Momentous performances of Beethoven violin sonatas: the third and fourth recitals

Michael Houstoun (piano) and Bella Hristova (violin)
Chamber Music New Zealand

Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas: Concerts 3 and 4

Violin Sonata No 8 in G, Op 30 No 3 and No 9 in A, Op 47 (‘Kreutzer’)
Violin Sonata No 3 in E flat, Op 12 No 3 and No 10 in G, Op 96

Renouf Foyer, Michael Fowler Centre

Wednesday 30 August and Thursday 31 August 2017, noon

My only knowledge of an earlier full cycle of Beethoven’s violin sonatas is at the first New Zealand International Festival of the Arts in 1986. They were played by Maurice Hasson and Maurice Till, in three recitals: two in the old Concert Chamber of the Town Hall and the third, which included the Kreutzer, in the main auditorium of the Town Hall. The old concert chamber, for those whose memories are not so long, seated many more than its replacement the Ilott did; it was upstairs, where the mayoral chambers were located after the 1990s refurbishment of the building (just incidentally, why was that major restoration not sufficient to meet earthquake standards only two decades later?).

It was the beginning of a truly optimistic era when Wellington’s claimed cultural pre-eminence was fairly undisputed; that ritual claim is now a joke. The music-rich festival was possible as a result of sponsorship by most of the major New Zealand state and private corporations, most of which abandoned Wellington as an indirect result of the neo-liberal devastation of the late 80s and early 90s. At that first, 1986, festival there were about 36 concerts of real classical music, which I’ll write about in an ‘extra’ article shortly.

This time we heard at the piano the most distinguished of Maurice Till’s pupils. Houstoun and the 2007 winner of the Michael Hill International Violin Competition spread them over five hour-long lunchtime recitals, in the Renouf Foyer where they were positioned backing the long south wall , between the two bars.

The sonatas were paired interestingly, the first and the second of each set of three, together; Opp 12 and 30; the Op 23 and 24 pair (which had probably been intended to be published under the same opus number) were played together on Tuesday; while the last two, Opp 47 and 96, had the third of the Opp 12 and 30 sets as mates.

Op 30 No 3, in G, opened calmly and swiftly (relative to some), both instruments in admirable accord in terms of dynamics and expressive detail, allowing a quite subtle increase in volume as the theme was repeated. The piano seems to make the running for some time, while the violin is involved in more decorative effects, perhaps reflecting sympathetically on what the piano is saying. The atmosphere hardly changes from a congenial and sunny character apart from the few moments when the violin delivers rapid tremolo phrases.

There was a charming touch of hesitancy in the Minuet, second movement which is largely a study in triplets – triplet quavers inside the minuet rhythm, yet in many ways it seemed to be the thoughtful, meditative heart of the sonata. And the last movement, though fast, never sacrificed its basic elegance which was shared gracefully between the two instruments.

The ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata
Then the Kreutzer. Unlike all the earlier sonatas, its inspiration lay in intended performance by a star violinist, and its quasi-symphonic character confers a reputation that tends to put it in a privileged class. A provenance similar to that of Op 96 which was in Thursday’s concert, and which for me is at least as interesting. However, the Kreutzer is a big drama and the two met it on those terms. The singular, tentative opening by the violin set the scene which was reflected in different colours by the piano. It seemed to me that the shifting moods and meanings of the body of the first movement were superbly balanced as each instrument found its own voice, the one never impeding the other, even through the increasingly tumultuous episodes.

The ‘theme and variations’ second movement opens undemonstratively, but goes through the typical range of sharply contrasted variations, the first two offering a dominant role, inviting attentiveness first to one, then to the other was like a display of mutual admiration and respect. Later came the time for virtuosic, meditative, more purely decorative episodes but ending in pensive tones. The Presto movement suggests a tarantella, and the players again dealt impressively with the successive, abrupt mood changes: calm, then agitated and brilliant. They were admirably balanced and cohesive, and given their contrasting musical backgrounds, displaying a oneness of vision that filled the space.

Thursday: Opus 12 No 3
The Thursday concert included the other stand-alone sonata, Op 96 – the tenth, premiered in 1813, nearly a decade after the ‘Kreutzer’. It might have been interesting to have heard the two successively.

But first came the third of the Opus 12 sonatas, in E flat, and it was here that I felt, for the only time, that the piano was out of step with the violin. The piano was in charge right from the start; not merely in charge, but somewhat unmindful of the complementary role of the violin. It was an impression that I was initially ready to attribute to my position, on the right side of the players, that is, the Town Hall side (on Wednesday I’d been on the left of the players). It was so unexpected that I imagined for a while that I was imagining the effect, and that I must try to rid my head of prejudice, if that was the problem. But even when piano and violin seemed equal partners in terms of the music’s spirit and interest, I couldn’t avoid the feeling that the piano was careless of its impact on the balance; and I couldn’t persuade myself that it was somehow the violin which was not measuring up.

The second movement brought better balance however, even where the violin’s role was to express the calm and dreaminess of the Adagio, and so this was the most successful part of the E flat sonata. However, in the third movement the same sort of imbalance recurred. While I didn’t conduct a statistically flawless survey, the odd comment from acquaintances, unprompted, rather confirmed my own impressions.

Opus 96
The Opus 96, G major sonata (the second of the ten in that key), returned to the flawless performances of the two sonatas on Wednesday, where there existed a courteous and discreet balance between the two parties; a congenial conversation between them, reasoned and thoughtful. Between its expressive thematic clauses, decorative passagework was shared beautifully between the two. The character of the Adagio espressivo, and much else in the piece, which the programme notes attributed to the known talents of the violinist for whom it was written, was particularly rapturous: meditative in the best Beethovenian sense, unobtrusive and wistful. It responded magically to the sensitivity and supremely unhurried pace at which Hristova and Houstoun stepped through it.

I will now risk confessing that I had forgotten that the music that emerged in the fourth movement and which I seemed to know much better than the earlier movements, belonged to this sonata. As a finale, it seems unusual, not at all a compulsive race to the finish, but a series of superficially distinct episodes, in turn animated, brusque, meditative, meandering, in lively conversations that dart suddenly this way and that. As you think the real coda has at last arrived, comes yet another change of mood and a sort of secretive exchange emerges till the first theme reappears, only to be interrupted as the listener is tricked again and again, Haydn-like, by unfulfilled expectations. I may well have decided that this was my favourite of the ten sonatas, though with players of the calibre and sensitivity of these two it tended to be the response to nearly every one of them.

Camerata’s beguiling “What’s in a name?” concert of Haydn and Mozart

Camerata, with Diedre Irons (piano)
HAYDN – Symphony No.6 in D Major, Hob. 1:6 “Le Matin”
MOZART – Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major, K.271 “Jeunehomme”
Concertmaster: Anne Loeser

Adam Concert Room, NZSM
Victoria University of Wellington

Thursday, 31st August, 2017

Founded in 2015 by the late and lamented Ian Lyons with colleague Liz Pritchett, Camerata is a group of musicians dedicated to the idea of making “high quality, joyful chamber music, accessible to aficionados and newcomers to classical music”. Led by Anne Loeser, a violinist with the NZSO, the group consists of an amalgam of NZSO,Orchestra Wellington and Wellington Chamber Orchestra members, including in this evening’s concert a number of NZSM students and graduates. In accordance with its objective of accessibility, Camerata performs for audiences in return for koha, or voluntary contributions from its listeners.

This was the second occasion on which I’d heard the group perform, the first being in the very different surroundings of St.Peter’s Church on Willis St., whose resplendent qualities included a rather warmer performing acoustic that what we heard this time round in the Adam Concert Room. Each venue brings its own qualities to a performance, of course, and here the instrumental clarity of the different textures and timbres sang out readily during both the symphony and concerto performances. Considering that Camerata has to “realign” its textural and tonal characteristics for each new concert because of the changes in personnel (I compared the two lists of players in each of the concerts I’ve attended, and there were quite a few different names this time round) I felt gratified that the playing seemed to inherit so many of the previous concert’s positive characteristics – no doubt a tribute to both leadership and consistency.

I can’t help but echo my Middle C colleague Lindis Taylor’s amalgam of delight and concern regarding the presence of some early Haydn symphonies in Camerata’s concerts – if only such a group as this would go on and give all of these early works the expert hearing in public performance they’re not likely to get under the auspices of any other local ensemble! To paraphrase a well-known wartime politician’s words, “Never in the field of human creativity was so much attributed to one (Haydn) who had wrought so many (symphonies) but was known by so few” – and so it remains in concert-going circumstances with these Haydn works!

Camerata’s is a start, of course, and despite the non-appearance (as far as I know) of Nos. 2 and 5 of the composer’s symphonic canon in the group’s presentations, this one – No.6 in D Major, Le Matin (The Morning) is significant, in that it’s the earliest of the composer’s symphonies that ordinary concert-goers are likely to know about, almost certainly because of its nickname! – (Quick Question: Name the earliest of the Haydn Symphonies…..Answer: Easy! No.6 in D Major, Le Matin…..I’ve got a recording of it, along with 7 & 8!)…, this is an important factor with these symphonies, as without the suggestive evocative titles these particular ones probably wouldn’t ever be regarded as special: – but ah! – the “Philosopher ” (No.22), “Lamentatione” (No.26), the “Hornsignal” (No.31), “Mercury” (No.43), and “Trauer” (Mourning) No.44 – and these are all before we even reach the famous “Farewell” Symphony (No.45)! What Camerata’s long-term plans regarding these works of Haydn’s are have yet to be revealed, but as Lindis Taylor ruefully remarked, for the group to get through all the symphonies, he would, at the present rate, “need to live till at leat 2050!”

This was the first symphony the twenty-nine year-old Haydn wrote for the Esterhazy court in Eisenstadt, near Vienna, shortly after being appointed the Prince’s Vice-Kapellmeister. It’s not certain from where he derived his inspiration for a triumverate of symphonies on the “morning, noon and night” themes, though his employer, Prince Paul, was known to be fond of programmatic Italian baroque music, and may have requested the scheme of the composer. Whatever the case, the music impresses more by dint of its highlighting the skills of the orchestra’s individual players, rather than the programme element as such. The Prince had recently employed some additional musicians for his orchestra, whom Haydn would have recommended – and so the composer saw to it that their skills were very much to the fore in the new work.

So, a new day dawned, and off we went on our musical journey! Despite the dryness of the acoustic, the playing itself generated plenty of “atmosphere” and stood up well to scrutiny. After the first glimmerings of light turned into fully-formed sunbeams, the flute cheekily began the allegro, filled with gorgeous interchanges between instruments, buoyed along by irrepressible energies. The development modulated the music freely and daringly, and the horn’s cheeky pre-Eroica “early” entry in front of the flute’s “recapitulation” entry broadened the smiles even further!

The slow movement, beginning Adagio, gave us a quietly ascending scale on the strings whose “minor’ inclinations were thwarted by the solo violin’s interruption in the major key! after some soulful duetting between violin and ‘cello, the music began to dance a graceful minuet-like measure, violin and cello exchanging decorative flourishes, both Anne Loeser and cellist Andrew Joyce enjoying themselves hugely! A couple of sforzando chords and the Adagio briefly returned, rich with experience, and more than ready to give way and sink into silence.

The players gave the Minuet a vigorous stride over characterful, held wind notes, straightforward enough until the begining of the Trio, when bassoon and double bass took charge, allowing some comment from a viola to punctuate their quirky exchanges, a kind of get-together of gruff, characterful voices, rather like a favourite uncle’s oft-told “joke” at a family party. By contrast, the flute’s light, airy presence launched the finale with gossamer grace, a gesture immediately imitated by the violin and then thrown into the midst of the orchestra – Haydn has such fun with his different resources, creating such a sense of variety through his use of different textures and timbres, and challenging the skills of the players, none more so than the leader’s, whose playing in this instance was appropriately virtuosic!

After the interval we were treated to a performance of Mozart’s first “big” piano concerto, and an acknowledged masterpiece, the so-called “Jeunehomme” Piano Concerto, No. 9 in E-flat Major K.271 – the work’s nickname, though apparently incorrectly spelt, refers to the young girl who first played this concerto, Victoire Jenamy. Alongside a “named” Haydn symphony, the concerto’s title seemed more than appropriate for this concert.

Diedre Irons, whose Mozart playing I’ve long admired, was the eagerly-awaited soloist for Camerata on this occasion. Possibly, some kind of technical hitch with her “tablet” from which she played the score caused a breakdown just after she’d re-entered the discourse after the opening orchestral tutti. Whatever the case, it was one which she duly sorted, realigned with the orchestra, and began again from just befor her re-entry, with no glitches the second time round.

Once we’d weathered the break in transmission and all been reconnected, we were able to turn our attention to the actual music-making, which had a quality of “presence” I can only put down to the immediacy of the venue and the smaller-than-usual number of instrumentalists. These conditions meant that, whatever even a single player in the ensemble did, the effect was noticeable, giving everything that “happened” a specific and meaningful focus, as opposed to the often generalised feeling which can take away the “edge” from normal-sized orchestral performances. Added to this was the pianist’s life-like inflection of the piano part, enabling the notes to speak with real feeling – listening to her playing put me in mind of encountering a warm-hearted and insightful conversationalist, as responsive to others as she herself was engaging and thoughtful.

The slow movement immediately reminded me for a time of the parallel movement in K.364, the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola. The musicians evoked a remarkable depth of feeling via their exchanges, the ensemble contributing its darkly-based string-tones and beseeching winds, and the piano its theatrically tragic recitative-like manner. The cadenza-like solo took these feelings to even greater depths, evoking what seemed almost like late-Romantic gesturings in its explorations of sorrow, and drawing a demonstrative reaction from the ensemble in response.

All of which was swept away in the finale’s spring tide of joyous energy which gambolled, chattered and tumbled every which way from the pianist’s fingers through and over the orchestral players, the music irrepressible in its bubbling and chatting character, sweeping all before it – as befits, of course, a release from darkness and strife! Irons showed her mastery of articulation in marrying recitative with the music’s trajectory of abandonment, before plunging into a transitional flourish which led the music to a world of gorgeous incongruity, pizzicato strings and all, in the shape and form of a minuet. Again she impressed with the timing of her articulation in gathering up our sensibilities before we knew what was happening, and giving our exuberances their heads in company with the music, taking us all to the final flourishes of the music’s brilliant conclusion. Bravo!

Very great credit to the Camerata players and those who help keep this particular ship afloat – already a group generating much interest, the ensemble will, I’m sure, grow and prosper artistically. Repertoire-wise there’s plenty of potential, and I’ll be interested to see in what direction the group inclines – doing something a bit different is often scary, but with whole-heartedness and the skills to back the ventures up, Camerata is likely to go places!

P.S. (from September 5th) – a message just to hand from Camerata’s Liz Pritchett has answered my queries regarding earlier Haydn symphonies and the ensemble’s plans for more: – Symphony No.2 appeared in Camerata’s very first concert programme, in April 2015 (unfortunately not reviewed).  Symphony No.5 hasn’t yet been played by the ensemble, but there are plans to do more of the earlier symphonies – hopefully the “missing link” will eventually get its dues, also!  (Many thanks to Liz Pritchett!)

Compressed, alternative version of Mozart’s Figaro treated with wit and flair

Mozart: The (other!) Marriage of Figaro, libretto by Georgia Jamieson Emms

Wanderlust Opera
Alicia Cadwgan (Susannah), Stuart Coats (Figaro), Megan Corby (Marcellina), Georgina Jamieson Emms (Countess), Barbara Paterson (Cherubino), Orene Tiai (Count), Fiona McCabe (accompanist)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 30 August 2017, 12:15

Although only a few weeks ago Eternity Opera put on Mozart’s famous opera at the Hannah Playhouse, this was something very different.  Georgia Jamieson Emms’s group are to perform a fully-staged production of their show on 20 and 22 October at St. Matthew’s Collegiate, Masterton, then next summer take it on tour.  A good-sized audience was present for the concert, despite Houstoun and Hristova performing Beethoven at the other end of town.

It was both hilarious and very well performed.  Jamieson Emms knows how to use microphone, which was a great advantage when delivering her linking narrative.  She also knows how to write funny lines to well-known melodies.  On the whole, but not exclusively, arias stuck to English translations of the original words, while recitatives let fly with topical New Zealand references and colloquial language – not to mention music that Mozart never knew.  What about a bit of Evita thrown in?  And the old American song with words ‘Oh Susannah!’?

There were deviations to the text alluding to the performance being in St. Andrew’s Church.  Throughout, there was clear diction, superb timing, and lively acting, the latter admittedly somewhat limited by a small platform.

The show started with Susanna and Figaro literally measuring up their room.  They were both full of life and sang splendidly.  Throughout the performance the singers lived their characters.  The only partial exception was Orene Tiai as the Count, but this was thoroughly excusable; it was explained that he had come in at short notice when Craig Beardsworth was not able to perform.

Stuart Coats continued with ‘Se vuol ballare’, translated as ‘Come to my party’.  Most of his arias and ensembles he sang from memory, with panache and enthusiasm. The duet between Marcellina and Susanna was a most amusing narrative.  It was interesting to seem them using iPods instead of paper scores to read their parts.  However, they knew their scores well, and did not refer to the aids frequently.  Others in the cast used these tools occasionally later, too.  Up till now I had only seen pianists use these devices.

Next was a very lively and active Cherubino, in the form of Barbara Paterson.  This part suited her superbly, and I found her singing thoroughly engaging, compared with some recent occasions, where obviously the music did not suit her so well.  Her interactions with Susanna were entertaining and believable.

In the following trio the Count was added to the two we had just heard; Orene Tiai was very good in the role.  He was inevitably outshone by Figaro, though.  Stuart Coats  (who sang without score) was very strong, and always humorous.

For a complete change, Georgia Jamieson Emms gave us a very demure, gentle and understated Countess.  The contrast was most effective, coming before a lively Susanna/Cherubino duet, in which the latter proved her athleticism – her jumping out of the window was rendered by her jumping off the platform.

In the sextet of all the characters, all sang with full voice – it became a little overpowering in the excellent acoustics of St. Andrew’s.  Fiona McCabe’s accompaniments were always absolutely with the singers, and immaculate.

In the Letter Duet, the Countess’s and Susanna’s voices were absolutely lovely together, and their timing was perfect.

Another hilarious solo from Figaro brought us to the Finale, in which all sing.  It started from the point at which the Count realises that it is the Countess who is dressed as Susanna.  The voices were all outstanding, the ensemble was achieved fabulously well, and the acting was animated.

All in all, a delightful hour-long show.  I hope that Wellington audiences will get a chance to see the opera complete, with sets and costumes.  All praise to the participants, but especially to Georgia Jamieson Emms.

Beethoven violin sonata series: Spring – molto espressivo – and its companion sonata are a delight

Bella Hristova (violin) and Michael Houstoun (piano)
(Chamber Music New Zealand)

Beethoven: the sonatas for piano and violin
Programme Two
Sonata no.4 in A minor, Op.23
Sonata no.5 in F major, Op.24 ‘Spring’

Renouf Foyer, Michael Fowler Centre

Tuesday 29 August 2017, 12 noon

We are fortunate indeed to have a full week (Monday to Friday) of these wonderful sonatas.   Having them performed in the Renouf Foyer proved to be an excellent decision – not so large and cavernous as the main auditorium, but still seating a large number of people; my rough calculation came to upwards of 300, and nearly all the available chairs filled.

Both sonatas were composed 1800-1801, for the wealthy patron Count Moritz von Fries.  Yet they were very different in character; no.4 was in three movements while no.5 was in four.

No. 4 opened with a lively and extravert presto, the instruments taking it in turns to come to the fore.  Great clarity was to be heard from both, and the players matched each other perfectly.

The  second movement, andante scherzoso, più allegretto, was not lacking in animation either, though in gentler, more playful style, with interesting off-beat rhythms that were given full play.  Balance between the performers was perfect, and the acoustic of the Renouf Foyer allowed us to hear the subtlety of both instruments easily, compared with listening to chamber music in the main auditorium.

Another fast movement, allegro molto, completed the sonata.  There was a certain similarity between the three movements.   Considerable use was made of staccato in this movement; there was delicacy as well as virtuosity.  This was as thoroughly pleasing performance.

The second sonata is much the better known of the two.  Here we were, two days away from the official first day of Spring.  Flowers are out, and even some kowhai trees – and Spring weather has been all too predominant lately.  The Spring has brought not only flowers and trees to life, but also warmed us with sunshine – literal (a little) and spiritual, through music.

The Spring of this sonata, with its rising opening allegro phrases, is utterly uplifting, whatever the weather.  They come first from the violin and then from the piano.  They are not too quick, but take us with them.  Familiarity certainly does not dull the effect of this masterpiece.  Every detail was delineated beautifully, but always with intensity.  I last heard it live, I think, some years ago, with Michael Houstoun and Wilma Smith.

The slow movement, adagio molto espressivo, was played with warm expressiveness – almost lush.  Here we heard the fine tones of Bella Hristova’s Amati violin more than was possible in the quicker movements.  The programme note described the ‘rhapsodic realm’ of this movement.

There appeared to be one treble note of the piano that sounded as if it needed some technical attention, but otherwise the tone from both instruments was admirable and refined.

The short scherzo: allegro molto, with its ‘mis-step’ between the two instruments, as the programme note described it, in other words, unsychronised writing, was a delight, as was the final rondo: allegro ma non troppo, that featured long, strong notes from the violinist and intriguing treatment of the recurring rondo theme.  The programme note stated ‘…we hear Beethoven writing in a manner that induces  contentment.’  And that was indeed the case.

Six more sonatas can be heard over the next three days.






BEETHOVEN Violin and Piano Sonata Series – a feast for Wellingtonians!

BEETHOVEN – The complete Sonatas for Violin-and-Piano
A Lunchtime Series of five concerts from Chamber Music New Zealand

Bella Hristova (violin)
Michael Houstoun (piano)

Concert No.1 – Monday, 28th August, 2017
Violin Sonata No.1 in D Major, Op.12 No.1
Violin Sonata No 6 in A Major Op.30 No.1

Renouf Foyer, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas don’t span the composer’s creative output as imposingly as do his efforts in some of the other genres – within the short space of six years (between 1797 and 1803) he was to write nine out of the ten completed works for violin and piano, and the final single work a decade later. However, he had attempted a work for the two instruments as a fledgling composer; and he was also to produce both a set of Variations on “Se vuol ballare” from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and a Rondo in G WoO.41 before the publication in 1799 of his first sonata for the genre. So he wasn’t exactly a beginner at the duo-writing task when he tackled this exuberant D Major work, the first of his three Op.12 sonatas.

The Sonata’s opening movement was an excellent way for violinist Bella Hristova and pianist Michael Houstoun to begin their traversal of the cycle – we were treated to a heady plunge into a vein of buoyant energy and confidently-wrought lyricism, the lines of communication between violinist and pianist here clearly outlined in a somewhat dry acoustic, happily emphasising the rapport between the two, via the music’s beautifully-dovetailed sequences of ebb and flow.

After enjoying Hristova’s and Houstoun’s playful assertiveness throughout the opening, I liked the touches of mystery they encouraged with their phrasings of the development’s music, the piano weaving long, sinuously running lines and the violin more elusively reiterating its opening figure in tandem with the piano, after which, by way of some beguiling exchanges the instruments re-explored the opening territories, Hristova playfully emphasising a visceral quality in her phrasing in places along the way which added to the music’s excitement.

The slow movement’s enchanting cantabile theme, heard firstly on the piano, and then reiterated by the violin, was given some inventive variation treatment by the composer, including a lovely gambolling sequence, the violin’s running lines deliciously augmented by the piano’s gurgling arpeggios, followed by an assertive, dramatic treatment involving both players digging into their notes and releasing irruptions of energy. A final variation took the music into more fanciful territories, each instrument appearing to occasionally stop and listen to the other’s increasingly discursive variant on what had gone before, the sounds seeming to pay little heed to time and place outside the realms created by the music.

As for the finale, its infectious energies immediately reawakened my earliest memories of discovery involving these works, Houstoun’s rhythmic trajectories giving the music tremendous elan, and thus encouraging from Hristova a similarly charged feeling of excitement, throughout. Both players relished the composer’s teasingly divergent modulation near the end, which airily ascends back up to the home key after its ear-catching harmonic adventure, with great self-satisfaction and aplomb – for Hristova and Houstoun, then, a dream start to their cycle!

With the Sixth Sonata, Op.30 No.1, Hristova and Houstoun moved into different territories of musical expression from a composer whose world had shifted to a state of ongoing existential crisis, one dominated by acute awareness of his growing deafness. Consequently, the music moves through its varying moods with a curious mixture of studied self-awareness and spontaneous exploration, a mood whose volatility was here beautifully realised by both musicians.

Hristova and Houstoun seemed to be able to “go with the flow” while dealing with interactions between the instruments which appeared in a kind of conflict/challenge with the other, assertive flourishes often met with questioning, withdrawn phrases, each speaking the phrase “what then?” Each player seemed acutely responsive to what the other was doing, balancing and co-ordinating sparkle and surge with introspectiveness in a way that led the listener’s ear continually on – a frisson of rapt intensity just before the recapitulation sounded particularly heartfelt and characteristic, as did the movement’s final flourish, with its quiet concluding rejoiner.

What a beautiful slow movment this work has! – the pianist’s gently rocking dotted rhythm supported the violinist’s cantabile line, before the instruments changed thematic roles, before the music took a breath-catching modulatory turn in a new direction, one filled with musings, spontaneous impulses of energy and thoughtful redirectionings, all of which were delivered in an entirely spontaneous and recreative way by the musicians.

Again, Beethoven took a by now familiar recourse to variation form for the finale, the resulting sequences characterised by the programme’s note-writer as “ranging from waggish to whimsical”. Certainly the expressive modes seem at times almost like cryptic clues for concealed messages, the musical flow alternating between great fluency and terse encodings! I particularly enjoyed the “hide-and-seek” variation mid-way, which set the whispered against the emphatic with po-faced theatricality, as well as the final capering energies of the concluding variation, whose winding-down meanderings towards the end kept us in thrall right up to the re-energised concluding gestures. What teamwork! – what timing! – and what a sense of identification with a composer’s world! It all augurs well for further instalments of the Hristova/Houstoun combination – a feast for Wellingtonians!

Delightful singing by combined Wainuiomata and Capital choirs in Catholic cathedral

Capital Choir and the Wainuiomata Choir
Musical Director: Sue Robinson, with Rhys Cocker (bass baritone), Jamie Young (tenor) Belinda Behie (piano accompanist)

Felicia Edgecombe: “World”, from Shaky Places song cycle
Puccini: Messa di Gloria
Morton Lauridsen: Sure on this Shining Night
Fauré: Cantique de Jean Racine

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Wellington

Sunday, 27 May 2017, 3pm

Capital Choir opened the programme with a piece by former long-serving choir director, Felicia Edgecombe, with words by choir member Rachel McAlpine.  I had not heard the performance in 2015 of the full song cycle, but this was a pleasing taste.  Like most of the programme, the piece was sung with appropriate tone and mood, but occasionally, especially early on in each work or movement, intonation slipped.  Not severely, but just under the note.   The choir could be a little tired, having sung the programme the previous evening in Lower Hutt.

Most commendable was the flier for the concert, which in full colour was absolutely beautiful, but inevitably not so attractive in black and white, as used for the programme cover.  It featured stained glass windows depicting angels, one playing a small harp and the other holding a long natural trumpet.  More importantly, the information between the angels was set out clearly, with all the necessary details, including the composers and titles of works to be performed.  Some choirs do not include such information, which I believe to be vital to anyone considering whether or not to attend.

Puccini’s mass was composed for orchestra and four-part choir with tenor, bass and baritone soloists.  Doubling up the deeper-voice solos and using piano instead of orchestra obviously saves money, but the lack of even a small group of instrumentalists takes much from the music and its enjoyment, thoroughly capable though the accompanist was.

The opening Kyrie had charming music, and the combined choirs’ performance was of equal character.  The following Gloria positively bounced along, the opening music more akin to a school song than to a religious work, but its nature changed to sombre for the ‘Et in terra pax’.  Excellent Latin pronunciation was a feature, as was the splendid singing of the basses.  Here and elsewhere in the programme the choir’s pianissimo singing was suitably subtle and worshipful.

Tenor Jamie Young was strong and confident in his arias  After his beautiful first aria, the jolly Gloria theme took over again, to be followed by an almost swinging ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’, that sounded, especially from the men like a happy operatic chorus.  Repeated notes tended to fall in pitch, but overall the tone, intonation and projection  were very good.

A broad, chorale-like ‘Tu solus sanctus’ was followed by a fugue before the jolly ‘Gloria’ returned again.  The Credo had the choir sounding a little tired, but it was always very precise with the words.  There was very good gradation of dynamics.  ‘Et incarnatus est’, a solo from Jamie Young, was very fine.  ‘Crucifixus est’ was set for bass solo with chorus.  Rhys Cocker has a fine voice, though it is not always projected well, especially when singing with choir accompaniment.  His low notes were quite lovely.

The ‘Et Resurrexit’ and the rest of the Credo were variable – both musically and in performance, but the Sanctus was beautiful, as was the short bass solo Benedictus.  Tenor Jamie Young finished the work with a florid Agnus Dei.

There was a lot of work for the choir in this Mass, which contains some lovely music, but it couldn’t be considered to be in the forefront of great choral compositions.

The Wainuiomata choir sang, following the interval, the most popular piece of American Morten Lauridsen’s considerable choral output: ‘Sure on this shining night’ written in 2005.  It was performed with assurance and sensitivity. Cocker sang very effectively in this.

The programme ended with the combined choirs performing Fauré’s beautiful Cantique de Jean Racine.  Here again, the pianissimo singing was an absolute delight.  It was a perfect end to the concert.

Not so, however, the speaking at both beginning and end of the concert by a male choir member.  The answer to the persistent speaking by performers to the audience, if they will not use a microphone, is to try it out before the concert with someone listening.  Almost always, the voice needs to be raised to enable audience towards the back of a large church or other venue to hear what is being said.

The church was not full, but well over half-full, and the audience was very appreciative.  I find it curious that now all the choirs are dressed entirely in black; it was not always so; I find it dull.



NZSO and Edo de Waart’s outstanding performance of Damnation of Faust

Berlioz: The Damnation of Faust

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Edo de Waart
Soloists: Alisa Kolosova (mezzo-soprano; Marguérite), Andrew Staples (tenor; Faust), Eric Owens (bass; Méphistophélès), James Clayton (baritone; Brander),
Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus, Wellington (Michael Vinten, Chorus Director)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday, 25 August 2017, 6.30pm

Berlioz was a non-conformist, musically.  In an ironic twist, the otherwise excellent programme notes said he ‘flaunted rules and regulations’ whereas in fact he flouted them, falling out with audience and critics in the process.  The work that was the entire programme of this NZSO concert demonstrated to the full the composer’s very different  music from that composed by his contemporaries and recent predecessors.

The work required a large orchestra; there were numbers of additional players, and a large chorus, consisting of 28 women and 43 men – when have we ever heard a Wellington choir with so many men in it?  I was surprised and delighted to see that the orchestra appeared to include an ophicleide, the instrument specified by the composer next to the tuba, not merely a second tuba (the listing in the programme did not give this instrument).

I last heard this work live back in the 1970s, in the marvellous Dunedin Town Hall, with Kiri te Kanawa as Marguerite and Simon Estes (American bass) as Méphistophélès.  The other two singers were David Parker as Faust and Maurice Taylor as Brander.

It was innovative and useful to have surtitles projected in the Michael Fowler Centre, as for a conventional opera (which of course this work is not), so that the audience could follow what was being sung.  The French we heard sounded impeccable, particularly from Eric Owens.

The first character we met was Faust, sung by British tenor Andrew Staples.  He has a very pleasing voice.  At first I thought he was not always strong enough against the orchestra, but soon this opinion changed, as he warmed to the task, and adjusted to the venue being full (well, not completely, which was disappointing) after presumably rehearsing with it virtually empty.

Berlioz’s enchanting music constantly painted pictures.  Following Faust’s first solo there was pungent woodwind, including no fewer than four bassoons, and numerous rhapsodic utterances from the orchestra as a whole.  The chorus’s first entry, as peasants dancing and singing, was clear and immediate.  The singing was precise, with full-bodied tone.

Then came the Hungarian March, featuring fine flute playing especially, with other winds in strong support.  Rousing military bravado was almost palpable.

Next was a complete contrast, as Faust leaves the countryside and returns to his study, in Part II.  The pensive mood is portrayed in the music’s lambent tones.  Then an Easter chorus is sung by the choir and there is a great build-up of volume, as the orchestra becomes more agitated and Méphistophélès appears.  American Owens has a magnificent voice, full of expression and tonal colour, but perhaps his interpretation of the role of Méphistophélès could have been more dramatic, vocally; there was a certain uninvolved quality about his performance.

He takes Faust to a pub, where the chorus of drinkers becomes raucous, and an amazing story about a rat is told in ironic, fugal music, followed by Méphistophélès’s story about a flea. The male chorus was in fine fettle singing the chorale for the rat.  Strong music conveyed the irony of the flea song.  James Clayton, in the part of the drunken Brander, used gesture and movement more than the other singers.

Faust and Méphistophélès retreat from the vulgar scene and the latter sings a lullaby, encouraging rest to come to Faust, amid flowers.  Here, his large, rich voice was imposing, and expressive of the words.  Trombones’ fine playing accompanied him.  The mixed chorus was most effective in invoking the beauty of nature.  The strings lead a quiet dance, as Faust falls into slumber.

The male chorus, now students, are joined by the soloists in singing that was robust and characterful, with full brass, as the two protagonists enter the town where lives Marguérite, whom Faust has seen in visions as he slept.

As they make their way to her room, yet more varied, imaginative music sounds from the orchestra, with a march consisting of trumpets and timpani (6 of them!), plus echo horns and trumpets off stage.  Faust contemplates the air of the countryside, and thinks of Marguérite.  Andrew Staples produced some gorgeous high notes; here there was no problem of balance against the orchestra.

At the opening of Part III, dazzling flutes introduce Marguérite, who sings one of the work’s well-known arias, about the king of Thule.  This aria drew beautiful vocal expression from Alisa Kolosova; she also used more facial expression than the other two principal soloists.  The aria was accompanied by Julia Joyce on viola, a marvellous obbligato played with clarity and broad strokes bringing out the full tone of the instrument.  It was a pity that so much coughing, absent in the first half, was apparent during this aria.

On Méphistophélès’s return he is accompanied by fanciful piccolo pirouettes.  Bass clarinet, too has quite a large part to play; another manifestation of Berlioz’s imaginative orchestration, evoking the dramatic moods and changes, reflecting the detail of Goethe’s great dramatic poem based on the medieval legend of a man who sold his soul to the Devil.
At the moment at which Marguérite and Faust must part, since they are imminently to be discovered together in the bedroom, the full chorus joined in.

Part IV reveals brilliant singing from Alisa Kolosova in the wonderful aria “D’amour l’ardente flamme”.  It was exquisite singing, but even more exquisite was the playing of the orchestra’s cor anglais player, Michael Austin, performing the obbligato.  I cannot recall hearing cor anglais playing more wonderful and dynamically varied than this.  It made the aria exotic and erotic; alternately electrifying and hypnotic.

The soldiers interrupt the mood, but the cor anglais gets a last opportunity to produce the mellifluous, enchanting, expressive melody.  Whereas at times Marguérite seemed to lack the power to project sufficiently.

Faust is heard again, invoking the forces of nature.  The drama builds, the female chorus rises. Méphistophélès brings his rushing horses, portrayed by a combination of pizzicato and bowed strings; they underpin the screams and unearthly songs.  Brass then woodwind add to the horrific scenario of the rush to hell that has full sway in Berlioz’s (and Goethe’s) imagination.  Faust staggers as the men’s chorus and Méphistophélès carry forward the ghastly drama with various names of the Devil, and singing in a ‘devilish tongue’. Méphistophélès wanders off and the women join the chorus.

It was a shattering experience to hear the chorus sing the heavenly ‘Praise’, with the two harps and a solo soprano from the chorus, after what preceded it.  Their tone was gorgeous in this heavenly ending.  The interpretation by the writer of the programme notes was that the horses carry Marguérite to hell as well as Faust, whereas Larry Pruden’s notes to the 1972 performance have her saved by God; hence the heavenly chorus.

This was an outstanding performance .  At the end, the applause was loud, long and accompanied by cheers for all the performers.  Andrew Staples nobly gave his bouquet to Julia Joyce, who had played the viola obbligato so beautifully.  Then, to my delight, Edo de Waart wended his way through the orchestra to present his flowers to Michael Austin.

Descriptions heard from members of the audience afterwards included ‘amazing’, ‘tremendous’, ‘emotional’.  In addition to the privilege of hearing a superb band of soloists, a splendid and well-trained chorus this concert demonstrated again what a fine orchestra we have, under its superb conductor, Edo de Waart.  Above all, however, it revealed the astonishing innovation, inventiveness impetuosity and imagination of Berlioz.


“New Look” NZ Trio performs old and new at Wellington City Gallery


Natalie Lin (violin), Ashley Brown (cello), Sarah Watkins (piano)

Arnold Bax: Trio in B flat major
Jenny McLeod: Seascapes
Samuel Holloway: Corpse and Mirror (New Commission)
Beethoven: Piano Trio in E flat Op. 70 No. 2

City Art Gallery, Wellington,

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

NZTrio are undergoing a dramatic change. With the departure of foundation member Justine Cormack, attention at this concert was inevitably centred on the replacement violinist for this tour, Natalie Lin, a New Zealander currently living in Texas. She immediately impressed in the vigorous opening of the Bax trio with her strong, confident tone, going on to duet lyrically with Ashley Brown’s warm dark cello. This was densely-written, lush late-Romantic music for the most part, exceptions being a berceuse-like section in the middle movement, and an almost Bartokian staccato energy in the finale. Perhaps because Bax was a pianist, and the original commission was from a pianist, the overriding sonic impression however was that of the rippling arpeggios, trills, and interludes from Sarah Watkins’ Bechstein piano.

The programme began with this 1946 work from the afterglow of Romanticism. It ended with an 1808 one from the pre-dawn of Romanticism. Beethoven’s E flat trio is not well known (possibly because, unlike its “Ghost”-ly twin, Op.72 No. 1, it does not have a catchy title). Here the pianist’s articulation was aptly crisp and classical, the strings gracefully Mozartian, but everyone had Beethovenian heft where required (as in the second movement). Occasionally the interaction between the strings, on the one hand, and piano, on the other, reminded me of the treatment of voice and piano in some of the songs that Beethoven was composing around the same time (“Neue Liebe, neues Leben”, for example), or there would be brief declamatory passages (again not unknown in the lieder, such as “Andenken”).

New Zealand composer Jenny McLeod’s Seascapes (2015) are her arrangements of two of her 1995 Tone Clock pieces that were requested by Jack Body to commemorate Douglas Lilburn’s centenary year. They were good choices: the iterated piano notes in the first piece, and a hesitant Scotch snap in the second, are both reminiscent of characteristic Lilburn “fingerprints”. Having heard these rich, full-bodied versions for piano trio, it is hard to imagine them for piano only.

A welcome feature of NZTrio’s recitals is their commissioning of new New Zealand works. They have had a long association with Auckland composer Samuel Holloway, playing his remarkable Stapes at the 2005 Nelson Composers’ Workshop, and later including it on their excellent Lightbox CD(the strings, using non-standard tuning, make the piano sound eerily microtonal). Over time, Holloway’s style has become increasingly austere: in his string quartet Impossible Songs, long, often microtonal, solos on the strings are relieved only by the emergence of a sensuous female voice in the final movement. In more recent work still, there is often no such reward at the end. At last year’s Nelson workshop, for instance, duo pianists performed Holloway’s Things, in which each “event” – chord or note – had its own page: although potentially tedious, it encouraged focused, meditative listening to the inner life of the sounds.

Corpse and Mirror reminded me a little bit of Things, but here the “events” followed one another in quick succession, establishing a regular (though not slavish) rhythm. With the precision ensemble playing of the NZTrio, the piece had the effect of a “trio for one instrument”, each “sound object” finely nuanced, ever changing yet ever familiar, like a kaleidoscope, or like the obsessive cross-hatchings of the artist Jasper Johns that Holloway refers to in his programme note (Johns also provided the title). The result was rather like a jagged Webernian melodic line but with a pulse such as found in Steve Reich (one of the few minimalist Holloway holds in high regard). Not an easy listen, then, but one which had its rewards after all.

Kent McIntosh, Bianca Andrew with Catherine Norton: German and Swedish songs and Janáček’s remarkable cycle

The Diary of One Who Disappeared by Janáček

Kent McIntosh (New Zealand tenor, resident in Australia), Bianca Andrew (mezzo), Catherine Norton (piano)

And songs by
Wolf: ‘Auf einer Wanderung’
Mahler: ‘Wer had dies Liedlein erdacht?’
Alfvén: ‘Skogen sover’
Sibelius: ‘Flickan kom ifran sin äisklings mote’ and ‘Var det en dröm?’
Kurt Weill: ’It never was you’

Adam Concert Room, New Zealand School of Music

Saturday 19 August, 7:30 pm

The first half of this recital – Lieder – was given to mezzo Bianca Andrew while the Janáček was sung (mainly) by Kent McIntosh.

To devote the song part to Lieder in German and Swedish (and an American-German) was to lend it very comforting variety, and filled the time to an hour. It might have been decided that Janáček could be accompanied by other Czech or Slavonic songs, which could have been interesting, but this programme was very nicely composed.

What was more of a problem was the atmosphere of the venue. There was a sadly small audience; it was a cold, wet evening; lighting was bright and unforgiving, and the combination of rather serious, though in some respects quirky and droll, songs, with the quite unique Diary, labelled a ‘song cycle’ made for an unfamiliar, though in the end, stimulating programme.

Bianca Andrew and pianist Catherine Norton performed the Lieder scrupulously, with great insight.  Hugo Wolf felt a special affinity with Möricke and set 53 of his poems. ‘Auf einer Wanderung’ is typical in its capricious mood shifts reflecting the changing thoughts and reactions of the young man in a new town. Her penetrating, appealing voice remained in perfect balance with the piano.

Mahler’s ‘Wer had dies Liedlein erdacht?’ comes from his collection of settings of the hundreds of folk songs published in the first decade of the 19th century by Arnim and Brentano, Des Knaben Wunderhorn. This one is typical of the sometimes bizarre and irrational little tales they tell. The piano begins with a peasantish dance introducing the first care-free moments, then cautious and finally a bit of nonsense, beautifully sung.

The other songs were in Swedish, the first by Hugo Alfvén, best known for his Midsommarvaka, his Swedish Rhapsody. ‘Skogen sover’ is a nocturnal song, clearly influenced by German Lieder, yet distinctive, with a piano part depicting night personifying the poet’s sleeping lover. And two Sibelius songs (almost all he composed were in Swedish, the language his family spoke). In the first, ‘Flickan kom ifran sin äisklings mote’, the piano was even more emotional, even ferocious than the voice which rose to a shrillness that yet remained within the bounds of taste. The line was more legato in ‘Var det en dröm?’over a rippling piano, again in a song that handled moods that shifted from unease to despair and finally ecstasy.

Bianca Andrew’s last song was from Kurt Weill’s Knickerbocker Holiday: ‘It never was you’, which she has made something of her own. It was a song that continued the theme common in her other songs: the theme of enigmatic love lost and found, doubted and fleetingly attained, and her singing of this elusive number showed why it’s become a signature for her.

Catherine remained at the piano and played an introductory note at which dark-suited Kent McIntosh emerged from behind the audience. Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared is described as having a dramatic character, and it is sometimes staged, costumed, in a simple way, though some directors have gone as far as to simulate sex: thankfully that temptation was resisted. The performance thus had little in the way of alleviating elements that might have shifted audience attention to the story and the narrator’s dilemma rather than demanding so much of the singers, whose every note, inflexion, gesture and movement was the sole focus.

Though McIntosh is essentially a chorus singer (with Opera Australia), he has given a number of song recitals over the years (though I don’t recall an earlier one in New Zealand).

His tackling of the Janáček cycle (it can be compared to Schubert’s two cycles in that it tells a story, but its individual sections are hardly songs in their own right) was a brave undertaking. McIntosh’s tenor voice has colour and intensity and he succeeds generally in the challenge of negotiating the terse language of the Czech poems (though of course, in translation), and musical line creating a credible predicament, the denouement of which, one senses, can only be tragic.

Here and there one felt a loss of narrative flow in the first eight poems, but it’s a welcome respite when the Gypsy girl (Bianca) enters and the story gains through the tension that this encounter injects. It is here where a certain amount of staging might have enlivened the presentation.

A very singular interlude is the Intermezzo, where the singers disappear and the piano alone suggests the impending outcome through music of awful desolation. Similarly, the interjection of three female singers in the balcony to the rear, was highly evocative.

As with so much else of Janáček, this is a singularly unusual work, hard to characterise; though quite short, it succeeds in creating a vivid psychological dilemma, exploring cross-cultural, class and family issues that might normally be the substance of a full opera. Much shorter than Winterreise of course, it traverses comparable emotional territory, though handling a tragic tale of far greater depth and complexity.

It was a brave and largely successful enterprise that deserved a bigger audience.

Beautiful Lieder recital from Maaike Christie-Beekmann, viola and piano

St Andrew’s Lunchtime concerts

Maaike Beekman-Christie (mezzo soprano) with Rachel Thomson (piano) and Chris van der Zee (viola)

Brahms: Two songs for mezzo, viola and piano:Op 91: Gestillte Sehnsucht and Die Ihr schwebet or Geistliches Wiegenlied
Schumann: Frauen-liebe und -leben (the first six songs)
Wolf: three Mignon songs (not performed)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 16 August, 12:15 pm

I wondered whether it was quite appropriate to review this recital, because, before she began, mezzo Maaike Christie-Beekman had explained that a voice problem might not allow her to get very far through the published programme.

I think her tactics were sensible when she began with the two Brahms songs, rather than with Schumann’s eight-song cycle which she then approached. And she abandoned Wolf’s Mignon songs (from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister) altogether.

Brahms Zwei Gesänge, Opus 91
Here were two of Brahms most beautiful and spiritual (allowing that he was an agnostic) songs, which were composed with an obbligato viola part. The opening of the first song which might be translated ‘suppressed’ or ‘stilled longing’, began with the rather singular sound of viola and piano – the particularly gorgeous tone of Chris van der Zee’s instrument, and Rachel Thomson’s more familiar, insightful piano – that captured the somewhat sombre tone of the song in a very arresting way. Whether it was her being careful with her voice or her sensitive response to the nature of the poems and their settings, I don’t know.

The poems had quite different origins. ‘Gestillte Sehnsucht’ by Rückert who, for the musical, is best known for Mahler’s settings of a small group of poems; while ‘Geistliches Wiegenlied’ (its first line, ‘Die ihr schwebet’), was a paraphrase by Emanuel von Geibel of a poem by famous 16-17th century Spanish playwright and poet Lope de Vega (a contemporary of Shakespeare). Geibel was a lesser poet of the Romantic period, a bit younger than Heine and Möricke. That poem was later set by Hugo Wolf, in his Spanisches Liederbuch.

Brahms set them with viola obbligato for his violinist friend Joachim, who was particularly fond of the viola, to mark the birth of Joachim and his wife’s first child.  I found a different slant to the story about the pair of songs in programme notes for the Los Angeles Philharmonic (on the Internet of course):

In 1863 violinist Joseph Joachim married the distinguished mezzo-soprano Amalie Schneeweiss. Both were important musical partners for Brahms, as well as close personal friends. They later had a son, named Johannes in honor of Brahms. The composer wrote an enchanted cradle song (“Geistliches Wiegenlied,” Sacred Lullaby) for his namesake, which Amalie could sing with Joseph playing the viola, Brahms’ favorite string instrument.

But the marriage became troubled by Joachim’s paranoid delusions about an affair he imagined Amalie had with Fritz August Simrock, Brahms’ publisher. Hoping to bring them together, Brahms reworked the lullaby and wrote a new song, “Gestillte Sehnsucht” (Stilled Longing). Blissfully domestic as the song was, it failed to repair the rift, and when Brahms testified on Amalie’s side in the subsequent divorce proceedings brought by Joseph, the violinist extended the broken relationship to include Brahms as well.

The second song began in a similar vein, reaching somewhat higher, it seemed, and here and there with a little more intensity. I think Brahms songs (all songs really) bloom with singing that pays more attention to simple modesty and unpretentiousness, and where the singer succeeds in telling the listener that (s)he finds sheer delight in their performance. That rather rare quality probably explains why I tend not to feel the sort of affection and delight in Brahms that I do in Schubert and Schumann. These quite overturned that feeling.

Frauenliebe und -leben
Then the Schumann cycle: among my dozen desert island discs. I was enraptured by them very early – say my late teens, as a result of one of the rather few rich and happy experiences at secondary school. Both my German masters for the compressed courses in the sixth and upper sixth forms loved music and used songs to embed the sounds of the language in our heads. Though I didn’t hear these particular songs at college the passion I’d developed for both German Romantic poetry and Lieder, led to a lot of eager exploration in my university years, where I continued with German (though without a lecturer with much interest in music). So I encountered poems by all the main poets, including Rückert and Chamisso (the poet of the Schumann cycle), and of course, Goethe and Schiller, Hölderlin, Tieck and Novalis, Uhland, Eichendorf, Müller (of Die schöne Müllerin and Die Winterreise), the two who collected the folk song collection, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Arnim and Brentano), Möricke, Heine, and Geibel (of the second Brahms song).

I remember it struck me then that Germany had far more poets of the Romantic era that one knew about, than Britain, though I surmised there might be some difference in intellectual and literary quality at the less remarkable end of the German school.

Here endeth lesson in German Romantic poetry.

Schumann’s cycle has been subject to strange, perverse comments (hardly to be called ‘criticism’): a male purporting to write from the female perspective has to be either dishonest or sentimental since the feminine psyche hardly warrants serious study, or something of that kind… Such can be the charges against both poet and composer. In other words, only a female can hope to have the slightest understanding of the emotions depicted in poems about a woman’s life and love. I’ve always considered that nonsense; though I confess I’d have trouble hearing a male sing them (there are some or record).

So of the eight songs in the cycle, Maaike Christie-Beekman managed six. ‘Seit ich ihn gesehen’ quickly had me feeling quite weepy: the combination of the sentiments in the song and sudden impact of hearing the hushed sincerity that this gifted singer brought to it, and to the later ones. The sort of emotion that Janet Baker creates, not over-precisely articulated, merely expressing with genuine sensitivity and emotion what the words are saying.

‘Er, der Herrlichste von allen’ more open and confident, even ardent, and again the fact that she was guarding her voice enhanced the otherness of the song. A jumpy, hesitant feeling came with ‘Ich kann’s nicht fassen’: her disbelief that he can really love her so!

And then the one that took root first for me, and probably others: ‘Du Ring am meinem Finger’ where she’s married, and there’s a trace of disbelief amid her ecstasy and wonderment. And all these emotions seemed so genuinely present in her voice.

‘Helft mir, ihr Schwestern’ describes the preparations for the wedding, excitement, trepidation, over rolling piano chards. And as with so many Schumann songs there’s an enchanting postlude, a sort of commentary by the piano on what the singer is really trying to say!

‘Süsser Freund’, with its confusion between her beloved’s face and that of a hoped-for baby; the sort of song that would probably have seemed quite beyond the pale in 19th century Britain!.

And there she stopped, clearly aware of the greater demands of intensity demanded from the next two songs, particularly ‘An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust’, describing the ecstasy at her first baby, and the heart-wrenching last song describing her grief at her husband’s death. There’s much in the last three poems, at least, that probably struck stiff-upper lip English readers and critics as excessively mawkish and sentimental. I simply think they’re moving and beautiful poems and their settings incomparable.

Perhaps it was as well to go out on a happier note. Even abbreviated, it was a wonderful little recital, and I long for the whole thing from Christie-Beekman. And the Wolf and lots more….