Solo cellist Christopher Hutton in Wellington Chamber Music’s second 2017 concert

Christopher Hutton (cello)
(Wellington Chamber Music)

J S Bach: A Suite Sampler
Britten: Suite for solo cello No 1, Op 72
Reger: Suite No 1 in G minor, Op 131c
Bolcom: from Suite No 1 in C minor
Harbison: Suite for solo cello (1993)
Corigliano: Fancy on a Bach Air

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 28 May 2017, 3 pm

Though originally from Wellington, Christopher Hutton had most of his education in the United States, at Boston University, the Eastman School of Music at Rochester, the University of North Carolina and the University of Delaware, before becoming an associate professor at the Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.

He has made previous tours for Chamber Music New Zealand and Wellington Chamber Music, recently as cellist in the Poinsett Piano Trio. This may be his first return visit as solo cellist.

Given the general unfamiliarity with most of the music exists for solo cello (apart from Bach), he put together an interesting, and generally engaging programme.

It began with a not unsuccessful ‘sampler’ of a movement from each of Bach’s six cello suites, arranged in the same pattern as Bach followed, thus: the Prelude from No 1, the Allemande from No 2, the Courante from No 3, and so on. Apart from those with perfect pitch, the mixture of keys (no two are the same – the Bourrées in E flat followed by the Gigue in D) presented no problem. In the cases of very familiar movements, there was merely the matter of hearing, as each ended, the next actual movement in your head.

Before each piece, Hutton spoke interestingly and fluently, and his confident, unhesitating manner carried into his playing, through the varied phases of the first Prelude as well as the Allemande and the brisk Courante. At times it felt a little too restless. The Sarabande (from Suite No 5), however, was given its due as a more meditative piece. And he struck a clear contrast between the two Bourrées from the E flat suite.

Britten’s cello suite, one of three dedicated to Rostropovich, ‘clearly echoes Bach’, as Hutton says, but in such a way as to rather puzzle an innocent listener, who is likely to be less musically gifted and sophisticated than Rostropovich. It’s one of those pieces that is ‘tonal’ but not necessarily enrapturing. But I am not a reliable observer; I’ve long loved the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, the operas Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw and Gloriana, the War Requiem, the folk song arrangements, the piano and violin concertos; but some of the chamber music in particular, which some find ‘interesting’, I might find cold, obtuse, calculated, often cluttered with complexity.

However, Hutton gave it a splendidly idiomatic performance though perhaps it was one emphasising its rigour and intellectualism, driving it so fiercely that whatever lyricism and more simple beauty became a bit hard to discern.

Much more to my liking was Max Reger’s first suite; he, like Britten, wrote three cello suites paying homage to Bach. Forty years older than Britten, he lived just in time to avoid the serialist and other avant-garde pretensions, so his Bach emulations sounded much closer than Britten’s to their source; my notes even went so far as to ask: ‘Bach’s Seventh Suite?’

There were quite extrovert, even exhibitionist, passages but it was essentially musical. The Adagio middle movement was charming, with lengthy passages of double stopping, which made me wonder whether this was a candidate for extracting as solo, Bach-aria-type piece. There was an impressive fugal episode in the last movement which the soloist’s notes likened to Bach’s solo violin sonatas.

Three American composers, all born in 1938, followed. I’m more familiar with William Bolcom’s songs, which are very attractive, than his chamber and other music, but the three movements from his first cello suite had many agreeable features; it was in the Badinerie movement (Bach’s famous example is in the second orchestral suite) that Hutton displayed particular aplomb in handling its bravura character with confident mastery. And he captured the almost flippant spirit of the Alla sarabanda final movement splendidly.

Bolcom was born on the west coast; John Harbison was born in Massachusetts. Hutton’s notes remark that his suite for solo cello resembles Bach’s solo violin sonatas and indeed, here was another approachable American composer who successfully took Bach as a model. Less easy to discern was the influence of Britten’s cello fugues, as suggested by Hutton; the blustery Fuga-Burletta, second movement, rather suggested Bach to me. Again, the genial musicality and the engaging scraps of melody that seemed to evolve one to another; the sober Sarabanda, and the rhythmically riotous Giga avoided anything that might alienate a mainstream listener. The music was imaginative, spontaneous in feeling, elegantly composed; and persuasively played.

The last item was something of a playful offering, from the many-sided John Corigliano (best known I suppose as composer of The Ghosts of Versailles, for the Metropolitan Opera, New York). His piece was called Fancy on a Bach Air; in fact, the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations It was characterised by long-breathed melodic ideas as well as very large intervals that, strangely, taxed Hutton’s intonation ever-so-slightly. Yet it was splendidly played, a fine way to end this successful, generally not too challenging, though unusual recital.

Further programme material from Christopher Hutton

Christopher Hutton had supplied interesting backgound notes to Wellington Chamber Music for incorporation into their printed programme.  Space constraints prevented most of the text from being used.

They are reproduced below as they deal interestingly with each of the pieces played. I should add that I refrained from reading them till I had written my review in order not to be influenced by words not available to the audience on the day; naturally, there are certain things that do not perhaps line up with my own impressions of the music. So be it.

Lindis Taylor

Today’s program juxtaposes music from J.S. Bach’s much beloved Suites for Unaccompanied Violoncello with music by later composers who were influenced or inspired by Bach’s music.

As hard as it may be to imagine, J.S. Bach was not widely known as a composer when he wrote his cello suites almost 300 years ago, and as famous as he is now, there is plenty we do not know about the genesis of this music. We do know they were written in Cöthen between 1717-1720. It is uncertain who exactly might have first performed them, but they may have been intended to impress his employer Prince Leopold who was an enthusiast of the Viola da Gamba. Bach surely never intended this music to be used for actual dancing but he knew that his contemporaries enjoyed dance music so much that dance styles were commonly integrated into instrumental music written purely for amusement.

This meant that Bach could readily draw upon firmly conventionalized styles with meters and figuration specific to each kind of dance. As such, each suite consists of an introductory prelude followed by a series of five dances, always appearing in the same order: Allemande (moderate-tempo in 4/4 time), Courante (quicker, in 3/4 time), Sarabande (slow and stately in 3/4, often with a particular emphasis on the second beat), and Gigue (fast, with triple rather than duple rhythmic subdivisions). Between the Sarabande and Gigue each suite has a pair of short dances called Galanteries: Minuets in the first and second suites (moderately quick, 3/4); Bourées in the third and fourth suites (quicker, in 3/4), and Gavottes in the fifth and sixth (relatively quick, in 4/4 time). All seven of these dance styles have their roots in courtly dances that had become standardized in France in the late seventeenth century, and although by 1720 the French court had moved on to newer dances, the older styles were still common in other countries.

Because a performance of all six suites lasts well over two hours, today’s program begins with a “Suite Sampler”, presenting one movement from each of Bach’s Suites, each in a different key. By combining movements from multiple suites one can get an impression of the musical affect of each suite and of the variety of different movements contained within, perhaps whetting listeners’ appetites to seek out the set of six suites as a whole. This set begins with the Prelude of the first, G major Suite, which is almost certainly the single most famous movement of solo cello music ever written. It is remarkably simple, a series of arpeggiated chords that modulate through a number of keys before settling on the dominant (fifth scale degree).

Resolution back to tonic is inevitable, but is withheld. The tension inherent in that delayed gratification builds until the chords of the opening measures return in a cathartic moment of rapture. This is followed by the usual series of dances with the contrasts between each style heightened by the different keys and character reflective of each suite: the introspective Allemande in D minor, the fleet-footed Courante from the sunny C-major suite, the melancholy and extraordinarily sparse Sarabande from the C minor suite, the playful Bourées from the otherwise grandiose E-flat Suite, wrapped up with the brilliant and thrilling Gigue of the D major suite.

Though the cello rose to prominence as a solo instrument in the nineteenth century and cellist-composers wrote for unaccompanied cello, this music has generally not become a part of the modern cellist’s canon. The first solo cello works to have attained the status as standard repertoire were three suites composed by Max Reger (1873-1916) almost two-hundred years after Bach’s suites. Though written in 1914, after Schoenberg’s early forays into atonality and Stravinsky’s landmark Rite of Spring, Reger’s suites are deeply rooted in the richly chromatic tonal harmonies of the Romantic era. Each of Reger’s suites is dedicated to a leading cellist of the day: Julius Klengel (1859-1933), Paul Grümmer (1879-1965), and Hugo Becker (1863-1941). These names are likely unfamiliar to general audiences, but are well-known to cellists as composers of etudes and other music, and editors of music including Bach’s suites – versions of which are still in print from each of these cellists!

The G-major Suite, Op. 131c No. 1, opens with a running sixteenth-note (semiquaver) figuration instantly recognizable as relating to Bach’s prelude in the same key. In Reger’s case, however, the range is greatly expanded, and the simplicity of Bach’s model gives way to much more extroverted virtuosity. This opening movement is followed by an Adagio that is not clearly based on any specific movement by Bach, but combines extended passages of double-stops (common to many of Bach’s Sarabande movements) with intricate, quickly-moving scales. Bach only wrote one movement for solo cello that one might call a fugue (in the prelude to the fifth suite), but he wrote movements titled “Fuga” in each of his three sonatas for solo violin. Writing a fugue for a solo instrument is a challenge, but in the finale of his suite Reger (like Bach before him) uses a relatively simple subject that permits the layering of the theme over (or under) other voices. While not the same as one of the four-part masterpieces of the Well-Tempered Clavier or a fugue for organ, the technique is remarkably effective.

Like Reger, Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) wrote three suites for solo cello, though in this case not as a set, but rather among a series of five works written between 1960 and 1974 for and dedicated to the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007). The first suite was written in 1964 and premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1965. Inspired by Rostropovich’s playing of Bach suites rather than Bach’s music itself, it still has movements that clearly echo Bach. Both the Canto which recurs in different guises throughout the Suite (much like the Promenade of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition) and the Lamento relate quite strongly to Bach’s Sarabande in C minor in the way they explore the dissonant interval of a half-step (semitone). The Fuga channels the contrapuntal writing of Bach’s fugues, and here Britten comes up with the ingenious idea of including silences in his theme which allows him more leeway in giving the impression of multiple voices (allowing voices in other registers to fill in the gaps).

Rather than imitate the typical kinds of dance movements found in a Baroque suite, the later movements are distinctly Britten. The serenade is played pizzicato throughout, with strings plucked by both the left and right hands. The sarcastic march (perhaps echoing Shostakovich, another composer who collaborated with Rostropovich) has trumpet and drum effects which gradually draw closer and then further away. The fifth movement, Bordone, alternates between higher, scurrying themes played with the bow contrasted with lower and slower notes plucked by the left hand, all layered with a sustained drone D. Later in the movement the quick motive dissolves into the drone itself which then accompanies a plaintive melody first above and then below. In the finale Moto perpetuo the scurrying theme of the Bordone is further developed, culminating in a return of the Canto refrain. The Canto that has been haunting the suite is finally exorcised and at the end of the movement the last note is a dyad of the dissonant half-step of F# and G which resolves to G alone as the open string rings longer. The piece is a real tour-de-force both of composition and as a showcase for the abundant talent of its dedicatee.

The remaining works on this program were all composed within a span of two years (1994-96), and coincidentally were all written by composers born in the same year (1938).

William Bolcom adapted his Solo Suite No. 1 in C minor from his score for Arthur Miller’s play Broken Glass. Like most of Bolcom’s cello works, it was written for the cellist Norman Fischer who now teaches at Rice University in Houston, Texas. The Prelude is a brusque and angular march with percussive effects. That contrasts greatly with the playful third-movement Badinerie. “Badinerie” is a relatively obscure French term that might best be translated to the more commonly used Italian term “scherzo” (joke), and is a title that Bach used in the finale of his second orchestral suite. The final movement of Bolcom’s suite, titled “Alla sarabanda” is a direct homage to Bach with a recomposed version of Bach’s C minor Sarabande
followed by a series of five increasingly technical variations, and followed by a reprise of the theme.

John Harbison’s Suite for Solo Cello is set in four movements, very much in the form of Bach’s Sonatas for solo violin (written around the same time as the cello suites). It begins with a rhapsodic, improvisatory Preludio followed by a Fuga-Burletta which is – as suggested by its title – a comic fugue. It has similarities to the fugues in first suites of both Britten (with its use of silences in the subject) and Reger (with voices layered into double- and later triple-stopped chords). The brief Sarabanda updates Bach’s Sarabandes with 20th-century harmonies, while the Giga (Gigue) finale is a rip-roaring moto-perpetuo inspired by some of Bach’s cello gigues (notably that of the fourth cello suite) and the fast finales of his violin sonatas and partitas.

John Corigliano’s “Fancy on a Bach Air” is an introspective single-movement piece inspired not by any cello music, but rather the Aria of Bach’s Goldberg Variations for harpsichord. It was written in memory of one Robert Goldberg who had commissioned a number of composers to write a series of variations for the 25th anniversary of his wedding to his wife Judy. The set of pieces was to be performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, but before the commission could be fulfilled Robert died of cancer leaving the variations to stand in memorium rather than their original, celebratory purpose. The long-breathed phrases of Bach’s original air are imitated here in long, legato lines, written without notated rhythms to suggest a sense of freedom. It seems an appropriate way to bring this program to a close.

For more information go to

Interesting organ programme from Tom Chatterton at St James, Lower Hutt

St James Sunday Organ Recital Series 2017
(St. James’s Church and Wellington Organists Association)

Tom Chatterton (organ)

Elgar: Imperial March (arr. G. Martin)
J.S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue in C, BWV 547
Mozart: Adagio from Serenade no.10 in B flat, “Gran Partita” K.361 (arr. Tom Chatterton)
J.S. Bach: ‘Komm Heiliger Geist’, BWV 651
Londonderry Air, arr. J. Stewart Martin
Vierne: Allegro first movement from 2nd Organ Symphony
Purcell: ‘When I am laid in earth’ (arr. Martin Setchell)
Jehan Alain: Litanies

St. James Church, Lower Hutt

Sunday 28 May 2017, 3pm

Tom Chatterton, a fairly recent arrival from Britain (where he attended Uppingham School, where Professor Peter Godfrey taught before coming to New Zealand), was heard by upwards of 40 people, on the impressive three-manual organ.  His mixing of shorter, more lyrical pieces between longer, more serious ones was good programming.  It was a shame that the Bach Prelude and Fugue was a substitute for Toccata in C, BWV 564 (i), a brilliant work I am particularly fond of, and the Vierne for Bach’s Concerto in A minor BWV 593 based on Vivaldi.  The organist explained that lack of sleep occasioned by his young daughter’s teething necessitated the changes.  However, no loss of technical ability was apparent in the works he played.

Chatterton’s introductions to pairs of pieces were informative, genial, and easily heard.  He introduced the Elgar as being bombastic – but the opening wasn’t, and elsewhere I found it lacking in this characteristic also.  I did wonder if moving the console into a central position on the platform (rather than being on the side, where it sits for church services) meant the organist was hearing the pipes more strongly than the audience was.  However, I did not find this effect in any of the later pieces. However,  in this one I did find the arrangement of the orchestral piece rather restrained for an Imperial March, much of the time.

The Bach Prelude and Fugue was very clear; each part could be distinctly heard, the notes being detached, but not too much.

The Mozart arrangement was interesting, calm and peaceful – but I must admit to preferring the original!

The Bach chorale prelude was a very sprightly one, played presto, its unstoppable momentum employing reeds, had pedals intoning the chorale melody underneath throughout.  It was a masterly performance.

The Londonderry Air worked well as ‘something completely different’.  Lovely flutes with plenty of ‘chuff’ were used to open the piece; later, plenty of variety of registration was used to enhance this beautiful air.

The Vierne movement opened spikily, then there followed passages for full diapason organ; loud episodes were followed in turn by episodes that sounded to me as if rather too great a mixture of stops of different tonal qualities were being employed.  It is a very inventive work (written in 1902), using all three manuals and pedals, with much variation of registration.

Purcell’s beautiful aria gave another quiet interlude.  This was an excellent arrangement, and made a very effective contrast to its predecessor.  It is interesting that arrangements of orchestral and vocal pieces seem to have returned recently to the organist’s palette; for a long time they were frowned on as Victorian and Edwardian excesses not needed in these days of orchestral concerts and recordings; organists should stick to what David Briggs described in a broadcast from Auckland played on RNZ the previous day as ‘indigenous’ organ music (he didn’t).

The final work was the only one to have some notes in the printed programme – without mentioning the composer’s famous organist sister, Marie-Claire Alain, who visited New Zealand.  The plain chant-style opening melody returned frequently sustained through many variations, changes of registration and harmonic shifts.  It was always interesting and at times, arresting.

The whole made up to a varied and pleasing concert.


Baroque Voices pay rich homage to NZ “Masters”

Baroque Voices presents:
Alleluia: a newë work! – “Memories of our Masters”

Music inspired by medieval/ancient songs or texts
by Anon, Guillaume de Machaut, Guillaume Dufay –
Music by Jack Body, Ross Harris, and David Farquhar,
and some of their past students – Helen Bowater, Alison Isadora,
John Psathas, Pepe Becker, Mark Smythe, Michael Norris, and Ewan Clark

Baroque Voices: Pepe Becker (director), Jane McKinlay, Anna Sedcole, Katherine Hodge, Phillip Collins, Kenneth Trass, Jeffrey Chang, Timothy Hurd

Adam Concert Room, NZSM, Kelburn

Sunday, 28th May 2017

This concert was the eighth in the “Alleluia: a newë work” series by Baroque Voices, the idea being, in director Pepe Becker’s own words, to “present works from the early music era alongside modern compositions”, an undertaking which the group first instigated as long ago as 1995. Though the presentations have been consistent in their overall approach, the ensemble has managed to maintain an ever-fascinating and invariably rewarding range of repertoire for the delight of audiences over the duration, this latest undertaking being no exception.

In Pepe Becker’s programme note, she gave a brief resume of the group’s characteristic presentation aims and explorations, by way of reminding us of music’s capacities for both connectiveness and renewal in remarking on audience responses to what she calls “ageless connection” of old and new music in Baroque Voices’ past concerts.

Simply looking over the list of instrumental resources used at various times by a vocal group suggested to me the omniverous inclinations of its performing philosophy! The list’s diversity (hurdy-gurdy, didgeridoo, taonga puoro, electric guitar!) reminded me of similarly far-flung impulses expressed recently in her “Lilburn Lecture” by New Zealand composer Jenny McLeod, talking with her audience about what constituted her “creative heritage”. For her, it was practically a case of “anything goes!”, a kind of “all experience is valid” way of working, a statement of unique truth. If not from exactly the same cloth, the work of Baroque Voices demonstrates a similarly exploratory set of inclinations, a “this is who we are” way of performing and communicating.

Here in tonight’s concert were examples of most of the above performance principles – settings by contemporary and slightly older composers inspired by and set alongside “ancient” works, the latter from sources as diverse as Medieval Europe and 8th Century Japan, as well as creative responses to “modern” works (twentieth century poetry). While most of the works were “a capella” , two were piano-accompanied, and one was flavoured by strains from medieval instruments.

Where the concert’s “official record” above requires further elaboration is in the human inter-connectiveness of it all, a quality which Pepe Becker took some pains to set out in her written notes. It suggests a remarkable collegial quality among local (New Zealand) composers, one I’ve heard remarked upon in the past by people visiting this country, a willingness to interact, with all the teaching and learning that the process implies.

Of course there are and have been notable exceptions, here and there – but the rule is reflected in the willingness and readiness of the concert’s younger composers to pay tribute through their music to their teachers and colleagues, who were mentors and friends. One of the “teachers”, Ross Harris, was quoted as saying that “In the 80s with Jack (Body) and David (Farquhar) teaching…….it was a very good time to be a composition student”. Elsewhere, other tributes were paid to “the inimitable Jack”, as well as to Ross Harris himself.

There were too many “moments per minute” throughout the evening’s music-making for a reviewer to try and do them all full justice – enough for my descriptions to try and convey something of the music’s expressive range in tandem with the performers’ manifest skills and focused intensities. The concert’s first half seemed to me to have a slightly “older” feel, due, perhaps to a predominance of works from the “teachers” and “mentors”, as well as music from two of the earliest “named” composers featured on the programme, de Machaut and Dufay. After that, by and large, it was the pupils’ turn to pay their deeply-felt homages to the teachers.What better way to begin the evening than with a spirited and deeply-rooted rendition of the 15th Century carol Alleluia: a newë work! , a performance which combined beauty and earthiness in its purity of sound and heartfelt vocal energies.

Those same qualities informed the infectious Nowell: sing we, also from the 15th Century, with the vocal concertino/ripieno contrasts between smaller and larger groups characterfully differentiated in both dynamic and tonal variation. The group chose to bracket with this Jack Body’s Nowell in the Lithuanian Manner (1995), featuring four singers in pairs placed diagonally across the platform, singing “phrase-and-answer” in intervals of a second, the voices “leapfrogging” one another (to use the composer’s expression) most effectively.

Guillaume de Machaut’s Kyrie from La Messe de Nostre Dame was sung most sonorously and beautifully by the full ensemble, the lines concerning themselves for most of their contourings with the opening syllables of the words KY-rie and CHRI-ste, resolving each word’s remainder only towards the ends of the sequences – an extraordinary “suspended” effect, generating some tension as one waited for each contouring’s resolution, thus heightening the pleadings for “Mercy”.

This was followed by Pepe Becker’s own composition, Mass of the False Relation,  which I’d heard before, though not in such a context – the opening “Kyrie” featured two voices set at an interval of a second , before the textures were opened, to pleading and beseeching effect. The sequence had something of a “lyke-wake dirge” atmosphere, unsettling and unpeaceful, with high soprano lines effectively putting one in mind of a cry for mercy from an abyss! A calmer, more circumspect “Christe” gathered increasing emotional momentum, before reverting to a differently constituted “Kyrie” to finish, the singers clustering their lines together with great aplomb and considerable emotional focus – brief, but effective!

Relief of sorts was afforded by the beautiful hymn Ave Maris Stella, sung in its original unision throughout verses 1 and 3, but adopting Guillaume Dufay’s setting for the second verse in which the women’s voices break into three parts and beautifully and gracefully explore the firmament. Composer Ross Harris’s response to the original chant followed, originally a 2009 commission by Baroque Voices, here making a welcome and sonorous reappearance.

A striking opening featured a tenor solo soaring above a pedal-point, joined by other individual lines awakening their own impulses to soar, float and beautifully elaborate on the original. Thanks to the intensity and focus of the performance’s individual voice-strands, I felt a real sense of those lines filling their own spaces, but also wrapping their resonances around a kind of central impulse of thought and intention as the work unfolded.

The ensemble at Virgo singularis (Virgin all excelling), generated a tremendous upsurging of intensity, to dramatic, scalp-prickling effect, as did the salutations to the Trinity of the last verse, particularly those invocations to Spiritui Sancto (the Holy Spirit), a display of visceral intensity which contrasted tellingly with the hushed resignation and peace of all things at the final reiteration of the words Ave Maris Stella.

Further back in “teacherdom” than either Jack Body or Ross Harris was David Farquhar, whose 1990 setting of a characteristically quirky set of verses no one and anyone by American poet ee cummings was commissioned and first peformed by Jones and Co., the Australian vocal ensemble. Farquhar described cummings punctuation-less (!) poetry as “slow-moving and lyrical” and “ideal for singing”, and his own quirkily responsive set of creative impulses proved a fitting foil for the poet’s idiosyncrasies of expression.

The “once upon a time” introduction floated the words “anyone lived in a pretty how town”, with a dancing wordless rhythm augmenting the poet’s metre at “he sang his didn’t he danced his did”. Then there were gorgeous harmonies at “she laughed his joy she cried his grief”, and lovely differentiations of rhythm with the different groupings of “sequence” words, such as “sleep wake hope and then”, which danced; and “stars rain sun moon” which was spaced-out, the singers creating limpid pools of light floating over deeper-hued pedal points.

The somewhat matter-of-fact “one day anyone died I guess” began as something angular and dry, which slowly amplified into something more heroic and deeply felt, Baroque Voices splendidly resonating the lines “no one and anyone earth by april” with great stepwise progressions of singing. I loved the crepuscular feeling evoked towards the end, with the ensemble gorgeously resonating evening bells at “women and men (both dong and ding)”, etching detail along the lines to beguiling effect – definitely a work I would like to hear performed again, sometime!

Very different to the featherlight play of ee cummings word-music was Pepe Becker’s heartfelt, almost Tristanesque text for her 2010 work Remembering Now – “a reflection upon love and loss – personal and universal”. Two singers performed the work alongside a piano with its sustaining pedal activated, the instrument thus providing a sympathetic resonance activated by the sung tones, especially when the dynamic levels began to rise. The vocal lines of the singers had, to my ears, a pronounced medieval intertwining in places, with elsewhere, some great vocal leaps to characterise the extremes of emotion – “Eternal depth, exquisite pain, secret union, keep me safe”, and some tightly-woven intervals reflecting in certain places the pain of loss and the jarring tensions of uncertainty.

Known more of late as a film composer, Ewan Clark had previously written works in a wide range of genres, among which was this ballad-like setting of James K.Baxter’s poem Never no more, dating from 2007. With voices accompanied by two pianos, the music and words created a flow of detailed and varied remembrance, a plainer-spoken New Zealander’s version of Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill” with its aching lament for lost youth, the music here responsive to incident and ever-ready to wrap its evocations of “golden lads and lasses” in swathes of deep mourning and oblivion. Particularly desolate was the final “never no more never no more”, playing out to something hollow and empty.

Part Two of the concert began with rather more sardonic, grim-humoured tones, an energetic dance of death Ad mortem festinamus, a 14th Century composition linked to the time of the Black Death, and expressing fatalistic sentiments very much in accord with what must have been an everyday experience for many people. The dotted dance-rhythms had a kind of horrid glee, allied to an almost festive quality enhanced by the ambient instrumentations, a dulcian, drum and “shruti box”, the latter a kind of harmonium which supplied a drone, altogether creating a wry ritualistic statement.

Ritual of a different kind coloured the work of Michael Norris, a setting of a poem by one Pierre Reverdy, described by the composer as ‘a lesser-known French proto-surrealist’, whose creative work involved a “sublime simplicity of reality”, and whose words suggest a kind of transcendence of substance towards abstraction – for Norris, a process suggesting “an inevitable movement from presence to absence”, very much an underlying theme of this concert (for which this work was written).

To the names that have left is a line from the poem “The traits of the sky” which Norris used as his piece’s title, a reference to whom the composer described as “some important men in my life who left us in the last few years”. It was obviously a piece which suggested feelings of loss in its juxtapositioning of long-held tones and sudden, sharply-etched irruptions of either violent noise or silence – characterisations of the unexpected, either explosive or insinuating. We heard sliding (glissando) notes, voices overlapping, unison and harmonies, some magnificently rich modulations, then textures cut to pieces by confrontational thrusts. There were yelps, breathings, elongated word pronunciations, almost didgerie-doo-like textures. Eventually the voices seemed to gather girth and vocalise as with long slow breaths, until we became aware of the “dying fall” of the lines, a sense of something “running down” or drifting away. Women’s voices imitated high, sustained bird-calls (farewells?) after which the singers put their hands over their mouths to mute their tones at the end.

An anonymous 15th Century English Carol Lully, lullay: I saw – was next, featuring two groups of two voices placed opposite one another, immediately sounded its time, helped by some lovely singing, mostly interactive of phrasing, greating a gorgeous effect. The same text was then re-enacted in a work by John Psathas, entitled Baw my barne, an old favourite of Baroque Voices, having been commissioned and premiered by the group in its first “a newë work!” concert in November of 1995. Beginning with richly-wrought note-clusters over which the soprano soloist’s voice hovered, the clustered lines were reiterated one-by-one, depicting in sound a kind of burgeoning of motherly bliss with a newborn allied to a sense of “a blissful burd, a blossom bright” as creation wondered at the Saviour’s coming.

Helen Bowater’s setting of a Japanese poem from antiquity (found in an 8th-9th Century AD collection of Japanese poetry “Man’yoshu”) hoshi no hayashi (in the forest of stars) gave us some gorgeous word-painting, with some particularly evocative, almost other-worldly singing from Pepe Becker – as with the poetry, the impression of the music was a kind of “stream of consciousness” which belied the precision of the craftsmanship to remarkable effect. Something of the same spontaneous and on-going outpouring of tones characterised Jack Body’s fifth Lullaby from the set of Five Lullabies, a work which was first performed in full by the Tudor Consort. Having watched the performance by Baroque Voices on You Tube given at Jack Body’s memorial service, I thought this evening’s performance was less contained and reverential, more flowing and intense, with a more clearly-delineated shape of rise and fall – again, very beautiful, with the dreaming especially vivid.

I liked Eve de Castro-Robinson’s comment, quoted, and indeed affirmed, by Alison Isadora, the composer of the programme’s penultimate work Blessing (in memoriam Jack Body), regarding how memorial pieces often write themselves. Isadora described her work on this occasion as “the output of a grieving process”, by way of expressing her tribute to Jack in three languages, plus the translations, Maori, Latin and English. After expressing Maori, Latin and English texts in turn, the piece combined elements of all three blessings, in places bringing out contrasts whose different characters produced extraordinary sounds – insistent lower voices setting the Latin plainsong against the bell-like women’s voices with their Taize chant, and colouring the textures differently as the music moved forwards, the differently-constituted textures surging and breaking like ocean waves, before the sopranos guided the intensities towards gentler cadences and brought the music to a close.

A kind of “return to our lives” was in order at the point of conclusion, here supplied by Mark Smythe’s 2007 Alleluia, one which Pepe Becker described as a “signature tune” for Baroque Voices, while very much a stratospheric soprano display piece, with both singers, Pepe and Jane McKinlay in sure touch, even at the end of a long and demanding concert, resounding their “Alleluias” as steadily and ambiently as ever. Very great credit to the whole ensemble, both for the works which have been encouraged into “being”, and for the group’s inspired performances of them.