Nelson Chamber Music festival again New Zealand’s biennial musical highlight

The Adam International Chamber Music Festival (Thursday 2 to Saturday 11 February 2017)

Theatre Royal, Nelson and Nelson Cathedral

These reviews cover concerts from Tuesday 7 to Friday 10 February 2017

My visit this year to the Nelson Chamber Music Festival was shorter than in previous years, arriving late afternoon on the Tuesday and departing midday Saturday.

The highlights from abroad were the presence of Hungarian pianist Dénes Varjon, the Australian tenor, Andrew Goodwin (singing Schumann’s Dichterliebe), the Goldner Quartet and cellist Matthew Barley.

The essence of the festival rests with the New Zealand String Quartet, which founded and sustained the festival from its beginning in 1992: for many years, artistic directors Helene Pohl and Gillian Ansell. The quartet whose membership remained fixed for over 20 years, saw the retirement last year of second violinist, Doug Beilman and his replacement by Australian violinist Monique Lapins, who at this festival enjoyed solo exposure, notably in Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor.

Frequent visitors over the years have been the New Zealand Piano Trio (NZTrio) which played as a group and also played individually with a variety of other players. And the Goldner Quartet from Australia which has visited a couple of times in the past.

An old friend, clarinettist James Campbell, returned, to join in music by Brahms, Gao Ping, Schumann, Jean Françaix…    as well as several New Zealand and other contemporary pieces. Plus marimba player Ian Rosenbaum.

A central element of this festival was ‘The Cello’, involving the performance of all five of Beethoven’s cello sonatas, from five different cellists, who were joined by eight others for the cello jamboree in two concerts on Friday the 10th.

Waitangi Day has always fallen within the festival and has offered an opportunity to feature New Zealand works. This time Gillian Whitehead was present for the New Zealand premiere of her new one-voice opera Iris Dreaming.

Naturally, I was there for only some of these, from the Tuesday evening.

My first concert on Tuesday 7 February, 7:30 pm, was entitled ‘Cadenzas’. It began with the third Beethoven cello sonata (Op 69), this one from Matthew Barley accompanied by Dénes Varjon. (the Op 5 sonatas had already been played). I have never felt that the cello sonatas were among Beethoven’s real masterpieces, but Barley gave this one a sort of raw individuality that, while not speaking in unmistakably Beethovenish tones, was a study in vivid contrasts between movements and within movements, lyrical or tough-minded, rhapsodic or strictly formulated.

Pre-eminent Canadian clarinettist James Campbell has been at Nelson, perhaps twice before, and is clearly a good friend to both the New Zealand String Quartet and the festival itself. While I truly lamented missing his playing in the Brahms clarinet quintet in the final Gala performance, it was a pleasure to hear him with marimba player Ian Rosenbaum in Canadian composer Alexina Louie’s Cadenza II.

Louie is of mixed Chinese-Canadian descent and this improvisatory piece drew on those contrasting influences. Rosenbaum’s virtuosity may visually have somewhat outshone the less flamboyant character of a clarinet player, and the mingling of sounds did not especially persuade me of their natural affinity, but the vitality and exotic character of the music provided an excellent punctuation mark between two pillars at either end of the 19th century.

Brahms first piano trio, essentially a youthful piece (aged 20), is a favourite of most chamber music fans, such as me. And its performance by Varjon with New Zealand String Quartet’s Helene Pohl and Rolf Gjelsten was a huge success, rich and romantic, refined and compelling.

Wednesday the 8th began with a meet-the-artists with the Goldner Quartet in the morning – most entertaining and interesting according to those who attended.

The 2pm, hour-long Theatre Royal concert, entitled Fire in the Belly, focused on the last piece, of that name by Jack Body commissioned by the New Zealand Trio in 2008 and played by the trio here. It might be something of departure from much of Body’s music that shows the influence of the indigenous music from many parts of the world. It was perhaps a reassurance for those who might wonder whether he also succeeded in writing music in a fairly traditional form, for traditional western instruments, in an idiom that was original yet accessible; it held my attention firmly, and is worthy of its place in the piano trio literature.

The concert began however with the fourth of Beethoven’s cello sonatas (Op 102 No 1) which Rolf Gjelsten played beautifully; though in his introduction he spoke, uncharacteristically, a bit too long. His pianist was Dénes Varjon who’d accompanied the Op 69 sonata on Tuesday and the accord was again heart-warming.

It was followed by Kakakurenai, by Japanese composer Andy Akiho, for marimba, vibraphone and glockenspiel, originally for ‘prepared steel pan’, having an effect rather like Caribbean steel drums; that quality could be heard through the two keyed percussion instruments. It started interestingly but became repetitive in its rhythmic and melodic ideas, though it came comfortably to an end at the right time.

Then a piece for viola and piano, Märchenbilder (Fairytale pictures), Op 113, by Schumann; one of his last works. Though played by affectionately and persuasively by Gillian Ansell and Dénes Varjon, it rather lacked much energy and its melodic interest was routine in comparison with the enchanting inspirations of his earlier piano music and Lieder.

On Wednesday evening at 7.30pm came one of the festival’s centre-pieces – ‘Bach by Candlelight’, inevitably, in the Cathedral, with the evening sun setting through the western stained glass. The pattern has been established over the years: a mixture of arias from cantatas and some instrumental works. As usual it involved most of the string players at the festival, from the NZTrio, the New Zealand String Quartet, the Goldner Quartet and the young Nelson ‘Troubadours’, as well as Matthew Barley, NZSO bassist Joan Perarnau Garriga, Ian Rosenbaum, Douglas Mews – harpsichord and organ, and Australian tenor Andrew Goodwin.

The two orchestral works this time were the lovely violin concerto in A minor, solo by the New Zealand String Quartet’s second violinist, Monique Lapins. At the end, Brandenburg Concerto No 6 which is unusual as it uses no violins: just violas and a cello and a bass, producing a gorgeous warm sound that I really love. So that was a delight.

The four arias were sung by Australian tenor Andrew Goodwin, a smooth, beautifully nuanced voice, strong and full of character. In some previous years I have found some cantata excerpts s a bit tedious, but these four, as sung by him, were just wonderful, simply creating music that may have been religious in intent but were typically rich in musical substance, easily sustaining the rapt attention of the capacity audience in the cathedral.

The one oddball element in the concert was Bach’s fifth cello suite, C minor, arranged for marimba. Ian Rosenbaum performed it from memory, with astonishing energy and musicality, but the sound, for me, was simply not right. It performance on a stringed instrument is so embedded in my head that playing the notes on a percussion instrument, even one capable, as is the marimba, of very subtle dynamic variety, was too hard to accommodate. Furthermore, the ability to strike four keys at once created more harmonic opportunities and that too altered its character, to the point where I would have wondered, hearing it for the first time, who the composer might have been.

In the 2pm Thursday concert in the Cathedral Matthew Barley began with Bach’s first cello suite. His playing revealed a rhythmic freedom, with the tempo in the Prelude far from the strict, steady rhythms that are sometimes imposed on Bach’s music. The Allemande was painted with a soft brush while in the Courante the bow skipped lightly, never biting into the strings. But it was the Sarabande where the greatest rhythmic freedom appeared, with a surprising silence before the final note. The whole performance was infused with an appealing, organic sense that prepared the ground for the following very recent compositions.

Tavener’s Threnos for solo cello is somehow a seminal late 20th century work that uses the simplest material with utter sincerity. There are three phases that move from the deepest spiritual level through lighter realms in higher registers before returning to the first phase; beautifully played as it was, I wondered whether Barley had quite discovered its essential profundity.

Appalachia Waltz by Mark O’Connor explored another spiritual region; its waltz character is unimportant but its roots half way between the classical and folk music realms as well as its beautiful unpretentiousness have made it famous. Barley’s lovely playing of its strange, haunting quality stilled the audience.

Italian cellist and composer Giovanni Sollima’s name might not be familiar to classical audiences (though one is shamed to see the long list of compositions in his Wikipedia listing). He too spans the fields of popular and classical music and his Lamentatio is easily associated with the two earlier pieces on this programme. The ‘lamentation’ was given extra impact through the cellist’s vocalisations at certain points, and while it began in the spirit that its title suggested, it soon became a frenetic double-stopping farrago, eventually ending with racing, descending staccato arpeggios, spiced by hard spiccato bowing below the bridge.

Improvisation was a major element in Barley’s performance of the last three works. However, there were no formal markers indicating where the composed music ended and improvisation began, and it was rather a matter of guesswork for me, since I had not heard either the O’Connor or the Sollima before. Sometimes I felt a change of tone and direction; sometimes the improvisatory music seemed completely fused with what the composer had written.

The concert was both an illuminating demonstration of the art of improvisation, and a fascinating awakening to some music that proved very much worth knowing and which I have enjoyed hearing again on YouTube clips since getting home.

(As a quite irrelevant aside, after looking on the Internet after getting home, I found one of Sollima’s performance colleagues has been poet and musician Petti Smith; both have been associated with Yo-Yo-Ma’s Silk Road Project – and both O’Connor and Sollima have been associated with it. At Nelson’s interesting new boutique bookshop Volume (on Church Street) I picked up Smith’s recent autobiographical M Train).

The concert on Thursday evening, 9 February, in the Theatre Royal was one of the true high points for me: both Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Brahms’s Piano quintet, Op 34 are right at the top of my musical loves.

But the concert, entitled ‘Love Triangle’, naturally included Clara Schumann: Helene Pohl and Dénes Farjon played her Three Romance for violin and piano, Op 22. Dedicated to violinist Joseph Joachim, it consisted of three contrasted pieces that showed real compositional talent, if not truly memorable music such as her husband or Brahms created. The first, Andante molto, was a dreamy, meandering melody, and a more vigorous middle section formed by wide-spaced intervals.  that was carefully constructed and agreeable; followed by an Allegretto built around a pensive melody, with a more lively middle section. I wrote during the performance: ‘Charming little morceaux’, or I might have said ‘Bagatelles’.

I can’t resist quoting a comment in a Wikipedia reference: “Joachim continued to play the pieces on his own tours. He reported, in a letter to Clara, from the court in Hanover that the king was in ‘ecstasy’ over the Romances and could ‘hardly wait’ to enjoy such ‘marvellous, heavenly pleasure again.’ They are lovely, private pieces, conceived in one of music history’s richest households.” (Tim Summers, violinist).

Dichterliebe is a song cycle that is commonly rated alongside Schubert’s two great cycles. We’d heard Australian tenor Andrew Goodwin in the four arias from Bach cantatas on Wednesday evening and while not detracting from the rare enjoyment of those, his singing of Schumann might have been a more significant endorsement of his musical scholarship and vocal sensibility. Apart from the singing, the piano parts are even more intrinsic to Schumann’s songs than to Schubert’s. And the spirit of many of them is foreshadowed in a longish piano introduction and in a postlude that sometimes offers a commentary that elaborates or lays to rest troubled emotions in the words.

Pianist Isabella Simon, Dénes Varjon’s wife, with whom she often plays duets, has accompanied many singers in Lieder and other art song; she was here for Schumann. Her introduction to the very first song, ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’, her personal, idiomatic approach was evident; there was often a studied waywardness, evident from the start, and which matched Goodwin’s discreet and careful handling of Heine’s words (all the poems were drawn from his highly successful collection, Buch der Lieder of 1827). Even for those not understanding the German, there was a distinction between the purely lyrical and the more narrative songs, such as ‘Aus meinen Tränen…’, or ‘Ein Jungling liebt ein Mädchen’. There were often quite long pauses to allow the impact of an emotion to be ingested by the listener, and the vivid expressive qualities of Schumann’s settings would have told almost as much as fully understanding the words about the poems’ meaning.

One of the great strengths of the cycle is the pithiness of the poems, no word wasted, no emotion tediously prolonged. Schumann plunges straight into some, like ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen’ while in others there’s a long preamble or a long postlude, such as that following ‘Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome’ or ‘Ein Jungling’, or the extraordinary piano mediation in ‘Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen’. Yet there are songs where the voice starts alone, like ‘Ich hab’ ein Traum geweinet’, with breathless angst, and its ending too, a pained dialogue between voice and piano, with frozen, wide-spaced piano chords, was magically paced. In all these, voice and piano found instinctive rapport.

And the stark contrasts between ‘Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube’ – passionate, impulsive – and sombre songs like ‘Im Rhein’ (above), created a singular dramatic antithesis.

Naturally one waited in high anticipation for ‘Ich grolle nicht’, but the start shocked me – it was so calm, so restrained, compared with the typical performance where a proud disdain for self-pity is often cried out, declaimed fortissimo; Goodwin maintained a calm tension right up to the last lines when he let go, with full voice with a far greater impact.

It was the one of Schumann’s songs that first impacted me through a music-loving German master at secondary school; that class room, east wing, lower floor, in the morning sun, remains vivid in my memory.

The rare experience of hearing the full cycle from these two fine artists was one of the true highlights of the festival.

Brahms Piano Quintet
As if that wasn’t treasure enough, in the second part of the recital, Dénes Varjon and the New Zealand String Quartet played Brahms’s wonderful piano quintet, Op 34. The magic impacts at once with that strange, exploratory opening which quickly becomes such a gorgeous whole-hearted, melodious movement, though an underlying sobriety is never far below the surface. Again, Varjon showed his gift for embracing at once the musical personalities of his fellow players, as indeed the quartet reciprocated, and there was simply no moment where one could sense disparate musical tastes or sensibilities.

It’s a long work and I have to confess that I’ve sometimes felt that the first movement seems paralysed in its aversion to quitting that stage, but whether that feeling arises is totally dependent on the performance. Here the thought never entered my mind; in fact I dreaded its ending, even after its full quarter hour. All other movements had the same effect, and it had me composing a petition to the NZSQ to make a habit of offering at least one concert a year with Varjon or another comparably collegial pianist to fully explore the piano quintet repertoire (the known masterpieces few, but there’s really a lot worth exploring).

Friday the 10th of February brought my stay to an end. The day of the cello.
The 2pm concert in the Cathedral was ‘Cellissimo’
: a dozen cellists, probably the cream of resident New Zealand cellists, from the three ensembles present, from orchestras and university music schools around the country, along with three of the visitors.
Bach’s Air (‘on the G string’, if you like) from the third orchestral suite, BWV 1068, opened to such opulent beauty that I wondered whether one could any longer justify its performance on the (violin) G string. Would it be hard for any of those present to tolerate any other version? Four cellists played: Megiddo, Barley, Joyce and Edith Salzmann. Presumably it was an arrangement of the ‘arrangement’ (which was transposed from Bach’s D to C major) and not derived directly from the original air.

A different group played a Bach Toccata (Gjelsten, Eliah Sakakushev von Bismarck, Ken Ichinose and Ashley Brown); not the famous Toccata from the organ toccata and fugue in D minor, but one from an unidentified source by Alan Shulman.

And a different mix of players performed an arrangement of Bach’s Viola da gamba sonata No 1, BWV 1027. This had a particularly authentic feel, as the viola da gamba is a close relation of the modern cello.

Five cellists then played an attractive piece by Dvořák, Silent Woods, originally No 5 of a set of pieces for piano-four-hands (Op 68), which Dvořák arranged for cello and piano. Its singling out, here for five cellos, could be explained by its warm, opulent melody, which offered Eliah Sakakushev and then Julian Smiles (of the Goldner Quartet) the limelight.

Bartók’s Romanian Dances (six of them) also began life as piano pieces and were arranged for orchestra by the composer. Rolf Gjelsten duetted with Inbal Megiddo, alternating lyrical affection, with rhythmic energy, building to barbaric excitement in the last.

And the concert ended with five players. including Matthew Barley, in yet another arrangement of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise.

The Friday evening concert, entitled ‘Cellos by Candlelight’, again in the Cathedral, included varied cellists, ending with all present – I counted thirteen for the last two pieces by Piazzolla and Julius Klengel.

It consisted of mainly short  well-known pieces, but the whole was presented by ever-changing groups of players. Starting with the quintessentially enrapturing Canon by Pachelbel, and then the opening of the William Tell Overture, which I supposes everyone expected to continue for its full 12 minutes or so, but when the opening cello melody ended, that was it.

We heard two of Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasilleiras: No 1, actually written for an orchestra of cellos, it engaged eight players (if I’m not mistaken: Eliah Sakakushev, Megiddo, Tennant, Du Plessis, Brown, Salzmann, Ichinose, and the cellist from the young Troubadours quartet, Anna-Marie Alloway).

Later Jenny Wollerman sang the beautiful soprano part in Bachianas Brasileiras No 5 with a different cello assemblage, with a singular ethereal quality, the sort-of-wordless vocal line seeming to emerge from far up in the cathedral vault.

There were also two pieces by Pablo Casals, the Song of the Birds and Sardana, which the composer famously conducted with 100 cellists in New York in 1970. These provided a few minutes of variety, music that was probably as unfamiliar to most of the audience as it was to me.

Continuing to honour Casals perhaps, other cellist combinations played more Latin music: the six pieces that comprise Manuel de Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole, which had been arranged from the composer’s original Siete canciones populares españolas (Seven Spanish Popular Songs). Variously, they provided solo opportunities for lovely playing by several of the cellists. The surprising thing about these pieces, and indeed the whole cello-dominated concert, was the remarkable variety of tone and dramatic character to be found in this most human of the string instrument family.

And the concert, and for me, the festival itself, ended, with Piazzolla’s seductive Oblivion and Tango, and another rather obscure piece that proved emotionally attractive, a Hymnus for 12 cellos (Op 57) by Julius Klengel, a German cellist and prolific composer, mainly for the cello, whose life spread across the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Friday was very much a celebration of the cello, of massed cellos, which only becomes a possibility in a festival setting; it is one of the most important features of a festival, the opportunity to create musical ensembles that can make music that is rarely possible in the ordinary course of concert-giving.

Let’s list those involved in the Klengel piece, just for fun, as it was the total of the cello phalange at the festival: Anna-Marie Alloway, Matthew Barley, Ashley Brown, Rolf Gjelsten, Ken Ichinose, Andrew Joyce, Inbal Megiddo, Brigid O’Meeghan, Heleen du Plessis, Eliah Sakakushev von Bismark, Edith Salzmann, Julian Smiles, James Tennant.

Stage management was a most particular undertaking which had been noticed at earlier concerts but which reached a climax of complexity and precision at the Friday concerts, since they involved so many cellists. Each clearly had his or her own seating preference and as the players changed places for each piece, manoeuvres with chairs, as well as with music stands equipped for sheet music or tablets, took place with military precision and efficacy. Detailed maps had obviously been drawn up and memorised so that the stage managers could prepare fresh seat dispositions for each piece. In charge was stage manager Brendyn Montgomery and his assistant, Janje Heatherfield.

One must also acknowledge other management of the festival, a body of musical passionnées whose devotion to the cause goes way beyond whatever they are paid.

There’s the festival trust, chaired by Colleen Marshall who introduced many of the concerts and artists; Bob Bickerton, manager, and droll anecdoteur as he shared the introductor-assignment, in addition to being the multi-instrumentalist and entertainer of children.
The fundamental task of artistic planning and management remained the role of two members of the New Zealand String quartet: Helene Pohl and Gillian Ansell. Success of the festival rests essentially on them, for the music chosen and the musicians who play it.

To end, I should add that one of the little curiosities of this festival was a series of little addenda at the end of each set of programme notes, entitled ‘Conversation Piece’.
An example from this last concert read:
“How can one work of art or music exist successfully in many contexts? Does the emotional affect of a work change depending on its context, or do these works succeed because of the strength of the original content?”
(and note the carefully distinguished use of the word ‘affect’, commonly confused with ‘effect’).


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