At St Mary’s, Karori: viola and organ music drawn from Bach, Elgar and an obscure York Minster organist

Karori Classics
Christiaan van der Zee (viola), Douglas Mews (organ)

Bach:   Sonata for viola da gamba and harpsichord in G major, BWV 1027
Tenor aria from Cantata no. 5: ‘Ergiesse dich reichlich’
Toccata and Fugue in D minor
Elgar:   Sospiri
Chanson de Matin
Matthew Camidge: Concerto in G minor for organ

St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Karori

Friday 22 September 2017, 7pm

A rather small audience enjoyed a ‘Bach sandwich’ as the artists described it.  The opening work, played by viola and organ immediately impressed with the euphonious tone of the viola, which one so seldom hears played solo, or with simply an accompaniment.  Flute tones from the organ were a sufficient contrast to allow the viola to really speak with its own voice.  It was described by the person introducing the concert as a ‘velvety’ sound.

The first movement of the sonata was played mainly in the lower register of the viola.  A faster second movement was followed by an andante third, with slow, lilting phrases on both instruments.  The final movement was an ornate allegro moderato featuring jaunty high flute pipes, the viola bolstering the melodies from below.

Some more Bach came in the shape of the transcription of a tenor aria from Cantata no.5 ‘Wo soll ich fliehen hin’ (Where shall I flee); making alternate settings of his music was something Bach did a great deal himself, including many arias arranged for organ.  The organ played the tenor part, while Chris van der Zee was the fountain – a word occurring in the aria.  He explained that the viola was tuned to a lower pitch than usual.

There were warm tones from both instruments.  The viola was played from in front of the pipes; the organ console was some distance away.  The piece was typical Bach, with lots of intricacies, depicting the water falling and splashing from the fountain.

Elgar was represented by two quite well-known pieces, the first arranged from an original for strings, harp and solo cello, and the second having various orchestral settings but often played on violin and piano.  I found they sounded a little strange on organ.  The viola tone was lovely and full, being played in a Romantic style for this music, quite different from that employed in the Bach.  I thought the Chanson de Matin did not work particularly well for this instrumental combination – but maybe I am just too accustomed to hearing it from a string orchestra.  There was an effective change of registration on the organ for the more agitated section, then it was back to quieter, more mellow pipes for the ending.

Chris van der Zee had to depart at this point to another function; Douglas Mews treated us to another English composer, with whom I was not familiar: Matthew Camidge (1764 – 1844).  He was an organist, and part of a family dynasty of church musicians at York Minster.  His Concerto for organ in G minor was one of six.  As Mews explained, he wrote in an older style, not exhibiting any influences of the nineteenth century.

The piece had a strong Introduction, then a quiet section.  Contrasting passages followed.  The organist made excellent use of the two manuals, with contrasting registrations.  This was lively music.

There was a quiet and slower movement, using flute stops.  I thought the music pleasant but not particularly inspired.  The final gavotte movement was jolly, and very fast, with almost humorous figures.

The final work was Bach’s popular Toccata and Fugue in D minor – except that, as Douglas Mews explained, there is doubt about its authorship.  He said that it is not very organistic, and perhaps was originally for violin – or viola?  Some scholars stoutly maintain that it is an early work by Johann Sebastian, while others think that one of his pupils wrote it.  The lack of a score in Bach’s hand is one of the problems.

Regardless, its rousing opening and strong themes are always stirring.  Bright registration and a fast tempo made this work speak its message very clearly, in a fine, detached style.  This was a very effective, brilliant and satisfying rendition.



Two pianists: rapport, stamina, poetry at NZSM Adam Concert Room

Lunchtime recital, piano four hands – Jian Liu and Hamish Robb

Te Koki: New Zealand School of Music, in Adam Concert Room at Victoria University

Friday 22 September 2017, lunchtime

Lucky we were to attend this lunchtime concert at New Zealand School of Music. It was luminous in several respects.

Firstly the choice of programme – three works, by Schubert, Hindemith and Debussy.

… with pithy and pertinent verbal introductions by Hamish Robb before each piece. Not every musician has this gift of communication, to wear his learning lightly in talking about composition in a way that makes audience feel drawn in to the work, as active participants in its performance. Two pianists, four hands, many ears.

These two men play with such rapport, stamina, clarity and poetry that we are taken on a journey out and about, round and back to ourselves… then left simply to roar our gratitude. How else can an audience communicate a transcendent experience? Actually there were plenty of smiling and talking audience members lingering for ages afterwards to confirm that it was indeed a shared experience, and that I am not making this up.

Schubert’s  Fantasie in f minor, D940 opens with an allegro molto moderato of clear strength in half the world, with a wistful motif that will return to haunt us.  The largo is next, bringing a gentle sadness … the other half of the world. Well, there is life and there is death, and stuff in between, this we all know. The scherzo, action-station, journeys out to do what has to be done. The finale confirms that although these movements are distinct in contrasting moods, and were set in 1828,  they are also tightly bound together so that the nigh-20 minute composition plays out as one, today. It seemed a kind of testament, albeit almost 200 years later, to what’s still out there. ( I had spent two days and nights of agonized waiting for news of family in Mexico. This music was a dreamed report from the field).

Then the Hindemith Sonata for four hands. What is consonant, what is dissonant? It’s Germany 1938.  I had really only known Hindemith as composer of Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadisches Ballett, and that remains a striking piece  of 20th century dance history if ever there was one… oh, and the memory that our daughter who as a college student had played the Eight Pieces for flute in an exam – scoring honours for that (but failing in the Scales section as she didn’t realize — read, couldn’t believe — that you also had to play scales). I remember a crispness, an unpredictability, a weightlessness to that music.  Something distilled.

Debussy’s Petite Suite – in four movements that again scope the options of the ways we are in the world. En bateau – no-one composes the sea like Debussy. Cortège, a progressing, then Menuet : moderato. I’ve never known a menuet like it … calm and courteous, as any menuet would be, a friendship between two people … then whacko, a post-modern middle bit that goes awol, cats are dancing, this ain’t no menuet any more, lawks however will this end? Eventually they move back to the danse-a-deux, and safely home from a risky encounter. Then to the final movement, Ballet : Allegro giusto – and what a waltz, the world whirling in triple time, heartbeat rhythm, so it’s “yes to everything” though nothing mindless in saying / playing that.

I was aware that Debussy  knew a great deal about dance, and intuited even more …   (Nijinksy knew that too, so his Après Midi d’un Faune , to Debussy, remains one of the finest entwinings of the two-arts-into-one that we have, and the only surviving work of that output of choreographic genius we have let slip away, to our eternal loss).

This was a free lunch-time concert, all praise to Te Koki – New Zealand School of Music. Furthermore it was demonstration of civilized co-operation between two gun pianists who, in other times and places, might behave as rival colleagues — here instead they share a keyboard. Politicians should have been there.

The day before, I had attended, because a grandmother would, a school concert to hear a granddaughter play her small cello in the little orchestra. Afterwards the Principal of the school spoke to performers and audience alike, reminding us that the two things that matter most in the world are Music and Family – ( then he added Dance, since a row of keen kids had performed the cancan to one of their schoolmates’ items. Phew, that was lucky, I thought). All told and on balance, I had a very good week.

It is such an infectious affair to hear musicians performing so absolutely at the top of their game, and communicating their own immense pleasure in doing so.  It transfers to a mood of hope that people can help people, that elections within a democracy can work, more or less, that there are worthwhile things to say to children, and that daylight saving means there’s not one hour to waste in whatever we consider important. Do it.

The recital could well be repeated but by the time this review is published both pianists will have played half a dozen more programmes — they were at The Third Eye that same night …  soon leaving for China … allegro ma non troppo,  vivace, con brio. Godspeed. Safe travel. Happy returns. And I am grateful that there’s a website to whom I can offer a retrospective review.