Strauss’s final tone poem a mighty opening for the NZSO’s 2017 season

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart with Michelle DeYoung (mezzo soprano)

Mendelssohn: Hebrides Overture
Elgar: Sea Pictures
Strauss: An Alpine Symphony

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 25 March, 7:30 pm

Here was a concert designed to attract various classes of music lovers: those attached to the classical heartland, discreetly coloured by a pictorial Romanticism; lovers of the voice in melodious, conventional guise with music composed at the turn of the 20th century; and finally, for those susceptible to musical expressionism on a vast scale, an evocation of vast natural phenomena and secular voluptuousness.

Though the orchestra had its first major appearance this year celebrating its 70th anniversary a couple of weeks ago, this was the first subscription concert. It drew a virtually full house.

There was a common theme: the depiction of various aspects of nature in music.

As the years pass I find myself more and more aware of my first hearings of music, and Mendelssohn’s Hebrides (or as I first knew it, ‘Fingal’s Cave’) goes back to the third form when the once-a-week, ‘core’ music class, was presented with it, on two sides of a 78 recording; and I just fell in love.  I’m sure it remains the ideal way in to classical music if teachers were prepared to defy their pupils’ compulsive attachment to fashion and junk.

I would like to think that the loving performance guided by Edo de Waart was a sign that it might have had a similar impact on him at a like age.

This was graced by both elegant. sumptuous strings and sequences of richly consonant playing by bassoons and limpid clarinets, of singular purity. The scoring might be conservative, but the orchestra, from very first, displayed an easy confidence painting the shimmering seas as well as the splendidly dramatised storm scene.

Sea Pictures
Elgar’s five Sea Pictures are set to poetry by five relatively obscure poets, including one by his wife (‘In Haven’). The best-known would be Elizabeth Barrett Browning and, to us, the Australian poet, Adam Lindsay Gordon, but Roden Noel and Richard Garnett would be unknown even to English literature honours graduates knowledgeable in nineteenth century poetry.

That is no handicap of course for a composer, most of whom have been on record somewhere saying that it’s poetry of the second class that tends to be the more rewarding to set; beautiful poetry cannot be improved by music.

The songs are amiable, but apart from the last, ‘The Swimmer’, have inspired music that is not particularly varied, and needs a naturally coloured voice to exploit the tepid emotions and situations of words and music. Furthermore, it’s strange that Elgar used the same or closely related keys throughout (G in the first and C in the next two), and common time, adding to a feeling of tonal monotony.

Michelle DeYoung has a rich, strong mezzo voice, that is on the alto side of the mezzo range. She had no difficulty projecting alongside, and at times over, the orchestra. What detracted rather was her pronounced vibrato that even tended to obscure the melodic character of the setting of the first, ‘Sea Slumber Song’, and though I’d hoped it might be under better control in the later songs, it really wasn’t. Until, that is, ‘The Swimmer’ where Elgar allowed himself to inject energy and DeYoung invested her voice with a touch of risk and excitement that Gordon’s rhythmically explicit lines express. So the short phrases of the last song gave the cycle a more spirited and satisfying conclusion.

I suspect that in the theatre her voice could make a more impressive impact – not least in Wagner.

An Alpine Symphony
Strauss’s Alpine Symphony was written in the same era as the Elgar songs, but the two could hardly be more different in intention, spirit, ambition and sheer musical magnificence. It was not finished till after the First World War had started, but nothing of that can be detected in it; Strauss allowed neither war to influence his music. He seemed able to ignore most of the horrors of the age he lived through, until that final elegiac utterance, Metamorphosen.

The orchestra’s last performance of An Alpine Symphony in Wellington was as recent as 2012, under David Zinman, which I heard but for some reason no review appears in Middle C.

In many ways, Strauss’s last symphonic poem can be seen as the summit of late romantic extravagance, for the scale and variety of its composition, the huge array of instruments employed (though the 20th century saw a greater flourishing of mainly percussion instruments and, of course, the questionable involvement of electronic devices). Strings were at full strength, 16 first violins (though Strauss stipulated 18 firsts and 16 seconds), and then 12 violas, with conventional decreasing numbers of others; quadruple woodwinds (and a heckelphone), nine horns, four of them doubling on Wagner tubas, the normal percussion with double timpani, plus glockenspiel, xylophone, wind and thunder machines, cowbells; two harps, piano, organ and celeste.

The noise was imposing, and the generally excellent precision and balance reminded those who needed it, that we were listening to one of the world’s best score or so of orchestras.

Behind the work’s conception, as the programme note made clear, quoting the same paragraph as appears in the Wikipedia entry, lay Strauss’s grief at the death of Mahler in 1911, linking with Nietsche’s pantheism/atheism which Strauss subscribed to. Those philosophical notions underlie, are more important than the overt characterisation of aspects of nature, and enable what might otherwise be a too-prolonged bit of landscape painting à la Caspar David Friedrich to engross the listener (this listener anyway) for nearly an hour.

The performance called on every section of the orchestra to excel itself, from the hushed expectancy of the opening led by basses, horns, then piccolos heralding the pre-dawn world. The programme listed the 22 ‘movements’, useful enough, but it can have the damaging effect of encouraging the literal listener to dwell pointlessly on these pictorial elements. That should be avoided of course, to allow the mere knowledge of the adventure, made vivid for example in off-stage phases (horns and other brass later), to be sufficient for one’s own imagination to conjure whatever images arise spontaneously.

What keeps the work afloat, one need hardly say, is the succession of contrasting, in themselves beguiling, evocative and richly melodic passages, that sound various but with which the composer, and the perceptive, energetic conductor never fails to bewitch the listener; an early, highly picturesque section ‘In den Wald’ – the woodland – ending with dappled sunlight from the full string body as the music transforms into the streamside – ‘neben den Bach’. (Yes, I confess I did pay attention to the ‘programme’ occasionally). On the mountain top comes the beautiful oboe solo from Robert Orr, and several other solos were of course arresting.

There is no need to attempt to follow all 22 linked ‘movements; it’s enough to say that such a flamboyant work calls for the resources and discipline of a first-rate orchestra; and Edo de Waart, a thoroughly engaged conductor, economical of gesture but able to persuade players and the audience that it’s a mighty work that far surpasses the beauties of its many entrancing individual sections.


Purcell’s “happier graces” prevail in concert of improvisations

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:
L’Arpeggiata – Music for a while
Improvisations on Henry Purcell

L’Arpeggiata – the Musicians:
Christina Pluhar (director – theorbo)
Céline Scheen (soprano)
Vincentzo Capezzuto (alto)
Gianluigi Trovesi (clarinet)
Doron Sherwin (cornetto)
Veronika Skuplik (baroque violin)
Eero Palviainen (Baroque guitar / archlute)
Sergey Saprychev (percussion)
Boris Schmidt (double-bass)
Francesco Turrisi (piano)
Haru Kitamika (harpsichord)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 18th March 2017

This was a concert whose music-making seemed to connect with practically everybody who sat within coo-ee of me in the Michael Fowler Centre, judging by the warmth and enthusiasm of the reception for the musicians at the end of the evening. While I must confess I wasn’t as obviously enamoured of some of the concert’s offerings as most people were, I certainly registered the individual and corporate skills of the musicians of the ensemble L’Arpeggiata, who delighted us with their virtuosity across a fantastic range of playing styles.

The concert’s title “Music for a while” suggested that we would be treated to an evening of music owing its inspiration to that of Henry Purcell, England’s greatest Restoration composer. Only two of the eighteen individual pieces were by composers other than Purcell, the “Ciaccona” by Maurizio Cazzati which opened the concert, and “La Dia Spagnola”, another instrumental-only item which followed soon after. The rest was written by, derived from or inspired by Purcell’s music.

The two “odd ones out” were Maurizio Cazzati from Mantua and Nicola Matteis, a Neapolitean, both seventeenth-century composers, and both almost forgotten today, though each was prominent in the musical world of their time. Cazzati’s composition was a Ciaccona (Chaconne), begun by the ensemble in conventional baroque fashion until the da capo, at which point the double bass and piano improvised bluesy lines and catchy rhythms, inspiring Gianluigi Trovesi’s saxophone to contribute swinging, sultry utterances to the mix. Matteis’s “La Dia Spagnola” began with the lute and violin setting up a definite harmonic round-like pattern before the cornetto counterpointed with what seemed like an improvised line, joined by the clarinettist, and then the drummer, the latter chalking up a percussive moment of glory.

These items framed two Purcell songs, firstly the “Music for a while” exerpt from the composer’s settting of Dryden’s adaptation of Sophocles the King, soprano Céline Scheen’s singing of the words (atmospheric and true-toned, but difficult to hear and make sense of the words) preluded and postluded by a bluesy clarinet line, voice and instrument conveying some of the context’s ghostly ambience, a voice from the Underworld. Then came a contrasting jolly number “‘Twas within a furlong of Edinburgh Town”, from a play called “the Mock Marriage”, featuring the group’s second singer, alto Vincenzo Cappezzuto – again the vocal means produced a generally mellifluous result, but the words were often lost. Had the group been performing in the Town Hall I’m certain the impact made by the singers would have been more sharply and pleasingly defined.

Next was “A Prince of Glorious Race Descended” taken from his Birthday Ode “Who can from joy refrain”, written for the Young Prince William, Duke of Gloucester (all part of the duties expected from a Court Composer, which Purcell had become at this time) – another Birthday Ode (perhaps the most well-known) was “Come Ye, Sons of Art” from which the vigorous “Strike the Viol” was taken, both sung by Céline Sheen – though sung with by turns, proper ceremony and spirit, I thought the instrumental accompaniments tended to stylistically “generalise” the music, so that we found ourselves having to reinvent its context, one far removed from its origins and with its own set of rules.
In places throughout the concert I found myself feeling unsure of just what these rules were – yes, the voices had affiliations with jazz and blues which I recognised, but I found it difficult to go further and focus the sounds on specific feelings. I’m sure it was my particular problem, because the audience response was generally rapt and responsive to whatever these musicians did.

I related much more readily to the recognisably (for me) Purcellian moments of the concert, specifically Céline Sheen’s moving rendition of Dido’s final aria from the composer’s eponymous opera “When I am laid in earth”, introduced by a wistful, atmospheric piano, the music drifting in a forlorn manner, and commented on by clarinet and double bass, with the percussion further colouring the ambiences. The singer’s beautifully-shaped way with the melody reached impassioned heights at “Remember me”, with the cornetto adding its sorrowing voice, before the double bass, then clarinet, then piano all commented with great sensitivity on the tragedy, in the singer’s wake.

Earlier, I’d thought the ensemble’s treatment of “Ah Belinda” also from “Dido and Aeneas” had a counter-intuitive effect in terms of its accompanying the words “I am pressed with torment” with cool-sounding jazz textures, suggesting liquid serenities rather than mental anguish, which the pianist’s subsequent improvisatory meditations similarly ignored. Still, the later “Here the Deities Approve” was good fun, the note-spinning aspect of the music given plenty of shared energy from singer Vincenzo Capezzuto and the ensemble, before adroitly morphing into a kind of calypso rhythm, with a saucy clarinet solo – here, Purcell was, I thought, really “jazzed up”, with exhilarating results!

I got myself confused over the relationship between the “Curtain Tune on a Ground” and the extended percussion solo with preceded it (I think!) – be that as it may, the percussionist Sergey Saprychev showed extraordinary skill throughout his display, involving first one then two tambourine-like instruments, passing the single drum from hand to hand while rhythmically activating its surface over an astonishing variety of pitches and timbres. With the use of two drums the performance tensions sharpened to the point where the player spun one drum on the floor, creating both a visual and sonic counterpoint to the rhythms played on the other – a tour de force!

After Vincenzo Capezzuto’s entertainment of us with the racy “Man is for Woman made”, where amongst the players’ madcap instrumental textures the word-clarity was less important than gesture, expression and overall insinuation, we eventually arrived at its antithesis, the heartfelt “O let me forever weep”, with Céline Sheen’s voice supported by lute accompaniment in counterpoint with Veronika Skuplik’s baroque violin, the conception close to Purcell’s own, especially at the beginning, but with no dilution of or distraction from the essential feeling of the music – here, instead was an appropriate intensification, with everything beautifully played.

We were helped return to our lives by the performance of the final listed item in the programme, “Hark! How the songsters of the groves”, the infectious running rhythms brought out by the instruments allowing the singers’ duet to take wing (figuratively as well as literally), the piece a celebration of the union of music with nature in the form of birdsong.

An extremely poetic duet version of “Pokarekare Ana” sung by soprano and alto further delighted the audence at the end, most of whom stood and applauded after the final programme number. We actually got TWO encores, the second one being a lively song-and-dance item during which the singers indulged themselves in a few measures of hip-hop rhythmic contrast and conveyed to us huge enjoyment of it all.

As I’ve already indicated, the audience response to the concert was little short of rapturous – I was sorry not to “go along” with the many heartfelt expressions of enjoyment breaking around and about me, but reflected that there was “something for everybody”” in the evening’s presentation. I liked the extremes of it all – mostly the almost cheek-by-jowl realisations of sequences from Purcell’s work, but also some of the more outlandish and abandoned flights of creative fancy from the various musicians – if I didn’t respond as wholeheartedly to the gentler, more middle-of-the-road adaptations, it’s because I often found myself wishing I was hearing Purcell ‘s own voice instead of what sometimes sounded to me like paler imitations. But of the musicians’ individual and collective skills there could be no doubt – and I joined in with the accolades on those counts unreservedly.

Memorable Lower Hutt recital of the familiar and the unknown

Amici Ensemble (Donald Armstrong, violin; Andrew Thomson, viola [1 only]; Julia Joyce, viola [1 & 3], Andrew Joyce, cello; Joan Perarnau Garriga, double bass [1 & 3]; Jian Liu, piano)
(Chamber Music Hutt Valley)

Mendelssohn: Piano Sextet in D, Op.110
Shostakovich: Piano Trio in E minor, Op.67
Schubert: Piano Quintet in A, D.667 (The Trout)

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Tuesday 14 March 2017, 7.30pm

Chamber music at its best.  Splendid performers, enthusiastic, receptive audience, good acoustics, masterworks of the repertoire.  One can’t ask for much more, whether the players are from overseas or are our locals – the latter the case this time, with strings all from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, with the added talents of pianist Jian Liu, from the New Zealand School of Music.  However, the concert deserved a larger audience, with a magnificent programme performed by quality players.

I am indebted to Lindis Taylor for notes on the first work; a previous engagement in Wellington that went on longer than expected meant I missed some of the first movement of the Mendelssohn.  This was, perhaps surprisingly, the least familiar work on the programme – not only to me, bur to others to whom I spoke.  It had a subdued, mellow opening, but an air of confidence, with the piano soon in the throes of a seriously accomplished piece.

The double bass contribution was marked, especially its pizzicato.  There were occasional marcato notes from the piano, but the instrument’s role seemed rather too busy for listeners to apprehend much melody.  A conventional crescendo ended the movement, which had been substantial and lively, made so from the good sound in the relatively intimate space of the Little Theatre.  The vigorous and totally committed playing of these performers was notable.

The second movement, adagio, contrasted with the earlier allegro vivace.  It was calm and melodious in places, but not the most interesting of the composer’s writing, yet there was some delicious piano writing in places.  Again, there was much for the piano to do, with muted strings accompanying.

The menuetto was far from a movement of that name in Mozart’s time; as the programme notes stated, Mendelssohn was influenced by Beethoven.  Its agitato even became frisky.  Liu’s playing was beautifully judged.  After this short movement came the longer finale, another allegro vivace, with the piano dominant again.  There was prestidigitation from all players in this bright and breezy movement. More sombre chords happened very briefly; soon we were back to dynamics and dynamism.  It was a movement of great variety.

Rather more familiar was the Shostakovich trio.  The work has a most unusual opening, with the cello playing unaccompanied harmonics, giving a very plaintive effect; then the violin joins in slowly at a much lower pitch, and finally the piano, in the bass.  All are pianissimo, the mood one of deep sadness.  The piano and cello then played, at normal pitch, a solemn theme, the piano in double octaves, to be followed by a violin melody, with the piano playing stark pizzicato.  This was all technically demanding and complex.  An agitated melody ensues; some little phrases  to be found in other of Shostakovich’s chamber music emerge.

The allegro con brio second movement was brisk and brittle.  The following largo was in utter contrast, beginning with slow fortissimo chords on the piano, followed by a soulful solo from the violin, and then another on cello, the piano chords continuing.  Donald Armstrong again had much playing in the lower register; this was sonorous and mellow.

Expert pizzicato from all players introduced the final allegretto.  Then the Jewish melody arrived, followed by many different fragments, all in a state of high tension, repeated from this and the other movements.  This was hard work, but all magnificently realised.  After spiccato from the strings, the opening piano chords from the largo third movement returned, accompanied by high notes on the strings.  Phenomenal playing was exhibited from all three musicians.

After the interval, and the sombre mood of the Shostakovich, the lovely ‘Trout’ quintet of Schubert seemed almost light relief.  What a treat to hear this familiar, gorgeous work!  The intensity these players brought to the music gave it freshness anew.  The composer’s use of the double bass was interesting.  There was brilliance from the piano again; this concert was really a celebration of the piano in chamber music, and Liu’s wonderful playing of it.

In the second movement, andante, the brook becomes limpid.  The more solemn middle section gives the keyboard prominence.  The third movement, scherzo, demonstrated again the lovely tone from all the instruments, whether in rapid playing, as in this movement, or the slower, more resonant previous one.

Andantino to allegretto were the markings for the fourth movement.  Here we had the melody of the song Die Forelle.  It began with strings only, as a mellifluous quartet.  In the first variation, the piano has the tune while the strings accompany, but with lots of variety.  In the next, the situation is reversed.  The third featured the tune played by the double bass, with piano ripples; the others accompanied, but had a few melodies of their own.   Following that was a concerted variation, played with much vigour.  Then the cello had the solo, with variations on the melody; this trout was lively in Andrew Joyce’s hands.  The violin had its turn playing a solo of the song melody, then the cello took it up while the piano played the song’s accompaniment.  (Did Schubert not regard the viola highly enough to give it solo?)

The fifth (allegro giusto) movement contained strong rhythmic statements from all players, and plenty of contrasts.  New sections of the movement illustrated the plethora of ideas and innovations Schubert was able to create.

This was playing of precision and great beauty, making for a memorable concert.


Ordinary heroism – four women bare their lives in Circa Theatre’s new Caryl Churchill play “Escaped Alone”

Caryl Churchill's Escaped Alone Circa Theatre 2017





Carmel McGlone, Irene Wood, Ginette McDonald, Jane Waddell

Escaped Alone
by Caryl Churchill
A play in One Act

Circa Theatre, Wellington
Directed by Susan Wilson
Music by Gareth Farr
Set by John Hodgkins
Lighting by Marcus McShane

Ginette McDonald – Mrs Jarrett
Carmel McGlone – Vi
Jane Waddell – Lena
Irene Wood – Sally

NZ Premiere, Circa Theatre, Wellington, Saturday 11th March 2017

– this performance Tuesday 14th March

Back in days of yore, I remember taking part in a one-act play written by Irishman Brian Friel, called “Lovers, Winners”, a scenario involving two actors and two narrators. The former were the eponymous “Lovers”, who enacted a single day’s events, their interchanges filled with hopes and plans for their future, while the two narrators (I was one) took turns to counterpoint the stage action with a matter-of-fact commentary informing the audience of the tragedy that was to shortly befall the happy pair.

At the time I thought it extraordinary how so undynamic and indeed almost absurdly pre-emptive a theatrical scheme could generate such emotional heft. It was the cool, pitiless rending of the fabric of the lovers’ dreams and expectations in direct parallel with their expressions of hope and future delight which gave the piece its clout, the wrenching away of one’s ongoing identification with something beautiful and touching in the light of cold, cruel facts. How more theatrical a situation was that? – having to arbitrate in situ between emotion and intellect, warm action and cold narrative, and processes cheek-by jowl with outcomes?

Something akin to those parallel processes which so captivated me about Friel’s work all those years ago hung potently over a different theatrical scenario, Caryl Churchill’s latest work “Escaped Alone”, which received its NZ premiere in Wellington on Saturday (11th March), and which I saw on Tuesday evening at Circa Theatre. From a disjointed sequence of backyard exchanges between a group of women, three friends and a passing neighbour built up sinewy strands which gradually grew from beneath the myriad of topics brushed onto the dialogue’s canvas like so many wisps of paint. We weren’t allowed to let any detail slip, however trivial or elliptical, as something which seemed incidental at first would occasionally be opened up like a door or a window, becoming a view of or portal towards something hitherto concealed, something which threatened to fill the vistas with a private fear or near apocalyptic horror.

For the four women the talk centred on trivialities and circled around unspoken things, as if all were like friendly, domesticated jackals probing unseen carcasses, very occasionally showing teeth, but mostly keeping on the move. From this spin of interaction, the first to break cover was Sally (played by Irene Wood) who suddenly freeze-framed at the thought of cats, airing her fears in mounting waves of compounded horror. After this came Jane Waddell’s Lena, who bravely and resolutely chanced her all, broke out of her shell and fronted up to her own depressive state of fearfully-burgeoning inactivity – and finally there was Carmel McGlone’s Vi, squarely eyeballing her friends’ not altogether supportive raising-up of a ghost bearing the trauma of a violent domestic incident between her and her husband resulting in his death at her hand. Thus exposed, these individual strands multi-tasked as trip-wires, gallows-nooses, anchor-chains, life-lines and jungle vines, as each woman wrestled with or swung from each in turn, dealing with their private struggles and displaying fear, resolve and strength as required.

Seemingly not quite “in the swim” of things at first, but making an effort to get to the pitch of the exchanges was Mrs Jarrett, the passing neighbour, part-invitee to the gathering and part-spontaneous gate-crasher (laconically played by Ginette McDonald). But then, without any warning or invitation she silenced the talk by standing up and stepping across and into a kind of gloom-induced vortex of oracular space lit by mysterious patternings. In matter-of-fact “voice of history” tones she began to recount descriptions of the most catastrophic upheavals and dystopian societal behaviours surpassing all previous instances known of “human inhumanity’ in their horror and cold-blooded uncaring cruelty.

These utterances became increasingly bizarre over each of several episodes, as worst-case scenarios joined forces with absurdities, relished all the more by McDonald’s “and that’s not the worst of it….” delivery. Eventually even Mrs Jarrett herself was momentarily transfixed from within, but by nothing that seemed to cohere, except what was suggested by the words “terrible rage” repeated by the character in a frightening crescendo. What prompted this could have been anything – and in the light of the apocalyptic atrocities she’d described as the oracle, her incoherence as her “normal” self was, somehow, even more disturbing than were the phobic and/or traumatic scenarios outlined by her companions.

By this time my initial, fetched-up memories of the parallel time-frames of my long-ago Irish play were well-and-truly overlaid by the complexities of Churchill’s view of the human condition, individuals besieged by foes without and within, and consciousness visited by “ghosts of Christmasses to come” bearing unpalatable tidings of civilisation’s impending dissolution. But as Brian Friel designated his doomed lovers as “Winners” in that aforementioned one-act play’s title, so here in “Escaped Alone” do the four women each emerge, albeit painfully and experience-ravaged, as “winners” by their own lights. They’re all obviously survivors, and their achievement even has a group anthem, here a slickly-harmonised rendition of the 1960s pop-song “Da Do Ron, Ron”, which completely dominated a whole swinging, foot-tapping sequence of the play! Elsewhere, Gareth Farr’s cool, anecdotal music fitted the production’s ambiences hand-in-glove, as notable for the silences it framed as for its own aural wallpaper voice aiding and abetting the mood of lives some of whose sequences seemed like rhythms measured out by coffee-spoons.

Both the playwright and the people involved with this production of “Escaped Alone” nailed fast my sensibilities, adroitly handling the balance of what seemed “real” alongside what seemed “imagined”, and presenting the contrasts between the two as symptomatic of the puzzle proposed in Pontius Pilate’s famous question to Jesus Christ – “What is truth?” And though Caryl Churchill wrote this play before the triumph of Trumpery and the burgeoning worldwide crystallisation of the concept of “fake news”, the character of Mrs Jarrett in her “oracular mode” seemed equally as potent as a receptacle for the promulgation of untruths served up as titillating sensation by way of rendering news as “entertainment” – certainly Ginette McDonald’s character while in these pronouncement modes seemed to drift into a space on the stage without proper substance, as if she had become an image on a computer or tv monitor.

Susan Wilson’s production in Circa Two’s intimate spaces was as confrontational as it needed to be within an “ordinary/fabulous relationship” of outward everyday functionality and concealed terror/agony/grief. Each character’s individual mind-spaces of trauma could have been further intensified by technical means (lighting, sound effects), especially Mrs Jarrett’s mind-boggling prophetic/absurdist sequences – except that this may have fatally estranged those relativities of order and chaos – they needed to be held in touch rather than become ends in themselves; and the direction and the acting performances adroitly kept those unities, those multi-faceted strands, connected.

We warmed to each of the personalities and took heart at their grit and determination to go on with their outwardly routine and inwardly desperate lives – like Voltaire’s Candide, making sense of life by simply making the garden grow – and the play’s final scene, an almost pantheistic appreciation of a beautiful late-afternoon seemed a kind of heart-warming apotheosis of ordinary existence, one to put alongside the “Da Do Ron Ron” anthem in its “We know what it’s like for you as well” message. Be it as a Cassandra-like prophetess, a Candide-like homespun philosopher, or a Tin Pan Alley girl-group balladeer, Caryl Churchill’s voice speaks volumes in “Escaped Alone”, the play’s moments per minute delivered tellingly and sure-footedly by Circa’s all-star cast and director.

Caryl Churchill’s “Escaped Alone” plays at Circa Theatre, Wellington until the 8th of April.

Successful violin and viola duo reveal rare Mozart and well-known Halvorsen

Carolyn van Leuven (violin) and Sharon Callaghan (viola)

Duos by Mozart and Halvorsen’s Passacaglia after Handel

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 8 March, 12:15 pm

The names of the two performers at this lunchtime concert should no doubt have been familiar to me, as they have been on the Wellington scene on and off for a long time; both had played in the NZSO. Both have lived and studied overseas and now work in other fields in Wellington, though music clearly remains an important part of their lives.

The programme note explained that Mozart wrote these two duos for violin and viola (K 423 and 424) in 1783 to help out his friend Michael Haydn (Joseph’s brother) in Salzburg, when illness prevented him finishing a commission for six duos for the Archbishop. So they were presumably composed quickly, but there’s no evidence of haste in the melodic warmth and their level of interest, in the attractive way in which the ideas developed and in the fairly complex contrapuntal writing for the two instruments.

As they began the G major duo I had the impression that Van Leuven was under some pressure as her runs seemed a bit perfunctory. I continued to sense from time to time that she had not given the music quite as much attention as she might have, and that perhaps the two players had not found themselves in a comfortable space together. Within a minute or so such impressions disappeared and it was quickly clear that their instincts and fundamental musicality were guiding them very well.

In abstract terms, one can wonder whether such a duo will inspire really satisfying music, but any such doubts soon vanished as the close relationship with a string trio or even a string quartet seemed to assert itself. The two created a warm and spirited sound that seemed well anchored to human emotions. And Mozart’s interesting counterpoint made me want to explore, in comparison, the four duos that Michael Haydn did compose.

While the first and last movements of the first duo were spirited and filled with geniality, the middle movement, Adagio, was calm, in delightful contrast, and with less technical challenge, I thoroughly enjoyed the sounds of the two instruments. The notes drew attention to the viola’s slightly larger size that increased its richness, and Callaghan’s playing really drew attention to itself in the Adagio.

The second duo, in B flat, opened with a slow, meditative introduction, unison chords that quickly enriched themselves. In the Allegro part, passages of double stopping really extended the richness of the music, almost creating the sense of playing by three or four instruments, and the players delivered it with great accomplishment.

The piece concluded with a fairly elaborate theme and variations, in a determined vein, but which changed radically in mood with each variation; the players captured them most vividly.

Johan Halvorsen was a Norwegian violinist and composer; his Passacaglia of 1894 was based on a theme in the last movement of Handel’s harpsichord suite No 7 in G minor.(HWV 432). I’ve heard it played by several pairs of players over the past few years, sometimes in an arrangement for violin and cello. It combines a serious-minded theme with wide-ranging variations that both reflect that character but also offer a variety of contrasting emotions. It also calls for considerable technical talents, while maintaining thematic clarity and listeners’ attention. It’s a well-made piece that these players had mastered very successfully, which was particularly demonstrated in the accelerating, virtuosic race to the finish.


The NZSO at seventy with an inspired programme for a full house

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich

Seventieth Anniversary Concert

Music by Dvořák, Prokofiev, Elgar, Gareth Farr, Stravinsky, Verdi, Sibelius, Ron Goodwin, Strauss

Michael Fowler Centre

Monday 6 March 2017, 7 pm

All three Middle C reviewers collaborated in reviewing this momentous concert. We paid attention in our first name alphabetic order. The first, fourth and seventh are Lindis’s, second, fifth and eighth, Peter’s, and the others, Rosemary’s.

Introduction (LT)

In keeping with the feisty critical tradition established by Beaglehole and Finlay at that first concert on 6 March 1947, let’s start with a little grizzle.

Wonderful for Wellington to be offered a free concert to mark the premiere of the then National Orchestra in the Wellington Town Hall (which, unlike the orchestra, has not been as determinedly looked after).

Wonderful to be offered free programmes.

And the MFC was booked out a week before.

But here was a chance to pull out all the stops.

For a wee bit more money the programme could have offered information about why each piece was chosen (that was, admittedly, covered by the introductions by orchestral members); but most importantly, to give a bit of the most interesting background to the founding of the orchestra and its fortunes in its first year. A great opportunity to educate the audience!

Go to the last section to read about the adventures of the orchestra’s establishment and first year or so

National Anthem and overture (LT)

First, one must acknowledge the resurrection of a disappeared tradition – the playing of the national anthem; here Oswald Cheesman’s arrangement of ‘God defend New Zealand’, instead of the British national anthem that was played in the 1940s and for many years after that too. It was, no doubt, to acknowledge the presence of the Governor General.  All stood and some even joined in singing in both languages.

The first work was the same as had opened the very first programme in 1947: Dvořák’s Carnival overture, and one tried to imagine what it might have sounded like then. This simply sounded like a performance by the best German and American orchestras combined: extraordinary subtlety and beauty from the full string body, elegant and throaty trombones, and exquisitely refined playing from oboes, bassoons, and all the woodwinds; it was a nice opportunity for the solo violin passage to be heard from Vesa-Matti Leppänen. The playing was all splendidly balanced, and it became, unostentatiously, an exhibition of orchestral fireworks that has ensured that it maintains its place among the showpiece works when an orchestra wants to display its virtuosity, power and refinement, all together.

At the end, violinist Greg Squire gave a general introduction to the concert, which set the pattern for spoken offerings before most of the pieces: no mayors, cabinet ministers, captains of industry or comedians; just those most intimately involved in making the music – the players themselves.

Prokofiev (PM)
Announcing the concert’s single soloist, Greg Squire made reference to the “special relationship” between the orchestra and Michael Houstoun, ever since the 1974 tour of Australia made by the orchestra with both the pianist and with Kiri te Kanawa, which was highly successful. Of course, of late Houstoun’s been more often associated with Orchestra Wellington, though one still remembers not-too-far-off occasions when the Houstoun/NZSO partnership  produced something vibrant and unique – a Rachmaninov Fourth Concerto with Vasily Petrenko conducting won’t be easily forgotten by those who heard it.

Houstoun has played and recorded the Prokofiev Third Concerto with James Judd conducting, for Trust Records, so there’s a certain “history” in this work with the pianist and the NZSO – Houstoun chose the slow movement of the work for the concert, a beautiful “Theme and-Variations” outpouring of bitter-sweet lyricism, punctuated by lively, spikier sequences. Here the opening “theme” was exquisitely coloured by the orchestra, and bluesily echoed by the piano, before a musical cat was, it seemed, set among the pigeons, creating flurries of motoric energy puctuated with cries of alarm and agitation, the piano suggesting changing to a jolly game of triplets for the third variation, which here came slightly adrift, the piano fractionally “out” with the orchestra until the fourth variation quietly and dreamily restored order.

Amends were made by all concerned with the fifth variation, energetic and constantly growing more and more insistent, until suddenly, amid the chatter of the figurations the original theme made a magical reappearance, the whole rounded off by a cadential passage which seemed to say, “And now you know the story of……….” before quietly and enigmatically disappearing into silence.

Elgar (RC)

The third work on the programme was Elgar’s Chanson de Nuit, Op.15 no.1, published in 1899, an orchestration of a work written about ten years earlier. In his introduction Donald Armstrong, long-serving Associate-Concertmaster of the orchestra, spoke of the various leaders/concertmasters (and some of their characteristics and wise-cracks), and of playing and recording Elgar works with Music Director Emeritus James Judd, in whose honour this piece was performed.

What was the delight of the audience to see former Concertmaster Wilma Smith step up from where she had been playing at fourth desk (after introducing the concert over the loudspeaker earlier) to lead the orchestra in this work, an orchestra much bigger at 100 players than the one that began things 70 years ago. This one included a number of ex-players like Wilma, and other extras.

The wistful, nostalgic character of this piece was beautifully rendered. It is a far cry from the imperial pomposity of Elgar’s marches. Not that the Chanson’s orchestration isn’t grand, but it has a catch in the throat and melodic phrases that express beauty and peace. It was superbly played.

The audience’s joy in having Wilma Smith lead it was demonstrated in tumultuous applause.

Gareth Farr – Great Sea Gongs (LT)

The choice of Gareth Farr’s From the Depths Sound the Great Sea Gongs was pretty appropriate. Very much Hamish McKeich’s territory, as a former NZSO player, it has become a popular orchestral piece. But it was violinist Anna van der Zee who introduced it. At this hearing, I came to feel that, even though only the first section was played, the musical inspiration isn’t altogether sustained throughout its course. The scoring for percussion is dynamic, much of it with distinct Polynesian flavour, and it was splendidly played by four percussionists. Nevertheless, the strings were as richly employed too and contributed dramatically to the imagined deep sea evocation.

Percussion took the soloists’ role here. From the stalls only their heads were visible and it struck me that they should have been arrayed across the front, and the various instruments identified. They make a much more dramatic spectacle than many of the conventional solo instruments.

Speaking of that, it puzzles me that no effort is usually made in programme booklets to identify the various, hugely different percussion instruments; generally they are merely referred to as ‘percussion’: maracas, marimbas, crotales, claves, castanets, tam-tams, tom-toms, snare drum, side drum… How about stopping referring to oboes, flutes, bassoons, the bass clarinet, the cor anglais, the various saxophones by name? – let’s just call them all ‘woodwinds’.

Stravinsky – The Firebird – Lullaby and Finale (PM)

For myself, the Stravinsky item was the concert’s great centrebeam, to which everything was connected, as much to do with the momentous occasion in the orchestra’s history this music represented, as with the magnificence of the sounds themselves. Bridget Douglas introduced this part of the programme, beginning by making a wish that she had been thirty years older and thus playing in the orchestra at the time when the composer himself visited this country (1961) and conducted the NZSO in this same music! She then recounted the story of another visiting conductor programming this same music in a subsequent concert with the orchestra and objecting to a change of phrasing that wasn’t marked in his score, asking the orchestra with some irritation who had gotten them to make that change – to which one of the double bass players supposedly replied, “It was a little bald-headed bloke called Igor!” But the occasion was undoubtedly a formative experience for the players of the time and one whose resonances have endured and gone into legend. John Hopkins, the orchestra’s then Resident Conductor of the day attested to Stravinsky’s “extraordinary magnetism” as a musician, and his ability to get musicians to “play above” themselves.

Perhaps mindful of the significance of that occasion, tonight’s players seemed also to “play above” themselves, Hamish McKeich encouraging the orchestra to beautifully “grow” the finale from the somewhat stricken Lullaby (Berceuse) which depicted the ravages of the evil enchanter Koschei, allowing the first glimmerings of hope to spread through the orchestral textures from the ravishingly-played horn solo, and bring about the radiance of the Firebird’s Apotheosis in resplendent style. I’m sure  that “the little bald-headed bloke” would have been thrilled with the performance.

The Force of Destiny  (RC)

In his introduction to the following Sibelius item, Vesa-Matti Leppänen, spoke of this item too, and how Juan Matteucci, conductor in the 1960s, introduced more operatic repertoire to the orchestra. He mentioned also Pietari Inkinen and the orchestra’s successful European tour.. He spoke warmly of the work of the orchestral management and staff, and finished by remarking on New Zealand’s affinity with Sibelius’s music.

There can surely be no overture more filled with the dramatic music, filled with dread omens, than this one.  The opera premiered in 1862, and has remained in the operatic repertoire. Like all of the composer’s operas, this one is filled with remarkable melodies, which were given their due by the musicians. There was wonderful woodwind, and heart-plucking harp. The piece gives opportunity for every orchestral section to shine, and the tutti passages were superb.

The playing was precise, spiky and portentous, though slower than I have sometimes heard it played. The solo passages from various members of the orchestra were exquisitely played, and the whole was a sumptuous performance, its drama fully revealed.

Karelia Suite (LT)

Sibelius’s Karelia Suite has a long history with the orchestra. Appropriately, it was introduced by Concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen who recalled (not personally of course, it was before his time), New Zealand’s most famous connection with the music, in the company of which we flew ecstatically over the Southern Alps in the National Film Unit’s film for the Osaka Expo in 1970; many of us were moved to tears from the sheer emotion of the conjunction of mountains and music in that film.

The hushed strings were again a breath-taking element at the start, slowly rising from basses through cellos to violins; four immaculate horns, and other winds, contributed to the subdued but powerful spirituality of the music.

But hands up all those who longed for the following Ballade to arise from the ashes of the mere four minutes of the Intermezzo!

633 Squadron  (PM)

Timpanist Laurence Reese paid a special tribute to one of the “greats” of film and “light” music, British conductor Ron Goodwin. Larry remembered that, as a newly-appointed NZSO player, he “caught” the last of Goodwin’s country-wide tours with the NZSO, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Goodwin had been coming to New Zealand for a number of years, and, according to Larry’s reckoning,  had by that time clocked up over a hundred-and-fifty concerts with the orchestra. Goodwin’s Overture 633 Squadron readily evoked war-torn skies over Britain with British Spitfires and Hurricanes vying for dogfighting supremacy with German Messerschmitts, with the orchestra and conductor throwing themselves into the fray, and producing sounds of the utmost brilliance and excitement.

Strauss: Rosenkavalier  (RC)

The programme ended with Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier Suite, arranged by the conductor Artur Rodzinski from music in Strauss’s opera, some 30-plus years after the work’s premiere. It is lush music, calling for a large orchestra, including two harps.

Appropriately for this supreme composer for the French horn (he was the son of a leading horn player), Heather Thompson, a long-serving horn player in the orchestra, introduced the item. She spoke of former chief conductor Franz Paul Decker and his introduction of the music of Mahler, Bruckner and Strauss, and of the orchestra’s playing this work at the Expo in Seville in 1992 to a huge ovation.  She also mentioned the International Arts Festival production of the opera in Wellington in 2002.

There was wonderful horn playing in this work – as indeed throughout the concert. Strauss’s writing for the orchestra contrasts drama and subtlety; exclamation and intimacy; these themes and the thrill and varied moods in the opera were well conveyed through the beautiful scoring. There were minutes – maybe five or so – when nearly all the lights in the auditorium went down; I did wonder how the percussionists at the back of the stage managed to see their scores; the playing continued uninterrupted.

The combination in the Suite of brilliant waltz, almost bombastic brass and nostalgic elements seemed appropriate for a night of memories of the varied life of an orchestra, and a fitting conclusion to the concert, making at the same time a great start to the 2017 orchestral season. This was all very fine playing, but notably from the bassoon and the horns.

A standing ovation greeted the end of the work, and streamers rained down on the orchestra. The band played Brahms’s rousing Hungarian Dance no.5 as an encore with great panache. – something they had played as an encore at the Musikverein in Vienna seven years ago, Hamish McKeich told the audience.

The concert was interesting in containing no works by the ‘Great Masters’ of the symphonic repertoire – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky or Shostakovich, but for the amount of 20th century or near-twentieth century works, and their geographic spread: one New Zealand work, two English, one Czech, two Russian, one Finnish, one Italian and one German.

The history of the orchestra’s conception and birth (LT)

The usually much more elaborate and expensive programmes for regular concerts are probably bought by not much more than half the audience. Many of those who might just become a bit better informed remain in ignorance about what they’re hearing; they turn away when the programme seller mentions the price.

It was an occasion to honour the vision and determination of prime minister Peter Fraser and James Shelley, head of the New Zealand Broadcasting Service, who drove the orchestra’s founding, along with sympathetic allies including the legendary Joseph Heenan, permanent head of Internal Affairs.

There was the bitchiness, in certain circles, about conductor Anderson Tyrer, but he contributed enthusiasm and in his book about the orchestra’s first twenty years, Owen Jensen gives him generous credit. Other conductors were invited: distinguished New Zealand opera conductor Warwick Braithwaite, Eugene Goosens.

But the orchestra’s beginning was not merely a Wellington affair.

At once, its role was as the ‘National’ orchestra, and as well as preparing the Wellington programme, they prepared enough music for four different concerts, all of which would be broadcast from the local national radio station: four symphonies, four overtures and twelve miscellaneous pieces, to be played in the other three main cities..

The Wellington programme was:
Dvořák: Carnival Overture
Brahms: Symphony No 2
Butterworth: A Shropshire Lad
Enescu: Romanian Rhapsody No 1
Wagner: Prelude and Love-death from Tristan and Isolde
Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel

In addition, as recorded in Joy Tonks’s history of the orchestra, The First Forty Years, the orchestra played Johann Strauss’s Moto Perpetuo as an encore to ‘restore quiet’ after the Enescu and then at the end they played Grainger’s Handel in the Strand and the polka from Weinberger’s Schwanda the Bagpiper (which used to be a familiar dinner music piece on 2YC, but which I haven’t heard broadcast for years).

Within the month other concerts took place, including, remarkably two schools concerts one of which the National Film Unit filmed. (At one of those, probably in the fourth form, 1949, I had my first thrilling orchestral experience: I’m sure Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien was the highlight). The first tour, to the South Island took place in April. And in June they ventured north, to console Auckland in the days when Auckland was only 50 percent bigger than Wellington.

In the following year the National Broadcasting Service (NBS) decided that the orchestra should undertake a nationally toured production of Carmen (in English), which was only possible with orchestral participation. It was inspired by the centenary of Otago province, to be celebrated by a music festival. Tyrer conducted and it had 33 performances in the four main centres; it was a popular success but it met criticism from those more familiar with opera. It showed that New Zealand resources were capable of undertaking serious large-scale musical productions, a step towards national artistic self-confidence.

An Italian opera company toured Australia in 1949 and Peter Fraser made a New Zealand tour feasible by offering the orchestra to the company. That tour comprised eleven operas; there were 61 performances and audiences totalled 120,000.

The orchestra’s first performance of New Zealand music was under Warwick Braithwaite in the August of 1947: Lilburn’s Song of the Antipodes. (renamed now A Song of Islands).

By the way, the visiting Boyd Neel String Orchestra played Lilburn’s Diversions for String Orchestra on their 1947 tour: not clear whether before or after the Song of Islands performance. .

There are three seminal books detailing the history of the orchestra:

Owen Jensen: NZBC Symphony Orchestra, Reed, 1966
Joy Tonks: The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. The First Forty Years, Reed Methuen, 1986
Joy Tonks: Bravo! The NZSO at 50, Exile Publishing, 1996

Perhaps the orchestra’s 75th anniversary should prompt a further history.

Paekakariki’s Mulled Wine concert series opens in the rich classical heartland

Mulled Wine Concert

Diedre Irons – piano, Vesa-Matti Leppänen – violin, Andrew Joyce – cello

Mozart: Violin Sonata in G, K 379
Beethoven: Cello sonata in A, Op 69
Brahms: Piano Trio in B, Op 8

Paekakariki Memorial Hall

Sunday 5 March 2017, 2:30 pm

I missed the first of Paekakriki’s Mulled Wine concerts in January, organised by Mary Gow, featuring ‘Ukes of Wellington’ along with wine and beer at the bar; all three I could well have enjoyed.

However, I caught the first serious engagement, involving three leading Wellington musicians none of whom were born in New Zealand but who one hopes will not change their minds in the light of political or other considerations such as ill-treatment of the arts.

Mozart: Violin Sonata, K 379
Mozart’s violin sonatas (any of his sonatas – for piano or violin – for that matter) are not much performed in recital; there are 16 childhood violin sonatas, but 20 or so mature sonatas, as well as 18 solo piano sonatas. It might be a symptom of the problem if I confess that while I’ve got about six LPs containing some dozen of the violin sonatas (sign of younger, polymath, omnivorous ambition), not all of which I’d be certain I’ve listened to, I have no CDs of the violin sonatas, pointing to the onset of resigned sense of reality in later years I suppose.

It’s one of the last works that Mozart wrote at Salzburg before going to Vienna. About the time of the opera Idomeneo, as a mature 25-year-old.

This was a slightly familiar piece to me, but not recently heard. It awakened me to the rich and original world of the violin sonata that Mozart created, many I believe for his own use, for he was a violinist with gifts comparable to those at the piano.

Most unusually, an Adagio section opens the first movement, starting impressively, with a warm, open theme, relaxed broken chords on the piano, all revealing a confidence and generosity of spirit. The performance, especially by the piano, might have exaggerated dynamic impulses somewhat beyond what the music might have suggested, and a I wondered whether a more genteel approach in the Allegro might have served the music as well.

Though most recordings and references show the Adagio and the following Allegro as two parts of one movement, they can, as in the programme note for this concert, be regarded as two. The Allegro, in G minor, follows without break. But the minor key has no implications for its mood which the players captured in a sanguine, even dramatic, spirit, far from sombre.

The last movement is a theme and variations, again in G major, apart from the fourth variation which shifts to the minor key. The first variation leaves the violin silent while in the penultimate variation Diedre Irons’ piano again had the scene to herself apart from subtle violin pizzicato; the discreet tempo and rhythm changes throughout the successive variations left a feeling of peace and contentment.

Beethoven’s Third Cello Sonata
I heard Beethoven’s A major, third, cello sonata, played only a month ago at the Nelson Chamber Music Festival, by Matthew Barley with Dénes Varjon at the piano. Barley was one of the dozen cellists involved in this year’s cello-rich festival where all Beethoven’s five sonatas were played, a different cellist for each; they were: Ashley Brown, Julian Smiles (of the Goldner Quartet), Barley, Rolf Gjelsten and Andrew Joyce.

I’d remarked in Nelson that one’s impression might be that Beethoven’s cello sonatas did not seem altogether to inhabit the composer’s heartland. I felt that Barley had given Op 69 a sort of raw individuality, so that it had a somewhat unBeethovenish flavour; engrossing nevertheless. The vivid contrasts between movements and within movements were interesting and stimulating, sometimes lyrical or rhapsodic, with constantly varied tempi.

Andrew Joyce here gave it a beautiful performance that had all the dramatic, strong-minded structural qualities that were very recognisably Beethoven. It might not be essential that a performance conforms completely with one’s own conception of a work, but this did. After the sumptuous solo cello introductory phrase, the big dramatic apostrophe really spoke. And the sequence of ever-changing moods, most beautifully painted in the gorgeous Adagio cantabile introduction to the last movement, that evolved with motoric drive and almost suggesting the scale of an orchestral finale made this an unostentatiously memorable performance.

Brahms, First Piano Trio
One was of course looking forward hugely to Brahms’s first piano trio, written in 1854 (though Brahms revised it in 1889, rewriting the last movement significantly). This too had been a highlight for me at Nelson, in the same evening concert as I heard the Beethoven. It was played there by guest pianist Dénes Varjon with NZSQ’s Helene Pohl and Rolf Gjelsten.

On the Paekakariki Parade, beside a fairly tumultuous sea, dramatically present through open windows, this vivid performance of a youthful work (Brahms aged about 20) that captured the sea’s varied moods almost too powerfully at times. In some circumstances the weighty phases of the score, are exhilarating, while in other situations the lively acoustic favours melodic beauty, gentleness, occasional will ’o’ the wisp fragility.

While in more turbulent or exclamatory episodes the piano tended to dominate unduly which the character of Paekakariki’s hall enhances, especially for the piano, in the Adagio (3rd movement), Diedre Irons drew subdued, exquisite tones from the piano. It was a perfect vehicle for the three players. And it was in the Adagio that some of Joyce’s most seductive and ethereal playing emerged, with Leppänen’s lithe violin close behind.

But if it was sometimes difficult for the pianist to gauge the effect of the space on her dynamics, it took little imagination to appreciate the true quality of the lively, heartfelt performance which could easily be discerned in spite of the sometimes acoustic-induced, unbalanced sound.


Göknil Biner and Tom McGrath deliver delightful recital of Schubert, Schumann and Fauré songs, plus Scriabin piano piece

Tom McGrath (piano) and Göknil Meryem Biner (soprano)

Songs by Schubert, Schumann and Fauré; piano music by Scriabin

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 1 March 2017, 12.15 pm

It was a pleasure to have out-of-town performers at the lunchtime concert; this married couple are from Dunedin, where Tom McGrath is on the staff of the University of Otago.

The programme consisted of some familiar Schubert and Schumann lieder and songs by Fauré, and others less familiar.  All the words were printed in translation, and the authors of the poems were given.

The first Schubert lied was An die Natur, written when the composer was still a teenager.  Simple musically, the song was nevertheless delightful, and given an appropriately artless performance.  It was followed by Geheimes, and then Das Rosenband (though these were printed in the translations in the wrong order).  The former was brighter than An die Natur, but also with simple melody, plus a rocking accompaniment.  It dates from 1821.  The latter was another charming love song, from 1817.

With Die Forelle we were into more familiar territory.  It is thought to have been composed in 1817 also.  The brook was indeed bright, and the darting fish therein made for a much livelier, swifter song and accompaniment.

Erster Verlust  was in a more doleful mood, describing the first love that was now over in the words of Goethe.  The song dates from 1821.  The performers brought out the sad mood very well.

The bracket was completed with the well-known Gretchen am Spinnrade, based on Goethe’s Faust.  With its agitated lines for the singer and the constant evocation of the movement and sounds of the spinning wheel in the piano accompaniment, it is an amazing composition for a 17-year-old.  The lovely quality of the singer’s voice was particularly notable in this song, and the variation of dynamics from both musicians.  Elsewhere, the slight edge to the voice was not always suitable to the songs.

We moved to a piano solo: Poème-Nocturne Op.61, by  Alexander Scriabin.  This ‘dreamy and elusive masterpiece’ (as the programme notes described it) was played without the score.  There were many colours in the piece, giving it an impressionistic flavour.  It was well played, but I have to confess the composer’s music does not appeal to me.

Then came Schumann lieder, several concerning flowers; firstly, his well-known Widmung, with words by Friedrich Rückert.  Here, the drama of the accompaniment was well exposed.  The familiar song was done full justice by the musicians.   However, I do object to the translation using the word ‘Oh’, as in ‘Oh you are my pain’.  The ‘O’ of invocation is not to be confused with the mild exclamation ‘Oh’.  This misuse occurred again in the translation of Fauré’s Nell.  Impassioned lovers do not say ‘oh’ to the objects of their affection.

Heinrich Heine’s Die Lotusblume received a gentle setting from the composer.  Biner used the words beautifully in her performance.  Jasminenstrauch and the longer Märzvellchen were both charmingly sung; the piano accompaniments were impeccable.

Now for a complete change of style: Fauré’s settings of poet Paul Verlaine and others. Fauré’s music so appropriately sets Verlaine’s poetry.  The aim of the Symbolist poets was ‘to evoke moods and feelings through the magic of words and repeated sounds and the cadence of verse (musicality) and metrical innovation’ according to Wikipedia; poetry so different from that set by Schubert and Schumann.  Still romantic, but in quite a different style. The performances of Mandoline, Green, C’est l’extase langoureuse, Nell and Notre Amour were enchanting.  These were brilliant songs for both singer and accompanist.

I trust it is not demeaning to suggest that it is significant that McGrath teaches at Otago University, where resides the incomparable accompanist Terence Dennis.