NZTrio at St.Andrew’s in Wellington – and homage to Justine Cormack

Wellington Chamber Music Sunday Concert Series presents:
The NZTrio – Justine Cormack (violin), Ashley Brown (‘cello) and Sarah Watkin (piano)

CLAIRE COWAN – Subtle Dances (2013)
PENAFORTE – An Eroica Trio (1998)
SCHUBERT – Piano Trio No.1 in B-flat D.898

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

Sunday, 30th April, 2017

Outside of the brilliant performances of the music, the most stupendous revelation for some at the NZ Trio’s recent Wellington concert would have been the announcement, made at the concert’s end by local chamber music organiser Julie Coulson, that the trio’s violinist Justine Cormack would be leaving the group mid-2017 – of course for people who “keep abreast” of things like this by reading newsletters and the like (a particular failing of mine, I admit!), this wasn’t a surprise, as the Trio’s own newsletter had already published a February press release breaking the news.

So, after fifteen years of performing together, the group will be looking for a new violinist at the end of the current tour and after visiting and playing in China – the remaining players, ‘cellist Ashley Brown and pianist Sarah Watkins are promising us “some surprise guest violinists in the chair” as they cast around for somebody to fill the position on a more permanent basis. Meanwhile Justine Cormack is looking forward to some “space” in her life for the next little while, and, while waiting for whatever “new things” might arise, will be focusing on fulfilling what she has described as a “dream”, that of returning to the South Island to live, in particular to Central Otago, somewhere “close to Wanaka”.

Obviously nothing stays the same forever; and the group is confident that the next period will be “an extremely exciting one”, not the least feature being a re-establishment and continued development of “the legacy that Justine has helped establish”.  Evidence of that legacy as a living entity was in plentiful supply throughout the afternoon’s music-making at St.Andrew’s on this occasion, with Justine Cormack herself remarking how good it felt for her and her colleagues to be back and playing in the venue after so many years’ absence – in fact the last time the Trio had performed there was in 2002, at the very time the group was first established!

One of the hallmarks of the NZTrio’s activities over the years has been its espousal of New Zealand music – and this concert was no exception, featuring a work which had been commissioned by the group in 2013, Subtle Dances by Claire Cowan, and was now being taken on this final tour. Also included in the afternoon’s line-up was music whose roots had sprang up from a different tradition to that of Western classical music, though, thanks to one composer in particular, a genre finding more and more favour in concert halls. This was the Argentinian Astor Piazzolla, and his work Tangos, featuring two vastly different examples of the form, was performed to great effect, the two dances diametrically opposed in manner, mode and mood, if not in overall effect.

Piazzolla always seems to employ plenty of variety in his music by way of depicting both the essence of the dance-movement trajectories and atmospheres, and the interaction between the dance-partners (at times extremely physical) – I thought the instrumentations dovetailed most deliciously, here sensuous and sultry, the ensuing interactions smokily suggestive. Along the way, the opening Primavera Porteria yielded for a few luscious moments to the Oblivion sequence (one perhaps needs the wit of a Beecham to properly characterise THAT sequence in words!) before the opening energies returned – thrusts and counter-thrusts built upon one another and brought the piece to almost fever-pitch by the very end.

Claire Cowan’s music has always appealed to me – perhaps it’s the “intuitive ” nature of her writing (which she speaks of in a programme note concerning this recent (2013) work, Subtle Dances) that connects so readily – what she conceives is always a “touching on all points” scenario, with impulses that always go somewhere. Described as “three short mood pieces”, the first, eponymously-named “subtle dances” began with deep pizzicati from the ‘cello and furtive impulses from the piano coming together, creating a shadowy, mysterious atmosphere of dark business which showed its hand only when sufficient momentum had established a kind of flywheel trajectory – the cellist knocked his fingerboard for a percussive effect as the vistas lightened and the road opened up, the strings pizzicato-ed, and the piano sang a song of freedom – the dance element swung along with the music, while the violin intoned an insinuating melody, before everything just stopped, allowing the echoes of those incredible rhythmic patternings some resonance-room, like the reverberation of a mighty chord.

The second dance “Be slow and lie low” was cool and dreamy, with a bluesy piano holding lovingly to its introductory notes before declaiming as if reading poetry – the strings rounded off the sentiments with some delicately-wrought harmonies and ambiently-floated sounds, into which world came “Nerve lines”, like something disturbing sleep, ostinato patterns from Sarah Watkins’ nimble fingers mirrored by the strings, both repeated notes and held lines, like nerve-pulsations, almost minimalist in accumulated effect, and occasionally exotically-flavoured, such as the two-note “sighing” motif from the ‘cello. The ebb-and-flow of string-tones here built up to fierce and fraught levels as the piano continued to chime its motifs in the bass, reaching a kind of apogee with a final, long-breathed note. At every stage of this work, I seemed to imagine and catch a kind of tingling quality, with each note, and every gesture having a resonance which continued in the memory long after the piece had run its course.

Where Claire Cowan’s work was interior, subtle and intensely psychological, Raimundo Penaforte’s work for piano trio was “out there” in full-blooded, visceral terms right from the beginning. Called “an Eroica Trio”, the work was intended by its composer to pay a kind of homage to three of his formative musical influences by way of sub-titling each of the movements with a name – “Astor”, the first, paid tribute to Piazzolla, and celebrated the iconic tango composer’s influence with big, physical gestures at the music’s start, set against sultry and romantic violin-and-‘cello sequences which followed, with numerous “cross-references” intended to bind the structures together – a nice idea, but one I thought towards the piece’s end crudely and repeatedly over-applied, as repetition seemed to follow repetition. Though the slow movement “Maurice” (inspired by Maurice Ravel’s “passacaglia” movement from his Piano Trio) began promisingly as a kind of phantom dance from a dark dream, and explored a number of evocative variations on the opening sequence, I again thought the music too lengthy and discursive for its material.

Only the finale seemed not to outstay its welcome, the lively and scampering piano figurations enlivening and setting a-tingling the textures, provoking strong, slashing chords over the scamperings, and even varying the mix with moments of delicacy! But for the most part it was the “wild side” of things which prevailed, establishing connections with “Capiba”, the nickname given to da Foncesca Barbosa, a fellow-Brazilian composer, and his music. The sequences leading up to the movement’s conclusion resembled a riot of physical movement, which got from the NZ Trio the full-blooded response it obviously needed – everybody at full stretch and convulsed with excitement and (speaking for myself!) exhaustion at the end.

Pianist Sarah Watkins introduced the Schubert work to us, quoting the familiar but entirely apposite epithet “smiling through tears” as a helpful characterisation of the composer’s work – though this B-flat Trio is perhaps more lyrical than tragic compared with its companion (No.2 in E-flat D.929). The Trio gave us a well-rounded opening, more ceremonial than big-boned, the gestures large in lyrical expression rather than physicality. The lines were all given full-voice, varying their dynamics when the contours required, everything bright-eyed and alert without being percussive – exuberance tempered by overall resolve and clearly-focused direction.

The musicians allowed the more lyrical episodes plenty of time and space, without sacrificing the kind of intensity that made one want to listen to their every delineation – some of the phrase-ends seemed to pivot for an instant on moments of cosmic stasis, making one hold one’s breath! – and this, cheek-by-jowl with music whose rhythmic trajectories can in places sound like young gods sporting in the Elysian Fields!

I thought the slow movement’s performance simply outstanding, with Ashley Brown’s ‘cello tones inflected so affectingly that one couldn’t imagine the notes better played, and Justine Cormack’s violin phrasings mirroring and further enriching the composer’s “divine utterances”. And Sarah Watkins bringing out of the “Hungarian” touches in the central section’s piano part gave the music a welcome touch of contrast, allowing a more flowing exchange between the instruments, and some exquisitely-wrought modulations – a beautifully-voiced return to the opening, for example, this time with Justine Cormack’s violin leading the way. After this, the scherzo provided even more contrast with its playful nonchalance, though the rhythms were never “square” or rum-ti-tum, but had enough crispness to their attack so that we were always kept on the move.

Schubert’s finales can be a shade garrulous in places if “let go”, but the NZTrio’s sweeping paragraphing of the different episodes carried all before it, allowing plenty of insoucient trotting of the piano figurations beneath the droll string lines, but constantly nudging this and that detail in a constantly engaging way, keeping the urgencies alive but on slow boil, along a kind of kaleidoscopic journey of different impressions – the coda, when it came, exploded almost orchestrally and caught us up in its exuberance in a most satisfying way.

No better finish to a concert and no more appropriate summing-up of fifteen years of a group’s committed and beautifully integrated music-making could, I think, have been devised.

Orpheus Choir’s “Chichester Psalms” concert terrific! – but James MacMillan has the last word……..

The Orpheus Choir of Wellington presents:

JAMES MacMILLAN – Seven Last Words From The Cross
LEONARD BERNSTEIN – Chichester Psalms

MacMillan: Pasquale Orchard (soprano) / Alexandra Woodhouse Appleby (soprano/alto)
Karishma Thanawala (alto) / Giancarlo Lisi, Peter Liley (tenors)
Stephen Clothier, Minto Fung (basses)

Bernstein: Liam Squire (treble) / Pasquale Orchard (soprano)
Alexandra Woodhouse Appleby (alto) / Giancarlo Lisi (tenor)
Joe Haddow (bass)

Orpheus Choir of Wellington
Brent Stewart (Music Director)
Thomas Gaynor (organ)

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul

Saturday, 29th April 2017

As with music and art in general, people’s responses to matters of spiritual belief seem to vary enormously from individual to individual. Despite what seems like an ever-increasing secularisation of everyday life, we’re still can’t help being either active or passive observers of institutionalised calendar commemorations based on matters of belief in God which affect various human activities – we’re regularly made aware of certain historical frameworks and structures brought forward from times when people in general rendered to a Deity things that were regarded as belonging to that Deity, with few questions asked. A pivotal event in this history is without doubt the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, one which continues to exert significant influence in the Western World along any point of the spectrum of faith, on believers and non-believers alike.

Still, however much belief and spirituality in general takes up people’s lives in the 21st century is well-nigh impossible to gauge, except in the most generalised of terms – it would seem far less than, say, a century ago, and that the unprecedented horrors of the previous century, including the escalation of the human race’s own self-destructive potentialities might suggest a growing crisis of belief in any kind of omnipotent being who might allow or oversee such universal catastrophes, from which advancement of humankind towards any kind of future seems increasingly unlikely.

Creative artists these days seem to me to either mirror or confront these present-day actualities in their work – a case in point regarding confrontation is the Scottish composer James MacMillan, whose compositions actively reflect an active and securely-held Christian faith – at the opposite end of such motivations (to contrast the work of two utterly different “visionaries” I’ve encountered recently) is British playwright Caryl Churchill whose latest work for the stage (Escaped Alone, recently performed at Circa Theatre, Wellington) presents frighteningly dystopian scenarios of the future, one in which God as he/she is presently known seems non-existent. Of course both the dystopian prophetess playwright and the social-justice-driven Catholic composer advocate in different ways strategies for countering certain trends before a point of no return is reached, and so in some respects there’s common ground. Perhaps a basic difference between MacMillan and Churchill is that, for the former, there’s always a sense of optimism for the future amid the struggle – whereas for the latter the proposed scenarios and nihilistic attitudes given voice in her most recent work seem matter-of-factly pessimistic.

As was the case with the great French composer Olivier Messiaen, MacMillan’s creativity is inextricably tied up with his religious beliefs – “For me, religious faith is rooted in the mess of real life” he once said in an interview. And though he may no longer be the Marxist revolutionary of days of yore, his work still has an occasional “firebrand” quality, a confrontational edge which sets him apart from the new-age “Holy Minimalist” school of composition, whose preoccupation is a kind of transcendence set largely above conflict. By contrast, music such as MacMillan’s “Seven Last Words from the Cross” expresses great swathes of anguish and explosions of anger, alongside a sense of grief and sorrow, all of which suggests that its creator is well aware of the pain and suffering of all mankind as articulated by the sacrificed Christ. MacMillan’s text in this work is somewhat more than merely the seven “scripture-gazetted” utterances of Jesus on the cross, but takes also from sources such as the Good Friday Responsaries for Tenebrae which quote from the Book of Lamentations: “All you who pass along this way take heed and consider if there is any sorrow like mine……” – an impassioned call across the ages for human empathy.

This 1993 work for voices and strings (performed here with the instrumental parts transcribed for organ) came across with considerable force within the vast Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul spaces – it was a fairly no-holds-barred setting of the seven finally-reckoned gospel-recorded statements uttered by Christ as he hung on the crucificxion cross in Jerusalem. I’m aware that my comments below are as much descriptive of the music as analytical of the performance – perhaps even more so the former! I hope the reader will forgive such self-indulgence at my delight in coming across such a magnificent piece of relatively “new” music for me, and be reassured that my descriptions inherently recognise the abilities of the musicians involved to “articulate” the music to the point where it was able to make the impressions on me that it did!

There were times when the lush ambiences of the Cathedral told against the music’s clarity, places which I’ve tried to pinpoint as best I’ve been able to. However, as there are usually roundabouts at hand where there are swings, the up-side of the venue was its incredible resonance, which in places “enlarged” the music’s expressive scope to awe-inspiring extents! With a work like MacMillan’s containing both grand and intimate statements, no one venue is going to be ideal, and Wellington Cathedral was certainly no exception. Conductor Brent Stewart certainly brought out the best of the venue’s interaction with the music, and the performers did the rest with their, by turns, sensitive and full-throated music-making.

The organ opened the work with a simple plaintive note, the sounds of deep and inward mourning – as the choir intoned the words “Father forgive them”, the organ became an enormous swinging pendulum over which movement the voices rose and climbed, the cathedral’s spacious acoustic allowing the voices to “float” and soar. As well the cavernous spaces gave the organ’s deepest notes enormous girth, the combination of “space above” and “depth below” making for an amazingly cosmic sound-experience. Much of the plainchant-like agitated exclamations which followed were unintelligible as words from where I sat, at about the halfway mark within the audience – those sounds jumbled in the huge spaces, but the choir’s magnificently-sustained intonings filled the building’s ambience with urgently prayerful impulses and piteous beseeching.

A raw, monumental quality resounded from the voices over the repeated statement “Woman, Behold thy Son”, the utterances underscored with great silences “surging softly backwards” in between each tumultuous command – at first a soft organ pedal measured the depths of the sea of each silence, stirrings and sproutings of energy which grew into sequential melodic patterns, and finally burst forth with bravura-like outpourings of a fantastical nature. Everything was superbly controlled as the voices continued to repeat the phrase, with the organ accompaniments becoming more frenetic and desperate-sounding until a kind of exhaustion-point was reached, the instrumental sounds whimpering and imploring, searching for some kind of resolution or answer – in the throes of these agitations the voices spoke to and for the son, naming the woman as his mother. With fewer words to decipher I found this movement simply overwhelming in its direct, almost confrontational attitude, and in its sense of journeying stepwise towards depictions of a spirit in extremis.

Beginning the third section, the men intoned in Latin a tribute to the wood of the Cross – “Ecce Lignum Crucis” – (Behold the Wood of the Cross..) – accompanied by a singing melody the men sang “Venite Adoramus” – “Come, let us adore him”. Women’s voices at first sounded earthier, almost medieval, as they repeated the “Ecce Lignum” salutation, then rhapsodised more freely with the organ, the voices overlapping and suffusing the acoustic with richly-upholstered tones of adoration.

A great outburst of agitation from the organ ( with the conductor, Brent Stewart, “conducting” the organist!) prepared the way for two women soloists, their voices positively stratospheric, giving voice to Christ’s radiant invitation to the “good thief” to join him in Paradise. Deep organ meditations followed (eight speakers and a sub-woofer, doing the “honours” with a smaller organ, I was told, proudly, before the concert began, by one of the organisers – I can vouch for the effectiveness of the arrangement as the result seemed even more sonorous and wide-ranging as we in the audience had a right to expect!), with the soloist, Thomas Gaynor, skilfully managing the transition from inchoate murmurings to full-blooded transcendent intensities of light and colour, as the men sang, with increasing agitated feeling “Eli, eli lama sabachtani” – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Again, I found it difficult to decipher some of the words in that cavernous acoustic, though such was the intensity of the music’s rise and fall and the musicians’ control, I was content to be borne along on a tide of pure emotion, unsure of exactly where I was going, but confident in the musicians’ ability to keep things afloat and buoyant. Whether slow or swift-moving, such was the fascination exerted by music and performance, that specific words mattered less than the sense of being caught up in somethingsignificant and deeply felt – The “I thirst” section featured men’s voices barely “registering” against a background of women’s voices by turns, whispering, chanting, and singing, in Latin “I gave you to drink of life-giving water….”, before organ and voices suddenly erupted, flooding the vistas with sonorous urgencies, and then withdrawing into the agitated resonances once again.

Jagged organ chords slashed their way across the sound vistas, occasioning a sudden lighting change, as if the world was suddenly drenched in blood – most effective! Over the agitations the women’s voices began a flowing passage based on the Good Friday Responses for Tenebrae, “My eyes were blind with weeping” joined by the rest of the choir, developing a sombre meditation on sorrow.

The instrumental slashings returned, but couldn’t quell the impassioned cry from the voices of “Father”, which the organ supported with a heartfelt meditation, generating some Janacek-like intensities in places before slowly allowing resignation and a kind of tingling tranquility to drift back and settle all around for what seemed like moments outside time. The performers requested before the concert that no applause should follow the performance, and this strange sense of something continuing to resonate stayed with us throughout the interval – a most telling strategy, and one that worked brilliantly!

The Cathedral’s voluminuous spaces brought out the arresting attack of the voices and the wonderfully percussive scintillations at the opening of the second item on the evening’s programme, Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms”, even if the resonances played havoc with the music’s more incisive, quick-moving sequences.
A dancing organ solo brought the soloists briefly to the platform, before some gently exotic percussive touches introduced the boy soprano, Liam Squire, singing the words of Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my Shepherd – I shall not want” – the melodic line characteristically mixed its composer’s penchant for sentimentality with slightly “grainier” sequences, bringing forth moments of rapt beauty from the young man’s voice, along with passages that seemed more effortful, perhaps too low-lying in places for the voice to properly expand and take flight.

Bernstein’s setting of Psalm 2 “Why do the nations” (the words familiar from Handel’s “Messiah” of course), galvanised the ensemble, with rhythmic passages that seemed to come straight from “West Side Story”, along with exciting percussion effects – even in this acoustic the trajectories of the music danced and enlivened the textures to spectacular effect.

A “grunty” organ solo with harmonic sequences and progressions reminding one of Reger’s music introduced the third section “Adonai, Adonai” (Lord, Lord), sung in the manner of a ballad, the melody graceful and warming, wrapping itself around and about one’s sensibilities, especially so in the wordless sections. The soloists tenderly and sensitively extended the mood with variants of the melodic line, until the sound’s “dying fall” imparted a rapt and devotional sense of valediction to the proceedings, the composer striving to impart the text’s sentiment of “brethren…together in unity” at the work’s very end.

Coming after James MacMillan’s direct and uncompromising exploration of grief and pain in “Seven Last Words From The Cross”, Bernstein’s far less demanding work might have been regarded by some people as a kind of emotional refurbishing in the wake of a series of debilitating meditations, and, in contrast, by others as something of an anticlimax. I inclined more to the latter than to the former view, thinking I would have preferred to leave the concert with those heartfelt gestures of compassion and empathy resounding in my head and playing on my sensibilities. Still, each of the pieces spoke its own particular truths and left the other more-or-less intact – and the performances by solo singers, instrumentalists and the choir, under Brent Stewart’s inspired leadership, along with organist Thomas Gaynor’s brilliant playing, certainly delivered the goods, enabling each work to make its own particular impact in grand style.

Further excellent exploratory concert into delightful quasi-juvenile symphonies

Camerata – chamber orchestra led by Anna Loeser with soloists Michael Kirgan and Mark Carter (trumpets)

Mendelssohn: String Symphony No 10 in B minor
Vivaldi: Concerto for two trumpets in C, RV 537
Haydn: Symphony No 4 in D

St Peter’s church, Willis Street

Friday 28 April, 6 pm

My colleagues, Rosemary Collier and Peter Mechen, have reviewed earlier concerts by Camerata – in May 2015 and November 2016. I’m sorry to have missed them. They included Haydn’s first and third symphonies; I wondered whether we’d missed a concert that had included the second symphony.

It also made me wonder, with considerable anticipation, whether they plan to survive long enough to get through all 104 (or is it 108?) of his symphonies. At the rate of, say, two or three concerts a year, I’ll need to live till at least 2050…

Youthful masterpieces were a feature of this concert, as this one began with one of Mendelssohn’s youthful string symphonies, written around the age of 12 to 14. It’s interesting that they remained unknown till the 1960s when they were first published. I remember the first book I encountered on Mendelssohn, by Stephen Stratton in the Master Musician series (I dated my purchase of it as 1954), which merely referred to these early works in about four words, suggesting that they were certainly not worth attention; but then, the author had probably not had access to the manuscripts.

This ironically had been the fate of some music by a comparably gifted composer – Schubert – whose ‘Great’ symphony was first performed by Mendelssohn 15 years or so after it was written.

The thirteen symphonies vary in length and number of movements. This, No 10, is in one movement, beginning with an Adagio introduction and moving to Allegro. (The first six and number 12, have three movements while the rest have either four or five, apart from this, the tenth, and number 13 which is also in a single movement – perhaps it was unfinished.)

I had not remembered the reviews by my colleagues as I began to listen to this concert, and thus had the delightful experience of being immediately and unexpectedly enchanted and filled with admiration for both the prodigious Mendelssohn and the performances as a whole under the enterprising Anna Loeser and her fellow musicians from the NZSO, Orchestra Wellington, other ensembles as well as students. One of the immediate impressions of this, one of the symphonies less familiar to me, was of music of singular accomplishment and maturity, interestingly chromatic in places and formally sophisticated. It was not just the liveliness and boldness of the playing that Loeser achieved, but the intrinsic strength of the music itself. The ear caught characterful emphasis on the first note of each short phrase, and the careful dynamic contrasts between phrases, as if there were shifts from minor to major tonality. In a small orchestra more of the character of individual instruments is audible (though there was no evident cost in that) and as well as the leading violins, I was particularly arrested by a long, rich phrase from the Victoria Jaenecke’s viola, and the featherweight quality of fleeting accelerations by the full string body as the end approached.

The Vivaldi concerto played was one of the most familiar, and therefore strongest in melodic character. I wasn’t sure that the two solo instruments were not actually soprano trumpets as the pitch was unusually high, keen and penetrating. But I settled for the view that this was simply the impact of two fairly brilliant trumpeters, in a high register. Their duetting was impeccable, and their subtle alternating dynamics from phrase to phase a delight. Vivaldi still attracts a number of sceptics wedded to the notion (which also sustains elements of the contemporary avant-garde school of composers) that anyone who writes memorable tunes or immediately attractive music is either a charlatan or without talent, or both.

Both these outer movements are dominated by plain C major triads, in the finale, going alternately in both directions. Just plain fun. So this was a performance that was filled with rhythmic energy, of well-fitted ornamentation and adroit accompanying strings that simply supported the trumpets in the most buoyant and sympathetic manner.

The fourth Haydn symphony is believed to have been written between 1757 and 1761; that is, before his appointment to the Esterhazy court, which was in 1761. How refreshing and bold to refrain from treading the too-frequented path of playing just the Morning Noon and Night Symphonies – Nos 6, 7 and 8.

Here pairs of oboes and horns joined the strings and the impact of the scoring made the piece sound much more accomplished and genuinely Haydnesque than one might believe as a result of the almost total neglect of most of the early symphonies. (In recent years of course, there have been many recordings of the complete Haydn symphonies).

At the beginning the handling of the strings together with the four wind instruments suggest a sort of concerto grosso, but eventually, all became a homogeneous unity. The orchestra’s comprehensive command allowed no sense that one was hearing any kind of journeyman exercise. The slow movement was characterised by a beguiling separation of strings: the violins weaving a beautiful limpid melody over ostinato figures from the cellos and basses. The third and last movement was a Minuet whose lively melody demonstrated Haydn’s already distinctive melodic and compositional gifts, plenty clear enough to commend him to Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy as his Vice-Kapellmeister (in a few years, full Kapellmeister).

It was really good to be able to share the experience and the opinion of the Prince whose decision to hire Haydn might well have been based on his hearing this and other very early, pre-Esterhaza symphonies.

Bach père et fils, and antipodean Baroque resoundings, from Ensemble Paladino

Hutt Valley Chamber Music presents:

James Tibbles (harpsichord), Simone Roggen (violin),
Martin Rummel (‘cello), Eric Lamb (flute)

JS BACH (arr. Lamb/Rummel) – (re) Inventions, for flute and ‘cello
WF BACH – Trio No.2 in D Major Fk 47
LEONIE HOLMES – With strings attached
J.S.BACH – ‘Cello Suite No.1 in C Major BWV 1007
CPE BACH – Trio Sonata in B Minor Wq 143
JS BACH Trio Sonata (from Musikalisches Opfer) BWV 1079

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Friday 28th April, 2017

Auckland-based Ensemble Paladino’s intentions, as stated in an introductory note to this concert, were “to present uncompromising, diverse and fearless chamber music on the highest level”, an exciting and challenging statement of intent which, to my ears was fulfilled most expertly and mellifluously at Lower Hutt’s Little Theatre on Friday evening. It was interesting that, with the ensemble’s sound still resounding in my ears, I unexpectedly found myself comparing their presentation with that of another group of baroque musicians whom I heard “live” on a broadcast from RNZ Concert a day or so later.

This was a group called the Chiaroscuro Quartet, recorded at a concert in, I think, Ireland, performing, as per their publicity, with “period instrument practice to the fore, playing on gut strings, with minimal vibrato and tuning to the lower pitch of A430” (modern concert pitch is A440 or higher). It’s probably heretical of me to admit this, but I found myself somewhat repelled by the sounds made by the “period instrument” group brought to me “on air”, the distinctly unlovely timbres of the instruments and the almost complete lack of warmth and ease in the musicians’ phrasing. Yet this group, too (so we were told by the radio continuity announcer, was well-known for its “fearless and uncompromising approach to authentic performance practice” – that was all very well, but after a few minutes’ listening I found myself wanting to turn off the radio!

Yes, what you’re thinking could be right – perhaps had I been there, I would possibly have been one of those reactionary Parisians rioting in the theatre while howling for the composer’s blood, at the premiere of “Le Sacre du Printemps” in 1913! Of course, one never knows how these things might turn out – I might well come in time to replicate my present feelings about Stravinsky’s work (total and utter exhilaration every time I hear it!) in relation to the Chiaroscuro Quartet’s version of “fearless and uncompromising”, and come to think it wonderful! But for now, I’m firmly of the opinion that period instrument groups surely don’t have to sacrifice and/or brutalise beauty and graceful expression in the name of “authenticity”; and I find myself wondering why groups would want to pursue that course anyway.

So, I was grateful that Ensemble Paladino seemed to emphasise “authentic” qualities like clarity, flexibility, tonal variation and timbral character, and put across these same aspects of presentation with unselfconscious ease and grace, hand-in-glove with plenty of energy and focused intensity at appropriate moments. I never felt the music’s more startling or innovative qualities were underplayed or blunted in any way, even though the music’s tones and phrases consistently fell gratefully on the ear , and drew us readily and willingly into any intricacies or niceties of either harmony or articulation, instead of causing us to “duck for cover” amid laser-lines of searing vibrato-less tones or fusillades of jagged accented sforzandi notes!

Not that there weren’t challenges of different kinds to enjoy in this presentation – the first item took us outside the square a little way with a transcription by two of the ensemble’s members, flute-player, Eric Lamb, and ‘cellist Martin Rummel, of the “Fifteen Inventions for Keyboard” BWV 772-786, for (you’ve guessed it) flute and ‘cello! Though a didactic work (as the composer makes clear in an introduction to the score, with his wish that “amateurs of the keyboard – especially those desirous of learning – are shown a clear way…to learn to play cleanly in two parts”) its realisation always sounds a lot of fun, and more so on this occasion with two very differently-accented voices involved. This was the first time ensemble members had undertaken such a transcription, and it shouldn’t, in my view, be the last – the music’s “ownership” shone forth in the playing!

I hadn’t realised the extent to which Wilhelm Friedermann, the eldest son of JS Bach, was highly thought of as a composer, and the Trio Sonata Fk 47 which we then heard made the best possible case for his standing in this regard. We enjoyed the Vivaldi-like opening of the work with its pictorial birdsong figurations for the flute, and the subsequent duetting with the violin, lovely imitative effects as well as concerted “transports of delight” involving soaring lines and widely-traversed terrain. Set against these were closely-worked trio exchanges involving exciting instances of give-and-take between the musicians. A sombre Larghetto and a jig-like finale completed a work whose achievement ought to have been replicated more often by its composer, had it not been for his reputed idleness stemming the flow and making his name even better known.

Auckland composer Leonie Holmes’s new work “With strings attached” was, in her own words, characterised as “a joyful, whimsical and whirling encounter” – just the kind of thing a composer might write to celebrate a positive and fruitful association with colleagues and/or contemporaries. Commissioned by the Paladinos, the intention of the group was to have a contemporary work exploring the sounds of “historic” instruments. Given the burgeoning interest in “period” performance on the part of many musicians, the idea of having a contemporary composer write for such instruments seemed an alternatively thoughtful and attractive means of injecting some “living” creativity into their work.

“With strings attached” began not with a bang, but with – well, not exactly a “whimper” but with the composer’s self-avowed “tentative approach”, gentle pictorial and visceral evocations generated by pizzicato strings and harpsichord peckings, perhaps drops of rain, perhaps birdsong. Came the cello, and then the flute joining in the instruments’ conversation, very much a discourse of individuals with lines doing precisely as people do, as liable to go off on individual tangents as to join forces and generate plenty of common motoric energy. Alternatively the energies were contrasted between groups, with strings at one point holding fast to sustaining notes as the harpsichord cantered off enlarging the world in a different direction, or with the violin “speaking to its spirit” in the form of eerie harmonics and generally ghostly ambiences.

This was the composer’s “exploration and discovery of common ground’, which involved various ear-catching sequences – winsome, long-breathed chordings between flute and strings over running harpsichord figurations, not unlike a droll episode of silent-film accompaniment, followed by flute “sparrings” with the strings’ angular pizzicati, while the harpsichord played a kind of “noises off” role – so very atmospheric! Having explored these possibilities the instrumental sounds were then gradually dovetailed, voices overlapping and augmenting one another to a point where all the strength and sweetness was rolled up into one ball and bounced towards us with a joyful “Come and play!” gesture, bringing the work to an emphatic close – joyful, whimsical and whirling, indeed! We in the audience certainly enjoyed the adventure.

Disappointment immediately followed the interval at the news that violinist Simone Roggen would NOT be playing the great Chaconne from JS Bach’s D Minor Violin Partita, due to a back injury – so to restore equanimity, into the breach stepped the ‘cellist, Martin Rummel, with a lean, lithe and flavoursome performance of the composer’s first ‘Cello Suite in the key of G Major. Interestingly, the player talked about this first suite being more of an “introduction” to the world of the six individual suites than an entity in itself, a “whole being greater than the sum of its parts” kind of idea, but especially in relation to the G Major work.

I wrote too many comments regarding the ‘cellist’s playing to reproduce here, except in shortened form – the Prelude was sounded swiftly and lightly, but with the kind of articulation that invested such “character” into each note that one could relish the timbral differences between registers unreservedly! The Allemande combined a freely-expressed improvisatory air with well-tempered momentum, while the Courante seemed to draw from an endless reserve of energetic spontaneity to whirl the music onwards. After a satisfyingly profound and thoughtful Sarabande, the two Minuets brought the lightest of touches and the most flexible of pulses – not music to dance to, but instead to activate flexibility of thought and action. Finally, the jig’s joyous and uninhibited dance gave the music’s physicality full expression, leaving we listeners properly energised and fully content.

Carl Philippe Emmanuel Bach, possibly the most innovative and certainly the most distinctive of JS Bach’s composer-sons, was his father’s true successor, while able to forge his own distinctive musical language, for which success he always gave credit to his father’s teaching and example. The Trio Sonata in B Minor Wq 143 performed here by Paladino demonstrated the new galant style of composition which Emmanuel Bach made his own, while paying homage to elements of the baroque still in favour in some quarters.

The Sonata’s first movement took on a serious, even sombre aspect at the start, which some feathery exchanges between flute and violin helped to disperse, with some superbly adroit playing. I particularly enjoyed the musicians’ warmly rounded tones, with none of the bleached-out, colour-averse quality which hardens textures and reduces lyrical warmth in some “authentic” performances. The Andante was a graceful tread, with the flute and violin doing very nicely without the cello at first, but requiring its depth of voice for some mid-movement measures. A jig-like figure for violin and flute had the finale dancing with rapid figurations, the cello more a continuo instrument, though the music developed an exhilarating whirl towards the end – a great pleasure!

It was left to “old Bach” himself to round off the concert with a Trio Sonata of his own, one instigated by his encounter with Frederick the Great while visiting his son at the King’s court. Frederick requested that Bach improvise a three-part fugue on a theme the King provided, which the composer did (all present were “seized with astonishment” at Bach’s skill, according to an eyewitness) – but the King then set Bach the task of improvising a 6-part fugue on the same theme, which the composer begged the King to be allowed to take home and work on his task – from this came the work we know as “The Musical Offering” BWV 1079, which included a Trio Sonata with a flute part – the flute was, of course Frederick’s own instrument.

This, then, was that very work, for which the ‘cellist placed himself in the middle of the ensemble instead of to one side, indicative, perhaps of the more integral involvement of his part in this music. The work’s opening Largo balanced beautifully languid and tightly-wrought figurations, the players enabling the notes to “speak” with subtle voicings and colours, whether open, or busily interactive. Bach seemed to be showing his son that there was “life in the old dog, yet” in the following Allegro, with its brilliant violin part and, in places assertive bass line; while in the Andante, the instruments pursue a long-breathed theme with rising utterances that seem to build to some kind of revelation, before finishing with a gratefully lovely dying fall.

Again Bach seemed to get his dander up and pull out all the stops with the Allegro finale, the cello instigating exciting running passages with tightly-woven, complex interactions, fantastic to follow and engage with, the playing generous and inviting in its involvement and physicality. It was, I thought, all truly and uncompromisingly joyous and interactive!

And now for something different – another song recital at St.Andrew’s!

St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series presents:
Song Recital : Megan Corby and Craig Beardsworth,
with Catherine Norton (piano)

Works by Grieg, Debussy, Brahms, Verdi,
Kurt Mechem, Paul Bowles, Kurt Weill and Larry Grossman

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

Wednesday, 26th April, 2016

Such is the range and scope of song as an art-form that daily programmes such as this beautifully-designed compilation might easily be put together without duplication for eons of time to come. Two of the items presented here could be said to have some kind of well-known currency – Edvard Grieg’s “Jeg elsker dig” (I love you), and Giuseppe Verdi’s duet “Dite alla Giovine” from the opera “La Traviata – the other items may have been familiar to aficionadoes, but seemed less well-known in general, though no less attractive and entertaining for all of that!

So, full marks to these musicians for giving us such an unhackneyed programme, whose content was here put across with the utmost conviction -though I thought their performance of the duet exerpt from “La Traviata” which concluded the presentation almost surprisingly inhibited, after what had gone before – for me the performance somehow lacked the sympathetic glow and sharpness of dramatic focus that I suspect a more theatrical context would have straightaway provided, but which I felt eluded them here.

The rest of the items, though, crackled with dramatic commitment – in fact, just occasionally too much so, as neither singer held back when emphasis and forcefulness was called for, causing some hardening and spreading of their tones at some of the climaxes. I enjoyed more the subtleties both singers brought to the quieter passages of their various songs, and the obvious enjoyment of both word-pointing and sequential phrasings evidenced by both in gesture and facial expression as well as in voice.

Remembering how condescendingly Debussy had put down Grieg’s music at some stage (“a pink bon-bon stuffed with snow”) I thought it revelatory to hear the music of these two composers cheek-by-jowl as it were, with neither having to “draw back” from one another with embarrassment in the other’s company – even if the latter’s name reverted to its Scottish origins as per programme on this occasion!

Craig Beardsworth floated his lines exquisitely at the beginning of Grieg’s “Ein Traum”, supported by beguilingly liquid phrasings from Catherine Norton’s piano, which were flecked most exquisitely with occasional impulses of light – some raw vocal production at the song’s climax didn’t spoil the music’s overall effect, as was also the case with Debussy’s Romance, the singer conveying to us the text’s “celestial sweetness” in the sensitivities of his word-pointing and the jewelled focus of his tones.

Though Megan Corby’s voice was apt to spread when put under pressure, she demonstrated a beguiling sensitivity during the introductory phrases of Grieg’s well-known “Jeg elsker Dig” (I love you), and again during some of the sex-soaked musings of Debussy’s “Le Jet d’Eau” during which the pianist’s colourings and insinuating phrasings couldn’t help but draw one into a kind of sensual trance. An even quieter ecstasy, I felt, from the singer, in places, would have further heightened the suggestiveness of the words and their setting – her pianist was consistently “showing her the way”, opening up the vistas to new and wider musical worlds.

Occasionally Craig Beardsworth’s softer, ultra-focused tones evoked a Gerard Souzay-like vocal quality, which the Brahms “Von ewiger Liebe” particularly brought out at the song’s beginning – the line, the ebb and flow of emotion, and the hint of vocal colouring gave one a lot of pleasure, even if, as the song’s more declamatory sections took over the tones became too harsh to fully enjoy.

I thought both singers revelled rather more in the programme’s more “upbeat” second half, beginning with the heartfelt “Dear Husband, come this fall” from Kirke Mechem’s 2008 opera “John Brown” – Megan Corby’s singing delved deeply into the aria’s world of desperate uxorial devotion, risking hardness of tone with her impassioned delivery, but getting the message across to us with considerable force. The “Blue Mountain Ballads” by Paul Bowles, required less force and more gentle lyricism, which enabled those qualities to come through in Corby’s performance of “Heavenly Grass”, while another song “Sugar in the Cane” responded to rougher, more earthy treatment well.

Craig Beardsworth gave us the other two Ballads from the set, affecting a droll mid-west accent for “Lonesome Man”, his laconic manner abetted by the piano part’s rag-time inclinations, and then relaxing into a more ballad-like style for “Cabin”, wry and nostalgic. Next was Kurt Weill’s “Lonely House” from his stage work “Street Scene”, also given an atmospheric, backward-musing air of decadent old-world charm, supported by a sultry, wryly sentimental piano.

Not so the brash, up-front “Where was I when they passed out luck?” aria from Larry Grossman’s “Minnie’s Boys, which was brilliantly acted out by Beardsworth – “experienced” as much as “sung”, I thought – the almost painfully-insistent tones at the end not inappropriate to the song. As I’ve said, the Verdi duet was, after these energetic outpourings, a bit of an anti-climax – I thought it needed, as I’ve said, more patiently-poised intensity from both the singers and from a strangely inert accompaniment – difficult, of course, to “catch”, away from the through-line of its stage-context.

Moments of delight, then, from all concerned, making for an entertaining and thought-provoking lunchtime sojourn.

Duets and other lunchtime delights at St.Andrew’s

Music by Brahms, Ravel and Britten

Linden Loader (mezzo-soprano), and Roger Wilson (baritone),
with Fiona McCabe (piano)

BRAHMS – Four Duets for Alto and Baritone Op.28
RAVEL – Histoires naturelles (1906) – words by Jules Renard
BRITTEN – A Charm of Lullabies Op.41

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

Wednesday, 19th April, 2016

Here was a particularly happy marriage of music, performance and occasion, the repertoire engaging, balanced and varied, and the performances idiomatic, focused, and whole-hearted. Serving up the music of Brahms with firstly that of Ravel seemed to me to somehow underline the impishness of the former with the ironic wit of the latter, so that each of the worlds resonated and sparkled all the more.

And secondly, the choice of Britten, to whom Brahms’ music was anathema, further tantalised the enjoyments of the presentation, by way of demonstrating that each composer’s sensibility had more in common with the other’s than Britten’s own attitude would initially suggest – and, in any case, Brahms’ acquiescences towards conservative circles in the nineteenth-century now seem to our viewpoints far less polarising, whatever polemic was being enacted (mostly to injurious effect) at that time.

Both of the singers, Linden Loader and Roger Wilson, sounded in excellent voice, properly “inhabiting” their various texts and conveying to us their distinctive characters with great aplomb. And the venture’s success owed much to Fiona McCabe’s sensitive and evocative piano-playing – I was particularly entranced with the exquisite detailings she conjured up in various places during the Ravel song-cycle, and how readily she caught the composer’s characteristic bitter-sweet ironies in response to the singer’s words.

The concert began with two of Brahms’ Op.28 Duets, the first an archetypal German Romance from the world of heroic poetry, a setting of Eichendorff’s tale of a ghostly visitation of a woman by a knight, perhaps once her lover, perhaps already dead – a marvellously sombre evocation, the woman’s voice deep, rich and beautiful at the opening, the knight’s high, but strong and focused. Mostly in ritualistic dialogue form, the lines occasionally intertwined, and the music in places became more animated – but the mood of wonderment was sustained throughout, with the woman having the last word. The following “At the door” made a playful contrast, featuring deft and impish interactions between the voices and the piano, everything nicely and most amusingly thrown off.

Roger Wilson introduced the Ravel song-cycle, remarking most interestingly that the composer himself fell foul of the infamous Académie française, for daring to set words whose style infringed the guidelines of “correct” usage set by the Academy – Ravel himself was no stranger to institutionalised disapproval, having by this time (1906) attempted on a number of occasions to secure France’s then-respected Legion d’Honneur Award for his work, and been rejected. Each of these songs vividly evoked both character and atmosphere, with the sentiments of the text expressed often in mercilessly razor-sharp musical detailings.

The opening “Le paon” (The peacock) presented the bird’s haughty aspect along with its petty querrulousness, something of an Ozymandias in its arrogance, but perhaps masking a deep-seated anxiety in its “diabolical cry” – startlingly-voiced by the singer, on this occasion. By contrast, the sounds of “Le grillon” (The cricket) were all meticulousness and order, ruled by the prevailing intimacy of small things – both voice and piano painted the smallness of the scene with the finest of detailing.

In line with the well-known “Le Cygne” from another French work, “The Swan” glided amid watery textures with the vocal line arching like the bird’s neck over delicately dancing piano scintillations. Reflecting the poem’s text, the music evoked clouds as readily as it did water, underlining the “coming-together” of both in reflection, the “fleecy” clouds and the “cushion of feather”, before debuncking the poetry of the scene with a visceral description of the bird catching a worm in the mud!

I enjoyed the crepuscular atmospheres of “Le martin-pecheur” (The kingfisher), admiring the evocation of stillness in which even the kingfisher’s pecking seemed to have a ritualistic place. Singer and pianist wrought an almost breathless rapture through words and music on the part of the fisherman at his “close encounter” with a wild creature. Finally, “La pintade” (The Guinea-fowl) presented a more angular, quirky and fractious side of nature, Ravel’s music almost Musorgsky-like in its raw, idiomatic raucousness, the piano writing filled with vivid point-making and story-telling in support of the singer’s colourful discourse – such a compelling traversal of a fascinating sequence of personalities and situations!

Linden Loader then introduced the Britten work “A Charm of Lullabies” written for mezzo-soprano Nancy Evans, who first performed the work in January 1948. As a member of the English Opera Group, Evans had taken part in several first performances of Britten’s stage works, which included sharing the title role with Kathleen Ferrier in the composer’s opera The Rape of Lucretia, and Britten wrote the song-cycle in acknowledgement of her abilities and support. As with the “Serenade” which he’d completed in 1943, Britten chose a theme involving night and sleep, bringing together texts from different poets which expressed various aspects and ideas about the subject, some droll and amusing, others disturbing and even frightening.

The opening “A Cradle Song”, a setting of words by William Blake, presented singer and pianist in serene, yet separate accord, Linden Loader having warned us that voice and piano are “not really together”, however lyrical and well-intentioned are the music’s beginnings!The second lullaby “A Highland Balou” seemed more of a “tiring-out” song than a “soothing-to-sleep” lullaby, with a mother telling her child that he/she is a Highland brigand, who will grow up to become an outlaw and “bring hame a Carlisle cow”! Voice and piano filled the music’s “outdoor spaces” with terrific energy and enjoyment, if hardly sleep-making stuff!

Unsettling contrasts characterised “Sephestia’s Lullaby”, with its lamenting opening – “When thou art old, there’s grief enough for thee” set against rhythmic, almost skipping-rhyme or round-dance passages, though with words that hinted at tragedies overshadowing any joys. As for “A Charm”, the frenzied, volatile energies underpin a text whose words are threats which could have come from Dante’s Inferno, filled with nightmarish classical references to monsters and witches – “Sleep, or thou shalt see / the horrid hags of Tartary”. Again the performers threw themselves into the turmoil, bringing out the volatilities and instabilities of the setting with many deft touches.

By the time we came to the final lullaby, “The Nurse’s Song”, with its prayer-like soothings, both unaccompanied and then with both chordal and canonic support from the piano, I was reflecting on the picture of parental exasperation which this collection seemed to underline ( a fable for our time, perhaps, with childcare agencies commonly “kicking in” at an early age in the lives of many children, for various reasons) – Britten’s setting also made me think of that passage in one of Hillaire Belloc’s “Cautionary Verses” , which gave the warning “And always keep a-hold of Nurse / for fear of finding something worse”. So, fascinating, and in places beautiful – but also disturbing!

A kind of contextual sanity returned to the programme to finish the concert, with the remaining two Brahms duets from the composer’s Op.28 – as with the first two, these made a nicely contrasted pair, the first a setting of Goethe’s “Es rauschet das Wasser” (The rushing of the waters), in which each singer characterises the movement of water as a metaphor for love, before setting its freedom of movement against the constancy of stars and equating love of “the true kind” with that same constancy. The performers vividly brought out these different “characters”, before adroitly dovetailing the sentiments and the modes in conclusion, complete with a grand piano postlude.

As for the final “Der Jäger und sein Liebchen”, both singers relished the opportunities for argumentative engagement, and brought home the age-old conflict of opposite personalities and their preoccupations with plenty of tongue-in-cheek dramatic gusto – a welcome frisson of interactive sanity which we all recognised and enjoyed! In all, a very great pleasure, thanks to the concert’s thoroughness of preparation (even the printed programme was a joy!) and the elan and focus of all three performers throughout.

Marking Holy Week through Biblical Lamentations and music inspired by 20th century atrocities

The Tudor Consort conducted by Michael Stewart

Music for Holy Week: The Desolate City

Music by Antoine Brumel, Philippe de Monte, Palestrina, Byrd, John Mundy, Rudolf Mauersberger, Douglas Mews and Jack Body

Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul

Good Friday, 14 April, 7:30 pm

The theme of this concert, The Desolate City, was a reason to look at two cities that have suffered terrible, war-driven destruction in living memory (Dresden and Hiroshima), and to associate physical destruction with social and moral destruction as described in Biblical accounts of cities considered to have been desolated by sin or perhaps merely by adoption of a rival religious faith.

The Book of Lamentations and Psalm 137 provided the main source of music: various Renaissance motets based on the words that can be read as mourning God’s desertion of Jerusalem and thus his complicity in the city’s destruction by the Babylonians in the 6th century BC. The words of Lamentations are traditionally recited during Tenebrae, in Holy Week.

The concert was preceded by a revelatory talk by Michael Stewart and, as well as words printed in both English and other languages in the programme, a large screen behind the choir displayed the words progressively – surtitle-like throughout. An excellent innovation.

Rudolf Mauersberger’s motet Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst, was one of the three non-Renaissance works in the programme. It applied some of the words from Lamentations to the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945, less than three months before Germany’s defeat. Mauersberger was director of Dresden’s Kreuzchor through World War II and this motet is perhaps his best-known work. The Kreuzkirche was destroyed in the bombing, and was rebuilt around 2005.

The motet expresses a deep feeling of grief, in dense harmonies that are punctuated with pauses that allowed the sounds to fill and re-echo through the large space of St Paul’s. Where I was sitting some voices, probably the soloists, Phoebe Sparrow, Rebecca Howan, Phillip Collins and Matthew Painter, seemed to emerge from deep within the choir and sanctuary, as if they were physically removed. Whether or not that was a calculated effect, the performance created a quite transcendental spirit, giving the impression of a rather more splendid composition than perhaps it is.

To follow that by Byrd’s powerful Ne irascaris, Domine (from Isaiah), 370 years earlier, was to dramatise its contemporary relevance: in a totally different way. Through its message of spiritual rather than physical desolation, the Catholic Byrd expressed his anguish, living in a dangerous, Protestant England. The performance was exquisitely solemn, each short stanza quite extended musically, with each vocal section deliberate and perfectly in place so that at times certain voices could emerge distinctly.

Then came Palestrina’s Super flumina Babylonis (the first verses of Psalm 137), the generation before Byrd’s. Though a ritual lament for the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, it paints a much more peaceful atmosphere in less complex and tortured musical syntax than Byrd’s. The choir’s superbly subtle and expressive capacities were impressively revealed.

Another setting of Psalm 137 came from the pen of Jack Body, this time a setting of the original Hebrew text. The succession of pleas was handled by dividing verses between men and women, dramatically and colourfully, as if to emphasise the varying ways in which the anguish of the people could be expressed. At one point (my Hebrew is not up to identifying the precise section) women’s voices rose to an almost terrifying pitch. For me, it revealed musical dimensions in Body’s music that I may have rather underestimated: sophistication, choral virtuosity, confidence.

Philippe de Monte is another rather unfamiliar name from the mid-16th century – shameful in the light of his prolific output: Flemish but, like many Flemish composers, multi-national; a few years older than Palestrina. As Michael Stewart explained, he too was touched by Reformation controversies/persecutions. On account of Queen Mary’s Catholicism, her brief reign (1553-58) gave Catholics a short respite between the Protestant extremes of Edward VI and Elizabeth I. De Monte served at her court in 1554-55 in the entourage of Philip II of Spain who was her husband.

In the 1580s he sent to the embattled Byrd a copy of this setting for double choir of some verses of Psalm 137, Super flumina Babylonis, “as a show of solidarity”, as Stewart wrote: Jewish exiles in Babylon = Catholics in England.

To one whose mid-16th century polyphonic sensibilities are not highly cultivated, it sounded not too dissimilar from Palestrina, Lassus, Vittoria or Byrd for that matter. It was slow moving and beautifully articulated.

Byrd’s Quomodo cantabimus
A year later, Byrd replied to De Monte, sending a copy of his setting of different verses of the same Psalm, Quomodo cantabimus and the choir sang it after the interval. Here there was an unexpected feeling of delight somewhat at odds with the words, as Stewart’s graceful sweeping arm movements delineated scoring that was more complex, dense, interesting (I thought) than De Monte’s. After all, Byrd was a survivor in a hostile climate.

Antoine Brumel was the earliest of the composers featured in the concert (born c. 1460); another of the French-Flemish school. The notes reminded us that he was the composer of the Earthquake Mass performed by The Tudor Consort in 2012. Unlike that important work, for twelve parts, this motet, Lamentatio Heremiae Prophete, was for men’s voices in four parts, which created a very homogeneous, tranquil, constant feeling, a chance to pay attention to the excellence of tenors and basses. I had even jotted the word ‘stately’ in my notebook.

John Mundy’s Lamentations
The last Renaissance piece was John Mundy’s De Lamentatione: a setting of a Latin poem by Jean de Bruges (about whom I can find references to only an engraver and illuminator). After their absence for a few minutes, the high sopranos here particularly pleased me, though the choir’s unvarying evenness, refinement as well as endlessly delightful dynamic and articulation variety again maintained rapt attention through the seamless contrapuntal score.

Finally Douglas Mews’s Ghosts, Fire, Water which I heard sung by Nota Bene in September 2009, and in November 2011 a performance by Voices New Zealand was reviewed in Middle C by Peter Mechen.

This was sung by alto soloist Michelle Harrison in a sort of responsory pattern with the choir. It’s a powerful work set to a poem by James Kirkup, which is an impressively persuasive and vivid evocation of the human catastrophe; yet it almost burdens itself too much with unrelieved anguish and anger (on the other hand, can Hiroshima be considered otherwise than as an utterly unjustifiable atrocity?).

So I concluded that music is the better vehicle for the expression of horror at a crime that words simply lose their ability to handle. The performance was a model of expressiveness and profound emotion while at the same time, of restraint and unambiguity. In this context, the use of spoken words towards the end, instead of music, made the greater impact.

So this was a brilliantly conceived programme, employing examples of traditional Christian music for the major sacrament of the Christian year, book-ended by two of the worst horrors of the 20th century; in wonderfully prepared and executed performances.



Magisterial performances from Siyu Sun (piano) and the Wellington Chamber Orchestra

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:
RACHMANINOV – Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor Op.18
ELGAR – Symphony No.1 in E-flat Op.55

Siyu Sun (piano)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra
Rachel Hyde (conductor)

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

Sunday, 9th April, 2016

A great programme and an equally great occasion! Particularly in the case of the Rachmaninov Concerto, there was a commonality of sorts between the work itself and the circumstances surrounding this particular performance, in each instance a sense of “coming through” against the odds. It’s well-known that the composer wrote the music as a kind of “therapy” by way of recovering from the depression which overwhelmed him after the debacle of his First Symphony’s premiere; and in fact he dedicated the work to his therapist, Dr. Nikolai Dahl, a man otherwise practically unknown to history! Of course the concerto went on to become one of the most popular and enduring of Rachmaninov’s works.

In the case of today’s performance, the pianist, Siyu Sun, was asked to play at short notice due to the indisposition through illness of the scheduled soloist, Liam Wooding. Happily, the outcome’s success mirrored that of the Concerto’s, with difficulties overcome and the results bringing their own unique rewards. I had already seen and heard Liam Wooding play, and was most disappointed at the news of his cancellation – but I was surprised and, indeed, thrilled at the quality of Siyu Sun’s playing, in fact astonished that the services of such an outstanding player could be procured at all, let alone in what seemed like a moment’s notice!

The concert had another, more sobering circumstance to address, which was the recent death of one of its most prominent regular players, the flutist, Derek Holland. His services to the Wellington Chamber Orchestra as a player, section leader and committee member were com-memorated via an illustrated note in the written programme, as well as with a brief recording of his playing, introduced with a few words from conductor Rachel Hyde just prior to the Elgar Symphony which began the concert’s second half.

But to begin proceedings, it was the concerto – and we were pleased to welcome the soloist, Siyu Sun to the platform, along with her conductor, Rachel Hyde. Currently, a pupil of Rae de Lisle in Auckland, Siyu Sun earlier this year won the joint first prize in the National Concerto Competition in Christchurch, playing this same concerto with the NZSO and conductor Hamish McKeich. Later this year she will be performing with the Auckland Philharmonia as part of their Haydn Staples Piano Scholar programme for 2017. She’s also played the French Horn as a second instrument since the age of nine, and was actually a member in 2014 of the National Youth Orchestra.

Though Siyu Sun was in effect repeating her National Concerto Competition success with this same work, there was no hint of routine or sense of anything “second-hand” about her playing on this occasion. The work’s famous opening piano chords were finely gradated, Sun shaping the configurations with a slight “roll” (the notes are practically impossible for all but the largest hands to play without some degree of arpeggiation) and building towards a thunderous sonority prior to the strings’ trenchant entry. The violins dug in strongly, letting the theme soar over the piano’s agitations with full-throated fervour – an arresting beginning! – after which soloist and orchestra melted hearts with a tenderly-phrased second subject, aided and abetted by some sensitive oboe playing.

Siyu Sun demonstrated as much command of the quicksilver filigree passage work as she did the weightier, more assertive chordings during the movement’s agitated development sequences, while conductor Rachel Hyde finely-controlled the great orchestral surges leading up to the return of the opening theme in tandem with the soloist’s great and magisterial chordal passages – tremendous stuff! Only a slightly-too-early horn solo broke the spell momentarily – the player recovered some poise towards the end of the solo as the music moved through those sequences of peculiarly Rachmaninovian melancholy, piano and winds conversing with real sympathy. The movement’s coda was taken easily, establishing the rhythm clearly before excitingly building the crescendo to its no-nonsense conclusion.

How beautifully the orchestral strings caught the music’s “colour” at the slow movement’s beginning! With delicately-wrought support from the soloist, both flute and clarinet did beautiful things with the theme (derived most adroitly by the composer from those great piano chordal passages in the first first movement), before it was the piano’s turn, winds and strings murmuring their support. Sun varied her articulation of the theme in its more rapidly-moving guise so beautifully, ably supported by the orchestra, controlling the growing excitement before finally “going with” the crescendo and taking the ensemble with her (conductor and players sticking to their soloist resolutely!). The pianist’s scherzando figurations spread out naturally and easily, and with conductor and players, bringing off the sudden sforzando cadence with absolute unanimity. A big-boned cadenza-like piano passage later, the movement’s opening theme returned, this time with the strings wringing out the emotion, and the soloist matching gesture with gesture.

No time to relax! – an attacca, or as near as one could get to one, began the final movement, the scherzo-like rhythms a bit loose at first, but then strongly pulled together. What a fantastic entry from the pianist! – as commanding and surely-focused as her unashamedly rhetorical introduction to the entry of the famous tune! – here, oboe and strings delivered the goods ably supported by the horns and echoed beautifully by Sun’s glowing tones. Those “mysterious” passages came off well, with deft percussion touches adding to the ambience, which were thereupon tossed to one side by the piano in an irruption of great energy, though not taken in too helter-skelter a fashion! The orchestra stayed with its soloist throughout the fugal passages which followed, if not always with spick-and-span unanimity, though Rachel Hyde’s control of her forces kept everything in touch. I enjoyed the “ring” of the piano’s tones just after the chattering toccata-like passages with the brasses, and the confident elan of the players throughout their syncopated tutti statements, just before the second subject’s grand return.

The strings did well with the melody, allowing the piano plenty of space in reply, playing in big, deep-breathed paragraphs which expanded fully and naturally, contrasting markedly with the winds’ reiterations of the agitated theme – none too together the first time round, but tighter with their exchanges on repetition. The piano continued the agitations, triplet figurations helping to build towards that great entry-point of the tune’s final statement with crashing orchestral chords and a ringing, scintillating cadenza from the soloist. Then, it was such a great “all together”, the horns doing so well and everybody playing fully out! With Siyu Sun’s final spectacularly vertiginous sweepings up and down the keyboard, the final payoff was achieved by all in great style! – I think we in the audience were stunned by it all for a second or two, before recovering our senses and bursting out with our appreciation of what the musicians had achieved – most gratifying!

If further proof of Sun’s abilities were needed, it came with an encore, which she announced as the “Little Red Riding Hood” Etude by Rachmaninov – actually No.6 of the composer’s Etude-Tableaux Op.39. Normally reticent about his “sources”, Rachmaninov let it slip that this exciting and disturbing piece was inspired by the famous fairy-tale; and Sun’s scintillating, razor-edged playing certainly brought out the music’s dark predatory menace set against the victim’s tremuous vulnerability, with little doubt regarding the outcome – certainly more Brothers Grimm than Charles Perrault, I would think!

Then there was the Elgar Symphony! It had, from the moment I first saw the programme, seemed to me as if it would be a difficult assignment for the orchestra – but these players were, by this time, on a kind of “high”, and were more than ready for “the beast” by the time everybody had come back for the second half. Once the very moving tribute to flutist Derek Holland had been completed, the players began the symphony without further ado, giving the opening motto plenty of gravitas first time round, then upon repetition according it the full ceremonial treatment, a truly magnificent sound. Rachel Hyde than launched the allegro with plenty of “swagger”, encouraging the players to characterise that Elgarian “stride” which for me defines the great performances of this music, and which was here given enough space and weight to really tell.

Another defining character of Elgar’s music is its vulnerability (a quality that one of the finest of this music’s conductors, Barbirolli, used to call the “hurt”), one which manifests itself in the symphony’s more lyrical passages, no more so than in the winds’-and-strings’ repeated “sighing” motif, and which Hyde, bless her, gave her players plenty of elbow room to properly articulate and resound. Though there were moments of imprecise ensemble, it mattered far less than the engagement by conductor and players with the “character” of these qualities, the “grunty” aspect of the brass as telling as the “dying fall” of strings and winds in other places. A memorable moment was towards the movement’s end, when, after the triumphant re-statement of the motto theme, (wonderful harp flourishes, here!) the strings gently cascaded downwards over the stealthily tread in the bass and the woodwinds’ rounding-off mutterings, the players fully “at one” with the sequence’s different strands of expression.

The second movement’s dark, impulsive thrustings were here kept steady, the momentum unflagging and still dangerous-sounding, with the players’ concentration giving the sounds real “attitude”, the percussion giving extra “fizz ” at the top, and underlining the swagger of the march tune. How lovely, then, the change of character for the episode the composer called “something you would hear down by the river”, with its touches of Sibelius on the clarinets! After these energies began to wane, the transition to the slow movement was beautifully controlled by Hyde, aided by spot-on playing from the winds in their off-the-beat descents, allowing things to “wind down” and gently open up into the most gorgeous of Elgarian melodies on the strings, playing with real “innigkeit”, before blossing into a warm “nobilmente’ feeling. Throughout the rest of the movement the music seemed to capture a drifting, nostalgic quality, from shadow to sunlight and back to shadow, until the strings entered with the ‘new” tune, playing with even more tenderness, before rising to realms imbued with delight – a final statement from the strings, and a haunting reply from the brasses, the timpani, and finally the clarinet.

Mutterings and dark statements evolved a sinister bass tread at the finale’s beginning, as scraps of the motto theme and a nervously fluttering figure expressed the “agitation within” – the allegro let it loose, with the violins doing well to keep the uprushing opening together, and later, the rolling theme whose “three” against the accompaniment’s “two” (or so it seemed) was managed with aplomb! The sped-up version of the movement’s “sinister” opening then built towards a terrific tutti, before everything disintegrated – I mean the music, of course, not the playing! – and then (oh, the genius of the man!) morphed into a different treatment of the melody, noble and heartfelt, which spread through the entire orchestra! From here, I thought the last few minutes of the work featured conductor and orchestra lifted onto a kind of plane of involvement and execution which did full justice to the composer’s effusive and exuberant mood, delivering the final statement of the motto with terrific conviction and excitement. Everybody could, I thought, at the very end be justly proud of such a heart-warming afternoon’s music-making.

Capable and well-considered performances of Arensky, Rachmaninov and Cherubini by Cantoris and their pianist conductor

Cantoris Choir conducted by Thomas Nikora
Piano Trio: Thomas Nikora (piano), Vivian Stephens (violin), Lucy Gijsbers (cello)

Rachmaninov: Vespers (‘The All-Night Vigil’), Op 37 – ‘Bogoroditse Devo’
Arensky: Piano Trio No 1 in D minor, Op 32
Cherubini: Requiem in C minor (1816), accompanied by Mark Dorrell (piano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 8 April, 7:30 pm

In addition to the advertised Requiem by Cherubini, the programme was fleshed out with the most popular movement from Rachmaninov’s Vespers (‘All Night Vigil’), Op 37, and Arensky’s first piano trio.

The Rachmaninov piece is the sixth movement in the 15-movement, hour-long Vespers setting, rather inaccurately called the ‘All-night Vigil’. Bogorovitse Devo (pronounced ‘djevo’) means ‘Rejoice, O Virgin’. It’s a short, gentle piece that introduced the choir in a beautifully quiet, religious spirit, an ideal way to gauge the choir’s ability to control subtle dynamics; the singers were mixed so that the harmonies emerged in a blended manner rather than in distinct blocks according to their registers.

I haven’t heard Rachmaninov’s Vespers in performance for a long time; the last may have been back in 1987 from Maxwell Fernie’s Schola Polyphonica. Perhaps Cantoris could put it on the ‘must do sometime’ list.

(NOTE: I have been reminded that the Orpheus Choir has sung the Vespers twice (at least): in 1997 under Philip Walsh and in 2003 under Andrew Cantrill. I may or may not have heard and reviewed those performances in The Evening Post – my archive is not quite exhaustive enough to be certain.)

Arensky’s Piano Trio became known to Wellingtonians of my generation through performances by the remarkable Turnovsky Trio in the 1990s. (Sam Konise, Christopher Kane and Eugene Albulescu: Konise gave up a highly promising career; cellist Kane died and Albulescu went to the United States, taking up a career as pianist-cum-inspiring-educator).

Arensky was born in 1861, twenty years Tchaikovsky’s junior, four years older than Glazunov and twelve years older than Rachmaninov.

At once these three players (Thomas Nikora – piano, Vivian Stephens – violin, Lucy Gijsbers – cello) captured the essence of this music, rather Tchaikovsky in character, yet strikingly individual. All three found a subdued unanimity quickly, in voices that were warm and legato in the enchanting opening melody, until a somewhat unduly assertive chordal attack by Nikora which disturbed its affinity with violin and cello. Elsewhere however the original balance was maintained, though in the Scherzo Nikora again produced contrasts with his colleagues, particularly in the boisterous runs. In this venue, certain pains need to be taken with the piano’s response.

In all however, this was a most rewarding performance of a gorgeous piece that deserves to be played more than occasionally.

The main work was probably the real attraction: it was for me, as I’d never heard it performed live though I was familiar through my recordings of both this Requiem and Cherubini’s later one for male chorus in D minor.

The choir’s discipline and scrupulousness with balance, tempi and dynamics, demonstrated earlier, bore fruit here. From the start, the choir produced a sound that was not only liturgical in character, but imposing as a somewhat sombre choral work – without solo voices, though sections of the choir were often used in a way that simulated the participation of solo voices. Cherubini was conscious that his commission by the French Restoration Monarch Louis XVIII to mark the anniversary of the deaths of his predecessor Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, was a serious opportunity. (They were guillotined during the short period of The Reign of Terror (1793-94) during the French Revolution). Beethoven famously thought he was the greatest of his contemporaries and this Requiem was played at Beethoven’s funeral. Though Cherubini, rather a conservative figure (read Berlioz’s Memoirs!), a supporter of the monarchy, had navigated his way safely through the Napoleonic years, life blossomed for him at the Restoration, and this Requiem was an opportunity to make an important gesture: his career blossomed from then on, becoming director of the Paris Conservatoire in 1822.

It is of course a quite splendid work and nothing is more impressive, even exciting, than the Dies Irae; considering the absence of the full orchestra for which Cherubini scored it, with important timpani and gong, this performance did pretty well. Mark Dorrell, a bit of a magician in the task of transforming the sounds of a piano into those of absent instruments, now like a fine string ensemble, now mimicking woodwinds; and in the Dies Irae, even offering something approaching timpani and gong. Though the lack of orchestra is usually a serious matter for any music scored for orchestra, since the majority of an audience is likely to have the sounds of a recording or an earlier full-scale live performance in their ears (even, I like to think, a less familiar work like this), a skilled and imaginative pianist together with an arresting performance by the choir can distract attention from a missing orchestra.

There is great variety in the work: the lively interweaving and the increasing excitement of voices through Hostias was splendid, reminding us, if his large gestures were not visible proof, that Nikora is proving a very capable conductor.   Sobriety was restored in the following Sanctus: staccato, accented and well projected, leading to the end of the Benedictus for the choir to build to a powerful dramatic declamation. Then the gentle melody of the Pie Jesu, passed around the various sections of the choir, might almost have been heard as a pre-echo of Fauré’s.

The Agnus Dei accounted for the last five minutes or so and here the choir moved calmly from arresting passages to those that were deeply elegiac.

If I understood correctly, the choir , following their 2014 trip to New York to sing at Karl Jenkins 70th birthday celebrations in Carnegie Hall, will travel there again later this year, with this Requiem by Cherubini.

There is every sign that the choir will make a fine impression.

Adams and Mozart (and Martin Fröst) inspire de Waart and the NZSO

JOHN ADAMS – Shaker Loops
MOZART – Clarinet Concerto in A Major K.622
BEETHOVEN – Symphony No.6 in F Major Op.58 “Pastoral”
Martin Fröst (clarinet)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Edo de Waart (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington,

Friday 7th April, 2016

John Adams (b.1947) has for some time been popularly regarded as one of the “big three” of minimalist music composition, along with Philip Glass and Steve Reich. The term “minimalist” was used to describe a specific creative aesthetic involving the reduction to the bare essentials of whatever medium the creative artist worked with – in music this involved using repetition of melodic and rhythmic ideas to express minute gradations and subtle alterations of the original material, in order to “grow” something new.

Adams’ work “Shaker Loops”, first on the programme in tonight’s concert, was originally conceived as a string quartet, before the composer decided, after a less-than-satisfactory first performance, that he needed “a larger, thicker ensemble”, and so re-scored the piece for a string septet, completing the work in 1978. Whether it was through further dissatisfaction, or merely a desire to extend the performance possibilities of the piece, Adams then reworked the septet for string orchestra in 1982, in which form it has become one of the composer’s most well-known works.

The title of the piece draws from the name “Shakers” given to an American Puritan sect whose intense ecstasy of worship resulted in their physically “shaking” while at prayer – while the term “Loops” refers to the minimalist technique of splicing and repeating segments of pre-recorded tape, to give a sense of endless repetition. The composer described his intention as summoning up an “ecstatic frenzy of a dance that culminates in an epiphany of physical and spiritual transcendence”.

Edo de Waart has previously recorded Adams’ piece in its string orchestra version with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, one of a much-acclaimed series of recordings of the composer’s works by the conductor, made while Adams was composer-in-residence with the orchestra. Little wonder, then, that the performance by the NZSO strings in Wellington shimmered and crackled with a sure focus and intensity at the outset, a “knowing what was what”. De Waart’s leadership inspired a living, breathing realisation of the music’s closely-knit moods over four continuous movements, bringing out both continuums and contrasts, which led the ear on right to the work’s spacious, reflective conclusion.

That was the culmination of a journey which began with “classic” minimalist gesturings in the opening “Shaking and Trembling”, the patternings and texturings undergoing modifications of a sort that suggested different kinds of motoric response to traversals of varied terrain. As these scurrying notes gradually retreated and became the “ambient background” of the second movement’s “Hymning Slews”, some beautifully wind-blown Aeolian-like harmonies created an eerie, almost ritualistic atmosphere, with chord-clusters glowing through the textures like soft lights, certain figures lazily slurred, while others sounded harmonics which led to bewitching bird-song-like trills, the vistas thrown open and the silences enlivened, an almost Copland-esque feel imparted to the proceedings.

A stealthy, new harmony brought on an awakening of the lower strings, with Berlioz-like irruptions from the basses, and ascending ‘cello motifs, the playing “digging in”, bringing out a glowing intensity and enlivening energy, the “Loops and Verses” of the music’s third part, the ensemble patiently blowing smoke-rings around the persona of a great engine, whose powerhouse was driving its rods and pistons faster and faster, desirous of achieving a result. But almost as quickly, these motoric energies seemed to peak and flag, as if the impulses seemed to catch a whiff of something greater and more lasting overhead, pinpricks of distant light contrasting with the occasional rumbling of the basses – we were left at the end with the firmament overhead, and the earth below, in worshipful and luminous accord. As a realisation of a journey’s full circle, this seemed to me a great performance of a great work!

Following this was the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, which brought Swedish clarinettist Martin Fröst before us, a musician acclaimed world-wide for his peerless instrumental skills and his thoughtful, soul-enriching interpretations. By way of welcoming their distinguished soloist, Edo de Waart and the orchestra began the concerto with a finely-wrought introduction, imbued with both strength and delicacy, one whose warmth and fullness of tone seemed happily removed from any didactic stylistic mode which might have proclaimed any kind of “authenticity” (oh, dear! – that just slipped out! – sorry!)….

Martin Fröst instantly took up and furthered these utterances with exquisitely-turned phrases expressed in tones that, true to the composer’s dictum, “flowed like oil”, but also seemed to value each and every note as something with its own distinction. At first I found his playing stance unduly distracting, with its somewhat “praying mantis-like” aspect (at times he appearing to be almost “stalking” his conductor as a likely victim!) – but once I’d gotten used to these quasi-choreographic poses, I began to relish the endless variety of his playing, suggesting a wealth of human experience and sensibility.

I read somewhere (not in the programme notes) that Fröst used for another concert performance of the work a modern replica of a “basset clarinet”, an instrument which was in vogue in Mozart’s time and which the work’s original dedicatee, Anton Stadler, probably used – the basset enables the player to use lower notes than are found on a conventional instrument. To me it sounded as if certain passages of Fröst’s playing were lower than usual, indicating that the basset replica was being used here. It extended the expressive range of the performance, having extra depths in the instrument’s lower register.

What a distillation of pure beauty was the opening of the slow movement! – the orchestral response matched the soloist’s rapt tones at the outset with a heartfeltness of its own. Fröst played some gorgeous flourishes at a couple of the cadences, moments which held fast for a few precious seconds the beauty of the discourse between clarinet and orchestra – a very slight earthquake during the latter stages of the movement failed to garner much attention, such was the spell cast by the performers with this music.

Mozart concerto finales often play “cat-and-mouse” between the soloist and the orchestra – this one, though more poised and genteel than in a lot of the piano concertos, still provides a sense of fun – the ensemble’s forthrightness contrasted beautifully with the clarinet’s moments of introspection, though the discourse wasn’t all one way, with the soloist’s lines occasionally rich and strong, and the orchestral phrases in more sober, supporting roles. While the applause at the end was primarily for Fröst, conductor and orchestra deserved much of the credit with their well-rounded and ever-alert contributions to the ebb and flow of one of the composer’s most sublime creations.

Predictably, the extended (and well-deserved) audience applause brought Fröst back out for an encore, though by no means a conventional or predictable one – this was a work called Klezmer Dance No.3, written by Goran Fröst (Martin Fröst’s brother) for clarinet and ensemble (the NZSO players were obviously well-prepared!). The music’s freewheeling energies were brilliantly delivered by all concerned, leaving the status quo of clarinettists being the most spectacular solo performers with the NZSO in recent times (Finnish virtuoso Kari Kriikku being another recent candidate for this award) undisturbed, even if last year’s star ‘cellist Johannes Moser ran these two close in his NZSO concert.

After this, further delight awaited, in the form of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony – but whether it was because the performance of the Mozart had left my sensibilities little room for additional wonderment and rapture, or because conductor and orchestra were at the end of “playing out” after an arduous tour (since March 30th, from Hamilton to Dunedin), I felt the performance didn’t quite “go on” from the first movement’s beautifully-sprung rhythms and lyrical outpourings. A pity – because De Waart and the players here caught the music’s many currents and eddies, finding, I thought, sufficient balance between incidental delight and on-going purpose to make Beethoven’s paean of praise work both as a kind of tone-poem and a symphonic journey – the conductor didn’t particularly “point” the minimalist-like repetitions of the first movement’s development, but they still made their impact, resonating all the more in the wake of the Adams work we’d heard earlier.

Though the orchestral playing, especially that of the winds, made for some beautiful sequences in the “Scene by the Brook” I missed here a sense of true rapture, of “giving over” to the music’s spell to the point where I felt uplifted and entranced by it all – I wanted to experience those murmuring water-currents, and to sing with the lullabic melody-lines, but it all somehow remained earthbound for me – and a momentary lapse of ensemble between strings and winds at one point didn’t help the music’s cause. Unlike with the first movement’s beauties, I coudn’t find a proper “way in” to the evocations, despite the sterling work done by the winds – and why the cuckoo-calls at the end of the movement were played in so perfunctory a manner to my ears, I couldn’t fathom (usually such a magical moment).

But again, the orchestral detailing in the third movement’s “Peasants’ Merrymaking” was superb, with horn-playing to die for, and droll interactions between oboe and bassoon which properly caught the music’s rusticity, though I felt the strings could have been encouraged to roughen up the textures just a little, during their “knees-up” sequence, which for me was a shade too “polished” in effect. As was the introduction to the storm, which (sensationalist that I am) I wanted to spit and rumble and moan more pointedly, just before the first great outburst – still, there were marvellous roarings from the timpani and, later, some anguished cries from the piccolo, answered with unequivocal elemental force from brass and timps in the time-honoured manner.

Re-reading my notes returns me more readily to the performance’s incidental beauties and delights, especially so with the finale – clarinet and horn exchanging calls so beautifully at the finale’s beginning, strings and brass building up the hymn-like song of thanksgiving to the point of fervour, and, after the nature-gods have received their dues, the sound of the horn solo at the very end, sealing up the music’s magic, and evoking Tennyson’s words, “answer, echoes, answer – dying, dying….” These were treasurable sequences, though I was still left at the end wondering why I didn’t feel (as I DID during the Mozart concerto performance in the first half), that continued presence of something “casting a glow over the proceedings”, which de Waart and the orchestra also achieved in their Mahler and Elgar performances last year. Modified rapture, then, but certainly enough to eagerly await what lies in store for us throughout the orchestral year’s remainder, here in Wellington.