking in terms of an orchestral transcription for the piano. Here was menace aplenty, the composer’s depiction of a demonic goblin-like nocturnal visitor, the “Scarbo” of Bertrand’s poem. Marshev’s playing conjured up real “glint” amid the gloom, bringing out the music’s volatility and unpredictablilty as per the character, and infusing the Hispanic dance-rhythms with tremendous elan. He got that “frightening nothingness behind the curtain” feeling in the music’s quieter, more louring sequences, and then magnificently orchestrated the creeping chromatic sequences that brought the piece to its overwhelming climax and enigmatic, sotto voce conclusion – “his (Scarbo’s) face pales like the wax of a candle-end – and suddenly he is extinguished…..”
As if we all needed some “normality” at the conclusion of such flights of fancy, Oleg Marshev generously gave us two encores, a beautifully-graded Chopin Prelude (No.4 of Op/28 in E Minor), and Rachmaninov’s Op.23 no 5 G Minor Prelude, the latter featuring the occasional volatile rhythm-surge in the march’s accompaniment, and some beautiful counter-voicings in the trio. Perhaps if we’re lucky enough to get a return visit we might hear from Marshev some more Rachmaninov – one of the sonatas, perhaps, or the unjustly-neglected Corelli Variations which, admittedly, I heard him play on a previous visit – but I would love to hear him play the work again…….

Full success for three works at Edo de Waart’s first Strauss excursion of his tenure

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra Conducted by Edo de Waart, with Samuel Jacobs (French horn)  

Escher: Musique pour l’esprit en deuil
Mozart: Horn Concerto No 4 in E flat, K 495
Strauss: Sinfonia domestica, Op 53

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 30 July, 7:30 pm

In an account of the music I got to hear in Sydney last December (see review of 4 January 2016), I reported hearing two concerts by Edo de Waart and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra; one of them featured Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra and I allowed myself to be delighted that we would probably be getting some fine Strauss from him after he took over the reins of the NZSO.

This was the first Strauss outing, though we heard Mahler’s Third Symphony and Beethoven’s Eroica under De Waart in April.  Last year, you’ll recall, he came and conducted Mahler’s Ninth in August.

So the somewhat less often played Sinfonia Domestica was much looked forward to. However, I was a little surprised at the not-full house for this splendid concert, and can scarcely believe that anyone would pass up such a concert in order to sit in the freezing wind in the Stadium to watch a football match.

Rudolf Escher
The concert opened with a real surprise – a symphonic poem by a Dutch composer I’d never heard of: one Rudolf Escher whose father was the half-brother of M C Escher, the artist whose architectural etchings depicting irregular, impossible perspectives have continued to intrigue.

There has always been curiosity as to why the Netherlands has scarcely produced any famous composers, at least not since the Renaissance. Some of those you think might be Dutch turn out to be Belgian, like Joseph Jongen. But there are Alphons Diepenbrock and Willem Pijper; and there are a few others from the mid 20th century, including Rudolf Escher. His Musique pour l’esprit en deuil (‘Music for the spirit in mourning’) impressed me from its opening, the almost inaudible notes, finding in it a great deal of what I enjoy generally of the music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It was written after Rotterdam, where he lived, was bombed to oblivion by the Germans in 1940 destroying most of his scores and possessions. While the music clearly expresses grief, it was also strangely beautiful and compelling, engaging with a rich, complex palette from a large orchestra that was skillfully and interestingly handled. There was apparently no detailed programme; anyway, I rarely try to conjure a narrative or images when listening to new music, though occasionally things come to mind.

Obviously, the composer had much on his mind here, and Edo de Waart helped the music to play itself so that the highly evocative score was endlessly absorbing without any need to look for a story or visual imagery.  The scoring was very colourful, with a piano creating a steady beat for a while, along with a wide variety of percussion, all of which seemed inevitable rather than used just because it was there. The big, slowly assembled, anguished climax came (I don’t think it was intended to depict the bombing, which would have been too trite and superficial in a composer of such obvious subtlety and intelligence), and faded calmly over a long coda, with acceptance.

Horn concerto
Mozart’s fourth horn concerto followed; such a disconnect damaged neither work. The total break between Escher and Mozart, occupied by extensive changes of players and orchestral configuration, to a small body of strings plus two each of horns and oboes. It sounded perfectly adequate after nearly four times that number a few minutes earlier.

The horn soloist was Samuel Jacobs who is soon to return to the position of principal horn in the orchestra after an absence that included the same position with the Royal Philharmonic in London. Even without the obvious international distinction of the post with the NZSO, and the impressive pedigree detailed in the programme booklet, the ears bore evidence enough of gorgeous playing confirming him as one of today’s most distinguished players.

The main feature of his playing is an almost unreal smoothness and perfection of tone which makes no gesture at all towards the idiosyncratic sounds produced by a natural horn, the use of which has become popular even in some late 19th century music. Even for a valved horn Mozart offers challenges, but audible flaws seemed inconceivable. The orchestra matched the elegance of the solo playing.

Sinfonia Domestica
The riches of this splendid concert were not exhausted however. Strauss’s domestic symphony is not as often played as for example, Don Juan, Also sprach Zarathustra or Don Quixote; and that’s not just because of the embarrassing intimacies that Strauss exposes us to, or the enormous wind forces that he calls for. There’s a certain naiveté and excess that is not always perfectly matched by subtlety and taste; and it’s those characteristics that no doubt fueled its enormous success at its premiere in 1904 in New York and at Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia (6000 attended there over two nights), as well as the rather pious and pedantic attacks and ridicule that some critics have directed at it. If Strauss had refrained from offering any detail at all about the inspiration behind it, I’m sure its reputation would be very different.

Happily, the programme notes did not enlarge too much on the story and the audience was ready to be won over by the spectacular size of the orchestra (five saxophones, nine horns, quadruple winds elsewhere) and the stunningly accomplished performance that could still, and did, generate a rare excitement. That the house did not sell out to a knowledgeable public (do we still have one?) made me cringe for the groundless boasting by civic leaders about the ‘cultural capital’ which has been unjustified since the 1990s.

De Waart’s performance dwelt on the colour, drollerie and the purely musical elements of the composition, while taking care not to overplay aspects that lend themselves to burlesque or caricature. Then, the grand virtues of this episodic and idiosyncratic composition could be heard without hindrance and be enjoyed simply as a somewhat excessive orchestral showpiece with plenty of entertaining features and musical strengths.

It certainly succeeded splendidly at that level.


CMNZ scores with brilliant clarinet and piano trio at the End of Time

Chamber Music New Zealand

Julian Bliss (clarinet) and the NZ Trio (Justine Cormack, Ashley Brown, Sarah Watkins)

Brahms: Trio for clarinet, cello and piano, Op 114
Ross Harris: There May be Light
Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 28 July, 7:30 pm 

A programme of what, twenty years ago, might have been seen as a bit forbidding, drew a very good house at this concert, and at the end they responded very enthusiastically.

It may have been partly the fact that here was a conventional chamber group with the added interest of an extra player. It might also have been because audiences have come to accept that there is nothing to fear in Messiaen, even though he was in many ways, and still is, a radical composer who followed a unique path, all his own. In addition, Ross Harris’s music has gained more exposure in recent years; while it still sounds very ‘contemporary’, audience familiarity with much of his recent music, cast in traditional forms such as his six symphonies, has probably won him entry to the small group of new Zealand composers whose names are quite familiar, who are now considered mainstream, no longer too forbidding or incomprehensible.

Even though so far, I can recall only one of his symphonies, the second, being played by the NZSO – just a couple of months ago; there was a piano piece played by Emma Sayers last month and last year a piano quartet; and Requiem for the Fallen was played in 2014 – the year we were overwhelmed with WW1 stuff.

So it was perhaps a small surprise that Ross Harris’s piece, more than Messiaen, was now the most challenging listen, something of a retreat from the big public compositions of recent years, back to the sort of uncompromising composer of his earlier years.

The central piece was Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Harris’s There may be light was commissioned by Chamber Music New Zealand with the suggestion that it might be related to the Messiaen piece. In many ways, sonically rather than doctrinally, it inhabited a similar world, using the same four instruments, but while Messiaen’s writing generally remains within the normal technical scope of the clarinet, Harris had made use of its eccentric possibilities such as multiphonics – creating more than one note at a time, exploiting the instrument’s harmonic resources.

English clarinetist Julian Bliss, who was born in 1989, has already built a notable reputation in the world of music festivals and prestigious venues. He was on stage for all three pieces. He talked about multiphonics before the performance, but it was hardly central to the music; instead, to have introduced the audience to the actual musical ideas might have been more useful in creating a receptive hearing. As a result, there was little chance to absorb themes or motifs or to follow an argument that might have woven the music’s fabric.

Its main impact was unease, mystification, restlessness, produced by scrambling sounds, elusive slivers of melody that quickly evaporated. Clarinet and strings tended to carry most of the fragmentary musical ideas with a sense of purpose, while the piano’s gestures were reflective and struck me as somewhat incidental. Nevertheless, one was undeniably caught up with the piece, with its interesting, unaccustomed, even evocative sounds; and though I abhor saying this, as it’s like a confession of incompetence, another hearing could be illuminating.

The Messiaen performance was quite superb; the first time I heard it, perhaps 40 years ago, I found its widely disparate elements and Messiaen’s unique voice (or voices) bewildering, yet today it sounds as normal a part of the chamber music repertoire as the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. Every one of the eight movements was vividly sculpted, and yet created, as a whole, a mosaic that spoke of the situation of the work’s composition and first performance, as well as feeling still relevant to the human condition today, perhaps even more.

The spotlight moves from place to place, from one kind of religious imagery to another, from all four to pairs of instruments or just one, like the extraordinary third movement, Abîme des oiseaux, where the clarinet alone took us on an astonishing and awful (as in ‘full of awe’) journey through disparate spiritual landscapes. (I heard Murray Khouri play it in total darkness in a memorable performance in Whanganui some years ago). The conspicuously spiritual fifth movement, Louage à l’éterinté de Jésus, is an opportunity for an arresting duet between cello and piano (the one movement without the clarinet); steady, ritualized piano chords underpinning one of the (surely) profoundest musical creations for the cello. The two were in perfect accord.

The association of the brilliant NZTrio and one of the today’s most gifted young clarinetists produced an unforgettable performance.

It’s probably just as well that the charming Brahms trio was placed at the beginning. I was slow in coming to love it but it has taken its place, perhaps somewhere below the quintet and the two clarinet sonatas, but it still delights. If some early parts are less than commanding in terms of musical inspiration, the whole was lovingly and rapturously played, and the last movement, quite short, was a wonderful meeting of minds and hearts.


Woodwind students deliver a delightful variety of lunchtime music at St Andrew’s

Works by New Zealand composers (mainly)

Woodwind students of Te Koki New Zealand School of Music; accompaniments by Hugh McMillan (piano)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 27 July 2016, 12.15pm

Head of Woodwind at NZSM, Deborah Rawson, introduced the students taking part in the concert, and said she had asked them to find suitable works by New Zealanders.  However, the unavoidable absence of a few students meant that several played more than one piece, the latter ones in each case being by other composers.

Perhaps the cause was the rather more esoteric nature of the programme, but there was a smaller audience than is often the case at these lunchtime concerts.  First up was Winter for saxophone and piano, by Natalie Hunt.  It was performed by Kim Hunter.  The saxophone part was interesting, employing the full range of the instrument, but I found the piano part rather tum-te-tum; the overall effect of the piece was somewhat dreary – perhaps the composer’s view of winter.

Next came one of the several clarinet players: Laura Brown, playing Sonatina for clarinet and piano, by Douglas Lilburn.  Laura explained that the piece was not played frequently, and that Lilburn himself had decided that he did not like it, and put it aside.  Here again, the accompaniment was not very interesting, though it livened up in the second movement.  However, the composer exploited most of the considerable range of the woodwind instrument and its capabilities.  After a quiet opening, the sonatina developed into a tuneful and expressive work.  There were gorgeous effects and fresh-sounding melodies. The sudden ending was a surprise.  Laura Brown played with excellent phrasing.

After Lilburn, we had a performer-composer; in fact, we witnessed a world premiere: Peter Liley’s ‘Trees’, for solo saxophone.  Peter was the only male among the day’s performers.  The piece was unaccompanied, and moved through several short episodes, which the composer explained to the audience.  (It was good to see all the players using the microphone, so that their descriptions could be clearly heard).  The episodes were to do with birds, insects, the fantastic woods, and a great beast.  Peter’s sound was bigger and more brassy than that of the other sax player.

He introduced into his piece extended techniques such as over-blowing, thus producing different and multiple tones.  However, I found that the practice of starting each phrase of the melodies on the same lower note became a little tedious.  Very loud sounds were followed by high chirping bird-like tones.  Considerable musical gymnastics were performed as part of the piece.

Next up was clarinettist Leah Thomas, playing Gareth Farr’s Waipoua, a contemplation of the great kauri forest, and especially of the giant Tane Mahuta.  It was an attractive piece, played in a controlled but evocative manner.  There was good interplay between clarinet and piano.  Dynamics were handled very well.

The only bassoon on show was played by Breanna Abbot. She gave us ‘Three Pieces’ by Edwin Carr.  The first was contemplative, the second bouncy and impetuous, but rather like an exploratory journey, while the third had features of both the other movements.  They were played with clarity, and pleasing tone.

Kim Hunter returned to play ‘A flower who never fully bloomed’ by Michelle Scullion, a New Zealand flautist (or flutist, if you prefer), composer, and multi-tasker in the arts.  Although Kim’s instrument was again the alto saxophone, this piece began with the lower register of the instrument, giving quite a different effect.  The unaccompanied piece again demonstrated the player’s excellent control of dynamics and lovely tone.  Suiting the title, the piece had a mournful character.

We then turned to the classics: firstly, the appassionata movement from Brahms’s Sonata Op.120 no.2, played by Laura Brown.  It has to be said that the confidence and experience of this great composer was most obvious in this gorgeous piece.  Rippling passages on both instruments were a notable part of the movement.  The piano was in no way left in the background; it was essential.  There was an attractive variety of tonal colours and dynamics from both players; a thoroughly satisfying performance.

Last was Poulenc; like so many French composers, he was a lover of woodwind.  His allegro con fuoco was the last movement of his Sonata for clarinet and piano, which was one of the last works he wrote, in 1962, the year before he died.  Leah Thomas treated it as typically spiky Poulenc, fast and jolly and one could imagine Poulenc playing this in a Paris night club.  There was plenty of variety in the piano part as well as in that for the clarinet:  lots of fun and the players gave it life.  It made an excellent ending to an interesting and varied concert.

Beguiling concert of French chanson, torch songs, café and cabaret songs by Magdalena Darby and friends

Lunchtime concerts at St Marks, Lower Hutt
Café Européen – Songs of Passion

Magdalena Darby (cabaret singer, chansonneuse) with Ian Logan (piano), Gary Stratton (accordion), Alistair Isdale (bass)

Torch songs, chansons, café music; French and derivative styles

St Marks church, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 27 July, 12:15 pm

Magdalena Darby’s bio begins with her studies at the Conservatorium of Music in Utrecht, but shies away from dates, early education, or when she came to New Zealand; one assumes she was born in the Netherlands. Before coming to New Zealand she lived in Mexico and presumably Paris. Her bio refers to performing in Paris as well as London and elsewhere in Europe (can we still assume that ‘Europe’ includes Britain?).

Throughout, her career has been a combination of teaching and cabaret-style singing. Her publicity refers to ‘torch songs’, perhaps not very familiar to the musical generalist, but it describes songs of broken love affairs, of lost love (which tends, I suppose, to be a major element in music of all kinds). The expression to ‘carry a torch for’ someone relates to the word in this context.

Paris was the biggest element in her repertoire, even if there were songs from several other parts of the world. That tone was set as the instrumentalists played Michel Legrand’s theme song from the much-loved film Les Parapluies de Cherbourg featuring Catherine Deneuve (which you can find in the Wellington Public Library). The three instrumentalists were clearly very comfortable in music of this style and era (mostly the 50s to 70s) and lent sensitive support to the singer.

Nearly half of her songs were French, by French singers or sung in French: names that appear in my ‘other self’s’ collection of LPs and CDs, like Serge Gainsbourg, Sidney Bechet (the jazz, soprano saxophonist), and Jacques Brel, but also Piazzolla’s Rosa Rio which she sang in French.

What has always attracted me to the French chanson has been the intellectual, heterodox, often politically dissident, even anarchic quality of their subjects, in addition of course to the edgy, rebellious or pathetic character of the love-songs.

Darby’s voice, exploiting the microphone with finesse, didn’t express just the pain of lost love in Gainsbourg’s songs (Les amours perdues, Les yeux pour pleurer and Indifférente), but an awareness of a fractured, lonely world, with a warmth and seductiveness that seems unique to French singers. Though Indifférente was deceptively upbeat and Les yeux pour pleurer an unusual story of cruel loss and the sudden appearance of a new love.

So one enjoyed hearing echoes and tones of voices like Piaf, even Josephine Baker, Françoise Hardy and males like Yves Montant, Jean Sablon, Charles Trenet…

Bechet’s Petite fleur was of course written for himself and his soprano sax, but lyrics were put to it later, giving it a perfectly Gallic chanson character. Here and throughout, one was seduced by a voice and a control of that voice that captured the idiom of the languages and utterly belied her years.

Darby’s clarity of diction and ability to capture the style of other cultures became clear in Spanish songs such as Carlos Almaron’s Un historia de un amor and Nino Rota’s Theme from The Godfather (the love theme with words by Larry Kusik); she sang the latter in its English version, with some in Italian (if I wasn’t fooling myself).

Her singing of the Second World War song Can’t get out of this mood (words by Loesser, set by Jimmy McHugh) succeeded in demonstrating how deeply a European style of lyric and music affected American popular music: Nina Simone was one of the most famous interpreters of that song in the late 50s, and later, Darby sang her But remember me which displayed her warm, low register, that so perfectly leapt into a high head voice in dealing with the spread of the song’s melody.

There was a break for accordionist Stratton to take front stage with a Piazzolla song, Fiebre, where I suppose the idea was an approximation of the bandoneon; but nothing quite matches that unique Buenos Aires instrument.

The song by Cy Coleman, A moment of madness seemed to step aside from the Gallic spirit that ruled in most of the recital; a song in which the singer tries to persuade herself that she doesn’t care about the moment of madness that ended badly, expressed with its series of short, almost sobbing phrases; but the singer succeeded in planting it convincingly in Paris.

Then there was Jacques Brel, a really tough singer to impersonate with any success; happily she didn’t attempt things like La valse a mille temps, or Marieke, or Ne me quitte pas. But in English, If we only have love, (Quand on n’a que l’amour) was a classic Brel melody the spirit of which, even without that inimitable voice, Magdalena Darby caught with integrity and conviction.

And the three-quarter hour ended with a surprising step to the east, into Yiddish song, which she sang in English, with a short excursion into German (Yiddish is very close to German – derived from Middle High German). At her hands, and with the impeccably idiomatic backing of (especially) pianist Ian Logan, and Gary Stratton and Alastair Isdale, the words and music took root firmly at L’Olympia, Paris, to bring this most beguiling little concert to an end.

Ali Harper – Legendary Diva at Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre presents:

Ali Harper (soprano)
Michael Nicholas Williams (piano)

Circa Theatre, Wellington

Wednesday, July 27th, 2016

I came away from singer Ali Harper’s and musical director Michael Nicholas Williams’ “Legendary Divas” opening night presentation at Circa Theatre feeling as though I had been seduced in the nicest and yet most whirlwind kind of way – Ali Harper’s all-encompassing stage personality, supported by her own and her pianist Michael Nicholas Williams’ consummate musicality throughout, simply took me over for the duration. To bend a clichéd but appropriate phrase, I could have gone on all night, both drinking in and delighting in as much as “the diva” and her director were prepared to give me. Staggering out afterwards into “the cold night air” was, more than usually on this occasion, a salutary return to a separate reality.

The range and scope of the territory covered by Harper’s and Williams’ performance was, I thought, astonishing – Harper stated in a programme note that her performance was one “honouring all those extraordinary women who have influenced me to do what I do today”. If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, she certainly fulfilled her goal, paying a deep and rich homage to an array of amazing singers throughout the course of the evening. In a sense it was all art which concealed art, with some occasionally mind-bending, but always spontaneous-sounding juxtapositions of singers and repertoire served up to us as organically as night follows day.

We got introductory gestures of welcome, including some instantly-engaging and physically exhilarating Motown-sound sequences, and some rhetorical teasings regarding the definition of the word “diva”, including a “bel canto-ish”, affectionately-hammed-up “O mio babbino caro” (until the advent of Luciano Pavarotti’s version of “Nessun dorma”, perhaps Puccini’s “greatest hit”!) and then a “can belt-o!” rendition of parts of an Ethel Merman standard! – whew! The subject of what a diva would wear came up, and, along with the question of suitable scenery, was consigned by Harper to the realms of relative unimportance next to “the glittering presence of (I quote) the gorgeous Michael Nicholas Williams” (rapturous applause).

I was delighted that Harper gave none other than Doris Day, an all-time favourite singer of mine, the honour of leading off the starry array, with a beautiful rendition of “It’s Magic”, a song from “Romance on the High Seas”, which was Day’s film debut in 1948. Harper’s winning vocal quality and powerful focusing of each word in a properly heartfelt context allowed the material to soar and transport us most satisfyingly in doing so. Barbara Streisand received similar laudatory treatment with Harper pulling out all her full-on stops in a raunchy performance of “Don’t rain on my Parade”, though, by contrast, another of my favourites, Julie Andrews, to my great regret became the butt of some ageist humour, albeit most skilfully brought off, with some hilarious, Hoffnung-like downwardly-spiralling vocal modulations……..oh, well, one can’t have ALL one’s heroines treated like goddesses, I suppose!

The subjective nature of things had me in raptures at Harper’s devastating rendition of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”, which for me brought back something of the impact I remember made by the original singer Julie Covington’s tones and inflections. True, the singer may well have had either or both Elaine Paige and Madonna in mind – but such was the intensity of the interpretation, this became Harper’s moment more than anybody else’s. By contrast I found the normally affecting “Send in the Clowns” a trifle earthbound here, more world-weary and disillusioned than I wanted it to be, with a harder, less “floated” vocal line that I was expecting – it still worked, but in a tougher, rather more hard-bitten sense of the reality of things, with which I found it more difficult to “connect” – chacun en son gout, as they say………

Entertainments of more diverse kinds came and went, adding to the evening’s variety – Ali Harper’s “la belle dame sans merci” advancement on a hapless front-row male audience member, with a view to “dragging him up onto the performing stage”, worked beautifully, thanks to her persuasive charm as well as to the good-natured response of the gentleman involved, who seemed to gradually ‘‘get into the swing” of what was required to partner such a vibrant performer.

Another was Michael Nicholas Williams’ response to being told by Harper to “entertain the audience” while she went and changed her dress – as divas apparently do – an exercise which brought forth a couple of subsequent admonishments from the singer regarding the pianist’s initial choices of music, until Williams finally called her bluff by launching into THE Rachmaninov Prelude (C-sharp Minor, Op.3 No.2) and playing it with plenty of virtuosity, to boot! The music’s climax was interrupted by the singer’s re-entry in a classic, show-stopping way, wearing a gorgeous, close-fitting red dress and immediately launching into a bracket of songs associated with Shirley Bassey (mostly the title songs from the early James Bond movies, such as “Goldfinger”, all belted out in the best Bassey style!) – tremendous stuff!

Harper touched on the tragic aspects of some of her heroines – figures such as Judy Garland and Edith Piaf, both of whom died at a relatively early age – commenting that many seemed unlucky in love, and that a number also had what she called “image issues”, citing a quote from Janis Joplin (which I can’t remember, but was to do with her getting a rough ride from her schoolmates all throughout her college years, and never really escaping from the hurt). Though not directly referred to, there was conveyed a real sense of another, well-known Joplin quote which applied to a lot of performers and to what they did: – “Onstage I make love to 25,000 people – and then afterwards I go home alone…” Harper’s show didn’t dwell overmuch on the tragic stories, instead largely engaging the “divas” at the height of their singing and performance powers (well, perhaps with the exception of the unfortunate Julie Andrews) and conveying something of the essence of what those women did with their stellar talents.

In all, what Harper and Williams achieved was a veritable tour de force – of entertainment, involvement and enjoyment – a particularly stirring moment was the singer’s invitation for the audience to sing along with her in Carole King’s heartwarming “You’ve got a friend”, after which Harper’s chosen “friend” from the audience was recalled and promptly put in the hot seat once again, this time enjoined to help the rest of us identify the voices of eight well-known women singers – some of the “divas” whose talents and inspirational achievements lifted our own lives several notches upwards and gave voice to our innermost feelings and dreams. Ali Harper throughout the evening “owned” these women with total conviction, bringing to us the personalities through their songs – of the “eight divas” I picked the first two, Dusty Springfield and Peggy Lee, and as well I thought I caught snatches of Tina Turner and Olivia Newton-John – others with wider-ranging antennae would have “picked up” on the rest.

Thought-provoking, also, to have those images at the show’s end, some of whom I hadn’t heard of – Julie London, Etta James, Ruth Etting, and Eva Cassidy – receiving from Harper their deserved moment of glory, along with names which resonated for me, such as Patsy Cline, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Nina Simone. But despite these evocations of greatness, nothing and nobody eclipsed the achievement of Ali Harper, her incredible communicative power, her infectious élan and her magnificent singing. With her illustrious music director, Michael Nicholas Williams at the pianistic helm, she was a force to be reckoned with – in all, I thought “Legendary Divas” a must-see!


See also the following link to Theatreview for other reviews:

A good case for Mendelssohn’s (complete) organ music in cathedral series

Organ recitals at St Paul’s
The Mendelssohn Project, first recital

Michael Stewart, Cathedral Director of Music

The complete organ works of Felix Mendelssohn
Sonatas, in F minor and C minor, Op 65 Nos 1 and 2
Andante – Sanft; Passacaglia – Volles Werk; Fugue in D minor; Andante con moto in G minor

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

Friday 22 July, 12:45 pm

On top of last year’s Bach Project from Michael Stewart and Richard Apperley and the latter’s Buxtehude Project that’s running now, cathedral director of music, Michael Stewart, has now invited us to pay attention to and hopefully change our minds about Mendelssohn. In his introductory notes for the first of the series of recitals he claimed that Mendelssohn had “made an incredibly profound contribution to the organ and its repertoire”, and that he stood alongside Bach and Messiaen as an organ composer whose influence is felt across all genres.

Quite a statement, though very defensible in the musical environment of the first half of the 19th century.

Stewart went on to say that the three preludes and fugues and the six sonatas were fundamental to the repertoire of any serious organist. And he noted that Mendelssohn had achieved this place in spite of the fact that he never held a post as an organist; he had, however, begun organ lesson aged eleven and started to composer for the organ at once. Though his formal lessons lasted only 18 months, after which time he was self-taught, and confessed to not really mastering pedal technique.

This first recital included the first two of his sonatas whose provenance was unusual – really cobbled together from a variety of smaller pieces – in response to an English publisher’s request for some organ ‘voluntaries’. Mendelssohn claimed he didn’t really know what this peculiarly English liturgical form was and asked that they be called sonatas so they could be published recognizably in Germany. France and Italy.

Sonata No 1 is in four movements; it starts in conventionally grand manner using big diapason stops with what might have been a rudimentary melody on the pedals; it then changes abruptly to a calm, chorale-like phase which is interrupted by returns of the style of the opening. From then the two moods alternated, the heavier seeming to oppress the lighter passages.

The Adagio movement seemed constructed in a similar way, with alternating passages in widely separated registers, jumping from one manual to another. And the Andante recitativo presented a thin little tune that was suddenly overwhelmed by dominating chords, rather similar to the behavior in the second movement, and the two elements continued to alternate, with increasingly complex harmonies. With no pause and almost without a change of tone, the fourth, Vivace, movement took over and brought it to a rather exciting close.

Apart from the second Sonata, the rest of the programme consisted of slighter pieces, without opus numbers. Three from his early teens: first, an Andante which was tuneful and pleasant, seeming very conscious of the sort of music for which the organ was traditionally associated.

A second entitled ‘Volles Werk’, German for ‘full organ’. It was a stately Passacaglia, the theme subjected to a number of variations which became repetitive rather than interestingly contrasted or developed in an organic way (?pun intended).  Eventually brighter variations arrived and one had to credit the organist with providing more diverting registrations here with lively quaver accompaniment. It ended with a return to the portentous style, which was employed to build effectively to a satisfying climax. It did indeed strike me as pretty clever for a 13 or 14-year-old.

An 11-year-old’s Fugue in D minor followed, a counterpoint exercise originally for violin and piano.

Then a piece by a mature 24-year-old: Andante con moto in G minor. Though it set off purposefully on quiet stops, it was only a page long.

The second Sonata was rather shorter than the first (dating from 1844/45). The first movement, Grave – Adagio, could have been described as ‘meditative’ but I wasn’t drawn into any spirit of mature contemplation, founded on any deeply-felt philosophical reflection. It didn’t sound of its era at all and I found myself thinking how it compared with music being written around the same time – especially Schumann’s piano and chamber music (though I don’t know the few bits of organ music that Schumann wrote). I also read that the ever-generous Schumann played Mendelssohn’s sonatas over on the piano and wrote warmly to him, describing them as ‘intensely poetical’; ‘what a perfect picture they form’, he wrote.

It’s not as if Mendelssohn was not as influenced as his contemporaries were by the prevailing ‘Romantic’ ethos of the 1830s and 40s, in his piano and chamber music, his two best symphonies and several concert overtures. Perhaps his awareness of the overpowering impact of Bach inhibited a freedom of spirit that is found in those other genres.

The second and third movements – Allegro maestoso e vivace and  Fugue: Allegro moderato – contained some imposing music, contrapuntal, harmonically formidable and in the Fugue, plenty of evidence of the composer’s study and assimilation of the techniques and meaning of Bach. Nevertheless, even in the absence of the kind of response I have to the organ music of Bach and Buxtehude and to the French school of the later 19th century, I heard an authentic, instinctive organ composer  whose music had genuine interest and vitality, played with as much imaginative use of the cathedral organ’s resources as could have been expected.

All this might well be influenced by my youthful brush with the sonatas. I had a good friend at secondary school whose family moved to Christchurch in the fifth form. There he took up the organ, and during my visits during holidays, we often shared the manuals and pedals in the organ loft of St Paul’s church, Papanui; among other stuff, there was a volume of these sonatas, bits of which we, or rather, he, found his way through. But I fear they made little impression on me.

This time, Mendelssohn certainly made more impact on me, but not quite to the degree urged by Michael Stewart.


“Deux du même” give considerable pleasure at St.Andrew’s

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace Lunchtime Concerts presents

Fiona McCabe and Catherine Norton – piano duet

JOSEPH JONGEN (1873-1953) – 2 Pieces from “Pages Intimes”
Il était une fois (Once upon a time….)
Le Bon Chîval (The Good Horse)

Rondo D.951 “Grand rondeau”

SERGEI RACHMANINOV  (from “Six morceaux” Op.11)
Slava! (Glory)

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

Wednesday 20th July 2016

The concerts I enjoy the most, I think, are those which, in a sense, I don’t really see “coming” – that is to say, those I wouldn’t beforehand expect to enjoy as much as sometimes turns out. So it was such a pleasure to be set upon, taken over, surprised by joy and delight, and thoroughly warmed through-and-through by the duet-playing of Fiona McCabe and Catherine Norton in their recent St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace lunchtime recital!

These two musicians (styling their partnership as “Deux du même” – two of the same) conveyed to us such engagement with and enjoyment of both the music and the process of bringing it to life, I for one at the end of it all felt both delighted with what we’d heard and frustrated that this wasn’t a full-length concert!  It was more than any one thing which worked this alchemy of performance pleasure – every ingredient in the mix, repertoire, technique, rapport, commitment, focus, the instrument, the venue, had something to contribute to the exhilaration and satisfaction afforded by the occasion.

Beginning with the repertoire, the choices were fascinating – here was my first experience of the music of Belgian composer Joseph Jongen (even if the name wasn’t entirely unknown to me), and a most stimulating one. From a work, Pages Intimes, originally written for piano duet and later orchestrated, came two absolutely delightful movements, the first appropriately entitled Il etait une fois…. (Once upon a time….). Reminiscent of Ravel, and none the less for that, the piece played with a three-note motif, with the music gradually becoming more filigree in character – a very atmospheric and flowing performance, flecked with currents and flashes of light.

The second movement, Le Bon Chîval (The Good Horse), demonstrated plenty of joie de vivre, as well as a good deal of “personality” in the music’s varied flow – there was nothing remotely mechanical in these trajectories, but exciting and engaging momentums, a journey punctuated by both excitements and reflections, with the music’s ending a kind of reminiscence of the ride.

The players having established their partnership, even to the extent of overcoming the irritation of a squeaky piano seat, Fiona McCabe and Catherine Norton proceeded to change places for the next item, Franz Schubert’s Rondo D.951.This was the composer’s final four-hands work, published a month after his death with the title “Grand Rondeau”. McCabe and Norton brought it all to life once again, encouraging the piece’s innate lyricism to blossom while allowing the dovetailed rhythms to chatter and burble in excited conversation.

The duo’s playing also caught the different character of the sequences, such as with a prayer-like passage just before the recapitulation – it had a different dimension of manner to what had gone before, more intimate and direct, voiced as though something other-worldly had appeared and was speaking with the composer’s own tones. Schubert obviously enjoyed surprising his listeners, switching almost without warning occasionally between lyrical outpourings and passages of great declamation, and taking us on harmonic explorations of wondrous spontaneity. The duo relished these flavoursome instances of unfettered creativity, and were ready and waiting at the piece’s rounding-off, with the theme stealing back in the bass and counterpointed in an insouciant, “I know you’re there” way – marvellous playing!

Rachmaninov’s contributions to the four-handed piano literature encompass both works for duet and for two pianos – his Op.11 collection “Six Morceaux” was written in a few short months in 1896, a year before the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony. Of course, nothing of that unforeseen setback clouded the achievement of this work, in both keyboard and compositional terms the most impressive of the young composer’s efforts to date.

While one would have liked to have heard the whole set, which is seldom performed in public, Catherine Norton and Fiona McCabe earned our gratitude in presenting four of the six pieces. They began with the Barcarolle, one whose waters seemed to be the darker, more chilly Slavic kind rather than the usual indolent sun-drenched Mediterranean variety. The pair instantly established the music’s restless, volatile character, then, from out of these yearning, unsettled beginnings and the swirling figurations that followed, brought forth the impressive, cathedral-like theme in its different versions – like looking at the same structure from different viewpoints. An example of this was the way in which the theme returned accompanied by a triplet rhythm, the music wreathed in bleak harmonies before being softened by some warmer right-hand figurations, and a ray of sunshine with the final chord.

Next was the Waltz, angular and laconic, with po-faced humour, expressed by mischievous impulses punctuating the lines – the players even unintentionally went as far as losing a moment or two of synchronisation, but soon caught up with one another – all in the interests of the music’s character, of course! I liked the Satie-like timbres in places, with tintinabulating treble figures set dancing, and a delightfully throw-away ending with which to round off the piece.

With the Romance that followed, the music was all full-throated sonority, anguished declamations subjected to obsessively repeated chromatic figurations – more a “Lament” than a “Romance” I thought, on this, my first hearing. The intensities didn’t let up with the final movement, titled “Slava” (Glory), one which used the well-known Russian folk-tune employed by both Beethoven in his Op.59 No.2 “Rasumovsky Quartet” and Musorgsky in the coronation scene of his opera “Boris Godunov”. The theme emerged canonically at first, the players skilfully controlling its ever-growing amplitude before allowing it to blaze forth over the final pages – in effect it almost out-Musorgskied Musorgsky in his “Pictures at an Exhibition” mode. Sensationalist that I am, I particularly enjoyed the minor-key version of it in the bass, with shrill treble trills ringing out at the other end of the keyboard. Catherine Norton and Fiona McCabe held us in thrall throughout with their playing, building up to and delivering sonorities that threatened most excitingly to burst at the seams, and overwhelm us in great floodings of tone and energy. Exhilarating, and at the end, most satisfying – bravo!




Enthusiasm for Orchestra Wellington, with Anna Leese, in war-time masterpieces by Strauss

Last Words: Capriccio

Richard Strauss: Festmusik der Stadt Wien for brass and timpani (arr. Maunder)
Metamorphosen: Study for 23 solo strings
Capriccio Op.85: Prelude and Final Scene

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei, with Anna Leese (soprano)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 16 July 2016, 7.30pm

The latest in Orchestra Wellington’s innovative ‘Last Words’ series of subscription concerts featured a variety of music, despite being all from one composer.  The works were all written late in the composer’s life.  Marc Taddei made it apparent in his pre-concert talk (with young composer Tabea Squire) that he held Strauss in high regard.  The composer had considered the opera Capriccio to be his last work.  However, the other two works on the programme were written later, as were the well-loved Four Last Songs (programmed for performance later this year by the NZSO with soloist German soprano Christiane Libor).

Doing things a little differently, Orchestra Wellington had the announcements to the audience before the players came on.  Then the brass only (plus timpani) came onto the platform, where they stood at the rear, on low tiers.  This looked very effective.  Only the tuba-player and the timpanist sat. Festmusik der Stadt Wien, “composed in 1943 as thanks for having been awarded the Beethoven Prize – and also as thanks to the city of Vienna…[for] personal protection from Nazi harassment…”, featured characterful themes.  One would not have imagined, hearing this music, that a war was raging and that people were being killed.

The music became more military with a joyful fanfare towards the end, and then a slower, more lyrical passage intervened.  A final militaristic outburst ended the work.  It must have suited its occasion well, but has not been standard symphony orchestra fare.

Now the string players came on, for Metamorphosen.  They also stood to play (though not, of course, the cellos and double basses).  Concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen was borrowed from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and a fine job he made of his role.  As a friend remarked in the interval, there’s a difference between the NZSO and this orchestra.  Nevertheless they play well, and it was good to hear them with an inspiring concertmaster and their usual energetic and talented conductor.

The magical opening on cellos alone wove a spell that typified the entire work.  Taddei had alluded in his talk to the ambiguity around the keys employed in the piece.  He said that it is ostensibly in C major, but metmorphoses into other keys, but eventually arriving at C minor passing through E flat on the way.  Indeed, one could not have said what the key was in these opening passages.  Leppänen led the violins in their gradual entry into the music; finally they take over.

The piece’s slowly shifting, writhing tonality seems to express sorrow and mourning.  By 1944-45 when it was composed, the situation in Germany and Austria had changed for the worse.  Taddei, in his introduction to the audience, called it one of the most profound works ever written.  It was written with a Goethe poem in mind, a choral setting of which Strauss rejected in favour of the setting for strings.  It could not help but be a commentary on Germany’s position at the time.

The violin of Vesa-Matti Leppänen struggled to rise in hope above the deeper-toned instruments and their despondent contortions.  There was splendid playing from all, but especially from their leader.   However, there was no let-up in the course the music was taking.  Towards the end, a section of minor chords and solemn homophonic music took over, and there were echoes of the composer’s much earlier Death and Transfiguration (1899).

Taddei’s conducting both works in the first half without the score before him was impressively conspicuous.

For the final work a full orchestra was employed, conventionally seated.  Marc Taddei again introduced the work; there was no separate presenter/interviewer this time, as at some of last year’s concerts.

Enchanting strings opened the Prelude to Capriccio, followed by more solo work for Leppänen.  The winding path of the music through chromatic byways was reminiscent of Metamorphosen, and much Strauss music.  Eventually the horn enters – and so does the soloist.  Sensibly, no break was made between the Prelude and the Final Scene, thus maintaining the mood, unbroken by applause.

The other horns join in, introducing the romantic music to accompany the countess’s thoughts on whether that music by one of her suitors is more important to the opera-within-an-opera than are the words of her other suitor, the poet.  Percussion and woodwind join in the delightful soundscape, then Anna Leese sings, varying her voice beautifully.  The harp adds to the romantic atmosphere; the music absolutely matches the meaning of the words.  Soaring phrases and high notes from Anna Leese were glorious, and appeared effortless.  She fitted the part beautifully.

The large body of strings were given lush orchestration, accompanied by intriguing woodwind flourishes.  Rising and falling cadences reminded me of the wonderful settings of words in the composer’s Four Last Songs, written a few years later and published posthumously.

The ending comes when, the countess having not made up her mind about music v. words, the majordomo (Roger Wilson) comes on to utter one line telling her ladyship that supper is served.  He goes off, and so does she, and a horn ends proceedings, just as it began them.  For his brief effort, Roger was rewarded with a bouquet, as of course was Anna Leese.

The hall was well filled, though not full.  The audience responded enthusiastically to a concert chiefly remarkable for the stunning singing of Anna Leese.  Someone remarked to me afterwards “This was Renée Fleming territory.”