Exuberant and popular performances by Wellington Youth Orchestra

Wellington Youth Orchestra
Conducted by Andrew Joyce with Ludwig Treviranus (piano)

Glinka: Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op 37
Dvořák: Symphony No 9 in E minor, Op 95 (‘New World’)

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Hill Street

Monday 31 July, 7:30 pm

Concerts from the Wellington Youth Orchestra used to be held in the Town Hall, which was the right space in terms of acoustics and the orchestral tradition. But the sometimes rather small audiences did look rather … small; comparable to the size of the orchestra – around 60. On Monday there were many more that that facing the orchestra.

Either St Andrew’s or the Catholic Basilica offer a more intimate space in which a 150 or so don’t look too bad, but the acoustic is often rather uncomfortable in its response to timpani and brass.

But that was a small price to pay when the orchestra delivered such a dynamic performance of Glinka’s famous overture. It’s a piece that taxes any orchestra, is as fine a composition as most of the music of the period. I have often wondered about the standards of music in Russia when the opera was written – the 1840s, when the names of no other Russian composers are familiar and we don’t really know much about orchestral or operatic standards, apart from the fact that a lot of western European musicians and composers visited and worked in Russia, from the late 18th century.

There was impressive accuracy, at the speed that is normally heard; strings clean and brass under good control apart from the occasional unruly fanfares.

Ludwig Treviranus spoke briefly and genially before the beginning of Beethoven’s third concerto: no condescension, pitched at the right level for a non-specialist audience. After the longish introduction, that gave time enough to appreciate excellent preparation, with all the spirit and gusto that comes from a youthful orchestra, the piano arrived with a feeling of ease and confidence, handling the ornaments fluently and idiomatically. Rapport between orchestra and pianist was a delight even though, at one point, in dialogue between piano and orchestra I felt that Treviranus was tempted by more speed.  The cadenza was a model of restraint and individuality, with more attention to the music itself than to his own impressive virtuosity; its closing bars were particularly sensitive.

In the slow movement, both pianist and orchestra displayed all the maturity and insight of a real professional ensemble, even at moments where the rhythms risk losing togetherness. A lovely flute solo caught my ear, played with a pure, vibratoless tone that sounded so polished. Given that the Largo contained no music that didn’t fit the space, this was probably the high point for me, but the spirited Finale often vied for that place. In spite of moments where timpani might well have been less exuberant, this was a totally admirable performance, strings so buoyant and winds well balanced and polished. A triumphant collaboration between pianist, conductor and orchestra.

The New World symphony was a more formidable challenge, but it was not till the later stages, in the Scherzo and Finale, that there were many signs of the players’ essential youthfulness and natural lack of professional experience (and perhaps not quite enough rehearsal time?). The opening pages were scrupulous and beautifully paced; conductor Joyce ensured breathing space between phrases, putting the audience at ease before that Allegro really takes off. And certainly in the less rowdy ensembles the brass choir was excellent, in easy sympathy with the rest of the orchestra.

The famous Largo might be easy enough in terms of hitting the right notes, but its familiarity demands far more in emotional subtlety, yet avoiding sentimentality, an ever-present danger, so it might be odd to say I found the long cor anglais solo, carefully played, but not quite soulful enough. Otherwise, strings and winds were in beautiful accord.

The third and fourth movements revealed occasional blemishes; in the Scherzo some trills on strings, and woodwind decorations, and at the opening of the fourth movement, such a massively imposing declamation had the weight and energy but not perfect finesse.

However, the broad shapes and contrasting sections that conceal, excitingly, the way the work will end (for those who come to it for the first time) were generated as much through youthful energy and exuberance as through mature familiarity and intellectual understanding.

No matter how often one has heard the work, it remains fresh and surprising, especially when played by a young orchestra of talented and reasonably skilled players, such as are to be found in this orchestra, and in the hands of a conductor able to communicate his own enthusiasm as effectively as Andrew Joyce has done here.


Xenia Pestova – an interpreter for all ages, at St.Andrew’s, Wellington

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
THE GREY GHOST – Xenia Pestova (piano)

DEBUSSY – La cathedral engloutie (from Preludes 1910)
ED BENNETT (b. 1975) – Gothic (2008)
SCARLATTI – Keyboard Sonatas in D Major (K.9) and D Minor (K.10)
PATRICIA ALESSANDRINI – Etude d’apres Scarlatti (2002)
DARIA DOBROCHNA KWIATKOWSKA (b.1969) – After Brin (2000)
BERIO – 6 Encores: Brin (1990) / Feuerklavier (1989) / Wasserklavier (1965)
JS BACH – Sechs klein Praeludien BWV 939: No.6 in C Minor
GLENDA KEAM (b.1960) – Mind Springs(2016-17)
ANNEAR LOCKWOOD (b.1939) – RCSC (2001)
JS BACH – Sechs kleine Präludien für Anfänger auf dem Klavier BWV 933
No.5 in E Major / No.6 in E Minor
HEATHER HINDMAN – Two and a Half Miniatures 1 (2005)
JS BACH – Sechs kleine Präludien BWV 939: No.4 in A Minor / No.6 in C Major
ARLENE SIERRA (b.1970) – Birds and Insects (2003-15) Painted Bunting – Cicada Sketch – Titmouse
JS BACH – Sechs kleine Präludien für Anfänger auf dem Klavier BWV 933 No.4 in D Major
CLARA WIECK SCHUMANN – THree Preludes and Fugues, Op.16: No.3 in D Minor
MIRIAMA YOUNG (b. 1975) – The Grey Ghost (2017)

Xenia Pestova (piano)

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

Sunday, 30th July 2017

Xenia Pestova’s programme in itself commanded a good deal of interest, with its many and varied juxtapositionings of old and new adding adventurous touches to the concert’s overall excitement along with the anticipation of many individual delights. I’d not had any previous encounter with the pianist’s playing, but read with interest her “artist’s bio” resume as per programme, which outlined a goodly number of notable artistic achievements, enough to whet the appetite for what might come of the afternoon of music-making about to be set before us.

The pianist readily and eloquently talked with us throughout the concert, introducing each of the items and giving it a context which I thought enhanced the effect of her performances – though she spoke freely, everything seemed to the point, and in fact enhanced the helpfulness of the programme’s written notes without excess point-making. No doubt that some people would have preferred that she simply played the programme without spoken introductions – I found her direct and brightly-focused manner refreshing and, in instances where I wasn’t familiar with the composer or the music, generally helpful.

In her own programme-note, Pestova spoke of the interconnectiveness of existence, and how this is expressed in music, citing her presentation of works by eight contemporary composers which offer “personal commentaries on the past”, and how their music can be heard “sharing with us their unique visions of the music yet to come.” Certainly, in this context her performances for me almost invariably “struck chords” across time-frames, opening the pores, it seemed, of my listening, to register those resonances and almost “feel” the inter-connective tissue. Even so, I suspect there was more to this process here than mere “cheek-by-jowling” the pieces in question.

What delighted me was that, in the instances where I knew the music, Pestova’s actual playing seemed to me to completely inhabit the work and its evocations, physical, intellectual and spiritual, so that her performances had a “stand-alone” quality which satisfied in their own right, and not merely served as forerunners of “x” or resonances of “y”. Here was a remarkably sensitive, thoughtful and totally involved interpreter at work, whose understanding of the there-and-then of each piece seemed as potent as her awareness of its connections with the past or the future.

Her playing of the concert’s opening work, Debussy’s La cathedral engloutie, for instance, brought a potent amalgam of clarity and atmosphere to the evocation of this subterranean miracle – the tolling bell at the work’s outset at once focused our sensibilities amid a spacious ambience charged with mystery. Right through the work Pestova seemed able to balance all kinds of like exclusives, with, in places, breathtaking results, no more so than during the aftermath of the main climax, where the playing became suffused with a quality akin to an interior world of sound, quite unearthly – her control of both dynamics and tone-colour I thought remarkable, both in forward movement and, as here, in retreat. I found the ending very Lisztian, resonant and beautiful.

Pestova’s interpretation was then further enriched by her programming of the next work, an uncannily different-but-similar piece called Gothic, written by Irish composer Ed Bennett who just happened to be present in the St.Andrew’s audience! Prior to the work’s performance, the composer came forward to tell us of his fascination with the atmosphere of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, and of his attempts to recreate something of that unique resonance, particularly when those spaces were near-empty, and the building itself could “speak” without interruption.

Big, jagged chords alternating with the pianist’s vocalisations created uncanny echo effects, while repeated note passages brought forth echoes of Musorgsky’s Con mortuis in lingua mortua (With the dead in a dead language) from Pictures from an Exhibition. Generally the composer used the piano itself as an enormous cathedral interior space, using a variety of dynamics and textures, and creating sounds which were left to resonate over these same spaces, augmented by the pianist’s vocalisations – which actually had the last word.

Domenico Scarlatti’s music was the starting-point for the group of pieces that followed – two keyboard sonatas which again highlighted Pestova’s skills as an interpreter, her performances gently and cooly activating the music’s textures and colours rather than setting sparks flying, and clearly contrasting the middle section of the D Major work with its outlying territories, generating a real sense of exploration of the differences.

American-born contemporary composer Patricia Alessandrini’s “response” to this same D Major Sonata took the form of an Etude after Scarlatti, beginning with a pensive kind of dialogue set up by the pianist between the direct activation of exterior keys and interior strings, straightaway creating wondrously spacious atmospheres and amazing Cage-like silences! Pestova’s note on the music talked about “the changes of colour between (the gestures)”, evident in the “charged atmosphere” wrought by what framed these silences, a kind of dichotomy between focus and distance, resulting in something I found magical and elusive.

The pianist then, I think, played the Luciano Berio piece Brin (1990) before another work After brin (2000) by Daria Dobrochna Kwiatkowska, a Polish-born UK-based composer. Berio’s piece was one of a set of six encores, of which Pestova gave us three. My unfamiliarity with the music resulted in a modicum of confusion regarding the programme’s actual order, here – but it seemed to me that we heard the first Berio encore and the Kwiatkowska “response” to that piece. Berio’s work featured repeated notes played with the intensity of searchlights, alternated with single notes that were sounded here as if they were bells – the contrasts of different registers and ambiences of these groups creating a heightened response to each one, as well as to the phenomenon of what Daria Dobrochna Kwiatkowska beautifully characterised in the Berio work with the words “Music happens between the notes”.

Kwiatkowska’s piece After brin was a student exercise involving a response to Berio’s work, the younger composer seeking to capture a certain diffusiveness of Berio’s same pitches and note-positions, but with clusters of notes rather than isolated tones. I thought it echoed the original inspiration in slow-motion, with Debussy-like colourings irradiating the stillnesses, and billowing the intensities upwards and outwards – a most attractive piece.

Returning to Berio’s work with the remaining two “encores”, we heard Feuerklavier (1989) and Wasserklavier (1965), each of the pieces “saying its name” in performance, Pestova’s playing again seeming in both cases to reach into the music’s substance and activate those same particular qualities – thus Feuerklavier rumbled, bubbled chattered and fermented, with occasional irruptions of energy, the figurations darting about, seeking everything out, and tumbling in all directions, while the Wasserklavier was all limpid textures, almost Debussy-like in its liquidity and subtlety.

JS Bach’s Little Prelude” BWV939 in C Minor flowed and chattered its course up to the cusp of Auckland composer Glenda Keam’s new work Mind Springs, a piece which began explosively, resembling the sudden onslaught of a nightmare in a scenario which might have promised order and structure. Keam’s programme notes spoke of water in bubbling, babbling mode, accounting for the piece’s moments of whimsy, though these soon found themselves besieged by ever-insistent figurations, becoming in places trenchant and demanding – the music’s title kept the listener waiting for the next leap into a different mode, be it textural or gestural. Our kaleidoscopic listening journey took us to a number of these expressionist realms, filled for example with murmuring insect activity in, around and between mystical chords whose trunks rose from leaf-laden ground, then without warning transfixed by the onset of supercharged birdsong, strident, jagged-edged outcrops and liquid ostinati – amid a raft of suggested influences the composer gave significant prominence to “distorted echoes of JS Bach”.

The interval brought with it the opportunity to re-establish our bearings in the wake of the variegated candour of what we’d encountered so far in the recital – so much full-fronted creativity and recreativity, perhaps even awakening echoes of T.S.Eliot’s words, “human kind cannot bear very much reality” in its direct impact. Having girded our loins we awaited what was to follow – pieces by two New Zealanders, Annea Lockwood and Miriama Young, and by two more off-shore contemporary composers, and still more from an iconic nineteenth-century performer who happened also to compose, if well-and-truly in the shadow of her more illustrious composer-husband.

So, our sensibilities refreshed, Xenia Pestova welcomed us back to the crucible of experience that we’d embarked on earlier in the afternoon and were about to continue, beginning with a piece by Annea Lockwood, called RCSC, the combined initials of American composer Ruth Crawford Seegar and pianist Sarah Cahill (who commissioned the work in 2001 as one part of seven pieces in honour of Seegar.) Annea Lockwood achieved fame bordering on notoriety for a work she wrote to parallel the achievements of Christian Barnard, the world’s first heart transplant surgeon – Lockwood called her 1960s/70s work Piano Transplants, one which involved submerging, burying and/or setting alight defunct, irreparable, and unwanted pianos. The instruments were in many cases abandoned, most of them along London’s Thames River. Pestova assured us that she would not be setting fire to the piano on this occasion, when playing Lockwood’s work!

It wasn’t what I expected – I’d read enough about Lockwood’s music to imagine her work as anarchic and uncompromising, and featuring all kinds of unconventionalities – and it was to my utmost surprise that this work came across to my ears as ambient and beautiful, spacious and thoughtful. At the beginning, Debussy-like sonorities were contrasted with the metallic tintinabulations of string-plucking, augmented by the use of dampeners for a contrasting effect.Widely-spaced chords conjured vast spaces into which the dampened notes “drubbed” as if the music was trying to dance while in sacks – and yet another section featuring slides and glissandi from string manipulation brought to mind the mysteries of the col legno sections of the Introduction to Stravinsky’s Firebird.

Then followed two sections which depicted responses by contemporary composers to older and more established musical realisations, each of the latter being the music of JS Bach.A third “parallel presentation” featured a less-than-contemporary but profoundly of-its-time work by none other than Clara Wieck Schumann, whose creative efforts were for many years ignored as being of little worth compared with those of her husband, Robert, and of far less importance than her skills as a pianist! Concluding the recital, then, was a new work by Australian-based New Zealand composer Miriama Young, a work called The Grey Ghost, more about which below…..

Demonstrating once again her characteristic feeling for the essences of the recital’s “older” pieces, Xenia Pestova gave us some more JS Bach – firstly, a cheerful, propulsive E Major Prelude BWV 933 No.5, bringing out the music’s ceremonial qualities, and highlighting the contrasts with the companion BWV 933 E Minor Prelude, a lovely, piquant “stroll” whose trajectories enabled the music’s world of feeling to sound right up to the last note and beyond, to my ears totally avoiding the new-age “authentic-performance” tendency to rattle through pieces such as these, leaving the trampled-on fragments on the floor in the playing’s wake.

Then came Canadian composer Heather Hindman’s 2005 work for solo piano Two and a Half Miniatures, a piece chosen by the ISCM (International Society of Contemporary Music) to feature in a recent (2012) World New Music Day. The music’s more overt aspects – vigorous single-note declamations which spanned and then distended octave-leaps, hammer-blow cluster chords and spectacular glissandi, repeated rise-and-fall figurations punctured by more hammer-blow chords whose accelerated repetition resembled a giant steam locomotive attempting to move off – appeared to be “haunted” by an ambient background kept alive and resonant by the sustaining pedal, and to which the composer referred as the “underneath” – besides the resonances there were string-activated glissando-like voices towards the piece’s end reminding one of Schlegel’s comment re Schumann’s Fantasia in C – “the soft note for one who listens secretly…..”

Two more Bach pieces followed, a brief, questioning A Minor Prelude (No.4 from the Sechs kleine Präludien BWV 939), and a graceful C major Prelude (No.6 of the same set), music in which Pestova seemed to bring out its exploratory instincts, the player enjoying the music’s modulatory impulses, and pensive,”somewhere-else” ending.

For any musician, performing a piece of music dedicated to and written specifically for them must be an experience like no other – and though Xenia Pestova wasn’t giving a “world premiere” here, it was at least a New Zealand “first” for American-born composer Arlene Sierra’s Birds and Insects, in this instance three of the ten individual pieces that make up the entire work. The first of these three pieces, Painted Bunting, was dedicated by the composer to Pestova, something of a compliment in more ways than one, the bird itself (albeit the male!) having been described as the most beautiful in North America, accounting for its nickname “nonpareil” (without equal)!

The pianist, not unexpectedly, greatly relished the motifs, textures and energies of the eponymous bird’s music – characterful, attention-seeking treble scintillations set the silences tingling, in the midst of which disturbance was set a somewhat mournful mid-range call. Gradually the lower voice energised and became more insistent and mirror-like in relation to the scintillations, creating definite and formidable synergy, there – a stunning display of avian personality.

Sierra’s other two portraits, Cicada Sketch, and Titmouse, were no less evocative in effect, the first featuring solitary ambient calls over dark landscapes, impulses that resisted any underlying agitated irruptions, suggesting spacious, dogged persistence. As for the Titmouse portrait, it seemed like a sound-sketch of a supremely-determined obsessive, Pestova’s playing remarkably split-second in its dovetailings of detail.

The more Bach Pestova played, the more I wanted her to continue! – here, it was another from Sechs kleine Präludien für Anfänger auf dem Klavier, the fourth Prelude in D Major of BWV 933. While listening and enjoying, I kept on making mental notes of parts of the Well-Tempered Clavier I wanted to hear her interpret! However, such mental wanderings on my part seemed singularly unhelpful regarding the job in hand, which was to express and relate the music to that timelessness of being which Pestova herself alluded to in the recital’s introduction.

Interestingly, the third of Clara Wieck Schumann’s Op.16 set of three Preludes and Fugues seemed to me almost uncannily like a minor version of the Bach piece we had just heard. Pestova brought to this work the same qualitites that had illuminated the previous work. I would make a guess that the shade of that great Bach interpreter Franz Liszt would be nodding its approval at the ear-catching amplitude of the music’s different voices as presented here on the piano. The Fugue began from a quiet and simple place of origin, and proceeded with remarkably-inflected eloquence to the point where it had given its all – no wonder that I wrote, while spell-bound by the music’s revelatory progress, “she (Pestova) makes fugues make sense”!

Though Pestova’s recital seemed to have the subtitle Gothic, as per programme, I preferred the title of the work by Miriama Young already referred to, The Grey Ghost, which was the final presentation of the afternoon. This was described by the composer, who was present, as “a meditation in piano and electronics drawing on the ancient song of the once prolific North Island Kokako”. The actual “Grey Ghost” of the title refers to the South Island Kokako, a sighting of which was last recorded at Mout Aspiring National Park fifty years ago, and unfortunately not  seen or recorded since then.

Speaking with us about her work, Miriama Young confessed to us that this presentation was the fulfilment of a dream of hers regarding involving an audience with sound performance. She had prepared what people who know about these things call an “App” on her website for people to download and play on their smartphones as part of the overall performance of the work. We had a brief tuition session from the composer regarding what was necessary for us to do, and it seemed to bear fruit and effectively “sound” in some quarters of the auditorium. Needless to say, my technophobic efforts with my own smartphone were unsuccessful, but it left me able to properly take in the concerted efforts of the pianist and her cyber-cohorts to recreate Miriama Young’s work “The Grey Ghost”.

Those of us who had managed to secure the “App” had ‘phones poised ready for Xenia Pestova’s downbeat – the bird’s song came out of the ‘phones extremely softly and atmospherically, a haunting, ambient environment through which the piano could sound, the figurations rolling and resonant, with occasional declamatory tones seeming to echo the bird’s tessitura. Gradually the piano built up towards a climax not dissimilar to that of the “Engulfed Cathedral’s” which had begun the programme. after this, the piano itself seemed to become like a bird, rather than a resonator – the pre-recorded sounds were assisted by being played through the church’s sound system as well as the individual ‘phones. As the piece gradually subsided the piano contented itself with resonantly-produced fragments of the figurations we heard in the piece’s first half, everything having a deep and almost magical presence, the various “sources” of the sounds creating a beautifully diffuse and ultimately elusive atmosphere.

We were all thanked, pianist, listeners and sonic artists alike, at the piece’s end by the composer, who was obviously thrilled and moved by the happening and its effects. A brief encore later – a Chorale for something quiet,  written by Wellingtonian Thomas Liggett (who was present) – slow, deep rich and meditative music, whose privacy and inwardness was breached at the end by the merest pinprick of light – and this remarkable recital was over. That this review’s been a long time in coming is indicative of the spell cast by Xenia Pestova’s playing of old and new items alike, making this listener think afresh about what was familiar, and ponder deeply (and at great length) over the new and introduced works and their thought-provoking realisations. Bravo!

Splendid Bartók; evocative New Zealand piece; guitarist substitution perhaps not a misfortune

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Shelley (conductor), with Pablo Sáinz Villegas (guitar)

Leonie Holmes: ‘Frond’ from Three Landscapes for Orchestra
Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 29 July 2017, 7.30pm

The programme for the concert obviously did not appeal to everyone; there were a lot of empty seats, and even more after the interval when it became obvious that many devotees of the guitar, and of the Rodrigo work, did not wish to encounter Bartók, which was a great shame.  Not so tonight’s soloist, who joined the audience after the interval of this, the final concert of his tour.  He made apparent how much he had enjoyed working with the NZSO.

Leonie Holmes’s work was written in 2004, and recalls her feelings as a child in the bush.  It began with a tubular bell sounding, and a single violin, reminding me rather of a karakia.  Then piccolo was added, and strings entered quietly, followed by some of the brass, solo cello and piano.

Harp, celeste and percussion all had their moments, and there were extensive passages for solo and duet violins plus cello..  Xylophone and marimba both had important roles.  The piece ended in mid-air, with the piccolo.

I found the short piece (11 minutes) evocative and attractive; it was played with impeccable attention to detail.  It is worth noting here the important role played by Kirsten Robertson, as player of both piano and celeste.  She had to do a lot of moving between the two instruments – but the composer had spared her from having to play both at once!  Her playing was lucid and contributed a great deal to the work.

Since a considerably smaller orchestra was needed to be set up for the concerto, conductor Alexander Shelley took the chance to speak to the audience.  He spoke briefly but interestingly about each of the works on the programme.  He commented that our solo guitarist was ‘one of the best alive.’

Initially I was disappointed at the change of programme (due to the illness of the scheduled soloist) from a new guitar concerto by Howard Shore, of LOTR fame to the rather hackneyed Rodrigo concerto.  Not that I have heard it performed live, but it is programmed far too frequently on RNZ Concert.  The Shore was premiered in Canada quite recently, by the intended soloist for this concert, Miloš Karadaglić.  Wikipedia rates the Rodrigo as ‘easy listening’, and I daresay the work by the prolific film composer might well have been in the same category.

However, I tried to listen with fresh ears, and the delight of watching the orchestra, and even more the soloist in action soon charmed away any ennui.  To watch Villegas play was to be astonished; his fingers at times flew faster than the speed of light.

The concerto begins with an introduction from the soloist with flamenco-style strumming of chords, the strings of the orchestra playing spiccato beneath.  Very quickly we were introduced to the great range of dynamics this guitarist is able to produce from his instrument.  The memorable themes are repeated rather frequently.

The second movement opens with a most effective, wistful theme from cor anglais, accompanied by guitar.  This is repeated and varied.   The different timbres of the two instruments is most appealing.  Villegas produced a remarkable, soulful tone when using vibrato, and when playing pianissimo.  The final movement recalls courtly dances, but in a chirpy manner.  Strumming is interspersed with melodic use of individual strings, and includes a brilliant cadenza for the soloist.

The audience greeted the performance firstly with absolute silence through the playing, and secondly with enthusiastic applause at the end, many standing.  It was only then that it was pointed out to me that there were two microphones at the edge of the small podium on which the soloist was seated.  The amplification was very sensitively done, and not apparent through the performance; thanks to the composer very seldom having full orchestra and soloist playing together, it could have passed not being amplified in a smaller auditorium.  The MFC is rather too large for it to be the case here.

Our superb soloist then played quite an extended encore: a Jota, or Aragonese dance, made famous in orchestral circles by the Russian composer Mikhail Glinka’s Jota Aragonesa written in 1845.  I did not hear any composer mentioned for this one – was it the soloist’s own improvisation on a traditional dance theme?  It was electric; lively, and much fresher in character than the Rodrigo.  Its playing included some astonishing techniques, such as fingering notes with the left hand, which sounded, while the right hand was rapping the body of the instrument.  There were many variations incorporated.   An enraptured audience rose to cheer this astonishing performer.

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is described by Wikipedia as one of his best-known, most popular and most accessible works.  It was also one of his last.  In five movements, it truly lives up to its name, highlighting different sections of the orchestra, constantly passing between sections to give wonderful variety and contrasts; probably more variety of this sort than any symphony in the canon.

The sombre opening of the Introduzione to the first movement is even ominous. Chromatic woodwind and incisive brass followed.  Two harps added to the variety of aural pleasures as the andante non troppo and allegro vivace sections of the movement proceeded.  Hungarian folk melodies appear – and elsewhere in the work.

The second movement, called (in Italian) ‘Game of couples’ (i.e. pairs of instruments), allegretto scherzando opened unusually with bassoon, along with percussion and soon other woodwind instruments.  The character was of a slightly lugubrious dance, followed by a brass choir playing a hymn-like sequence.  Still the side-drum kept tapping its irritating little rhythm, as if drawing attention to something more ominous that was about to happen.  There is much pizzicato for the lower strings.   Later, the movement is loud and passionate.

The third movement (Elegia) introduces many colours, while the humour is apparent in the fourth (Intermezzo interrotto), with syncopated strings and a raspberry from the tuba.

In the finale, there are fugal passages intermittently; one in which bassoons and clarinets feature prominently.  Harps had a brief moment to themselves before another fugal section, beginning  for strings only.  All was magnificently played.  A splashy, somewhat bombastic ending finished this work of many exotic and exciting sounds.  Certainly some passages could be regarded as discordant or atonal, but there is much that is cheerful, even humorous.  Yet other sections sound like traditional symphonies.  There were many opportunities for players to shine as soloists or sections and they were rewarded by the conductor walking around the orchestra giving individuals and groups their own separate bows to the applause.

The programme notes shall have the last word: “ Triumphant, fantastically detailed and unfailingly optimistic, this is the work of a composer at his very best”.




Close-up Janáček an operatic delight from NZSM

JANÁČEK – The Cunning Little Vixen (opera)
presented by Te Koki New Zealand School of Music
Victoria University of Wellington

Sharp-Ears, the Vixen: Pasquale Orchard / Forrester: Joe Haddow
Forrester’s Wife: Sally Haywood / Schoolmaster: Daniel Sun
Priest, Badger: Nino Raphael / Gold-Spur, the Fox: Alexandra Gandionco
Poacher: Will King / Dog, Pasek: Garth Norman
Rooster: Eleanor McGechie /Crested Hen / Jay: Emma Cronshaw Hunt
Woodpecker: Elizabeth Harré /Grasshopper / Frantik: Alexandra Woodhouse Appleby
Frog, Pepik: Sinéad Keane / Cricket, Owl: Jessie Rosewarne
Mosquito: Jessica Karauria / Young Vixen: Beatrix Cariño
Forest Creatures: Micaela Cadwgan, Ellis Carrington, Isaac Cox, Teresa Shields

New Zealand School of Music Orchestra: Players – Claudia Tarrant-Matthews (leader),
Sophie Tarrant-Matthews, Grant Baker, Lavinnia Rae, Jandee Song, Anna Prasannan, Annabel Lovatt, Harim Oh, Breanna Abbott, Shadley Van Wyk, Vivien Reid, Toby Pringle, Andrew Yorkstone, Dominic Jacquemard, Hannah Neman, Andrew Atkins, Gabriela Glapska
Kenneth Young (conductor)
Director – Jon Hunter
Designer – Owen McCarthy
Lighting – Glenn Ashworth
Costumes – Nephtalim Antoine
Hannah Playhouse, Wellington,

Friday 28th July, 2017


It wasn’t until he was almost fifty that Moravian composer Leoš Janáček began to show the world what he could really do, with the appearance of the first of his operas, Jenufa, in Brno in 1904. Up to that time a lot of his musical activities were devoted to researches into folk music, determined as he was to create from Moravian and other strains of Slavonic folk music a properly original, modern musical style.

Jenufa’s subsequent success at Prague in 1916 was a breakthrough for the composer, leading to performances in both Austria and Germany and later, as far afield as New York in 1924. After Jenufa’s success came others – Kata Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Macropolous Case and The House of the Dead, all of which are now considered part of “the standard operatic repertoire”.

Perhaps the most approachable of the more established works, even given its own brand of unconventionality, is The Cunning Little Vixen, written by the composer from a serialised version of a novel by Rudolf Tesnohlídek which appeared in Brno’s local newspaper in 1920, along with line drawings by artist Stanislav Lolek. Both story and illustrations seemed to have completely enthralled Janáček, who toyed at first with the idea of an opera-ballet, and then as a kind of pantomime, as he crafted his scenario. He did, in the process, extend the original story’s scheme to include the Vixen’s death and the appearance of one of her cubs as a symbol of the cyclic nature of life. In this final scene the animal and human worlds seem to come together as the Forrester muses on the constant renewal of all things as part of a kind of hymn to creation – this “from death comes life” finale manages poignancy without sentimentality.

Unbelievably, it’s all of eight years since I saw Vixen in Wellington last, a production by Nimby Opera at the Salvation Army Citadel, which most splendidly made use of both the venue’s limited spaces and reduced instrumental forces, drawing we in the audience right into the world of Janáček’s drama. Here, at the Hannah Playhouse, space was equally at a premium, though with a differently-configured and more clearly-defined “stage” and orchestral areas – nevertheless the production, like its predecessor, was able to generate a similarly compelling theatrical immediacy.

Right from the beginning we found ourselves in thrall to the composer’s evocation of the forest, underlining the use of the orchestra as a kind of “character” in the story – the opening is given entirely to the instruments, who then drive the ensuing action and colour the characterisations of the singers. I know of no other composer so adept at simultaneously combining sharply-focused rhythmic patternings with heart-easing lyrical outpourings, each enhancing the flavour and atmosphere of the other.

I thought Kenneth Young’s control of this ebb and flow of sounds had a naturalness which kept the theatrical flow alive while appearing to give both his singers and players ample space in which to allow their music its full value. Yes, there were isolated instances of rawness of tuning and out-of-synch chording, but I found the playing astonishing overall in its physicality and energy, and in the beauty and piquancy of both its corporate and individually-focused characterisations.

While I struggled with making sense of some of the aspects of the production (the scenes which took place in the clinical-like “upstairs” part of the set meant little or nothing to me in terms of the story or its overall setting) I delighted in the inventiveness of the more down-to-earth (literally) depictions of the scenario, with a backdrop whose many apertures could conceal or disgorge figures at will and suggest with appropriately varied lighting, both the beauties and concealed mysteries of the forest and the convolutions and crudities of simple human dwellings and their trappings.

What I think the production was able to suggest and put across (without needing those obtrusive white coats) was an engaging connectiveness between the lives of the story’s “ordinary” human characters with the overall flow of nature and its plethora of possibilities for all life-forms in a world that’s both caring and pitiless. The composer’s desire to remove the “happily-ever-after” aspect of the original story was. I think, a reflection of this desire for a wider integration. We observed the various roll-plays of parallels between urban and rural, domestic and untamed, enslaved and free throughout, and found ourselves in disarming sympathy with the disadvantaged, the disappointed and the dispossessed.

To that end, the individual characterisations of the student performers were, I thought, outstanding in their commitment, understanding and level of theatrical and musical skill. Very rightly, the stunning performance of Pasquale Orchard as the Vixen herself, though the centrepiece of all that took place on the stage, was still always very much part of an interactive ensemble, as quick to engage with as to respond to the other characters. Her gestures and movements perfectly mirrored her dramatic intent, which was all to the good, because though I thought her vocal production strong and filled with variety, it suffered diction-wise during the “big” moments. This was the case for most of the time with the other singers throughout the production – opera in English can be a frustrating experience for this reason, leaving one wondering at times whether the exercise is worth the while, and accordingly, longing for surtitles!

As the Forester, Joe Haddow’s was the first voice to be heard, announcing an oncoming storm (consulting his smart-phone, presumably in search of a weather-forecast!) and reminiscing on things like his wedding-night, the voice strong and sonorous, and a trifle world-weary, but conveying a character capable of appreciating life’s beauties and ironies – his extended, “full-circle” soliloquy towards the opera’s end was for the most part richly delivered (the brasses accompanied him magnificently), though just occasionally the melodic line’s intensity strained his voice – somebody who knows of life’s joys and disappointments, and can ride along with them.

The other male characters in the story also relished their depictions, Daniel Sun as the lovesick schoolmaster, somewhat tremulous of tone but pitching his voice accurately and evocatively, Nino Raphael as the disgruntled (and evicted) Badger (a scene augmented most excitingly by violin and ‘cello), and then as the equally disconsolate priest (“I’m just a dried-up mop in a bucket”) reflecting on his loveless life; and Garth Norman, properly morose as the Forester’s Dog, as well as a suitably business-like Innkeeper. Most vagrant-like of all (apart from his laboratory-coat-like garb) was Will King’s Poacher, free-spirited and romantic in places (his entrance a love-song) and impulsive in others (his clumsy pursuit of the Vixen), all delivered most convincingly with a suitably engaging voice and appropriately gauche movements. Together, these characters made a suitably and evocatively rustic line-up!

An additional “male” character – Goldspur, the Fox – was depicted most handsomely and suavely by Alexandra Gandionco, whose voice blended most beautifully with the Vixen’s during their meeting/courtship scene, nicely presenting a “gentler” vocal personality than the Vixen’s more volatile, less suave manner. Alternately, the two “wives” in the story, the Forester’s and the Innkeeper’s, were alternately given properly no-nonsense personas by Sally Haywood, energetic and gossipy. Too many to enumerate, the supporting animal roles brought out enactments with both individual and concerted presence, for the most part beautifully co-ordinated – the Act Three “forest-sneak-up” game, for one, was a delightful highlight.

Had the words been clearer in places, our pleasure would have been more than complete – still, as it was, we were captivated by what we’d seen and heard. The music, its vocal and instrumental performance, allied with the setting and (for me) its discernable, dramatically-defined action, made for all I had the chance to speak with afterwards an absorbing and satisfying operatic experience, one for which the stewardship of the NZSM here at Wellington’s Victoria University deserves considerable praise.

String student talents impressively exhibited at St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

String Students of the New Zealand School of Music

Brahms: Allegro from Violin Sonata no.3, Op.108
Debussy: Allegro vivo from Violin Sonata in G minor
Serge Koussevitzky: Chanson Triste
Beethoven: Allegro vivace from Violin Sonata, Op.12 no.2
Dubois: Andante cantabile
Nikolai Kapustin [not Kasputin as printed in the programme]: Sonata 1

Charlotte Lamb, Sophie Tarrant-Matthews, Patrick Hayes, Claudia Tarrant-Matthews (violins), Hugh McMillan, Claudia Tarrant-Matthews, Sophie Tarrant-Matthews (piano), Jandee Song (bass), Sam Berkahn (cello)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 26 July 2017, 12.15 pm

This was, on the whole, an impressive line-up of young string players.  They are presumably at different stages in their studies (in other years the printed programme for such concerts has shown which year each player was, which was helpful in appreciating their level of skill).

The Brahms sonata is one of his most elegiac pieces.  However, the tone of Charlotte Lamb’s violin being a little harsh didn’t match this character.  She was competent technically, although occasionally intonation was a little suspect.  This being a Romantic sonata, it could have done with more vibrato.  Phrasing and dynamics were fine.  Hugh McMillan played piano sympathetically for this work, and for all except the Tarrant-Matthews collaborations, i.e. the Debussy and the Kapustin.

The Debussy was quite a contrast, with its slow introduction.  Sophie Tarrant-Matthews played her violin with good tone and excellent articulation.  The misty, dreamy movement had a wonderful piano part that seemed to be an equal partner with the violin.  The players were in complete accord in approach and performance – being sisters must help in these matters.

One thinks of Koussevitzky as a composer of very lively music; the piece for bass and piano was quite different.  It was a solemn, rather slow piece, played from memory by its diminutive performer.  Jandee Song’s tone was not large, but this suited the piece; her performance was pleasing.

The Beethoven movement was quite short.  Patrick Hayes obviously knew it well; he seldom looked at his score.  He produced attractive tone and made the music rhythmically lively.  The sudden ending to this bright piece amused the audience.

Sam Berkahn made great work of his soulful Dubois piece, which he played with great accuracy and clarity.  His intonation was virtually impeccable, and he produced splendid tone and good volume.  He made the most of the lyricism in the work, and appeared to be the master of his instrument and its possibilities.

The Tarrant-Matthews sisters reversed roles for the Kapustin sonata, and proved to be equally as competent on both instruments.  Nikolai Kapustin was born in Ukraine in 1937, but studied music in Moscow, and is usually referred to as a Russian composer.  Wikipedia says “During the 1950s he acquired a reputation as a jazz pianist, arranger and composer. He is steeped, therefore, in both the traditions of classical virtuoso pianism and improvisational jazz.”

These characteristics were certainly to the fore in the sonata.  Jazzy as it was, these two performers were thoroughly in control of it.  Claudia Tarrant-Matthews obtained a full tone from her instrument.  Off-beat rhythms and plenty of double-stopping were strong features.  This was a difficult work, not least rhythmically, and it was carried off with élan by two very able musicians, ending a varied and interesting concert.

Adventurous, revelatory concert by Troubadour String Quartet in Lower Hutt

The Troubadour String Quartet (Arna Morton and Rebecca Wang – violins, Elyse Dalabakis – viola, Anna-Marie Alloway – cello)

Haydn: String Quartet in G, Op 77 No 1
Alfred Hill: String Quartet No 3 in A minor (The Carnival)
Britten: String Quartet No 2 in C, Op 36

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Monday 24 July, 7:30 pm

At the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson this year, the Troubadour Quartet gave two free concerts, one giving the same Britten quartet that they played here, the second, Schubert’s A minor quartet (Rosamunde). I was there for a few days and really regret not hearing them.

For it took only a few bars of the Haydn quartet (one of his very last) to show me that these were players of real talent and insight. Its first movement came as a revelation of care, sensitivity, delicately springing rhythms, subtle humour; an interesting range of instrumental colour, in part at least through the contrast between the bright first violin and the warmer, almost viola-like second. In particular, I delighted in the quartet’s agility, tossing the parts from one to another.

In the second movement, cellist Alloway had a few bars of prominence, enriching its meditative character, and she also supplied a throbbing undercurrent. After about three minutes all movement seems to cease and the players held us breathlessly awaiting the return of the main theme and its slow pulse.

There was a seriousness and emotional depth in the Adagio that reminded me that it was written, 1799, around the time of Haydn’s last, beautiful masses; no more symphonies, concertos, operas or piano trios. And after this came just two more string quartets, one unfinished.

The Menuetto took us back to the more familiar Haydn, energetic, overflowing melody and rhythm; and then the rather astonishing trio section, hard down-bowing, no longer any semblance of aristocratic minuet; as the programme remarks, it approaches the Beethovenish Scherzo which replaced the minuet and trio of the earlier, Classical period. Then in the last movement, Haydn reminds us that he was to become most famous for his 104 symphonies, as both in the denser scoring, playfulness and rhythmic energy; it sounds like a symphony trying to break out. It all emerged in a performance that was clearly thoroughly rehearsed and thought out. The applause rather suggested that the audience was pretty surprised at such an accomplished and committed performance.

Alfred Hill
The quartet by Alfred Hill probably aroused more uncertainty in many listeners, as till very recently, it has been fashionable to dismiss him as an inconsequential imitator who was unable to measure up to the great figures of his generation (born 1869, close to Sibelius, Reger, Busoni, Roussel, Vaughan Williams, Scriabin, Rachmaninov… and Schoenberg!).

The Wellington-based Dominion String Quartet has recorded all 17 of Hill’s quartets and have been sturdy advocates for his music; however, some of his 13 symphonies, mostly derived by Hill from his quartets, have been championed by Australia (recorded by the Melbourne and Queensland symphony orchestras). Australia likes to claim him as one of theirs as he was born in Melbourne, but his family came to New Zealand two years later and Hill spent most of his first 30 years in New Zealand, in Wellington, with a period at the Leipzig Conservatorium. He spent most of his latter 60 years in Australia because he was offered better opportunities, being co-founder of the NSW Conservatorium and was an important figure in Australian music. His 90th birthday was celebrated by a special concert of his music played by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Henry Krips.

No comparable attention has been paid to him here, and as far as I know none of his symphonies have been played by a New Zealand orchestra.

Listening to this quartet is to feel its place in the Hill’s era, if in the company of the rather less famous and ground-breaking. The first movement intrigued me with a feeling of its rhythmic uncertainty, as if there were permitted alternative ways of handling the metre. Unadventurous perhaps, but not to be dismissed. The dreamy Andantino, second movement verged on the sentimental until a modulation made me pay attention, and indeed, it became more interesting, with a genuine emotional feeling. And Dalabakis’s viola became prominent in its last phase. The third movement was marked with a distinctive character, even if not radical or especially original; yet the players exploited its individuality with commitment.

The last movement was another matter: was there a certain Maori quality in its rhythm and melodic feel? Or was it more akin to Balkan, Gypsyish sounds; and still looking for resonances, there seemed melodic hints of Viennese operetta. There was even an episode in which stamping called up eastern European folk dance, even though the notes drew attention to the piece’s original title The Carnival or The Student in Italy. It was a very lively and committed performance of a piece that should encourage more exploration and performance of Hill’s music.

Benjamin Britten wrote three string quartets; this one was written to mark the 250th anniversary in 1945, of Purcell’s death. And it was the third movement, a chaconne, that offered references, though probably not especially conspicuous for most listeners, to the earlier composer.

The performance opened dramatically, not simply in the somewhat mysterious, even anguished, wide-spaced themes that introduce it, but with leader, Arna Morton, breaking a string. A repeat of the opening measures was rewarding, as it had been so immediately arresting, and the emotional impact was simply duplicated; and after a little while it gathers both speed and emotional force.

Even though written in a tonic vocabulary, it sounds of its time, the end of World War II, through its generally sombre feeling rather than any particular lamenting. As for its context, Morton, who has studied Britten for her PhD, drew attention to his feeling of isolation, as a homosexual, a pacifist, a committed left-winger (did she also say, his aversion to the prevailing ‘pastoral’ character of English music of the period?), all of which might account for the mood of the music.

Without a score it’s not easy to describe the structure of the first movement, and I’m limited to remarking the episodes (‘variations’ in essence) of markedly different speed, motifs that are chased, canon-like by each player in turn, the throbbing beat of four-note quavers, the biting commentary by the cello here and there. There are surprises such as the series of glissandi around the middle, and a meditative, viola-led diminuendo as the end approaches.

Nothing was more striking, perhaps chilling, than the slow subsidence to a high, lonely, ppp note from Morton’s violin, followed by a motivic scrap from the central section, on the cello. One anonymous remark from the Internet: “Britten’s number 2 is an isolated masterpiece of a genius. This is as powerful, astonishing and emotionally draining as any work for the genre ever written.” I admire such definitive, risky assertions like this, instead of the more usual cautious, ambivalent judgements that most of us shelter behind.

The second movement, Scherzo, seems to be a reworking of the more spirited parts of the first – on the cello, much more agitated, with ferocious down-bowings, driven by fast triplet quavers, referred to in the programme note as a ‘Danse macabre’: to me, not really….

The third movement, Chacony: Sostenuto, honouring Purcell, quarter-hour long, seems an extraordinary creation by a youngster of 32. The first section is a chorale-like lament with almost incessant dotted semi-quavers: calm, edgy, verging dissonance, in which all contribute till Alloway’s cello plays a long, plaintive meditation leading to an agitated section that becomes increasingly impatient.  If a set of variations in the slow triple time that’s characteristic of the chaconne is what you expect, it wasn’t the main focus for this listener, even after the pulse rate drops in the meandering, polyphonic writing around the middle of the movement.

Rebecca Wang’s second violin had a long, grieving solo passage, soon passed to others, importantly the cello again, then viola. Some parts – variations, though the individual sections are profoundly evocative, yet elusive – might seem rhapsodic, though the sense of its imposing structure was always clearly felt, and impressively so in this performance that seemed so thoroughly studied, ingested and technically mastered.

In spite of hints of a wide range of musical eras and genres, try as I might to spot influences, I couldn’t mistake such prevailing unity of mood and sense that left no one but Britten as a candidate composer. In all, it was a concert that emerged with far greater variety and richness than I’d expected: revelatory, fascinating and compelling.


Refined, period sensibilities from Kuijken Quartet in Haydn and Mozart

Kuijken Quartet with members of La petite bande (Sigiswald Kuijken and Sara Kuijken – violins, Marleen Thiers – viola, Michel Boulanger – cello)
(Chamber Music New Zealand)

Mozart: String Quartet No 18 in A, K 464 and String Quartet No 21 in D, K 575
Haydn: String Quartet No 30 in E flat, Op 33 No 2, Hob III 38

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 15 July, 7:30 pm

The Kuijken Quartet is very much a family affair: second violin Sara is Sigiswald’s daughter and violist Marleen Thiers, his wife. They have devoted themselves to playing music in the ‘historically informed’ manner. While that has tended to refer mainly to music of the earlier, Baroque era, it applies also to the Galant and Classical periods, and in theory to all later periods, up to yesterday, if you insist.

It applies to two aspects of performance – the physical characteristics of the instruments, and the way they are believed to have been played in the relevant period. There is also a third aspect however, and that is the character of the performance space. Instruments using gut strings, pianos with shorter keyboards and wooden frames with less tension on the strings, were fine for more intimate venues, but larger concert halls were built as instruments were developed with bigger sounds (or perhaps it was the other way round), and the new environment encouraged composers to write larger-scale, more dramatic, louder music.

Baroque and Classical music, written mainly for small forces in small venues, was generally adapted successfully (in the ears of that audience) for the changed environment; and for more than a century, as ‘early music’ was steadily unearthed and played, sometimes in arrangements, everyone was happy. Until music historians started to adopt relativist attitudes, according virtue, even compulsion, to performance that was strictly in keeping with the playing conditions and customs, and listener expectations of the age in which music was written.

The major problem is that you can’t put the genie back in the bottle, and our acceptance and expectations are deeply affected by what we’ve heard, especially in our early years when the mind is so absorbent and open to everything. We are all aware of the profound impact that certain childhood performance experiences had on our response to later, different performances.

To the point.
The opening phrases of Mozart’s K 464 were extremely quiet and refined, small enough not to be able to fill the large MFC space and so was not at all the sound that an audience in the 1780s would have heard. Thus bows moved very lightly on the strings as they created a range of quiet, subtly varied dynamics rather than the very marked contrast, pp and ff, between phrases that is usual; nothing rich or opulent and suggested, in the language of piano playing perhaps, playing with no pedaling.

The Menuetto and Trio was treated in the same genteel way, though in the Trio section, there was some emphasis on the first note in the bar, and I noticed a limited amount of vibrato, mainly from the cello. The Andante crept into one’s awareness almost secretively, though in my head I could hear, memory-driven, the rather more bold performances that most of us might have been used to. But it was good to have the false feeling that I hadn’t ever heard it before, as it is a great and marvellously sophisticated variations movement which was still evident in this restrained performance, though the cello’s dancing, spiccato offering couldn’t help breaking out of the mould.

The last movement is also formidable and the players did allow themselves to become involved with the sliding, descending chromatic sequences, and as with the whole six ‘Haydn’ quartets, one was spellbound by Mozart’s mastery and the seeming endless variety that was played out and I eventually became reconciled to the hypnotic quietude that nevertheless created a spell-binding impression. Haydn’s famous remark to Mozart’s father was certainly an unavoidable response from a comparably gifted composer.

So it was wonderful to hear one of Haydn’s more quirky and entertaining quartets from his 1781 set that had inspired Mozart to write his great set of six.

It began with more of a feel of full-blooded music than the Mozart, though it’s light in spirit, often fragile and delicate. As I think was the case with the Mozart, the players took no repeats. As with Mozart’s K 464, the Scherzo movement was second, happy, indulging in subtle glissandi (more subtle than some), and every-so-slight emphases on the first-notes-in-the-bar of the first theme.

The viola and cello start the Largo movement very slowly, and the violins waited for the phrase end before joining. It’s a movement that signals Haydn’s awareness of his own genius, though there’s nothing in the other more jocular movements to suggest that he’s offering anything less than truly inspired music. And they chose that Largo to repeat as an encore at the end of the concert.

The last movement builds to the famous ‘Joke’ right from the start – you only need to have heard the piece once before for the singular little theme to take root and the subsequent games are laid out before you. They played in a sprightly manner, fast 3/8 time, and then came the several blind gags, none of which fooled this sophisticated audience into premature clapping.

For Mozart, we had the weightier quartet at the beginning, for he was writing for the Viennese sophisticates, where in the three Prussian quartets he was writing, as Bach had done forty years before as a sort of job application, and providing a cello part suitable for King Friedrich Wilhelm II himself to play. Here, I have to confess that for all my self-persuasion, I just wanted a bit more warmth and energy, more oxygen, than the Kuijkens allowed themselves. In the Andante, the cello is allowed a couple of near-solo episodes, for the king, but Menuetto and Trio offers the royal cellist more. The Andante was a movement that felt sympathetically handled by these players, as it’s intrinsically subdued, its beauties of an exquisite kind.

The Menuetto is a thoughtful piece, not lending itself to dancing, but in their handling, rather subtle and restrained which felt perfectly appropriate. It was the Trio where the king would have enjoyed a moment of melodic charm, until violin and viola take over. The cello actually leads the way in the last movement, and there’s much else that would have allowed the gathered eminences to make admiring remarks. But compared with the complex fabric of K 464, this is a more conventional piece, no less charming; but Sigiswald never allowed himself to become too animated, leading with such a small, almost hesitant tone and limiting the weight of his bow almost to the point of inaudibility. The artistry and refined musicality of these players was a constant revelation.

Lively and colourful Iolanthe from Wellington G&S Light Opera

Iolanthe by Arthur Sullivan, libretto by W S Gilbert
(Wellington G&S Light Opera Company)

Wellington Opera House

Friday 14 July 7:30 pm

Iolanthe is one of the operettas admired by many who take it upon themselves to judge musical worth, and it doesn’t rank among the most popular, with Pirates, Mikado, Gondoliers and Pinafore. The company last staged Iolanthe in 2008.

Here was a chance to see how those opinions stack up with someone who was not seeing it for the first time (I saw the 2008 production and reviewed it in The Dominion Post), but whose memory needed to be prompted a bit. Over the years I have come to enjoy Offenbach and certain of the Viennese school, most conspicuously, Die Fledermaus, and their close comic relatives by Rossini and Donizetti, rather more than G&S.

G&S has carved a niche in the English-speaking consciousness so that it is not really compared with the equivalent operetta or comic opera genres across the Channel. The Wellington company however attempted to broaden its appeal by adding the words ‘light opera’ to its title a decade or more ago, to accord with staging The Tales of Hoffmann, Die Fledermaus, The Merry Widow, The Gypsy Baron; there’s a great deal more to explore, particularly Offenbach.

The music may not be quite as strong and memorable as in the four most popular works, but there are three or four other G&S pieces, including Iolanthe, that do belong up there with the best.

The curtain remained down during the short colourful overture and rose on a possibly somewhat irrelevant but delightful pastoral scene that could as well have been around the Waikato or Rangitikei as in the Home counties. Presumably, John Goddard, listed as Director, was responsible for the stage design, as no specific stage designer was named.

[Monday 17 July, John Goddard commented on my reference to the stage design.  Oddly, he seems to have read the sentence above as suggesting that he was not the director, because I speculated that because no stage designer was named at all, perhaps Goddard was also responsible for stage design, which is not unknown in small – even large – companies. He explains that the set which ‘has been around for generations’, was designed and built by Wilf Conroy; but his name and that information did not appear in the programme. L.T.]

The fairies presented a lovely multi-coloured scene and the chorus singing just what the situation calls for, neither too polished nor too uniform in ensemble: simply bright and delightful. Soloists appear one by one – Stephanie Gartrell as the Fairy Queen, then Iolanthe herself (Alys Pullein), the title role that’s probably famous for having the least to do in all opera. She had been banished from the fairy court for marrying a mortal (shades of Dvorák’s Rusalka), and after being restored, has her brief moments, introducing her son, Strephon (Andrew Mankowski). He reveals that he’s fairy to the waist and human below that. This was a major part, and Mankowski both looked and acted the part in a sort-of fey manner, as well as revealing an engaging baritone voice.

Strephon is in love with Phyllis, the ward of Chancery, and she is, of course, loved not only by the Lord Chancellor himself but by the entire House of Lords, which is the crucial dilemma that is the pivot of the drama. Phyllis was sung by Karishma Thanawala, whose appearance, acting charm and voice combined to created a perfectly delightful character.

The crux of the story, apart from the constitutional complexities that arose through the admission of fairies to the House of Lords, is the Lord Chancellor’s debate with himself over the conflict of interest in his seeking to marry Phyllis, a ward of Chancery.

Chris Whelan has long been a major strength in the company; here as the self-serving (if he can get away with it) Lord Chancellor, he displays both foppishness and ineffectual self-interest, but he commands the stage. His splendid number, ‘When I went to the bar’, was the typical patter song in anapaests (triplets, stress on last syllable), satirising the way the stupid can yet succeed. And I asked Chris Whelan to allow me to print his brilliant little, very topical reworking in the same metre of ‘When you’re lying awake’:

For you dream you are walking in Wellington talking to strangers about hair-net shopping,
Which is odd, you admit, given hair loss has hit, rather harder on your thinning topping.
When you see walk along, in a jostling throng, a crowd of underemployed politicians.
They are arguing loudly and forming up proudly – aligning in strange new positions.
There’s the chap from the left, firmly claiming he’s best as a partner for unaligned greenies,
While the man from the right declares with some spite – their chances are tiny to teeny.
There’s the folks checking polls before choosing their goals and declaring it best for the people.
And the strange little man with the bow tie and tan claiming centrism makes us all equal.
First the left and lefter claim their way is bester and hope no one checks out their numbers
Then the right and the righter do gather in tighter declaring the left as shrill bumblers.
But in moments the troop quickly leap to regroup as the polling shows new ways for reigning,
While the voters stand round with a dumbfounded frown suspecting they’re in for a caning.
Then a figure appears flashing grins and dark sneers – it is Winston the ever outrageous,
Double-breasted his suit and with gaze resolute, claiming he alone “can bring back greatness”.
He compares naive greens to hysterical teens and dismisses the Nats bland abjectness.
“As for Labour”, he cries, “their policy dies on the altar of abject correctness”.
All the parties look glum as their voters succumb to this populist damned agitator,
But he rounds with a grin and a small violin claiming “surely I’ll play nicely later.”
So the parties all split and reform in a bit saying “they don’t heed populist stances”,
And yet none of them dawdles in off’ring him baubles to join them to prop up their chances.

Two lesser members of the Lords, Mountararat and Tolloller (David McKenzie and Kevin O’Kane), have significant parts to play, and they emerge with increasing clarity and conviction. David McKenzie, as Lord Mountararat, made a great job of his jingoistic ‘When Britain really ruled the waves’, as he insists on the dangers of the House of Lords being ruled by intellectuals.

As Private Willis (now the ‘Usher of the Black Rod’), Lindsay Groves opens act 2 with the famous ‘When all night long…’ reflecting on the qualifications demanded for the House of Lords, that brains be left outside, and concludes by recognising the inevitable: that ‘every boy and every girl’ …becomes… ‘a little Liberal or else a little Conservative’.

A comment on the excellent chorus is perhaps the place to mention the extent of the cast’s involvement in many areas of Wellington choral music, as revealed in the biographies in the printed programme. It’s almost a complete inventory of the best Wellington choirs: the chorus of New Zealand Opera, the Orpheus Choir, The Tudor Consort, Nota Bene, Cantoris, the New Zealand Youth Choir, Supertonic Choir, Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir, Inspirare. And I’m sure that a list detailing the activities of individual chorus members would reinforce that.

A proper orchestra is as essential to G&S as to any opera production and it lent a real professional touch that there was a good body of players in the pit, mainly from Orchestra Wellington, under music director Hugh McMillan. Ensemble between pit and stage was occasionally out of focus – the singing a little over-enthusiasic, but an overall spirit of enjoyment and orchestral professionalism supported the whole performance, lending it lively rhythm and momentum, yet never getting in the way of the singers. Microphones were used around the stage and while they can sometimes be useful, allowing words to be heard more distinctly, the sound tended to vary according to the singer’s position on the stage.

The company now takes the production to Palmerston North (Regent, 22 July) and Napier (Municipal Theatre, 29 July). If you’ve missed it in on the Kapiti Coast or Wellington, I’d recommend finding a pretext to take a trip to the Manawatu or Hawke’s Bay to catch this very well presented and sung operetta that’s lively and funny in the inimitable style of one of the most famous composer/librettist partnerships in the history of lyric theatre.

Adventurous, quirky, energetic – a musical-life experience for the 2017 NZSONYO

NZSO National Youth Orchestra 2017 presents:

CELESTE ORAM (NYO Composer-in-Residence 2016)
Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra (World Premiere)
JAMES McMILLAN – Veni, Veni Emmanuel*
REUBEN JELLEYMAN (NYO Composer-in-Residence 2017)
Vespro (World Premiere)
BENJAMIN BRITTEN – Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell Op.34
(The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra)

*Colin Currie (percussion)
James McMillan (conductor)
NZSO National Youth Orchestra 2017

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington,

Friday, 14th July 2017

Thank goodness for Benjamin Britten’s variously-named The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra / Variations and Fugue on a theme of Purcell Op.34! At the recent pair of NZNYO concerts in Wellington and Auckland it was music which, unlike the works making up the rest of the programme, was reasonably familiar to the audience. As such, the piece provided a benchmark of sorts with which the youthful orchestra’s playing could be more-or-less assessed in terms of overall tonal quality, precision of ensemble and individual fluency and brilliance. These were qualities more difficult to ascertain when listening to the players tackle the idiosyncrasies, complexities and unfamiliarities of the other three programmed pieces.

I’m certain that the NYO players relish the opportunity every time to give a first performance of any piece written especially for them, even one as unconventionally wrought as was Celeste Oram’s piece The Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra, which opened the programme. In this instance, however, there were TWO new works by two different composers, awaiting a first performance, presumably due to last year’s concert being wholly taken up with a collaboration by the orchestra with the NZSO to perform Olivier Messiaen’s Eclairs sur l’au-delà (Illuminations of the Beyond) – obviously, a thoroughly exhilarating experience for all concerned, youthful and seasoned players alike.
So as well as the 2016 composer-in-residence’s work having yet to be performed, there was also a work by this year’s composer-in-residence, Reuben Jelleyman, waiting for its turn. In the event, putting all the possibilities together made for an interesting programme of symmetries and contrasts – a percussion concerto and a work inspired by an older classic, with each of these in turn regaled by a separate “guide” to the orchestra, the two latter having interesting “corrective” capacities in relation to one another!

To be honest, there was a considerable amount of speculation expressed by people I talked with at the interval as to whether the first item on the programme could be classed as “music”! Celeste Oram’s piece The Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra, far from being an updated version of Britten’s celebrated instructional work, took a kind of “field” approach to experiencing music instead, refracting a history of many New Zealanders’ initial contact with orchestral music as conveyed by radio (as the composer points out, the first permanent orchestra in this country was initially known as “The New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation Symphony Orchestra” – actually it was “the National Orchestra of the New Zealand Broadcasting Service”, with the word “Corporation” first appearing as part of the orchestra’s name in 1962). This phenomenon was depicted through transistorised recordings from what sounded like a number of largely out-of-phase broadcasts of an announcer’s voice from smartphone-like devices sported by the orchestra players, sitting onstage waiting for their “actual” conductor to arrive.

I hope the reader will forgive this relatively literal (though not exhaustive!) account of these happenings, linked as they seemed to the composer’s intentions! Still conductorless, the orchestra players then took up their instruments and launched into the first few bars of Britten’s work, an undertaking lost in the cacaphony of distortion emanating once more from the radio-like devices. As “Haydn Symphony No.25” was announced, the conductor, Sir James McMillan, arrived, waited courteously enough for the announcer to finish, and then directed a somewhat Hoffnung-esque opening of the Britten which then morphed into all kinds of wayward musical illusions in different quarters, fragments that were constantly being broken into by the announcer’s voice introducing other various classical pieces, a somewhat “catholic” section including the Maori song “Hine e Hine”, Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique”, and so on.

After Beethoven’s “Tenth” Symphony (“the Unwritten”) had made a static-ridden appearance, the announcer stated portentously, “Having taken the orchestra to pieces, the composer will now put it all back together again”, then promptly tuned us into the National Programme 5 o’clock news beeps and prominent newsreader Katriona McLeod’s voice. Some orchestra players at this point appeared to get fed up, and go for walkabouts down from the platform and into and through the auditorium, ignoring the efforts of their conductor to keep the music going. Soon, all the players were standing in the aisles of the auditorium, even the concertmaster, who was the last to go, leaving her conductor waving his arms around conducting a very loud, and out-of-phase-sounding recording of the Britten work. At the music’s end, we in the audience applauded him, a bit uncertainly, then watched him sit down and pull out a newspaper and read it, while the players standing in the aisles began to paraphrase parts of the music, and the radio continued to blare, the voices largely unintelligible – some sort of impasse was reached at which point it was unclear what would happen next, if anything!

From this sound-vortex Concert announcer Clarissa Dunn’s voice sounded clearly, with the words, “….and you have NOT been listening to Radio New Zealand Concert!…..”, and that, folks, was it! – a rather lame conclusion, I thought, but perhaps that was the point! It seemed to me that the piece lost its way over the last five minutes – but perhaps THAT also was the point! Celeste Oram explained the ending to her “piece” using a quote attributed to Gaetano Donizetti, who wrote in an 1828 letter that he wanted “to shake off the yoke of finales”. The determinedly “non-ending” ending of Oram’s work did seem to put the concept of the “symphonic finale” to rout!

Thoughtful, innovative, provocative, incomprehensible…..whatever characterisation one liked to give Celeste Oram’s work first and foremost, I felt it should be in tandem with descriptions like “entertaining”, “absorbing”, “spectacular”, “engrossing”. It seemed to me that the composer had achieved, by dint of her explanation printed in the programme, what she had set out to do – and what better a way to attain satisfaction by means of what one “does” as an occupation?

After this, Sir James McMillan’s own work, the percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel would have seemed like a kind of relief-drenched reclamation of normality to some, and something of a “safe” and even predictable example of what Celeste Oram was criticising with her work, to others. Percussion concertos have become extremely popular of late, thanks partly to the skills and flamboyant performing personalities of musicians such as Evelyn Glennie and Colin Currie, who’ve had many works written for them. For some concertgoers they’re thrilling visual and aural experiences, while for others (myself included) they seem as much flash as substance, in that they seem to me to rely overmuch on visual display to sustain audience interest to the point of distraction from the actual musical material.

Perhaps I’m overstating the case, but after watching Colin Currie indefatigably move from instrument group to instrument group, activating these collections with their distinctive timbres, my sensibilities grew somewhat irritated after a while – one admired the artistry of the player, but wearied of the almost circus-like aspect of the gestures. I began to empathise as never before with Anton Bruckner, who, it is said, attended a performance of Parsifal at Bayreuth, his eyes closed the whole time so as to avoid being distracted by the stage action from the music!

I wrote lots of notes regarding this performance, which certainly made an effect,in places spectacularly so – the opening a searing sound-experience, with shouting brass and screaming winds, and the soloist moving quickly between instrument groups for what the compser calls an “overture”, presenting all the different sounds. My gallery seat meant that the player occasionally disappeared from view! – rather like “noises off”, a sound-glimpse of a separate reality or disembodied state! In places the music became like a huge machine in full swing, which appealed to my “railway engine” vein of fantasy, while at other times the sounds seemed to drift spacewards, the winds playing like pinpricks of light, and the soloist at once warming and further distancing the textures with haunting marimba sounds. I enjoyed these more gentle, benediction-like moments most of all, the gently dancing marimba over a sea of wind and brass sostenuto tones – extremely beautiful.

At one point I wrote “All played with great skill, but everything impossibly busy!” At the work’s conclusion the soloist climbed up to the enormous bells at the back of the orchestra, beginning a carillion which built up in resonance and excitement, aided by individual orchestral players activiting their own triangles. A long, and slowly resonating fade – and the work came to a profound and deeply-wrought close. While I wouldn’t deny the effectiveness of certain passages in the work I found myself responding as to one of those nineteenth-century virtuoso violin concertos the musical forest obscured by trees laden with notes – and notes – and notes……..thankfully, my feelings seemed not to be shared by the audience whose response to Colin Currie’s undoubted artistry was overwhelmingly warm-hearted.

So, after an interval during which time I was engaged in discussions concerning the nature of music (in the light of Celeste Oram’s piece) in between wrestling with feelings that I perhaps ought to give up music criticism as a profession through dint of my inadequacy of appreciation (the result of my response to James McMillan’s piece), I settled down somewhat uneasily for the concert’s second half, which began with a work by Reuben Jelleyman, who’s the Youth Orchestra’s 2017 composer-in-residence, a piece with the title Vespro, deriving its inspiration from Monteverdi’s famous 1610 Vespers.

Describing his work as akin to a restoration of an old building “where old stone buttresses mesh with glass and steel”, Reuben Jelleyman’s piece at its beginning reminded me of a basement or backroom ambience of structure and function, where solid blocks and beams were interspersed with lines and passageways, the whole bristling with functional sounds, much of it aeolian-like, (whispering strings and “breathed” winds and brass) but with an ever-increasing vociferousness of non-pitched sounds.

Great tuba notes broke the spell, underscored by the bass drum, like a call to attention, one igniting glowing points in the structure, with each orchestral section allowed its own “breath of radiance”. A repeated-note figure grew from among the strings, spreading through the different orchestral sections, the violinists playing on the wood of the bows as fragments of the Monteverdi Vespers tumbled out of the mouths of the winds and brass – such ear-catching sonorities! As befitted the original, these reminiscences contributed to ambiences whose delicacy and sensitivity unlocked our imaginations and allowed play and interaction – a “fled is that music? – do I wake or sleep?” sense of amalgamation of present with past, the new music, centuries old, continuing to live…..I liked it very much.

To conclude the evening’s proceedings, James McMillan got his chance to show what he could REALLY do as a conductor with Britten’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, a performance which brought forth from the youthful players sounds of such splendour and brilliance that I was quite dumbfounded. Each section of the orchestra covered itself in glory during its own introductory “moment” at the work’s beginning, the four sections (winds, brasses, strings, percussion) framed by a tutti whose amplitude seemed, in the classic phrase, “greater than the sum of its parts”, which was all to the good.

Singling out any one section of the ensemble for special praise would be an irrelevant, not to say fatuous exercise under these circumstances. McMillan’s conducting of the piece and interaction with the players seemed to bring out plenty of flair and brilliance, with individual players doing things with their respective solos that made one smile with pleasure at their ease and fluency. I noted, for instance, the bassoon’s solo being pushed along quickly at first, but then the player relaxing into an almost languorous cantabile that brought out the instrument’s lyrical qualities most beguilingly. The musicians seemed to have plenty of space in which to phrase things and bring out particular timbres and textures, such as we heard from the clarinets, whose manner was particularly juicy and gurgly!

A feature of the performance was that the “accompaniments” were much more than that – they were true “partners” with their own particular qualities acting as a foil for the sections particularly on show – in particular, the violins danced with energy and purpose to feisty brass support, while the double basses’ agilities drew forth admiring squawks from the winds. The brasses covered themselves in glory, from the horns’ rich and secure callings, to the tuba’s big and blowsy statement of fact – trumpets vied with the side-drum for excitement, while the trombones arrested everybody’s attentions with their announcements, the message soon forgotten, but the sounds resounding most nobly. Finally, the percussion had such a lot of fun with the strings, it was almost with regret that one heard the piccolo begin the fugue which eventually involved all the instruments, and was rounded off by a chorale from the brass choir featuring the theme in all its glory.

I’ve not heard a more exciting, nor skilful and involving performance of this music – an NZSO player whom I met on the stairs after the concert agreed with me that, on the evidence of playing like we had just heard, the future of music performance in this country is in good hands. Very great credit to the players and to their mentor and conductor Sir James McMillan, very much an inspirational force throughout the whole of the enterprise. Not, therefore, a conventional concert – adventurous, quirky, energetic and idiosyncratic – but in itself an experience of which the young players would be proud to feel they had made the best of and done well!

Brahms for lunch at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace

BRAHMS – Sonata for Viola and Piano in F Minor Op.120 No.1
(transcription by the composer of the Sonata for Clarinet Op.120 No.1)
Zwei Gesänge Op.91 (Two Songs for Voice, Viola and Piano)

Peter Barber (viola)
Linden Loader (mezzo-soprano)
Catherine McKay (piano)

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

Wednesday 12th July, 2017


As a counter to the day’s wintry woes, the music of Johannes Brahms provided an interlude of gentle autumnal rest and refreshment, with the first of the two late clarinet sonatas (here performed in the version for viola made by the composer), and the two songs which make up Op.91, Zwei Gesänge for voice, viola and piano. Both compositions occasioned interestingly flavoured associations, if of a diametrically opposed nature. One of the Zwei Gesänge in particular became intertwined with goings-on involving accusations of illicit amatory activities and a threatened marriage breakup on the part of friends of the composer.

Brahms had formed a student relationship with the brilliant young violinist Joseph Joachim, through him meeting the Schumanns, Robert and Clara, an association well-known to music history. In 1863 Joachim married Amalie Schneeweiss, a well-known mezzo-soprano, a marriage which produced six children, among them a son named Johannes, for whom Brahms wrote a cradle song Geistliches Wiegenlied (Spirits’ Lullaby). Things continued in this vein, with Joachim’s continued support for Brahms reflected in the dedication by Brahms of his 1878 Violin Concerto to Joachim, until the early 1880s, when Joachim accused his wife of having an affair with Fritz Simrock, a well-known music publisher. Alarmed by his friend Joachim’s paranoia and believing Amalie to be innocent, Brahms rewrote the lullaby as a new song Gestille Sehnsucht (Stilled longing), presenting it to the couple in the hope that it would help repair the rift.

Joachim persisted, however, and filed divorce proceedings against his wife, forcing the composer to write a letter testify on Amalie’s side, one which she used in court as evidence of her innocence. The incident cause a rift between Brahms and Joachim, one that was healed only when the composer wrote his Double Concerto for Violin and ‘Cello, in 1887. Undaunted, Brahms published the two songs as Zwei Gesänge Op.91 in 1884.

The other work we heard today came of a later, somewhat happier series of encounters Brahms had with the most remarkable clarinettist of his day, Richard Mühlfeld. Brahms had, by this stage, declared he would compose no more, but Mühlfeld’s playing awoke within the composer such ecstasies, that no less than four works involving the clarinet flowed from his pen. Brahms thought Mühlfeld the finest wind player he had ever heard, describing him to Clara Schumann as the “Nightingale of the orchestra”.

These works included the two Op.120 Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano, composed in 1894, of which we heard the first here, but played by the viola! Just why Brahms chose to transcribe both sonatas for viola after waxing so enthusiastically about Richard Mühlfeld’s playing is a subject open to conjecture – possibly, he felt no other player could do the works the same justice on the instrument, and therefore sought an alternative. The transcriptions are done with such skill that no-one need feel short-changed by the experience of having the clarinet replaced – except, perhaps for clarinettists!

Violist Peter Barber and pianist Catherine McKay, who took part in both of the concert’s offerings, began proceedings with the F Minor Viola Sonata Op.120 No.1, the piano beautifully preparing the way for the stringed instrument’s wide-ranging lines, both instruments then settling into the warmth and reassurance of each other’s company before girding their loins and attacking the terse dotted-rhythm counter theme with plenty of dynamism and risk-taking, the violist preferring to strive for the notes with a flourish at phrase-ends rather than take a safer, somewhat meeker course. After these agitations, the epilogue-like return of the viola’s opening theme, modulating briefly into F major before reasserting the more sombre ambience, was treated with wonderful inwardness by both musicians, making the most of the music’s dying fall.

Such lovely, long-breathed lines flowed from both instruments at the slow movement’s beginning, the viola not entirely comfortable with one of the upwardly reaching gestures, but making amends a second time round. How beautifully the piano led the way further INTO the music’s tremulous world and then through the exploratory modulations that led to the opening’s reprise, both players dovetailing their phrases beautifully, allowing the composer’s lyrical vein full expression before softly whispering the music’s end. Out of the silence the following movement’s dance-like exchanges seemed at first to slowly waken from a dream-like state before kicking in with trenchant tones and plenty of girth, making a fine contrast with the Trio, the piano delicate and watery, the viola nicely withdrawn and circumspect until the reprise of the dance.

An excited piano flourish and a shout of viola exuberance launched the finale – the playing was at times orchestral in energy, at other times questioning and circumspect, with a gorgeously Haydnesque “dead-end” passage at the halfway point that hung its head in embarrassment before a return of the opening sounded a regrouping, this time a light-footed skipping through textures with autumn leaves flying and fields and forests echoing with glad cries and excitable whoops of joy – surely one of Brahms’ happiest creations!

Rather less familiar to me were the two Op 91 songs, which proved as amenable lunchtime companions as did the Sonata. Mezzo-soprano Linden Loader joined Peter Barber and Catherine McKay in richly ambient performances, the singing and playing giving the first part of the opening Gestillte Sehnsucht plenty of space and stillness in which to whisper the world’s slumberings, before expressing the singer’s ceaseless longings with animated voice-and-instrument interplay, sentiments to which the players give plenty of life before allowing thoughts and words to rest.

The second song Geistliches Wiegenlied seemed less lullaby and more admonition of the elements, including a plea to the holy angels, the “winged ones” (Die ihr geflugelt) to “silence the treetops” and counter the “fierce cold” so that the sleeping child might not be disturbed. A parent’s angst was refected in the agitations, though the singer took comfort and strength in the child’s sleep – here, piano and viola most beautifully augmented the singer’s tones, which were fraught once again at “Fierce cold”, but again appeased by the instruments’ gradual “rolling away” in great roulades of tone and generous phrasing all the parent’s anxieties, the players giving us at the end a gently-wrought postlude of gentle peace.

Very great appreciation of all this was shown by a smallish but attentive and grateful audience.