Edo de Waart and Ronald Brautigam confirm stature: symphonic conductor and Mozartian pianist

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart with Ronald Brautigam (piano)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No 24 in C minor, K 491
Elgar: Symphony No 1 in A flat, Op 55

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 29 October, 7:30 pm

Ronald Brautigam’s is not exactly a household name and his performance history is impressively confined largely to Mozart and Beethoven, though not always in performances with high profile conductors or orchestras. Most of his playing is on the fortepiano of the age of Mozart and early Beethoven.

While that partly explains his relative obscurity to the popular audience, it doesn’t detract from his high reputation among those who take their classical music seriously and comprehensively. In fact, last December, in Sydney, I heard Brautigam and De Waart with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in this very programme, plus, I should add, an engaging, round eight-minute performance of White Ghost Dancing by Ross Edwards, perhaps the most widely popular of Australia’s contemporary composers.

In Wellington, we heard only the two big works, though the concert reached the normal two hours with a little ceremony marking the retirement of two very long-standing players, violist Brian Shillito and violinist Sharyn Evans.

The C Minor Piano Concerto
For the Mozart, the orchestra was reduced to the likely size of a Viennese orchestra of the late 18th century – around 30 strings, flute and pairs of horns and woodwinds including, unusually, both clarinets and oboes, and authentic timpani. Though such perceptions can be unreliable, I had the impression of a more 18th century sound than I heard in Sydney; that could be auto-suggestion or the effect of the size and shape of the Concert Hall in the Sydney Opera House. It was clean and elegant, with a beautiful balance emerging in the sombre, two-minute-long opening passage; no affectations or excesses.

No period fortepiano was needed to produce a warm and persuasively Mozartian performance, as Brautigam’s revealed himself as a pianist of great skill, refinement and intelligence. There are several passages for solo piano throughout the work and here he refrained from drawing attention to himself or his exemplary and brilliant playing. In one of Mozart’s only two piano concertos in a minor key (and one of the very greatest), there was often a distinctly plaintive feeling in which oboes and the lower instruments – cellos and bassoons – were particularly effective.

This was a spirit that Mozart elaborated in the last movement with its contrapuntal writing that was, nevertheless light in spirit and unfailing elegance.

Above all, there seemed to be a singular rapport between conductor and soloist revealing an unerring unity of approach and a common perception of Mozart’s style and melodic and instrumental character.

Elgar No 1
I have been known to utter remarks about Elgar’s symphonies that are a reaction to what can be heard as either grandeur or pomposity, and the outer movements do offer much opportunity for these feeling to be confirmed.

I exempt the very opening Andante from these feelings as, in spite of the plain and singular grandeur of the big tune (after all, it IS entitled ‘Nobilmente’), it establishes a meditative spirit that needs to be carefully maintained and was indeed carefully enunciated under De Waart. And again, after the Allegro proper begins, there are a page or two of gentle, rather beguiling music before a growing attack of grandeur emerges.

Part of the problem for me is the sheer unsubtlety of some of the big tunes that have undoubtedly been important in the music’s remaining very popular. There are those brass-band inspired, mini fanfares for trombones and tuba; but then one has to set them aside as they are followed by passages of interesting lyrical writing that is delicate and suggest that Elgar had paid attention to the French composers who were his contemporaries, not that I would include Debussy among his influences. It is after all, more common to link Elgar with his German predecessors – Brahms and perhaps lesser figures like Bruch. The tunes might sound ordinary but it is what he does with them that establishes him as a major composer. So the first movement actually ends in a sound world that is restrained, imaginative and quite moving.

The second movement again is driven by a tune that’s a bit obvious, but is it essentially different from the folk-inspired tunes Mahler used? The tunes are used in a splendidly expansive and energetic way and De Waart drew fine playing from the orchestra, though moments of brass exposure might have been a little more subtle.

One of the symphony’s characteristics that I delight in is the way each movement draws to its end in meditative calm; in the case of the end of the second movement you can be forgiven for wondering whether the next movement has arrived unannounced. And the rapturous Adagio hardly changes in mood as the Lento opening of the last movement begins.

All this adds up to confessing that the slow third movement is my favourite: endlessly gorgeous, allowing one to savour Elgar’s refined use of the orchestra, taking more care than some late Romantic composers to assure the distinctness and clarity of each instrument. In spite of the large, almost Straussian orchestra, the Adagio in particular is not the product of an empty jingoist, but that of a remarkably refined and intelligent composer.

I sometimes recall the music master at Wellington College, in the once-a-week ‘core’ music class, remarking as he played us 78s of the Enigma Variations, that Elgar was one of the greatest orchestrators, and thinking, for many years, that was an odd and extravagant claim. (How many students at ordinary state schools today get that sort of life-enhancing exposure to great music?) But listening to his music with open ears many decades later, I think he was right. This was a performance that fulfilled all the expectations one can have of the composer Elgar; some twelve minutes of some of his tranquil, happiest and most inward invention, in these warm, reflective landscapes.

Even in the sometimes blustery last movement there’s that long episode about five minutes before the end, of peaceful meditative music that paints an unimaginable picture of the world just five years before the 1914 catastrophe.

It was good therefore to see a pretty full house for this splendid concert that reaffirmed the taste and interpretative talents of Edo de Waart.

Celebrity organ (and viola) recital at St James, Lower Hutt

St. James’s Church and Wellington Organists Association

Celebrity Concert
Arvo Pärt: Fratres
C.P.E. Bach: Sonata in F for organ
J.S. Bach: Sonata in E for viola and basso continuo, BWV 1016
Dubois: Toccata in G for organ
Glazunov: Elegy for viola and organ, Op.44
Vierne: Scherzetto
Telemann: Concerto for viola and organ

Martin Börner (viola), Joachim Neugart (organ)

St. James’s Church, Lower Hutt

Saturday, 29 October 2016, 7.30pm

It was a pity that this recital was scheduled for the same night as a New Zealand Symphony Orchestra concert, which undoubtedly affected audience numbers. Nevertheless, a varied and interesting programme was enjoyed by those who attended.

Arvo Pärt’s Fratres is familiar in sundry instrumentations. Here was an unusual version, for viola and organ. It opened with the viola playing solo, high up towards the fingerboard. This was very effective. Then the organ joined in, with the upper (Swell) manual (of three), and the occasional single pedal note.

To my not inexperienced eye, the organist appeared to have a somewhat pianistic style of playing the manuals – but it did not seem to make any difference to the sound. The viola part in Fratres became increasingly technically demanding – and auditorally (if there is such as word) too. Despite a change of manuals, the organ part remained quiet. The piece ended effectively with repeats of the opening phrases.

The short C.P.E. Bach sonata was bright and breezy on the Great manual, with echoes on the Swell, followed by passages on the Choir manual. This was in disagreement with the programme note, which stated that the works were played by Princess Amalie of Prussia, on her two-manual organ. The piece demonstrated the excellent St. James organ to good effect.

The warm, rich tones of the viola contrasted with flutes on the organ in the opening of the J.S. Bach sonata. There was lovely sympathetic playing from the viola, contrasting with the more mechanical sound of the organ in the gorgeously lyrical adagio first movement. The second one (allegro) employed a much spikier registration and technique of playing. There was wonderful interweaving of the two instruments. The alternation of the manuals was most effective. The adagio third movement was quieter, with a fine flute stop in the bass. This movement particularly, is more familiar in its original setting for violin an d continuo (usually harpsichord); there are other arrangements too.

The deep tones of the viola were very satisfying. The smooth transitions and euphonious harmonies of a movement such as this are timeless soul-food. The final movement required fast finger-work from both musicians. Both instruments were in fine voice, but it is as pity that this church is not more resonant.

The toccata by Dubois had a loud and jolly opening., and a very grand slower section, then back to fast and jolly. This was interspersed with grave passages, which led to the showy, rapid figures that ended the piece.

The Glazunov work had a romantic opening, with sonorous tones on both instruments, in a dotted rhythm. The work included attractive melodies.

Louis Vierne’s organ piece featured much lively staccato playing, contrasted with a smooth, chordal section. These passages continued to interplay with each other.

Finally, we heard the Telemann work. The viola was played in true vibrato-less baroque style, while there was fine clarity in the solo line from the organ in the largo first movement. The second movement was very familiar – surely it was used in another of the composer’s works. The bass line was perhaps a little heavy alongside the light, running passages in the right hand. The third movement (andante) was mellow and soulful on the viola, with light staccato accompaniment on organ. There were plenty of technical demands on both players. The presto finale also sounded familiar, and was very similar to the second movement. There was fancy footwork here, but again I found the tone of the pedals rather heavy as accompaniment for the lighter registration of the manuals and the mellifluous viola.

This was an interesting programme, and it was good to have a second instrument involved, along with the organ. It was a most enjoyable recital by two accomplished musicians, ending on a bright, uplifting note.


Galvanic lunch hour with the Rangapu Duo at St.Andrew’s

St Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series presents:
The Rangapu Duo – Liam Wooding and Noelle Dannenbring

LISZT – Funérailles (from Harmonies poétiques et Religieuses)
CHOPIN – Ballade in F Minor Op.52
SCHUBERT – Fantasie in F Minor D.940
DAVID GRIFFITHS – Rumba (from “Three Coquettes”)

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

Wednesday, 26th October, 2016

The names of both performers in this lunchtime concert at St.Andrew’s were new to me, each of them being Hamilton-based musicians, though I ought to have remembered that Liam Wooding was a prizewinner at Christchurch in 2015 at the National Concerto Competition. His duo partner, Noelle Dannenbring, for her part won the University of Waikato Concerto Competition earlier this year. Currently, both are studying at the University under the tutelage of Katherine Austin, Wooding having previously completed a course of study at Auckland with Rae de Lisle.

Knowing/remembering none of this, I was thus unencumbered by any great weight of expectation regarding either repertoire or its performance, when approaching this concert. So, it was, therefore, an exhilarating experience to find myself thrilled and delighted, firstly by the programme, and then by its delivery. Each pianist contributed a solo item to the programme, the pair then combining forces as a duo, where their playing proved just as richly compelling.

First up was Liam Wooding with a work by Franz Liszt, called Funérailles, one of a set of pieces named Harmonies poétiques et Religieuses. Scarcely known as an entirety, only two of the ten pieces, Funérailles, and the grandly-named Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (The Blessing of God in solitude) are regularly played – though they have claims to be the finest of the set of pieces, each of the ten has its own particular kind of gravitas which works best when heard in the context of the whole.

Funérailles, as with the Bénédiction, readily generates its own expressive qualities as a stand-alone piece; and Liam Wooding’s astonishing performance brought out all of the music’s strength, power and poetry. The proximity of Chopin’s death to the time of the piece’s completion (October 1849) has led to an assumption that the music enshrines some kind of tribute by Liszt to his friend and contemporary – but the former’s focus was firmly on his native land, Hungary, and the 1848 patriotic uprising against the occupying Hapsburgs, which was brutally crushed, with the Prime Minister and a number of Hungarian generals executed by the Austrians.

Liam Wooding’s playing most appropriately “took no prisoners”, plunging into the opening bass sonorities with monumental force, bringing out the piece’s “chromatic ghoulishness” by way of characterising a mounting sense of terror, despair and hopelessness, here reaching a point where the senses were almost overwhelmed, before breaking off and invoking a kind of funeral-like processional – Wooding’s visionary interpretation readily traversed those realms between private sorrow and public grief, casting a great feeling of solace over the piece’s soundscape, and varying the emphases as the music modulated from key to key, here grieving, and there paying homage to bravery and steadfastness.

And what a tremendous effect the pianist made with those infamous left-hand octaves! – obviously inspired by Chopin’s renowned “hooves of the Polish Cavalry” sequences in his Op.53 A-flat Polonaise, Liszt extended the idea beneath vain-glorious fanfares in the right hand, creating a kind of “freedom – or death” aura about the sounds, reinforced by the sudden breaking -off of the passage and its descent into a reprise of the funeral march. Wooding most movingly characterised this section as a dissolution into a more private and personal tragedy, one which was then mocked and savagely scattered by the brief return of the “octave passage”, concluding bleakly with a number of hollow, single-note utterances.

After such ravages, Noelle Dannenbring’s beautifully-floated awakening of the opening of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade seemed to gently open the shutters and allow our recently-assailed vistas some sunshine and gentle breezes. Less pictorial, more abstract than Liszt’s music, Chopin’s evocations here pursued a subtler, though no less telling course, mapped out by the pianist with refreshing directness, her playing giving the somewhat obsessive main theme plenty of “through-line”, and melding the subsidiary ideas, such as the contrasting chordal sequences, unselfconsciously into the flow. She made the most of certain moments, such as the return to the opening idea midway, capped off by a gentle, almost Lisztian melismatic flurry, just before the main theme’s “canonic” treatment. Towards the piece’s end Dannenbring’s playing seemed less concerned with “virtuoso roar” than clarity and proportion, proclaiming the composer’s regard for the music of Bach and Mozart.

Having demonstrated their individual skills, the pair returned as their newly-formed musical partnership, the “Rangapu Duo”, ready to present for us one of the undoubted masterpieces of four-handed piano literature, Schubert’s Fantasie in F Minor D.940. Earlier this year, Wellington pianists Catherine Norton and Fiona McCabe had, during a St.Andrews concert in July, given us an even later, if less extended Schubert duet, the Grande Rondeau D.951, a work utterly charming and filled with beautiful resignation, as opposed to the forlorn anxieties and desperate energies of the Fantasie.

I loved the Rangapu Duo’s performance of this work, which, it seemed to me, “sang in its chains like the sea”, to paraphrase the words of poet Dylan Thomas. And though the players didn’t hold back from vehement expression at certain points of the discourse, the music never descended into the realms of near-dissolution, as does the slow movement of the composer’s A Major Piano Sonata D.959, which hints at anarchy and madness – Dannenbring and Wooding did the Fantasie no such violence, but made sure the music’s “fate-like feeling of necessity” was conveyed to us with all the expressive force they could muster.

We certainly needed a kind of “pick-me-up” to finish the concert, and the duo obliged in great style with New Zealand composer David Griffiths’ jolly Rumba, a piece from a work called Three Coquettes, written in 2012. Something of a polymath, David Griffiths is a performer and teacher as well as a composer – he’s composed mainly for the voice, though there’s a group of piano compositions which suggest he knows his way around that instrument pretty well – Rumba generates exactly what its title might suggest, driving rhythms, high energies and colourful contrasts. Perhaps we might hear the Rangapu Duo in Wellington again, sometime, playing the whole of David Griffiths’ “Coquettes” suite for our further pleasure!

Orchestra Wellington’s fifth concert excels with last works of Berlioz, Bartok and Tchaikovsky (almost)

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei and Vincent Hardaker, with Michael Houstoun at the piano
Arohanui Strings – Sistema Hutt Valley, conducted by Vincent Hardaker

Arohanui Strings: arrangements of music by Purcell, Tchaikovsky (Serenade for Strings and the waltz from Sleeping Beauty)

Orchestra Wellington:
Overture to Béatrice et Bénédict (Berlioz)
Bartok: Piano Concerto No 3
Tchaikvosky: Nutcracker – Act II

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 15 October, 7:30 pm

This was the once-a-year event for the young musicians involved with the Hutt Valley Arohanui Strings, the project inspired by the famous Venezuelan institution, El Sistema. They filed in after some of Orchestra Wellington’s players had taken their seats: the more advanced ones taking seats alongside a professional player as mentor; the beginners spread across the front of the stage – some of them looked aged about four. They were conducted by the orchestra’s assistant conductor Vincent Hardaker, with assistance from the side by Alison Eldrigde, encouraging the littlies at the front.

Playing some simplified, though genuine classical pieces: Purcell, Tchaikovsky, Scottish dances, they charmed the audience.

Hardaker stayed to conduct the orchestra itself in the Béatrice et Bénédict overture, Berlioz’s last opera and though about six years before his death, really his last work. It’s based on Shakespeare’s Much ado about Nothing, written on commission from the Baden Baden Opera. Though it hasn’t taken root in the regular repertoire, I saw it staged by the Australian Opera in 1998; there’s some fine music, several quotes of which appear in the overture, which has always held its place in the orchestral repertoire. Its brightness and wit were splendidly captured by Hardaker and the players, with secretive little passages from clarinets, edgy brass and dancing violins.

Bartok’s last piano concerto, left a few bars short of completion when he died in New York in 1945, as WW2, too, was ending. I recalled with bemusement how barbaric it sounded when I first heard it in my late teens, which was, after all, only about 10 years after its composition.

Musicologists enjoy themselves identifyjng its odd modal tonalities; all quite beside the point. Any audience can assess its blending of Balkan folk music with ancient modes and contemporary musical obsessions, all overlaid by sheer musical inspiration. Houstoun approached the first movement with a sense of determination and energy, though its generally lyrical character emerged clearly, allowing melodic figures to take root; lovely flute notes at its end. It confirmed the admirable collaboration between Houstoun and conductor Taddei.

The second movement on the other hand can be heard simply as a rather beautiful piece of music, even though analysis shows characteristics uncommon in western classical music. But ‘beautiful’ hardly touches the enigmatic, spiritual, orphic quality of this singular movement. The orchestra alone and many individual players proved their capacity for exquisite, contemplative playing at the start and throughout there are some breathlessly calm, slow passages for the piano alone, Bach-like figurations, in which Houstoun captured a metaphysical spirit, perhaps the composer meditating on his imminent death – it’s entitled Adagio religioso. But then there’s an upbeat interlude, curiously alive with bird-calls in the middle, ending with skittering keyboard.

The third movement returns to an energetic, folk-dance-inspired Allegro vivace, where there’s still more opportunities for individual instruments to shine, like horns and the piano to indulge in fast fugal passages that come to envelope the whole orchestra.

In all, a splendid show-case for the orchestra and pianist, in one of the 20th century’s real masterpieces.

The opportunity to hear a whole of Act II of Nutcracker played without the distraction of dancers proved hugely rewarding, as the score is endlessly inventive and memorable as pure music, quite apart from its qualities of marvellous danceabilty with which choreographers and dancers have been able to create indelible productions.  While I have grown very tired of performances of the Suite that compacts the character dances, in their setting, as little orchestral pieces played by a live orchestra in the concert hall, they sit perfectly in context; their genius, their instrumental brilliance, and the way they flow the one into the next is simply a delight. The programme note records that Nureyev said that it was Tchaikovsky who encouraged serious composers to engage with choreographers, making possible masterpieces like the Stravinsky ballets, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë, Prokofiev, as well as dozens of wonderful scores by other great 20th century composers.

Nutcracker engages with an orchestra, inspiring spirited and moving playing from almost every section and including a few instruments like the celesta which Tchaikovsky was the first to use symphonically (though Chausson had actually beaten him by a few years with incidental music for a French version of The Tempest). It’s the great Pas de deux that follows the Waltz of the Flowers that especially enchants me, and it was wonderful to hear this played so well by a ‘live’ orchestra.

Nutcracker mightn’t have fitted perfectly with the ‘Last Words’ theme of this year’s concerts, for the Sixth Symphony, and some piano pieces and songs followed it. But it served a higher purpose: to elevate the genre of great ballet music to the concert hall, and with this performance Marc Taddei proved the case most convincingly.

Taddei gave the first clues to the 2017 programme, which will follow the same most successful pattern as this year, disclosing the general theme of the music, associated with the great impresario Diaghilev, and at least two of his greatest collaborators: Stravinsky and Ravel. If you buy before the next and last of this year’s concerts, the sub is only $120.


Max Reger – The Romantic Bach? – splendid advocacy from Bruce Cash

The Triumphant Reger

Music by JS Bach, Wagner, Reger, Rheinberger and Hanff

Bruce Cash (speaker and organist)

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul
Molesworth Street, Wellington

Friday 14th October 2016

This was the second of three lecture/recitals on the life and works of German composer Max Reger (1873-1916) by organist and choral conductor Bruce Cash. On the strength of this experience with the music of a relatively neglected composer, I found myself wishing I’d gone to the first of Cash’s presentations earlier this year, and will certainly go to the third one, scheduled for March 2017.

Fashions have a disconcerting habit of changing, in music as elsewhere; and after one listens to some of Reger’s work one can only conclude that his music seems to have, for certain reasons, simply fallen out of favour. Once this happens (as it has done to a number of composer) it can take  a long time for the process to be halted and reversed. One thinks first and foremost of Mahler, whose works were regarded for many years after his death as too long, too heavy, and not worth the trouble, opinions which became so widespread they achieved currency even among those who hadn’t heard any of his music. It took years of determined advocacy on the part of a few loyal interpreters to overcome this and restore the music to its rightful place in concert programmes.

Bruce Cash is one of those working thus for Max Reger, though it’s a formidable task, especially when one considers contemporary reviews of recordings of the composer’s music that begin thus: – “Like Grandma’s oatmeal, Reger is good for you in some unspecified way, but difficult to digest….” (from a review of the composer’s Clarinet Sonatas, Gramophone, June 2016). One doubts whether almost any reader would bother to investigate further, having encountered that opening sentence. Still, as with nutrition, there will always be a hard-nosed anti-establishment vein of suppport for alternatives to any mainstream activity, though whether Reger’s music deserves to remain consigned to those marginalised realms is a topic yet to be fully investigated.

His work has had its champions, both during his lifetime and for a period following his untimely death in 1916 at the age of forty-three. He was regarded by certain critics as the chief compositional rival to Richard Strauss – “…..Reger and Strauss, and no third in opposition”, wrote the respected American critic James G. Huneker during the early years of the 20th century, though there were parallel strands of opinion. For years I’ve enjoyed the well-known story of a composer responding to a scathing review of his music by way of informing the critic in question thus: “I am sitting in the smallest room in the house, and I have your review before me – in a moment it will be behind me”.  I’ve always thought the composer in question was Richard Strauss – but it seems, through dint of frequency of reference that it was actually Reger who was responsible for the caustic riposte.

In terms of industry Reger was tireless, producing a large amount of music for the organ (roughly a quarter of his output), solo piano works, chamber music and orchestral pieces, including a piano concerto, but not a symphony. His vocal music belongs to the same German Romantic tradition as Mahler, Strauss, Wolf and Zemlinsky, and includes lieder and choral works, though he didn’t venture into opera. Despite all of this, what still registers in the public mind regarding Reger’s music is his association with the organ, an instrument far less “mainstream” than was the case during the composer’s lifetime, and therefore contributing to his “marginalisation”.

Naturally, Bruce Cash’s presentation of Reger’s life and works essentially centered around his organ music, but emphasised its accessibiity and connection with the wider world of musical activity. He illustrated Reger’s youthful obsession with Wagner by commenting on the former’s realisation of the opening scene of Die Meistersinge as a kind of organ “Chorale Prelude”, a work Cash subsequently gave us in his recital that followed the talk. We heard of Reger’s association with Karl Straube (1873-1950), the prominent German organ virtuoso, to whom the composer entrusted the premieres of his later organ music. Straube, who was appointed organist of St.Thomas’s Church in Leipzig, followed even further in JS Bach’s footsteps by becoming Kantor of the Thomasschule, and his interpretations of Bach as both organist and conductor would have had an enormous effect upon the younger Reger.  During the programme Cash played a short Chorale Prelude by Johann Nicolaus Hanff (1663-1711) in the late Romantic style of playing favoured by Straube, by way of homage to the latter, “the master interpreter”.

So, having regaled us with this remarkable and fascinating almalgam of information concerning Max Reger, Cash then proceeded to play a magnificent recital of associated music written by the composer himself, along with pieces by Wagner, Rheinberger, the aforementioned Hanff, and JS Bach. Most appropriately he began with Wagner, a wonderful realisation of the opening of the opera “Die Meistersinger”, in effect a kind of Chorale Prelude – Cash’s playing I thought extremely effective, festive and atmospheric.

A number of Reger’s organ pieces followed, the first a set of Variations and a Fugue on “The English National Anthem” (“Heil unserm Konig, heil!). Reger was fond of structural forms such as that embodied in this piece – here, the theme itself was swirling and flamboyant (its discursiveness reminding me in places of Dohnanyi’s Prelude to the concertante work “Variations on a Nursery Tune”), though in other places charming. Then came the fugue, whose first voice was the theme itself verbatim, the subsequent lines more and more atttenuated, and the music’s progress working up to a stirring climax whose final resolution got enthusiastic applause! I liked, too, the Intermezzo Op.129 No.7 (1913), its mood wistful and exploratory, and its organisation in places throwing a fascinating variety of different timbres and colours into cheek-by-jowl relationships – the contrast between the deep pedal notes and the almost disembodied reedy harmonies was thrilling!

From the same Op.129, Nos 8 and 9 constituted a Prelude and Fugue in B Minor, the Prelude questioning at the beginning with an anxious, tense-sounding descending figure, volatile in its contrasting irruptions and somewhat Wagnerian in its explorations, before thrusting solidly upwards and outwards towards a great climax. The Fugue was, by contrast, wraith-like, with voices talking with one another in whispers, and supported by a Fafner-like pedal, as if the monster was slumbering within the pipes. It provided the greatest possible contrast to the searing opening of Reger’s last published work for organ, the Siegesfeier Victory Celebration of 1916, written in anticipation of a German victory in World War One, a real paean of triumphal expectation whose dashed hopes the composer was at least spared, dying as he did later that same year.

Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901), whose organ compositions were declared by the Grove Encyclopaedia of Music (1908) as “undoubtedly the most valuable addition to organ music since the time of Mendelssohn”, represented the more conservative strain of contemporary composition, the Intermezzo movement from his Organ Sonata Op.132 played here by Cash as a kind of context for Reger’s far more rigorous explorations. More to the point were the three different versions of the Chorale Prelude Ein’ Feste Burg ist unser Gott played by Cash, beginning with Reger’s own, and followed with the aforementioned Johann Nicolaus Hanff’s, and that by JS Bach himself. As has already been noted, Hanff’s version was included by Cash by way of a tribute to Karl Straube, here played and registered in an almost Gallic way, reedy, romantic and sentimental in feeling. Reger’s take on the piece used the full-blooded organ voice, all resplendent tones and big, up-front sounds, whereas Bach’s treatment sounded more matter-of-fact, the lines augmented by a decorative bass and voices sprouting spontaneously from the lines, rather like as from a single seed – I loved the organist’s variety of colours and timbres – breathy, nasal, resonant, sharp and mellow – leading towards a magnificent blending of these lines buoyed along by a surging, pulsating pedal note.

And finally, we were treated to Reger’s full-throated Chorale Fantasy Op.27 Ein’ feste Burg, written at about the age of 25 (Bach wrote his at the same age, incidentally). We were able to “track” the music’s progress via the organist’s programme-note, which included three of the hymn’s four verses, and described the work’s programmatic aspects, here most atmospherically and in places thrillingly realised by the playing. In short Bruce Cash’s committed advocacy seemed to my ears to do Max Reger’s cause more than ample justice throughout, and no more resplendently than with this final, spectacularly-presented work.


Revelatory chamber music experiences from London Conchord Ensemble

London Conchord Ensemble
(Chamber Music New Zealand)

Daniel Rowland – violin, Bartholemew LaFollette – cello, Daniel Pailthorpe – flute, Emily Pailthorpe – oboe, Maximiliano Martin – clarinet, Andrea de Flammineis – bassoon, Nicholas North – horn, Julian Milford – piano

Mozart: Quintet in E flat for piano and winds, K 452
Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No I in E, Op 9 (arr. Webern for violin, flute, clarinet, cello and piano)
Poulenc: Sextet for piano and wind quintet, Op 100
Debussy: La mer (arr. Beamish for piano trio)

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 13 October, 7:30 pm

An overseas ensemble of eight distinguished players is a rare event for Chamber Music New Zealand, even more so when most are principal players in leading British orchestras, chamber groups or music academies; an ensemble as various in backgrounds and careers as the music they played.

They never all played together, apart from the encore, party pieces: bits of Brahms’s Hungarian dances. Other than at the concerts in the four main centres, the players split up to perform in six provincial cities, mainly in duos or trios, I think, in entirely different programmes.

Mozart; Quintet for piano and winds 
The extraordinarily well-documented life of Mozart includes his own self assessments; the quintet for piano and winds is probably never performed without reference to his letter to his father remarking that it was the best thing he’d written so far. Such things tend to skew one’s judgement. Only it so happened that the first time I heard it, in my mid-twenties, in perfect innocence, I was enchanted; and kept hoping to find other Mozart pieces for the same combination. It was some time later that I discovered the three great wind serenades.

They began in an almost tentative spirit, as if handling a rare manuscript, with kid gloves, the opening chords stated with utmost delicacy, then step by step each takes its discreet role – oboe and clarinet and bassoon, then the horn is given its special place while the piano supports and elaborates. But it’s not about showcasing the individual instruments, for the sort of attention each gave to the preceding player seemed both to emulate and to elaborate each instrument in turn, delicately, with scrupulous care. Each seemed to listen acutely to the shape and rhythm of each other’s playing, then echoing it subtly so as to enhance its magic. Specially enchanting were the phrases where pairs of instruments conversed – oboe and clarinet; horn and bassoon for example.

Schoenberg; Chamber Symphony No 1  
Mozart represented the first Viennese school; Schoenberg, the second. His famous First Chamber Symphony seems to be spoken of as if it’s a major step towards atonalism, but it came only a few years after Verklärte Nacht and Pelleas und Melisande, before his ‘atonal period’ is said to begin. It’s unashamedly in E major though there are plenty of other tonalities, near and far.

The work is written for single instruments, five strings, two horns, and eight woodwind instruments. Webern’s arrangement of the Chamber Symphony for piano, violin and cello, flute and clarinet, made in 1923, was one of several by the composer himself and his younger acolytes. (The composer had arranged it for piano four hands and for a larger orchestra; Berg arranged it for two pianos, and Webern also made an arrangement for piano and strings).

Violinist Rowland recalled the famous 1913 concert in Vienna (Paris and Stravinsky were not the only heroes of musical riots) where, as well as this chamber symphony, music by Webern, Zemlinsky and Berg was played: a riot broke out during Berg’s songs. At the subsequent trial, Rowland said, the operetta composer Oscar Straus testified that the punch by concert organizer Erhard Buschbeck had been the most harmonious sound of the evening.  The Michael Fowler Centre, however, remained calm.

Yet it’s interesting that the piece has not really taken its place alongside other famous music of the period, like Salome and Elektra, like Mahler’s symphonies, like Debussy’s La mer and Images… (for example, I’ve only got one version on record). For it here and there it presents a rugged, somewhat challenging face. There are tunes, sometimes they quickly distort or are overtaken by conflicting ideas, but often, especially if one is reasonably familiar with it, each hearing brings more of a feeling of familiarity and tunefulness; and this performance enhanced those impressions.

Poulenc: Sextet  
French composers of first half of the twentieth century typically shied away from the trends across the Rhine, none more than Poulenc, especially after the First World War.  His Sextet was composed during the 1930s. It starts with a couple of cheeky, defiant gestures but then set out busily until the music stops as if at the end of the movement. It resumes however with a calm bassoon solo; the piano has a turn, then oboe and then all really come to dominate most of the first movement till the first tempo returns for the last couple of minutes. The second movement, Divertissement, is hardly in the same class at the famous music by Ibert, but it’s recognisably Poulenc, flipping from one tempo to another and played with a delightful Gallic sense of impropriety, and ending as flute and horn lead to a near unresolved suspension.

The last movement returns to Poulenc proper, setting off with screechy woodwinds and staccato horn, piano and winds trading insults.  The final surprise is the sudden killing of the Prestissimo tempo as the bassoon leading the rest through an admonitory calm (Subito très lente, says the score, mixing French and Italian), in an emphatic absence of anything brash or tasteless.

Debussy: La mer
I think there was a particular feeling of scepticism that a richly orchestrated thing like La mer could be reduced to a piano trio and not sound ridiculous, and really disrespectful of Debussy’s laborious work of orchestration, which was not his favourite occupation. My own doubts lasted a full 47 seconds, by which time I was won over in the utmost astonishment.

Only three players, Daniel Rowland – violin, Bartholemew LaFollette – cello and Julian Milford – piano, wrought this miracle. It was the work of English composer Sally Beamish, and though there were moments when I couldn’t help hearing the original version in my head, those lapses were quickly replaced by wonderment at her achievement. While there was no hope of dealing in some way with every note in the full score, the spirit of La mer was almost always there in an inexplicable way, with the very instrumental sounds seeming to emerge as if by magic.

I wondered how she’d tackled it and imagined that the best way would have been to have done it from memory, just checking now and then with the score for the odd harmonic detail. A good deal of the cogency of the performance – probably most of it – had to be due to the sensitivity and skill of the three players who, eux aussi, must simply have had the original sounds embedded in their heads.

The other lesson from this performance was to endorse a feeling I’ve long had that the real test of orchestral music’s substance and worth lies in the experience of it with all the colour removed, leaving it like a black and white photo or a copper engraving. Debussy’s masterpiece, subjected to that test, passes with a triple A rating; and again, it could not have been such an illuminating experience without superb musicians such as these proved to be.


Wellington Youth Orchestra and Simon Brew – playing for keeps

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:
ROSSINI – Overture “William Tell”
BRUCH – Violin Concerto No.1 in G Minor Op.26
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No.6 in B Minor “Pathetique”

Shweta Iyer (violin)
Wellington Youth Orchestra
Simon Brew (conductor)

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

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

From the first solo ‘cello note of the Wellington Youth Orchestra’s performance of the “William Tell” Overture, I was spellbound – I’d never heard that opening ascending phrase speak more eloquently and poetically. Naturally, I couldn’t straight-away rustle about in my seat turning my programme’s pages to discover who the ‘cellist was – which was good, because my attention wasn’t then diverted from the playing of the other individual ‘cellists, who seemed all to have a turn at part of the melody as well (Rossini actually scored the opening for five solo ‘cellos accompanied by double basses). Though not perhaps QUITE as beautifully inflected and intoned as the leader’s, each player contributed to an overall lovely effect, the solo lines seeming to “personalise” the music more than is usually the case, and draw the listener into its sound-world most effectively.

When the music got louder, I was able to unobtrusively refer to the orchestra personnel page and discover that the ‘cellist in question was in fact Lavinnia Rae, whom I’d already heard this year playing a solo concerto (she had, in fact won the orchestral section of the NZSM/WCO Concerto Competition earlier this year with her playing of the same concerto, Shostakovich No.1) and simply hadn’t recognised her on this occasion. But her playing instantly proclaimed her skill and depth as an interpreter, and seemed to galvanise the whole ‘cello section to give of its best.

The orchestra under conductor Simon Brew then went on to give a splendid rendition of what followed – focused, stinging raindrops at the beginning of the storm, which featured fiery brass and tumultuous timpani (sounding at the climax more like the Wagner of “Die Walküre” than Rossini!), beautiful cor anglais and flute solos throughout the pastoral sequence, and scalp-prickling calls from the brass at the beginning of the final march.

One hears this music so often, it’s almost taken for granted that any performance will launch crisply and tightly into those dancing and galloping rhythms without any trouble, when it must actually be something of a nightmare for the players to achieve unanimity with those three-note figures, especially at the start. The ensemble did take a few bars to “find” one another individually and sectionally, but Simon Brew brought things together with a clear and decisive beat, allowing plenty of noise at cardinal points (the composer was nicknamed “Monsieur Vacarmini” (Mr. Uproar) by critics of the time) and bringing out details such as the piccolo flourishes during the coda – the wind-playing in general was another of this performance’s notable features. Brew spared his strings by cutting the molto perpetuo-like middle section of this sequence, and instead concentrating on its fervent, warlike aspects, giving brass and percussion their head to great effect.

Next came Max Bruch’s G Minor Violin Concerto, for many people, THE romantic violin concerto par excellence. It provided the opportunity for us to hear another winner from this year’s NZSM/WCO Concerto Competition, Shweta Iyer, who took the Secondary School prize. For a capable soloist the concerto is a gift, affording ample opportunities for both virtuoso display and poetic expression; and Shweta Iyer brought plenty of youthful exuberance and darkly passionate feeling to the first movement’s more vigorous passages, while by contrast finding plenty of lyrical sweetness in the central adagio’s singing melodies. One or two early intonation divergencies apart, Iyer’s playing felt and sounded secure and totally involved, every note invested with warmth and feeling.

Though full-blooded enough in places, much of the playing from both soloist and orchestra had an attractive pliable quality, as if the musicians were listening to what they themselves were doing and trying their best to make certain it was all fitting together. Iyer’s nimble fingerwork at the conclusion of her first-movement cadenza did seem to catch conductor and orchestra out momentarily, but this was the exception rather than the rule. I thought the Adagio in particular had everybody, soloist ,orchestra and conductor, in vibrant accord, exemplified by moments such as the beautiful counterpointed sequence between the solo violin and the orchestral horn, and the give-and-take intensities of the build-up towards the movement’s central climax. Perhaps the brass could have “capped off” the great moment even more resplendently, but in general, the music’s ebb and flow of feeling was put across with energy and sensitivity.

Playing as if their lives depended on the outcome, orchestra and soloist dug into into the finale’s opening measures, the energetic principal theme ringing out resplendently from both Shweta Iyer’s violin and the orchestral strings. Then came the second, more fully-throated theme – was there ever another concerto so endowed with romantic melody as this one? – first the orchestra, then the soloist gave this tune all the “juice” one could want, contrasting with the trenchant figurations of the “working-out” which followed, and the winding-up of energies for the coda’s exciting accelerando, brought off with great flair by all concerned. Very great credit to Shweta Iyer, for some brilliant, adventurous and heartfelt playing of one of the ‘great” concertos.

An even greater challenge faced the orchestra after the interval – this was Tchaikovsky’s final symphony, known as the “Pathetique”, and regarded by the composer himself after some initial misgivings, as his finest work. Most unusually for its time, the final movement is an adagio, marked “lamentoso”, so as to underline the music’s sombre nature – and many a concert-hall performance of the symphony has occasioned an irruption of audience appreciation after its brilliant third-movement orchestral splendours have thudded to a halt, only for the enthusiasm to be quelled by the final movement’s bleak opening strains!

The opening sequences of this symphony, while sobering to listen to, are always a delight to observe “live”, as the lower strings interact with the woodwind long before the violins get their first chances. The syncopated string entries caused the players some difficulties at first, but by the time the brass made their startling shouts of reply the strings had things under control, the players then managing the lovely ascending passage leading to the “second subject” with great aplomb, from ‘cellos to violas and then to the violins, the latter preparing to tug the heartstrings with one of the world’s great melodies.

The winds made a lovely sound throughout their see-sawing passages which followed – detailed and clearly-pointed playing which sharpened the music’s intensities, and “lifted” the violins’ reiteration of the “big tune” to an even greater pitch – but while the clarinet solo which followed held us in thrall, the bassoon, whose hands had been splendid at the symphony’s beginning, unfortunately dropped the ball with the line open, and the concentration momentarily faltered. Those tricky syncopated string entries after the music’s great thunderclap were thus at sea for a while, until the brass came to the rescue with the percussion in tow, roaring out those basic rhythms and getting the ensemble back together.

Splendidly solid support from timpanist Hannah Neman helped further support the strings with their portentous “Fate” theme, capped off magnificently by the brass, upper and lower, the music churning piteously in its despairing throes, and collapsing under its own weight of emotion. From out of the gloom came the strings with their “famous tune” once again, Simon Brew judiciously directing their course through the gloom, their tones focused like a shaft of light surveying the wreckage from the storm. Some superb clarinet playing followed, ably supported by the other winds, and so we were at the coda, the string pizzicati fitful and uncertain at first, and the brass with a frog in someone’s throat – but things came together for those last few heart-easing descents.

The 5/4 second movement, apart from a couple of disjointed rhythmic dovetailings among the strings in places, was beautifully realised, the ‘cellos at the beginning full-toned and heartfelt, the winds plangent in reply, and the upper strings catching that lovely “Italianate” sound during the following sequences, before building the intensities slowly and surely just before the trio. I thought Simon Brew’s marshalling of his forces nicely brought out the trio’s contrasting sombre, somewhat obsessive character, and encouraged the players at the end to make the most of the descending motif’s gentle poignancy.

Next was the March, launched at a sensible tempo, giving the players elbow-room in which to phrase their lines, though I thought the strings could have been encouraged to “dig into” and point these same rhythms rather more jauntily. The winds demonstrated a touch more elan in this respect, though the excitement was still effectively built up, with strings and winds exchanging splendidly “skyrocketed” fusillades of sound leading to the march-tune’s first full-blooded statement. Conductor Brew kept the tempo steady, encouraging strings and winds to swirl their figurations with ever-increasing abandonment and brass and percussion to thunder in support – the deathly silence which followed the last hammered chords spoke volumes!

The strings’ opening phrase then tore open the silence and set the final movement on its course, straightaway laying bare the anguish and sufferings of the music’s creator. Their sorrowing gesture was amplified by the wailing wind counterpoints, and even included a grim-toned solo bassoon, almost like Death waiting in the wings for its moment. Though the horns didn’t sound entirely comfortable at first with their syncopated accompaniments, the strings rallied around a sudden impulsive glimmer of hope in a new episode which was build up by Brew and his players to a magnificent, if short-lived show of defiance – fantastic intensities, which then spun out of control and collapsed, the sounds mercilessly delineating the tragedy.

I thought the playing here little short of cathartic in its effect, as were the strings’ desperate Wagner-like gestures of rebuttal, a kind of “Volga overflowing its banks” and overwhelming the sufferer’s world with torrents of despair – we could do nothing except let the emotion wash over and submerge our sensibilities in a “sea of troubles”, ponder on the inevitabilites of fate amid dark tocsin resoundings, and listen to the weeping voices recede into the darkness.

It was a number of things – the immediate, no-holds-barred proximity of the players and conductor, the intensity and full-throatedness of the playing, and the give-and-take between Simon Brew and his orchestral forces – which combined to produce such a heartfelt and, at the end “wrung-out” result. Thrills and spills alike, every note of it was extremely satisfying to listen to and be caught up in and made part of – much appreciation to all concerned!

Streeton Trio, at Waikanae, offers persuasive, unfamiliar music but lacked a masterpiece

Streeton Piano Trio: Emma Jardine – violin, Meta Weiss – cello, Benjamin Kopp – piano
(Waikanae Music Society)

Debussy: Piano Trio in G minor
Beethoven: Piano Trio in B flat, Op 11
Mendelssohn: Three Songs without Words (arr. Kopp)
Saint-Saëns: Piano Trio in E minor, Op 92

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 9 October, 2:30 pm

The Streeton Piano Trio was named for the important Australian painter Arthur Streeton, though I don’t know whether there was any reason for making the connection with the visual arts. The trio has twice toured New Zealand before, in 2012 and 2013, when they made a very good impression; Middle C reviewed their concerts at Waikanae.

Mozart dropped for Debussy
Their advertised programme had begun with Mozart’s early trio in G, K 49, but they changed that in favour of Debussy’s youthful trio of 1880, when he was 18. It wasn’t quite new to me as I’d heard a student group play it at the 2015 NZSM Queen’s Birthday Chamber Music Weekend in the Adam Concert Room at the school of music.

It was written during Debussy’s time teaching piano to the daughters of the wealthy Russian widow Nadezhda von Meck, who was most famous as Tchaikovsky’s patroness and close musical confidante for fourteen years. She apparently thought well of Debussy’s piece which she referred to as the ‘wonderful’ trio and it is thought to have inspired Tchaikovsky’s ‘wonderful’ piano trio, written just a year or so later.

While I was slightly curious about this immature creation then, the feeling of curiosity was replaced now by a certain disappointment at not discerning in the young Debussy much sign of the great talent and originality that was soon to emerge. It was quite pleasant, hinting at Fauré, with insipid melodies perhaps reflecting popular songs of the time. However, it worked nicely for the instruments, particularly between the two stringed instruments, and then between piano and cello. The second movement, Scherzo, had a certain character, employing pizzicato and staccato attractively; the Andante was somewhat dreamy and sentimental, though later showing some individuality.

The piece seemed to end with an appropriate close, but the music resumed just in time for the clapping not to start. The performance was polished however, the players clearly taking pains to draw all there was from the music and make the most of its limitations.

Beethoven’s Gassenhauer
Beethoven’s trio Op 11, nicknamed ‘Gassenhauer’, for the tune in the third movement that Beethoven took from an aria in a popular comic opera that was whistled in the street (‘Gasse’). It can hardly be called a youthful work as Beethoven was 27, but then he was not the sort of prodigy that Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn or Saint-Saëns were. It was scored originally for clarinet but also for violin. It’s a thoroughly high-spirited piece and the music is interestingly scored, resourceful and individual.

It was intriguing to compare the quality of the sentimentality evident in the second movement with what it meant for Debussy. Music may have become more complex harmonically, larger in scale and involving bigger orchestras and operatic forces by the late nineteenth century but the indefinable elements of cultivation, refinement and taste around 1800 were more elevated under the influence of the baroque and classical periods. By the end of the century as wider audiences, more bourgeois, emerged, the lighter genres of classical music became more shallow, frivolous and ephemeral.

So in the set of variations that comprise the last movement of the Beethoven, the players captured varied moods, between the reflective, the spirited, the fairly serious, culminating in a delightful fugal coda.

Mendelssohn’s piano into Kopp’s trio
The pianist Benjamin Kopp had been inspired by playing through Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words with the feeling that they somehow cried out to be arranged for piano trio. He confessed to taking various liberties with the pieces in the process in terms of fleshing out harmonic textures, changing rhythms and adding notes. Three were eventually chosen from a larger number of arrangements; they were Gondollied, WoO 10, Spring Song, Op 62 No 6 and the Op 31 No 1, E flat. In the end I wondered whether Gondollied wasn’t too decorated for its own comfort; the Spring Song sounded rather more tasteful and successful; and the last, blessed with one of Mendelssohn’s loveliest melodies, struck me as the most successful, handling the original with integrity. Certainly, all were played with great affection and though there was no claim to their forming a coherent piece of music they made an agreeable little suite.

The Saint-Saëns piano trio is one of those pieces that has tended to be neglected as a result of a quite wide-spread determination to disparage his ranking as a great composer, dismissing his music as insubstantial, ephemeral. It too, like the Debussy, I heard played by students last year and then by the NZTrio in Upper Hutt in October.

Yes, one can find uninspired music in his large output, but there’s a lot more that deserves a better press. And this is one that contains a mixture of the good and the less interesting. The first movement contains some impressive, urgent writing involving an attractive melody, interestingly developed and distributed among the three instruments.

Then there are three movements that are indeed somewhat inconsistent. The second, Allegretto, outlives the strength of its ideas, the Andante rates as very agreeable, and the third movement, Grazioso poco allegro is, as its title suggests, graceful but not especially serious. But the fifth movement, Allegro, returns to music of much greater variety, buoyancy and accomplishment, and its performance substantiated its virtues: a skilful and successful fugal passage, a spacious Beethovenish episode in a Gallic spirit, employing an unpretentious though attractive melody, ending in a Coda that springs mild, unpredictable surprises.

It was an interesting concert but suffered a little from the lack of at least one important and more arresting work.


America: NZSO performances of brilliant new violin concerto plus Dvořák in New York and Reich in minimalist heaven

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fawzi Haimor with Anne Akiko Meyers (violin)

Steve Reich: Three Movements
Mason Bates: Violin Concerto
Dvořák: Symphony No 9 in E minor, Op 95 (‘From the New World’)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 8 October, 7:30 pm

Once upon a time to have scheduled the New World Symphony would have guaranteed a pretty full house in spite of its being accompanied by unfamiliar music. But sometimes I think that as the years pass, the general public is becoming, not more open and adventurous, and simply ‘well-informed’ in the arts, and music too, but less in all those spheres.

And there are various reasons: slavery to the flat black screen, perhaps the cost of tickets, disagreeable weather outside, but most importantly, the lack of exposure on all popular radio and television channels, to anything but the most vacuous noises and sights of the tawdry, commercialised world of entertainment; and a school curriculum that avoids much real exposure to worthwhile music, or the other arts, including literature.

So there were too many empty seats for what turned out to be a splendid, enjoyable concert and the ‘happy few’ – I mean, really ‘quite a large number’ went pretty wild after each piece.

Steve Reich’s earlier New Zealand appearance
The first piece was a chance to recall the great days of the New Zealand Festival of the Arts (as it was then), in 1990, the first of the two under the direction of Chris Doig. One of the many exciting international visitors was Steve Reich and the Musicians, who played inter alia, Reich’s famous, holocaust-related Different Trains.

Perhaps trains have a special place in Reich’s life, for the piece played on Saturday, Three Movements, has inspired a performance on You Tube, played by the LSO under Michael Tilson Thomas, accompanied entirely by a film by Alessandro Manfredi featuring trains in Switzerland, some speeded up to accompany the outer fast  movements, some slowed for the middle movement. It’s a riveting, infectious experience, for a lover of both trains and music.

Three Movements for Orchestra
So was the NZSO’s performance. Coincidentally or calculatedly, the performance celebrated Reich’s 80th birthday, on 3 October.

The centre stage was occupied by two marimbas, two vibraphones and two pianos, which squeezed the strings to the sides; they were divided into two distinct string orchestras. It starts with marimbas and piano in fast alternating beats, with excitement created by shifting tonalities (accompanied in the You Tube clip as white and red, high-speed Swiss and occasional Deutsche Bahn passenger trains flash through, intensifying the excitement of the music). While the pulse remains steady, the rhythm changes to become more and more difficult to identify as sections of the orchestra handle overlapping harmonies and rhythms.

The middle movement runs at half the speed of the outer movements with vibraphones taking over the main rhythmic work and woodwinds, notably clarinets and oboes (winds are limited to pairs of each, but four horns and triple trumpets and trombones) dominate the colouring. The third movement resumes the speed of the first, but intensifies the experience as both marimbas and vibes and the pianos increase the density, loudness and rhythmic complexity. Reich draws attention to his penchant for rhythmic ambiguity and coins the term ‘canonic mensuration’ to describe the way his motifs appear simultaneously in two or more speeds. Even though it’s not easy to keep track of the pulses, they are undeniably fascinating and compelling.

American conductor Fawzi Haimor electrified the orchestra with gestures that were vivid and lucid; it was an occasion when the orchestra’s international quality and acumen were both in high demand and met the competition with formidable success.

Bates: Violin Concerto
Similar strengths were demanded by the next work by 39 year old Mason Bates who has made an impact in the United States. It was premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin in 2012. Bates is composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC, having just completed five years in a similar role with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He followed the violin concerto with one for the cello; his first opera, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, will premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in 2017.

It looks as if its performances in New Zealand are among the few so far outside the United States, if my Internet browsing reflects the situation. The violin concerto has been recorded by the London Symphony under Slatkin with Anne Akiko Meyers, the soloist in Wellington; and the European premiere was by the Orchestre national de Lyon last year. In the United States it’s been played by orchestras in Detroit, Chicago, Nashville, Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra and others no doubt that don’t appear on my computer screen.

And incidentally, Bates’s website and others highlight the three-city tour by the NZSO.

Bates is travelling the road that was paved by the minimalists, Glass, Reich and Riley, but his palette is rather more eclectic, not adhering to the habits of repetitiveness felt in the early minimalists. Like most younger composers who are more interested in giving audiences a good time than impressing musicologists, he avoids serialist dogma and complex, tuneless music such as his compatriots Morton Feldman or Elliott Carter produced.

I found an interesting observation in an American review of Bates’s music, touching the direction of classical music today:
“… classical music and its audiences love young dynamos who satisfy the urge for innovation while continuing the traditions of the classical canon. Bates presents cutting-edge concerts and writes big pieces for orchestra that are essentially 21st-century tone poems, or musical narratives.”
It’s not irrelevant that he moonlights as a DJ, is deep into electronica, and the sophisticated areas of pop music.

So what does the violin concerto sound like? What are its influences?
Though I didn’t find many distinct echoes of earlier composers, there were glimpses of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, inter alia, certain of the pulsating passages of his violin concerto; and you can hear sounds that, in a couple of decades from now, will define the time and place of this music. Thinking about violin concerto models, the fast movements of John Corigliano’s ‘Red Violin’ Concerto is not far away.

The piece doesn’t demand a Straussian or Mahlerian sized orchestra: strings numbered 14 first violins down to six basses; there’s a piano and some interesting percussion that I could hear but not see.

Bates and the primitive birds
Then there’s the illustrative aspect. Bates’s own notes describe how he fastened on depicting a chase between two mesozoic animals, of the Jurassic age (around 150 million years ago): the bird-like Archaeopteryx lithographica chasing a compsognathid (Compsognathus longipes) at night. Though I’m really not interested in dinosaurs, it was not hard to be fascinated by the music itself, listening to the contest between the two creatures, through frantic, pulsating, skittering sounds alternating with the violin’s rather gorgeously lyrical, soaring music.

There was, naturally, a very special feel in the violin’s part, since we were privileged to have the commissioner/dedicatee/performer of the premiere playing with the NZSO; they were indeed driven by the combination of Meyers’s intensity and soulfulness, and the elegant, energetic conducting of Haimor. While the orchestral part of the work is full of entertainment and uncluttered virtuosity, the violin was so constantly the centre of attention that it was too easy to miss the delights conspicuous in the orchestra.

The second movement, called ‘Lakebed Memories’, took us from the actual Jurassic age to viewing a mesozoic lakebed, perhaps from the present day, in a series of slow, falling phrases from the violin and semi-glissandi pizzicato from cellos and some curious sounds from percussion, e.g. crotales(?) and glockenspiel(?).

In the middle of the third movement the orchestra gave way entirely to the violinist who raced away with endless oscillating figures representing ‘The Rise of the Birds’, another opportunity for flight, breathless ascents, or peaceful gliding on up-draughts, as the by-now-familiar, beautiful soaring motif comes to dominate until the relatively matter-of-fact ending.

I doubt that the orchestral performance was any less brilliant and convincing that those by the premiering orchestra, Pittsburgh, and others that have played it. It was one of the most attractive and engaging pieces of contemporary music I’ve come across for a while.

The New World Symphony
After the interval, the ‘New World’ Symphony did not feel like a retreat to old-fashioned music, something one knew too well, that had become hackneyed. Though other composers like Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss, Debussy, of the period when Dvořák wrote it (the 1890s) have now come to dominate, to hear such a vibrant and vivid performance was to be reminded that it was no disgrace to have become more immediately popular than the other composers I mentioned.

The opening, extremely calm with strings and a telling clarinet note, and then a surprising, extra-fortissimo call to attention from Lenny Sakofsky’s hard-sticked timpani and Greg Hill’s horn. To watch conductor Haimor again, in main-stream repertoire (and here, no score), bending to the same emphases and gestures, the balletic movements that galvanised the auditorium in the first half in music of our day, made clear the essentially contemporary nature of the symphony. Every section of the orchestra, now at full strength – 16 first violins down to 8 basses – seemed to be electrified by the call to deliver a message of this kind: breathy, slow and quiet flute, velvety horns, and in the famous Largo tune, cor anglais and then bassoons, in playing that quite eliminated any sense of its being over-familiar.

And the Scherzo movement was alive with variety and subtlety, with scrupulous articulation everywhere. The Finale – con fuoco – further upped the emotional temperature where sudden switches of tempo, dynamics, discretion and brashness, brilliant orchestration and, as the programme note remarks, Dvořák’s unending melodic invention, create one of the most colourful and arousing of orchestral finales. An early experience of the symphony came to mind, hearing, in the late 1950s the opening of the Finale used as a sensational promotional tool in a sampler LP of the ‘new stereophonic recording technique’ , when the breathtaking opening assaulted the ears seemingly from every direction.

Not much has changed.
This concert will go down as one of the real highlights of musical 2016.

Adventures in great music both well-known and unknown, marks strong revival by Cantoris

Cantoris conducted by Thomas Nikora

Sacred Music by D’Astorga and Mozart
D’Astorga: Stabat Mater
Mozart: Ave Verum Corpus, K 618; and Vesperae Solennes de confessore, K 339

Soloists: Olivia Marshall, Linden Loader, Jamie Young, Will King
Cantica Sacra Instrumental Ensemble of selected musicians

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 2 October, 3 pm

In many ways, an appealing way to design a programme: two of Mozart’s best-loved choral works and one obscure, but as it emerged, beautiful piece by an almost totally unknown composer. Emanuele d’Astorga was born in Sicily in 1680, in perhaps the most fruitful and brilliant decade in the whole history of western classical music – the decade of Vivaldi, Telemann, Rameau, Bach, Handel, Biber, Geminiani, Pachelbel, Domenico Scarlatti (who also divided his time between Italy, Spain, and Portugal; though Astorga lived in Spain at certain times, he lived mainly in Italy, travelled widely too).

Emanuele d’Astorga
Astorga inherited a Spanish barony with estates in Sicily (which was then under Spanish rule); Astorga is a town on the Camino de Santiago about 40km west of Leon in the province of that name. But there’s no evidence of his family’s residence there.

Thomas Nikora introduced the music but either he didn’t use the microphone or it wasn’t working properly for I caught little of it. Though the short account of Astorga’s life suggests that very little is known about him, browsing the internet, and even looking back to old sources such as the famous eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica there is an entry that covers most of what is known today. The best account I’ve seen is a CD booklet note by English choral conductor Robert King accompanying his recording of the Stabat Mater.

D’Astorga’s Stabat Mater
The Stabat Mater was probably written earlier than Pergolesi’s (1736), based purely on stylistic grounds (I can find no confirmation of its first performance in 1713, as offered in the programme notes).

One’s first reaction is a comparison with the very popular Pergolesi work, and the feeling that while Astorga’s is contrapuntally more sophisticated, it hasn’t Pergolesi’s artless poignancy. Nevertheless, the instrumental introduction immediately showed a skilled and imaginative composer, capturing a calm melancholy, in playing that was reassuringly secure, if not blessed with the aching sounds that the best baroque ensembles produce.

Here was an orchestra of nine strings (led by Corrina Connor) plus the chamber organ played by Heather Easting; to find fault would be unhelpful and difficult. The most important thing to stress is the huge difference a competent, instrumental ensemble makes to the persuasiveness and integrity of choral music. Much as I enjoy organ music, it usually fails as a substitute for the instruments prescribed by the composer as choral accompaniment.

The first choral entry was characterised by rising chromatic lines giving signs of a well-rehearsed choir, with soprano Olivia Marshall, right from the first, handling her lines very well, especially in her bright, higher register. The weaving of the separate lines of the choral writing, and their nicely balanced performance, that frequently made it hard to decide where the actual melody was – all parts were of equal interest. The same went for the soloists; soprano, bass, then tenor entered in turn in the ‘O quam tristis’. There were some initial tonal weaknesses, but nothing worth mentioning. An early delight was the soprano-mezzo duet at the start of the charming, triple time ‘Quis est homo’; and later in that section the men had similar opportunity which they exploited splendidly; as did tenor Jamie Young and mezzo Linden Loader in short fugal duets in the ‘Fac me tecum’.

The varied treatment of solo parts were soon comfortable, and continued to be a most attractive feature of the work. Bass Will King was uniformly impressive, his voice flexible over a wide range and relished his final exhibition in the ¾ time ‘Fac me plagis’ to which one can almost dance.

There are moments where one hears touches of Handel, in the final ‘Christe’ – the Amen chorus, or of Vivaldi in some of the rapid quaver figures from the strings; none of that’s very remarkable, since, until the current age of obsession with ‘originality’ there was nothing to be ashamed about in composing in a way that reflected one’s own age and one’s most gifted predecessors. In fact the final chorus whose contributions were charmingly varied, perhaps not in a way that especially illuminated the text, made the music constantly interesting and delightful.

There are records of a few operas by Astorga, but only one act of Dafne survives. However, he also wrote perhaps 170 ‘chamber cantatas’, said to be very attractive. Judging by the great gifts evident revealed in the Stabat Mater, I look forward to their being explored and performed.

Mozart: Ave verum and Vesperae solennes
The second half of the concert was for Mozart: the little masterpiece of his last months, Ave verum corpus, and then the splendidly-named Vesperae solennes de confessore (It always intrigues me to resurrect my knowledge of Latin grammar to explain the varying endings of each word).

The touches of uncertainty in the orchestral introduction of the Ave verum only emphasised the feeling of reverence and awe the musicians might properly have felt as they approached this serene, forgiving, simply beautiful music (I speak not of the religious significance), but there was nothing lacking in the subdued and carefully articulated performance.

The ‘Solemn Vespers’ was Mozart’s last composition for the Salzburg Cathedral before he left for Vienna. However unpleasant was his relationship with the Prince Archbishop, Mozart did not carry his feelings into this wonderful work. The chance of hearing it on a Sunday evening at your local church would have made adherence to the Catholic Church richly rewarding, in fact irresistible, in the years before the liturgical changes of the 20th century.

Again, both orchestra, now joined by a couple of trumpets and percussion, and choir evinced a touch of nervousness which quickly dissipated. It’s not only the beautiful ‘Laudate dominum’ that is memorable, each section (all are based on Psalms) is inspired both by melody and its musical elaboration. The ‘Dixit Dominus’ is a choral piece in triple time, and the singing was lively, and words were often distinct; the four soloists took change in the ‘Confitebor’, with soprano Olivia Marshall prominent, and she was a particular ornament later, in the ‘Laudate Dominum’; but each, particularly tenor Jamie Young, made distinctive contributions. They all conversed attractively in the ‘Beatus Vir’, as the voices formed and reformed the musical patterns, Linden Loader leading at times; and the strings handled their striking phases well. The ‘Laudate pueri’ is characterised by the men’s and women’s voices moving separately, fugally, around a steady almost hypnotic rhythm in common time.

It’s interesting that, in its setting, the ‘Laudate Dominum’ seems not particularly to stand out, but simply takes its place as a moment of calm between more forthright movements; apart from the splendid soprano solo, one of its glories was way in which the last bars fell away to beyond pianissimo at the end. The ‘Magnificat’, the last movement, finally made trumpets and percussion conspicuous, and gave more attention to soloists, sometimes in duet, sometimes separately.

Cantoris has had its vicissitudes over the years, but this concert was a small triumph both on account of the important and great music chosen (too many choirs seek obscure but insignificant music, guided by some ‘theme’) and the evident confidence and energy that Thomas Nikora has injected into it.