Imposing commemoration of 500th anniversary of Lutheran Reformation

Reformation: A Lutheran vespers service

Cantata Vespers by J S Bach

The Chiesa Ensemble (chamber ensemble of NZSO players)
Vocal soloists: Anna Sedcole – soprano, Rebecca Woodmore – alto, John Beaglehole – tenor, David Morriss – bass
Organ: Rick Erickson; harpsichord: Michael Stewart
The choir of Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul, directed by Rick Erickson

Violin Concerto in E, BWV 1042 (solo violin: Anna van der Zee)
Cantata: ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’, BWV 80
Motet: ‘Der Geisthilft unser Schwachheit auf’, BWV 226

Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul

Sunday 29 October, 5 pm

This was an ecumenical service, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, led by Bishop Mark Whitfield of the Lutheran Church of New Zealand, in the Anglican Cathedral, with choral support from the Cathedral choir. Earlier in the year, there was a commemorative service that involved the Roman Catholic Church at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, jointly hosted by Cardinal John Dew and Bishop Whitfield.

Ordinarily, such religious events would not attract the attention of the classical music reviewing industry. But all the important branches of the Christian church have paid attention to music and have been extremely important contributors to the composition and performance of music. In fact the music used by the early church survived, in the first few centuries mainly by oral tradition, and after the invention of notation, in manuscript records of plain chant and soon, of polyphony. The increasing sophistication of music through the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance was almost entirely thanks to the church in (almost) all of its persuasions.

So it was probably no accident that Martin Luther who was one of many who sought to reform the character of Christianity, and the most significant one, breaking from the Catholic church, was an excellent musician who knew that his message would be most successfully disseminated with the help of music.  (We were reminded that the Church of England is not, strictly, a Protestant church, since its separation from Rome by King Henry VIII was almost entirely a matter of a break with Papal authority and the appropriation of the assets of religious houses, but not a matter of immediate or important doctrinal change).

And it was especially appropriate to mark this anniversary with the music of J S Bach who, as well as being perhaps the greatest composer in the western musical tradition, was certainly the greatest composer of religious music (ahem, careful! – Victoria, Palestrina?), most of which was for use in the Lutheran church.

So the service began with a ‘Prelude’, comprising the first two movements of Bach’s Violin Concerto in E, with Anna van der Zee as solo violinist. Its performance in the great reverberant space of the cathedral invested it with a particular spiritual dimension, where the virtually vibrato-less playing was given a human touch through its tonal undulations. It was a good idea to have the other two violinists and the violist standing, a gesture that seemed to draw attention to the chamber music-like performance. The second movement offered the opportunity to draw further attention to the beauties of the music and to the subtle effects produced by varying the weight of bowing during sustained notes.

It was followed by Rick Erickson’s performance of the chorale prelude, Ein feste Burg, on the digital organ (given the unavailability of the main cathedral organ): not too conspicuously different in terms of tonal quality, but not so capable of grand, imposing climactic moments; though perhaps less important given the amount of quite elaborate decoration with which it was clothed.

There followed a variety of Lutheran hymns of the 16th and 17th centuries and one based on a 3rd century Greek chant.

The next piece by Bach was his motet Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, which is the second of the six motets listed in the BWV, Bach catalogue. Much less familiar than Singet dem Herrn; Komm, Jesu, komm or Jesu, meine Freude, the performance was distinctive through the preponderance of high voices that were, naturally enough, especially striking in the acoustic. On the other hand, that meant that words (in the German of course) were not clearly articulated.

A setting of the Magnificat by the 16th century Italian composer Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi preceded the next Bach work, the complete cantata, ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’, BWV 80: no doubt the performance that was central to the entire Vespers service. It opened with the choral setting of the first verse, after which the four soloists took turns in the sequence of arias and recitatives. Beginning with the deeply impressive performance of ‘Alles, was von Gott geboren’ from bass David Morriss and soprano Anna Sedcole: his warmly illuminated, hers decorated ethereally, with a lovely cello obbligato.

The choral verse, featuring the familiar choral section, accompanied by trumpets and timpani, had the effect of anchoring the whole performance. Then tenor John Beaglehole’s recitative ‘So stehe dann bei Christi blutgefärbten Fahne’: much high lying, yet confident and accurate, and he was joined by alto Rebecca Woodmore in a lovely aria with the accompaniment of oboe(s), sounding deep and rich enough to be an oboe d’amore; her voice was splendidly firm and well placed.

Finally, the Offering was passed during the orchestra’s playing the last movement of the concerto, always a deeply felt yet high spirited piece.

The occasion no doubt proved an interesting and moving occasion for believers in the congregation, while the range of music, and not merely the Bach, offered a chance for all to gain an understanding of the musical context of the Lutheran Reformation.

Rachmaninov – jubilation and bitterness, but sheer poetry from Joyce Yang

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
Vocalise Op.34 No.14 (transcribed by the composer)
Piano Concerto No.3 in D Minor Op. 30
Symphonic Dances Op.45

Joyce Yang (piano)
Edo de Waart (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 27th October, 2017

A beautifully put-together programme, this, devoted to the music of Rachmaninov, and in almost every way, superbly delivered! There could be no doubt, however as to who the “star of the show” was – Korean-born American pianist Joyce Yang gave what seemed to me a performance in a thousand of the composer’s fearsome D Minor Concerto, regarded by many as one of the most technically difficult works for piano and orchestra ever written. Earlier, the NZSO and conductor Edo de Waart had breathed into life a deliciously-poised orchestra-only version of the wordless song, Vocalise, in an arrangement devised by the composer. Then, following the concerto, came a performance of Rachmaninov’s very last work, his “Symphonic Dances” , written in 1940, three years before his death. The first two of the dances came off best, here, particularly the first, with its beautifully-played saxophone solo – I confess to being a tad disappointed with the final dance’s performance, feeling that it was wanting in “bite”, and needing more wildness and desperation in its execution.

The Vocalise, which began the programme is one of those pieces which has been arranged or transcribed for a variety of instruments – it began life as a wordless song which concluded the composer’s Op.34 collection, entitled “14 Romances for high voice and piano”, and was written specifically for the voice of the great Russian soprano Antonia Nezhdanova, Rachmaninov wishing to give the singer a vehicle for displaying the beauty of her voice without recourse to words. The composer was to subsequently arrange the work both for voice and orchestra accompaniment, and for orchestra alone, although more recent sources suggest that Rachmaninov originally wrote the work for Nezhdanova to perform with orchestra AFTER the rest of the songs were already written for voice and piano, the Vocalise being subsequently added to the “Romances” collection. Among the various arrangements, the most unusual is probably that for theremin and piano, arranged by Clara Rockmore (nee Reisenberg), who was the electronic instrument’s most well-known exponent during the twentieth century.

This was a gorgeously-played performance (the conductor’s very first of this work, as he tells us in the programme’s introductory note), enabling the NZSO strings to really show their mettle, and delivering all those qualities which bring out the work’s inherent tenderness, lyricism, depth of feeling and range of intensity. The strings at first had the lion’s share of the playing, but they were gradually joined by the winds, firstly seeming to merely echo-phrase-ends, but then to increasingly augment the harmonies of the textures, as well as contributing counterpointing lines. Towards the end the music becomes strongly reminiscent of the slow movement of the composer’s Second Symphony, by dint of a clarinet solo which takes over the theme for a few measures before surrendering it again to the ascending strings.

Though in some ways moving from the Vocalise to the D MInor Piano Concerto seemed like something of a “quantum leap”, the links between the two works were here more than usually stressed by the character of the concerto performance, soloist Joyce Yang giving one of the most poetic and sheerly beautiful realizations of this work I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing!  She and Edo de Waart had played the piece together at least twice before with different orchestras, so the interpretation was “of a piece”, with the give-and take between soloist and orchestra replete with understanding and fluency.

Among what marked out her performance for me from so many others was her conveyance of involvement with every note of the music she played – nothing sounded mechanical or “less important” (as either “fillip” or transitional” sequences), but all had its place in a kind of organically-conceived whole. Another thing was, as I’ve said, her remarkable poeticizing of so much of what she played – never did she seem interested in virtuosity for its own sake. Whatever “display element” was in the solo part was there because of the music, and nothing more.

In addition, neither have I heard another pianist bring out to the same extent the music’s impish, quixotic aspect – she found a spikiness in some of the figurations that I thought equated with Rachmaninov’s contemporaries such as Prokofiev,Ravel and Bartok, and even in places, Gershwin. Humour isn’t often a quality one associates with Rachmaninov’s music, but the way Yang articulated some of the filigree passage-work in places made me smile at the playing’s sheer character – this was no faceless perfection, seamless articulation, bland liquidity or pure decoration on show – every note, as I’ve said, had its own raison d’etre, in this performance.

I confess I had to go back all the way to 1993, and Peter Donohoe’s performance of this work with the NZSO under Nicholas Braithwaite, to recall the same wonderment and pleasure at hearing this work “live” – an example of such shared alchemy of interpretation was during that brief, but telling sequence just before the final first-movement reprise of the work’s opening, when the piano gently drifts a repeated bell-like sequence of notes across an ambient crepuscular soundscape enriched by soft horn-chordings – like Donohoe did, Yang drew out this passage exquisitely, once again allowing the notes to speak their character and make an indelible impression upon the listener, however brief and fleeting…..

As for the notorious “virtuoso” elements of this concerto, Yang showed us that she could certainly “finger it” with the greats, as well as match the orchestra in tonal depth when she needed to, putting all of her physical weight into the playing of the heavier chords, such as in the massive first-movement cadenza, and again during the build-up to the final peroration at the work’s very end, and letting her fingers and wrists do the work in the more scintillating passages. People expecting virtuoso thrills got an amazingly musical version of the same from their soloist, one which realized all of the work’s necessary excitement and exhilaration.

No greater contrast with the concerto could have been given to us than what Yang played as an encore – an enchanting performance of one of the most beautiful of Grieg’s “Lyric Pieces”, his “Nocturne” from the “Lyric Suite”. Though it seems heretical to say so, I could have gone home happily after hearing this, feeling as if I had heard a piano articulate all the intrinsic beauty that it was possible for the instrument to express. Of course, I stayed! – lamenting the degradations that have resulted over the last generation of years in visiting artists such as Joyce Yang NOT giving solo recitals in tandem with NZSO appearances, as used to invariably happen in the (good) old days! A modestly-resourced Music Society such as that in Waikanae, which hosts world-class artists such as Alexander Gavrylyuk consistently and successfully organizes piano recitals – why can’t the NZSO do the same with their visiting artists, any more?

Though the first half was a hard act to follow, the orchestra and Edo de Waart did their best with the composer’s compositional swan-song, the “Symphonic Dances”, which appeared in 1940, three years before Rachmaninov’s death. The composer wryly remarked, “I don’t know how it happened – it must have been my last spark!” – but upon closer analysis of the music itself one can hear alongside all the echoes of the past and allusions to previous works, a spirit determined to raise its voice not only in protest at and defiance of the critics who reviled his works, but in bitterness and anger at having lost his homeland and his sources of inspiration. Had Rachmaninov lived for another ten years and been able to work further through these feelings, who knows what else he might have achieved?

The work itself was received with some negativity on all sides – with bewilderment by some of the composer’s “fans”, who were expecting more lyricism and lush orchestrations along the lines of the Third Symphony and the Paganini Rhapsody, and with a good deal of both half-hearted enthusiasm and outright derision by the critics, some of whom by this stage had made Rachmaninov-denigration a kind of “sport” (readers should look up the critical warblings of one Pitts Sanborn for a particularly vicious example of this, in relation to the composer’s Fourth Piano Concerto).

Rachmaninov described himself to an interviewer as “a ghost wandering in a world grown alien”, not being able to either “cast out the old way of writing” or able to “acquire the new”. Despite this assertion, the Dances’ relative toughness, leanness of orchestration and rhythmic asymmetries are nowadays regarded as evidence of the composer’s very apparent awareness of what was happening all around him. This is opposed to the more institutionalized view of Rachmaninov as some sort of nineteenth-century compositional throwback almost right to the end. As Brahms would have said, “any jackass” could hear elements of the old Rachmaninov in places throughout the music, the aching, yearning lyricism, the exciting rhythmic snap of certain figurations, and the oft-quoted “Dies Irae” theme which haunted his work from his First Symphony onwards.

The first two dances were beautifully done, the highlight being the saxophone playing of Simon Brew in the first dance, Rachmaninov writing one of his most beautiful melodies for the instrument, before allowing the strings to take over and repeat the melody, to lump-in-the-throat effect. The whole was framed in sharply-accented, no-nonsense rhythmic fashion by de Waart and his players, who took just as readily to the spooky waltz-rhythms of the second movement, a kind of Russian “Valse Triste”, and gave its melodies a proper “yearning” quality most characteristic of the composer.

Where I craved some more “bite”, a tougher, harsher, more urgent response to the music was in the third dance, whose Stravinsky-like rhythms for me “sat” too heavily – de Waart’s steady-as-she-goes way with the music I thought produced more a feeling of petulance and bad-temper rather than galvanizing, sharply-etched bitterness. With the “Dies Irae” and exerpts from the Russian Orthodox liturgical Chant “Blessed is the Lord” literally “fighting it out” in the music, I wanted more sparks flying, more combustion, more sense of triumph over bitter adversity at the end. Perhaps while on tour with this piece de Waart and the orchestra will push this piece further and further to its limits, and achieve a harder-won but ultimately more cathartic and appropriately triumphal conclusion to an already momentous concert.

At last! Michael Houstoun’s Beethoven recordings for Rattle reach the Diabelli Variations


BEETHOVEN – Diabelli Variations
(33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli Op.120)
Michael Houstoun (piano)

Rattle CD RAT D070 2017

Early in 1819, Anton Diabelli, who was a music publisher in Vienna, and something of a dilettante composer, wrote a waltz, and invited all of the leading composers of the time in and around Vienna to compose a single variation on his work. Diabelli’s intention was to publish the collection as a complete set, planning to raise money for patriotic and humanitarian purposes relating to the recent Napoleonic Wars.

Included among the composers Diabelli approached were Carl Czerny, Franz Schubert, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Ignaz Moscheles, Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart , Johann Peter Pixis, Simon Sechter, the Archduke Rudolf, Wenzel Tomaschek , Jan Vorisek and Ludwig Van Beethoven. The young Franz Liszt, though not included in the original list, also contributed a variation, at the insistence of his teacher, Carl Czerny.

Beethoven’s response to the invitation has received fanciful treatment at the hands of his various biographers, with the much-derided Anton Schindler at the forefront of source material for the popular legend – that the composer refused to take part in the project, deriding Diabelli’s waltz as a Schusterfleck, or “Cobbler’s patch”, and only changed his mind when Diabelli offered to pay him handsomely, whereupon Beethoven determined to show Diabelli what he could do by quickly writing not one variation, but thirty-three! It’s now more readily accepted that Beethoven from the very start was interested in the idea, straightaway planning a considerable number of variations. And, contrary to what both Schindler and Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny claimed, Beethoven did not write the complete work “in a merry freak” (Czerny’s words), but worked slowly and fitfully on his sketches, completing twenty-three of the variations by the end of 1819 before laying them aside to finish both the Missa Solemnis and the late piano sonatas, then, early in 1823, returning to the work and completing the set of thirty-three (the mind boggles at the sheer creativity of all of this!).

DIabelli subsequently published Beethoven’s work as Vol.One of a two-volume set grandly titled “Vaterländischer Künstlerverein” (Patriotic Artist’s Association), the second volume of which contained the 50 “other” variations by the remaining composers! Since then the world has all but ignored the efforts of all of these but Beethoven’s, on behalf of the publisher’s modest but fruitful little creation.

Where Schindler did seem to “get it right”, in the view of most commentators, was in his remark that the composition of this work ‘amused Beethoven to a rare degree’, that it was written ‘in a rosy mood’, and that it was ‘bubbling with unusual humour’. Alfred Brendel, whose thoughts concerning the work Michael Houstoun frequently quotes in his fascinating notes reproduced in Rattle’s booklet, elsewhere cites another commentator, Wilhelm Von Lenz, a somewhat more reliable biographer than the enthusiastic but over-imaginative Schindler, Lenz calling Beethoven “the most thoroughly initiated high priest of humour” and the variations “a satire on their theme”.

To Brendel’s assertion that the “Diabellis” are “the greatest of all piano works”, Houstoun responds that he has “no argument” with such a view, and that the only comparable work in keyboard literature could be JS Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”. Houstoun comments further that for him, the “Goldbergs” deal with spiritual certainty, whereas with Beethoven’s work, all such boundaries are challenged. He makes the analogy of Beethoven trying to “punch holes in the very fabric of the cosmos” with this work, which seems to me another way of saying that the composer is taking nothing for granted, and wants to see if there’s something else beyond normal human perception.

The Rattle booklet as well contains Houstoun’s own thoughts on each of the variations, which to me seems an invaluable insight into how the pianist views not only the music as a whole, but the function of each of its parts – we are taken into the workshop of recreation, as it were, and given the chance to experience for ourselves how the interpreter’s thoughts and words relate to his delivery of the music.

To my ears Houstoun succeeds brilliantly in “making the word flesh” so to speak. With playing less “nuanced” throughout than is the case with some pianists’ I’ve heard, he gives his listeners a strongly direct reading of the music, enabling us to get to grips with the notes quickly, rather than us having to first get to grips with the interpreter’s playing of some of them! I think he’s also suggesting that we, as listeners, have to do some work ourselves on the huge range of possibilities the music is giving to us. An active, creative kind of listening rather than a passive, “washing over one” response is required, though Beethoven’s quixotic humour certainly helps keep one in thrall!

Having applied brushstrokes of wit, charm, excitement and thoughtfulness to his realisations of most of the pieces, Houstoun, with wonderful surety, then tackles the radically different world of the final five Variations, opening up realms of intensity which transcend what we’ve so far heard. The first of the group of three C Minor pieces prepares us for what follows, as the music gradually descends to the depths of sorrow and loneliness within a sound-world resembling that of the slow movement of the “Hammerklavier”, the Bach-like No.31 described by the pianist as “a searching lament” and given the title “beacon of sorrow”. After plumbing these depths, Houstoun then electrifies us with his playing of a briliant Handelian double-fugue, NOT, as an applause-garnering conclusion, but a monumental release of energy leading to Beethoven’s greatest “surprise” of all in this work – a finale in the form of a Minuet, here patiently and sublimely realised by the pianist, in his own words, “the perfect endless ending”, the music moving like planets slowly circling the sun, with cosmic, god-like serenity.

If you already have Michael Houstoun’s Rattle set of the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas, you will want this disc as an essential companion – and if you don’t have any of Houstoun’s Beethoven, then what better entry-point could you have than this, arguably the pianist’s finest single Beethoven recording? In a world already replete with recorded performances of this work, Houstoun’s can proudly take its place as one of the most strongly-focused and beautifully recorded – altogether, a most satisfying issue!

Outstanding concert to mark disasters at Aberfan and the Pike River: music by Schubert and Karl Jenkins

Wellington Youth Orchestra conducted by Simon Brew and Jonathan Griffith

Massed adult choir, children’s choir and screen projections
Solo voices: Jenny Wollerman (soprano) and James Clayton (baritone)
Solo instrumentalists: Ingrid Bauer (harp), Monique Lapins (violin), Buzz Newton (euphonium), Lavinnia Rae (cello)

Schubert: Symphony No 8 in B minor, ‘Unfinished’
Karl Jenkins
: the Benedictus from The Armed Man and Cantata Memoria for the children of Aberfan

Michael Fowler Centre

Monday (Labour Day) 23 October. 2 pm

Concerts by the Wellington Youth Orchestra in the past, in my experience, have been poorly promoted and have played to an audience numbering just a few score.

This one was very different. Hand-bills had been thrust into the hand at most concerts in the previous fortnight and there were interviews on radio and in the press drawing attention to the tragedies that the orchestra had decided to commemorate.

The concert came about through the conjunction of separate elements. Last year a concert in New York had performed a cantata by Karl Jenkins commissioned by, among others, a Welsh Television channel, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster.

The result was Jenkins’s Cantata Memoria: for the children of Aberfan. It was performed by United States conductor Jonathan Griffith, the conductor of Distinguished Concerts International New York. Among the performers there was Wellington resident Wim Oosterhoff who conceived the idea of bringing the work to New Zealand. The project was a formidable one; Oosterhoff persuaded Griffith to come to Wellington to conduct the Wellington Youth Orchestra and a 300-strong choir that included 60 children, arrayed behind the orchestra.

It was to combine the work in memory of Aberfan, Cantata Memoria, with music to mark the Pike River disaster seven years ago: a movement, the Benedictus, from Jenkins’s choral work, The Armed Man, a mass for Peace (which had been written to mark the advent of the new millennium in 2000).

The Unfinished Symphony
The concert began however, with Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, chosen no doubt because of its focus on a work that the composer left incomplete; a composer whose life too was incomplete: it is hard to think of a composer, even among the many who have died young, of such genius that he would probably have produced the greatest music written since Beethoven, having already come close to that point when he died.

The symphony was conducted by the orchestra’s permanent conductor Simon Brew who had also rehearsed the Aberfan oratorio and the piece from The Armed Man.  It was a fine performance of the Schubert, one that could well have come from a totally professional orchestra, such was the remarkable elegance and pathos of the conception. And there was strikingly beautiful playing by violins, then cellos, horns, choruses of majestic trombones and each woodwind section in turn. The contrast in spirit between the sombre opening and the more sanguine Andante con moto second movement, marked a performance of real sophistication.

Benedictus for Pike River
Jonathan Griffith took over after the interval with the Benedictus from The Armed Man, employed sympathetically to commemorate the Pike River disaster. It is dominated by one of Jenkins’s most gorgeous creations, the solo cello episode which was played exquisitely by Lavinnia Rae; lovely children’s voices. The massive attack by brass and percussion towards the end had the required shock impact.

Curiously, unlike a reference in the Aberfan work later, no context was found to refer to the culpability of the Pike River mine owners whose guilt and prosecution seems quietly to have been forgotten.

The Cantata Memoria for Aberfan 
The Cantata Memoria was strikingly accompanied by images projected on a large screen behind the performers, and they were successfully related to the subject of the relevant passages. Rain rippled down a window to the delicate accompaniment of Ingrid Bauer’s harp; there were landscape scenes from the air which seemed to be a mixture of New Zealand and Wales.

The two soloists, James Clayton and Jenny Wollerman delivered important and moving passages; after the baritone’s grief-laden lament, the children’s choir (impressively, they sang their parts without the score) turned to face a photo of Aberfan engulfed by the collapsed mountain of mine tailings.

As choir members chanted the names of the victims of the catastrophe which were also projected on the screen one by one, with a pointed reference to a culpable National Coal Board (what about the private owners of the coal mines?). Later the euphonium, played by Buzz Newton, accompanied Clayton, in a telling sonic association, and the euphonium had several significant later episodes. Elsewhere, Monique Lapins’ violin led the emotional journey, along with the children’s choirs repeating the Agnus Dei, with Wollerman and Clayton repeating some of the most powerful words from the Latin Mass, ‘qui tollis peccata mundi’.

Then the Lacrymosa from the Requiem Mass, was accompanied alternately and impressively by euphonium and James Clayton’s voice, though the impact to my ears was not especially grief-laden.

Jenny Wollerman’s major part in the performance arrived with the bright, consoling words, ‘Did I hear a bird?’, the orchestra accompanying onomatopoeically as swans flew across the screen and that spirit was sustained as the two solo singers shared the singing of a Welsh folk song in a calm, reflective manner.

In a school playground, as children played hot-scotch and other games, harpist Ingrid Bauer accompanied, tapping the wood sounding board of her harp.

The concert attracted a good-sized audience, probably among the biggest I can recall for a WYO concert, and a standing ovation greeted the highly impressive performances by adult and children’s choirs, the Wellington Youth Orchestra, special involvement by singers Jenny Wollerman and James Clayton and by instrumentalists Ingrid Bauer, Monique Lapins, Buzz Newton and Lavinnia Rae; plus the thorough preparation and leadership by Simon Brew and Jonathan Griffith.


Alexander Gavrylyuk – transcendental pianism at Waikanae

Alexander Gavrylyuk at Waikanae
JS BACH (trans.Busoni) Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
HAYDN – Keyboard Sonata in B Minor (No.47) Hob. XVI:32
CHOPIN – Etudes Op.10 – Nos. 3, 8, 9, 10, 11, & 12
SCRIABIN – Piano Sonata No. 5 Op.53
RACHMANINOV – Preludes Op.23 Nos 1, 5 / Op.32 No.12
RACHMANINOV – Piano Sonata No 2 Op.36 (1931)

Alexander Gavrylyuk (piano)
Memorial Hall, Waikanae

Sunday 22nd October, 2017

I reviewed Alexandre Gavrylyuk’s astounding recital at Waikanae last year, reflecting on that occasion, on the pianist’s ability to enchant his listeners with every note, and in doing so, display a Sviatoslav Richter-like capacity to invest each sound with a kind of “centre of being” which suggests that the interpreter has gotten right to the heart of what the music means. Last time, it was the very first note of the Schubert A Major Sonata D.664 which straightaway held me in thrall ( – this time round, the shock of the first item’s opening was palpable in the hall, Gavrylyuk galvanising sensibilities near and far with the opening of Feruccio Busoni’s transcription of JS Bach’s D Minor Toccata and Fugue BWV 565.

I had heard Busoni’s transcription of this work before in concert, and remember being disappointed on that occasion by what seemed to be the limited range and scope of Busoni’s realisation compared with the original – such wasn’t the case here, as Gavrylyuk’s playing seemed to take us as far as was physically possible on the piano towards the sheer impact of the organ’s power and majesty. An organist friend of mine afterwards said that it wasn’t quite the same as experiencing the thrill of those massive organ sonorities – to which I was tempted to respond (but thought better of it!) with the remark that what the pianist was missing was a cloak and a mask covering half of his face! On reflection, though, I’m glad I stuck to musical considerations!

Truth to tell, Gavrylyuk needed neither cloak nor mask to convey the music’s splendour – and (perhaps because I wasn’t an organist) I didn’t think he even needed the organ! Certainly I was thrilled to at last encounter a performance that realised something of the transcription’s evocation of the original’s glory. In fact Gavrylyuk’s playing gave us ample sense of the music’s huge sonorities in pianistic terms, while achieving a transparency of articulation often clouded by the organ’s resonances. The pianist seemed to put all of his physical weight into the Prelude’s concluding chords, and hang onto the resulting resonances for dear life, keeping us transfixed by his and the music’s alchemic power.

He then began the fugue quietly and serenely – as if a vision had appeared in the midst of the tumult. The fugal voices took on such character, each voice having a kind of eloquence suggesting the transcriber’s complete identification with the spirit of the original. Each of the sequences had both momentum and flexibility, with the pianist’s through-line giving us a real sense of “journeying”, at once taking in every detail while keeping a sense of purpose about the whole. I thought the dynamic range employed by Gavrylyuk along the journey astonishing – thunderous footsteps set against sonorous whisperings, and a gamut of eloquence in between. The whole was built up to a peroration of extraordinary power and elaboration, concluding the work with huge, properly “crashing’ chords, whose lingering aftermath stunned our responses for some time to come.

What better antidote (for all the right reasons) to such massiveness was the music of Haydn, which Gavrylyuk slyly and mischievously then set into play, rather like letting a mouse loose to scamper around and over the body of a now-sleeping elephant! Such was the pianist’s focus, we were soon transported into this new creature’s sound-world, the music of this B Minor Sonata slowly but surely adjusting its size-scale, moving from sly mischief to playfulness with the warmer, confident major chordings mid-exposition, the whole reinforced by the repeat. We then heard from the pianist in the development a miracle of fluidity between assertive and meltingly beautiful playing, Haydn’s genius being recreated for us by another like-minded genius of the keyboard. Nowhere was Gavrylyuk afraid to differently emphasise detail when revisited, reinforcing a sense of the music being created for us there and then, for our pleasure.

The Menuet was at first all exquisute grace and sensibiity, the pianist weaving gossamer threads into a pattern,taking care not to break any of the strands – then, with the Trio things became darker and more robust, geniality of a more forthright kind, with a dissonant sound or three thrown in for good measure (the right-hand ostinati clashing with the left-hand figurations), a mood which lightened once again at the opening’s return. The finale’s Presto marking brought playing from Gavrylyuk one associates with those pianola rolls made by “greats” such as Josef Lhevinne, Leopold Godowsky, Sergei Rachmaninov and Moritz Rosenthal – all feathery brilliance and rapid-fire octaves, before plunging back into a repeat! Then, after wowing us with this “do you want to see that again?” gesture, the pianist suddenly drew the music back, and with a few knowing looks and quiet gestures, packed it all away in a box – and it was all over! – one imagined the shade of Haydn allowing the ghost of a smile to warm its features at both Gavrylyuk’s playing and our bemusement.

I’d recently been listening to some recordings of Chopin’s etudes, so was more than usually ‘attuned” to them on this occasion – Gavrylyuk had chosen six from the composer’s first of two sets, his Op.10, begin with No.3 in E Major, a piece whose opening melody has been used innumerable times in different arrangements over the years – to my surprise the pianist played the melody “straight”, without any broadening at the climaxes first time through, then began the middle section softly, building up its intensities with ever-increasing power, before playing the lead-back to the beginning with the same simplicity as was delivered the opening. This time Gavrylyuk allowed the famous melody more space and ambience, drawing more poetry from it without ever resorting to sentimentality.

The pianist’s wonderful fleet-of-finger skills dazzled us in the F Major No.8 Etude, the right hand the elusive butterfly, the left hand the sober, serious plodder trying vainly to maintain contact on ground level, everything played with wonderful freedom and independence of hands. Such filigree brilliance played no part in the F Minor Study No.9 that followed – here the energies were intense and driven by the pianist, a throbbing, agitated base pursuing a fugitive melody, one which occasionally sent up beacons of light as signals of distress, urgently-repeated notes which eventually fell back into the midst of a frisson of quietly-despairing figurations.

No.10 in A-flat Major, despite looking and sounding fiendishly difficult, was given a compelling ebb and flow of feeling and tension, Gavrylyuk proving he was human after all by dropping a couple of right-hand notes in the flurry of decoration at the end of the middle section. However, it seemed that, whatever the music’s diffculties, the pianist seemed to relish the prospect of engaging with every note of it – both here and in the opening of Etude No 11 in E-flat Major Gavrylyuk conveyed both a sense of rapturous anticipation and intoxicated delight at doing what he was doing, the E-flat Major’s arpeggiations exquisitely timed and beautifully varied in emphasis and shading. And so to the notorious C Minor “Revolutionary” Etude, the last of the set, with its right-handed thematic lacerations (every phrase like a dagger plunged into a beating heart) yoked with the left hand’s rapid runs and frequent turns, a rushing, agitated torrent, but here given frequent changes of emphasis and colour by way of a narrative, one involving conflict, heroism and, at the piece’s conclusion, defiance even in defeat and disillusionment.

If what we’d heard thus far was ample food for thought, our capacities were fully extended by the recital’s second half, Gavrylyuk giving us in broadbrush-stroke terms as beautifully-contrived an assemblage here, with similar kinds of ebb-and-flow. As with the Bach transcription in the first half, the Scriabin Sonata’s opening straightaway sent an electric thrill through the hall, the pianist’s physical attack riveting our sensibilities and holding us in thrall for all that was to follow. The composer called this, his Fifth Sonata, “a big poem for piano”, and we certainly got from Gavrylyuk a most dramatic reading of its essential qualities – demonic energies set against withdrawn mysticism, physical bravado contrasted with intensely poetic feeling, and grinding dissonance relieved by moments of intense, simple loveliness. Gavrylyuk’s astonishing technique took us on the music’s somewhat hair-raising rife to the abyss’s edge, before suddenly returning us to a state of wide-eyed wonderment at some intense fragility, some passing embodiment of beauty. Always was a sense conveyed of the music trying to reach out to something ineffable, either through beauty of utterance or madcap humour or physicality marked by extremes of exhilaration/desperation. Where we were being taken to through the composer’s assemblage of self -absorbed enchantments was anybody’s guess until the music’s final declamations, Gavrylyuk gathering up all of his energies, and hurtling up the keyboard towards a zenith of spent realisation, marked with a flamboyant gesture of finality – we loved him for it!

At first it would seem that the music of Scriabin’s exact contemporary Rachmaninov might here, in comparison, pale in impact and eloquence – but Gavrylyuk’s scheme of following something cataclysmic with its antithesis worked beautifully, here, with his playing of the first of the latter composer’s Op.23 Preludes, music that powerfully spoke of simple, deep-seated emotions, bringing us down-to-earth once more in the wake of Scriabin’s cosmic galivantings! The pianist opened up the music’s vistas unerringly towards what Rachmaninov called in every piece of music “the point”, that moment to which all before it led and from which all fell away from, for him a defining characteristic in both his own playing and his composing. Gavrylyuk seemed to understand this, taking us to such a moment where the piece’s obsessive figurations reached their “moment” before allowing the tensions to slowly unwind, taking their time as part of the experience.

The well-known No.5 in G Minor, marked “Alla marcia” was played by Gavrylyuk less as a march and more of a scherzo-like dance, with occasional impulsive thrusts both of dynamics and phrasings, a volatile, even “dangerous” reading, not unlike the composer’s own. The “trio” section featured dark, swirling waters, with both treble and “alto” melodies strongly-etched, and darkly counterpointed – the reprise of the opening rhythm was built up with rapid purpose, the music growing more and more menace-laden with every phrase – so orchestral in effect! At the end I was glad that Gavrylyuk played the composer’s original throwaway ending, without the emphatic G minor chord that he later added (and recorded!).

From Rachmaninov’s later (Op.32) set of Preludes, Gavrylyuk gave us No.12 in the more remote key of G-sharp Minor. This was music which scintillated sharply and coldly at the outset, the pianist displaying razor-sharp responses to the bleakly-atmospheric texures, and the unforgiving, almost Dante-esque fatalism of the music, the theme a declamation of something like a Slavic equivalent of the portal-phrase “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”, grim and gloom-laden music.

Right from the beginning of the recital’s final work, Rachmaninov’s Second PIano Sonata in B-flat Op.36, it seemed as if a “battle of the titans” was being enacted in Alexander Gavrylyuk’s hands, between Rachmaninov’s and Scriabin’s music – the Sonata’s opening threw down a jagged and confrontational Sonata’s earlier with the Scriabin – however such considerations were soon put aside as we became caught up in the web and waft of the music’s progress, here majestic and monumnetal, there volatile and angular, and working with the same building-blocks of sound shaped and moulded in countless different ways. Before the lyrical second subject arrived we heard it resounding in the figurations, growing out of the previous material – Gavrylyuk played it so touchingly, like a thing of great fragility – “A world in a grain of sand” as William Blake wrote. After flowering and rhapsodising, it was taken along with a tremendous rhythmic thrust towards a more agitated, scherzo-like world, Gavrylyuk building up the agitations to the strength of cascading church bells – fantastic! The pianist gave the music all the time in the world to breathe, its extension of the lyrical material so tender, filled with the composer’s characteristic “endless melody” , here and there reminiscent of Enrique Granados’s “The Lover and The Nightingale” in places.

But with what explosive energies the music came to life with in Gavrylyuk’s hands once again – the pianist took the music’s raw power and flung it across the vistas, varying strength with dizzying dexterity in places, then, going with the work’s amazing all-encompassing variations of mood, again bringing out a more lyrical and ruminative sequence before returning to the attack – how much more this music is “conflicted” than Rachmaninov’s large-scale works of the previous decade, the Third Piano Concerto and the Second Symphony. Gavrylyuk took us through the conficts and agitations towards the grandeur of the work’s last few pages with the ardour of a foot soldier and the surety of a general. It was as stunning a display of all-encompassing musicianship as any I’ve ever had the good fortune to witness.

Spring hailed in impressive exhibition of 20th century French choral songs by Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir

Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir conducted by Karen Grylls
Salut Printemps!
Accompanied by Rachel  Fuller with Catrin Johnsson, vocal consultant

French music for Springtime: Debussy, Mark Sirett, Lili Boulanger, Jean Adsil, Poulenc and Donald Patriquin

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart

Saturday 21 October,  7:30 pm

Here was a concert to which many of us attended, blind. The publicity had mentioned Debussy and Poulenc (and these were indeed the only well-known composers) and “romantic chansons and a quirky song-cycle”. It was dedicated totally to songs in French, mostly by French composers.

I guess the programme was assembled through the wonderful resources of Google and Wikipedia by searching ‘vocal music for Springtime’; though perhaps I underestimate Karen Grylls’ encyclopaedic familiarity with the entire choral repertoire through all ages and all countries! .

Instead of printing the words and their English translations in the programme leaflet, the person I took to be the choir’s ‘Vocal Consultant’, Catrin Johnsson, recited translations in an admirably clear and well-articulated voice from the front, before each song. My shorthand was not up to noting the salient points, and so, here and there, I have also had recourse to the Internet.

On the whole, French choral music from the late 19th to mid-20th century is not very familiar, and so, the only music that was at all familiar to me were the pieces by Poulenc. Nor was all the music by French composers: Sirett is Anglo-Canadian and Donald Patriquin, from Quebec. Jean Absil was francophone Belgian.

Debussy’s Salut printemps
It began with the eponymous piece by the 20-year-old Debussy, a setting of a poem by Anatole de Ségour. He may have been a rather obscure poet, but this poem was also set by other composers, suggesting that he was not unknown. Almost everything Debussy wrote in his early years was vocal, songs, and this looks like his first choral work, for female voices with piano accompaniment. It was certainly a charming evocation of Spring – light in spirit, and with a sympathetic piano accompaniment that at times was a little too prominent in the cathedral’s hard acoustic. The unnamed soloist made a particularly lovely contribution.

Mark Sirett turns out to be a Canadian, though not Québéquois, who’s got a high profile as composer and conductor in Canada. He was born in Kingston, Ontario in 1952, educated in Iowa, but returned to work and teach in Alberta and Ontario.

He wrote Ce beau printemps, a bright, optimistic, a cappella piece based on a poem by the great 16th century poet Pierre Ronsard. It was a predictable song for mixed choir celebrating love in the Springtime; somewhat more thoughtful and less full of delight that one might have expected; just rather lovely.

A group of Trois chansons by Debussy followed. The Old French (Dieu! qu’il la fait bon regarder!; Quand j’ay ouy le tabourin; Yver, vous n’estes qu’un villain) gave them away as Renaissance poems, by Charles d’Orléans. Again, an unaccompanied group, and another solo female contribution was very attractive; she sang the words while the choir performed wordlessly. Markedly wintery sounds emerged during the third song denouncing Winter (‘Yver’ – Hiver).

Lil Boulanger used to be referred to as Nadia’s (the remarkable teacher of numerous famous 20th century composers) less-known sister; but it was Lili who was the gifted composer and her fine music has gained a firm foothold in recent years. Her three songs: Hymn au soleil, Sirènes, and Soir sur la plaine, settings of different poets, were most imaginative, and to me, among the most colourful and delightful of the concert. The first and third were for mixed choir while the men retreated for the particularly gorgeous Sirènes. (the poet, Grandmougin). The last, Soir sur la plaine, by the noted symbolist poet Albert Samain (c.f. Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud), was an impressive, minor theatrical piece, with exchanges between male and female soloists, and the body of the choir, splendidly performed.

Le bestiaire was a group of songs, no doubt those referred to in the promotional stuff, as ‘a quirky song cycle’. It was a minor zoological foray, the little poems by Apollinaire, dating from 1911, set for unaccompanied mixed choir by Belgian composer Jean Absil in 1944. That was a long time after Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals, which might have remained lurking in the background, perhaps nourished by Erik Satie in the meantime. Would serve as useful revision for your French zoological vocabulary. They were sung in the true spirit of the words as well as Absil’s settings which were both clever and droll.

Two groups of songs by Poulenc came next, not in the least the same spirit as the Absil songs; Nos 2 and 3 of his Quatre petites prières de saint François d’Assise. They took us to the heart of Poulenc’s singular religious awakening in the 1930s, though they were composed in the 1940s. ‘Tout puissant’ and ‘Seigneur, je vous en prie’ were settings for a cappella male voices, and Poulenc’s marked individuality was immediate, melodically confined to a rather limited range of notes.

The same composer’s Les Petites Voix is a set of five songs from 1936 for unaccompanied women’s voices; they sang three: La petite fille sage, Le chien perdu and Le hérisson (hedgehog). The droll verses were theatrically narrated, lines clear, amusing and well balanced, and as with everything in the concert, pitched with a keen ear to the acoustic character of the church (as usual with Karen Grylls).

Finally, Donald Patriquin, a Québéquois, though his biography (McGill and University of Toronto) and list of compositions are evenly balanced bilingually. The choir sang J’entend le moulin, amusing, with dancing, dotted rhythms, prancing up and down, sexual differentiation between men and women singers. Fast, energetic, hypnotic in its incessant rhythms and melodic phrases. It made a fine finish to a highly impressive concert.


Wonderful Mozart trio for clarinet, viola and piano (plus Schumann and Bruch) from Karori Classics series

Karori Classics: Rachel Vernon, clarinet, Christiaan van der Zee, viola and Rachel Thomson, piano

Mozart: Trio for clarinet, viola and piano in E flat, K. 498 (‘Kegelstatt’)
Schumann: Märchen Erzählungen, Op 132 
Bruch: Eight Pieces, Op 83 – Nos 5 & 6

St. Mary’s Church, Karori

Friday 20 October, 7 pm

The fall-out from the International Viola Congress a few weeks ago seems to be continuing relentlessly. One Wednesday, viola students and a month ago the same violist as appeared this evening, at the previous Karori Classics concert.

They turned the programme round, starting with the two pieces from Bruch’s Eight Pieces for the instruments gathered at St Mary’s this evening. What we heard here was probably the complete works for clarinet, viola and piano, an extraordinary situation considering the great and beautiful piece that Mozart had written 240 years ago that you would have expected to have inspired scores of scores.

When I asked Christian van der Zee after the concert whether he hankered for the chance to play all eight of Bruch’s pieces, he looked bemused, rather suggesting that even though they are fairly inoffensive little creations, a couple of them, disposed of without ado at the beginning, was all that might be tolerated before sending the audience to sleep. Many people claim to find Bruch a yawn-provoking composer; Isabella Faust recently commented dismissively about his first violin concerto.

No 5 is described as a Romanian melody, beginning with a slow viola theme over rolling piano chords, soon joined by the clarinet. No 6 is also slow, another Andante piece, nocturnal, fluid in feeling. Two of the eight certainly made an attractive opening to the recital, and served to demonstrate the close rapport between the three orchestral musicians, used to listening attentively to each other.

All four of Schumann’s Märchen Erzählungen followed and even a devoted lover of most of Schumann’s music found these pleasant rather than enchanting; his melody gift hadn’t altogether deserted him at the wretched end of his life, but they were agreeable rather than memorably individual. The second is a march in a singularly unmilitary vein, which changes rhythmically after a little while almost becoming a slow dance, and the third is a slow piece in triple time in which the three instruments blend most successfully. The last piece is buoyant and lively, sounding more characteristically Schumannisch than the previous movements, recalling the sort of spirit found in the Kinderszenen, though that comparison might be a bit cruel.

I suppose most of us were waiting for the Mozart, which is where this instrumental combination first appeared. As I am often inclined to do, I recall vividly my first hearing of it, as I was browsing the LPs in Kirk’s record department, one lunchtime, probably in the 1970s. The music was playing and I was just transfixed; I bought the record and still have it.

It’s a fairly short, compact work, each movements not much more than five minutes and you are left wishing that Mozart had continued to elaborate and do repeats. This performance allowed it to breathe, with slightly prolonged phrases, little rallentandos, that made the enchanting first theme simply rapturous. There were nice dynamic contrasts, as from the quiet opening of the Menuetto, that was followed by a slightly bolder repeat, happy impressions of the legato clarinet and fast fluent scale passages from the viola.

Though the last movement is the longest, and we get repetitions of the marvellous spirit-raising melodies; if there were moments that suggested that rehearsals had been a bit limited, after the more prolonged Allegretto movement that seemed ready to go on for ever, I was, as always, left longing for the whole thing to be played again.

The Karori Classics concerts are driven by several players from the NZSO, importantly, I think, by violist Christiaan van der Zee and violinist Anna van der Zee; here, of course, they were represented by orchestral pianist Rachel Thomson and clarinettist Rachel Vernon. The Karori Anglican and Uniting churches (St Mary’s and St Ninians), support the concerts and they benefit the Wellington Samaritans.

Maximum Minimalism – simple, state-of-the-art complexities from Stroma


Bridget Douglas (flutes), Patrick Barry (clarinet), Reuben Chin (saxophone), Jeremy Fitzsimons (percussion), Leonard Sakofsky (vibraphone), Emma Sayers (piano), Anna van der See , Rebecca Struthers (violins), Giles Francis (viola), Ken Ichinose(cello), Matthew Cave (contrabass), conducted by Mark Carter.

Steve Reich: Double Sextet (2007)

Alison Isadora: ALT (2017)

Julia Wolfe: Lick (1994)

Terry Riley: In C (1964)

City Gallery, Wellington,

Thursday, 19 October 2017

“Maximum Minimalism” was the wittily oxymoronic title for this concert by Wellington’s (New Zealand’s?) premiere contemporary music ensemble, Stroma. “Minimalism” was the name bestowed on a group of American composers who, in the 1960s, reacted against the forbidding complexity of atonal and serial music and began (largely independently of each other) employing the extended repetition of simple elements. Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley were the pioneers (La Monte Young is sometimes included, but this is confusing, because his work explores indefinitely sustained sounds, tuned to ratios from the harmonic series, rather than rhythmic repetitions).

Steve Reich preferred the term “process music”. His early compositions were as rigorous in their way as anything in the preceding period of modernism: tapes which went gradually out of phase (Come Out, 1966), or chirping chords progressively lengthened until they became an oceanic swell (Four Organs, 1970). Later, he started making composerly interventions into these strict procedures. In Double Sextet the forward driving momentum was interrupted by slower chordal sections, and the whole piece included a slow movement. The live instrumentalists (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, vibraphone and piano) played with precision against a recorded version of themselves (hence the “Double”), producing a dense, busy texture. This, and the interaction between Emma Sayers’ high piano and the piquancy of Leonard Sakofsky’s vibraphone, created an edgy, astringent world of sound.

If Double Sextet represented late minimalism, Terry Riley’s In C stood right at the beginning. His approach was very different from Reich’s. Here the complex counterpoint was the result, not of careful calculation, but of giving the performers freedom progress through a series of short melodic fragments, each at their own pace. I was impressed by how these classically trained musicians handled the improvisatory elements. While there was no particular overall shape, Stroma created the dynamic ebb and flow that could be expected from experienced improvisers. There were even segments of long notes where the tempo seemed to slow down, despite the persisting pulse of the high C’s on piano and percussion.

American cross-genre composer Julia Wolfe’s Lick began with short, arresting phrases before the syncopated rhythms kicked in. Reuben Chin’s saxophone and Nick Granville’s electric guitar contributed to the jazz-rock ambience. Again I felt the absence of a clear overall structure, but was engaged by the well-paced contrasts of texture and rhythm.

For me, the highlight of a Stroma concert is often the premiere of a New Zealand work, and this was no exception. Victoria University graduate Alison Isadora has spent much of her life in The Netherlands, but maintains her connections with New Zealand, and held the 2016-17 Lilburn House Residency. Many of her compositions have involved mixed media, often with a political undertone (“agitator-prop”, perhaps – one piece included an onstage washing machine). Her recent scores have been more introverted however, the string quartet ALT notably so. Ethereal and understated, ALT wove its texture almost exclusively from string harmonics, sometimes near the top of musical pitch-perception. But its quietly seductive surface was underpinned by a well-formed musical structure, propelled to a subtle climax by a gentle pulse in the cello, before resolving into a sustained sense of suspended time. It could almost have merited a place in Stroma’s next concert (“Spectral Electric”, City Gallery, Thursday 16 November), which will be a tribute to the Spectralist composers who base their sonorities on the harmonic series: this will feature a new concerto by Michael Norris for Wellington’s own, Mongolian trained, throatsinger, Jonny Marks.

Viola Students from the New Zealand School of Music with diverting sampler of well-played pieces

Viola pieces by Bach, Hoffmeister, Hindemith, Anthony Ritchie, Schumann and Rebecca Clarke

Violists: Debbie King, Georgia Steel, Grant Baker
Pianists: Catherine Norton, Matt Owen

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 18 October, 12:15 pm

Three violists and two pianists put this lunchtime programme together. Such student presentations always reveal music that one has never come across before, and the discoveries here – not the composers’ names, which one had a casual knowledge of – were of the pieces of music. A viola concerto by Anton Hoffmeister, a contemporary of Mozart, a character piece by Schumann, viola sonatas by Anthony Ritchie, Hindemith and Rebecca Clarke (all of which one should probably have known; none was played at the recent International Viola Congress in Wellington).

But it began with the Bach’s third cello suite, in C. Although one has become somewhat accustomed to other instruments purloining these great suites, the original version seems to become ever more deeply embedded in one’s consciousness, with the result that the cello’s nearest relative sounded – to me – just a little inauthentic. The intonation was good, but perhaps a certain lack of flexible articulation and bowing that was not quite as flawless as it might have been, detracted slightly. Debbie King chose the three fastest movements and managed pretty well, though the pair of Bourrées were more relaxed than the Gigue which might have been more engaging at a slower pace.

Georgia Steel, with Catherine Norton, chose to play the second and third movements from Franz Anton Hoffmeister viola concerto in D (another, in B flat also appears in the archive). A plaintive Adagio, with ornaments still in need of a bit more refinement, and the Rondo finale which was certainly of the Mozart generation without the beguiling charm and inspiration. However, the pair had absorbed the genuine idiom and made one conscious of a composer well worth watching out for.

Perhaps the most formidable of the pieces was Hindemith’s solo sonata, Op 25 No 1, of which Grant Baker played movements I, II and IV. The first, labelled Breit, ‘Broadly’, is unrelentingly severe, though it becomes more varied after a couple of minutes, evidently running without a pause into the second movement, ‘Very lively and strict’. It’s the fourth movement that is the show-piece, translated: ‘Furiously fast. Wild. Tonal beauty is secondary’; and Grant Baker did well.

Anthony Ritchie’s steadily growing corpus has become very imposing with music for a very wide range of instruments, genres and purposes. Here was Debbie King again, with pianist (I assume, Matt Oliver, though neither violist nor pianist was named). The piece was the Allegro tempestuoso (first movement) from the ‘Viola Concerto’, though the note explained that we were to hear Ritchie’s rewrite of the original concerto as a sonata for viola and piano. Ritchie’s music is always both interesting and approachable, as well as idiomatically composed to suit the intended performers. Debbie clearly found the music congenial as well as being in tune with the piano part; and the listener too found this a very engaging piece which strongly invited one to hear the other three movements.

Next came another first movement – ‘Nicht schnell’, from Schumann’s Märchenbilder (Op 113). Schumann didn’t invite the listener to try to conjure specific images to his fairytale pictures and nothing presented itself to my imagination. But Georgia Steel and Catherine Norton, again, fell easily into the spirit of these pieces written late in Schumann’s life when mental disabilities were starting to emerge. The brilliant inspiration of the pre-1840 piano works was gone gone.

Finally Grant Baker, with Catherine Norton played part of the viola sonata by British composer/violist Rebecca Clarke. I’d heard its first two movements at a St Andrew’s lunchtime concert back in 2010. Now we heard the third movement (Adagio – Allegro). It’s an attractive work, very much of its era, though not under the influence of atonality or undue abrasiveness. The piano part is as interesting as the viola’s, and Norton played with all her usual finesse and intuition. And the viola writing was far from routine; opening with a longish Adagio that subtly becomes more spirited and inventive.

As well as being an always rewarding impression of the nature of today’s student talent, this was a very interesting glimpse of the wide variety of diverting music for the viola.

Wilma Smith and Friends play fine programme for Wellington Chamber Music

Wilma Smith (violin), Caroline Henbest (viola), Alexandra Partridge (cello), Andrew Leathwick (piano)

Piano quartets: William Walton’s in D minor; Andrew Leathwick’s No 1 and Brahms’s No 3 in C minor, Op 60

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 15 October, 3 pm

We reviewed Wilma Smith and Friends at their Waikanae concert on 24 September. There they had played Beethoven’s not-much-played Op 16 piano quartet, Dvořák’s greatly loved Op 87 as well as the piano quartet by the group’s pianist, Leathwick.  I suppose I can wait till next August when I see that Wellington Chamber Music’s just announced 2018 Sunday series will hear the Dvořák played by the Leppänen, Thomson, Joyce, Irons quartet.

Wilma’s three colleagues, two of whom are New Zealanders, all have an association with the Australian National Academy of Music, in Canberra, while Wilma herself teaches at the two principal Melbourne universities.

This Wellington programme avoided playing anything too well-known: Brahms’s 3rd piano quartet is the least familiar of the three. Played here with such finesse and musicality that its relative neglect became hard to understand.

Walton’s 16-year-old creation
However, the concert began with a, to me, totally unknown quartet, by a 16-year-old William Walton. Though it might not display the brilliance and musical delights that Mendelssohn or Mozart were producing at that age, this was a very impressive achievement, even allowing for its getting revised much later in the composer’s life (when he was 72).

It was written in the last year of WWI and so might have reflected the Englishness of Bax or Ireland or Vaughan Williams, even Elgar. All I could say is that the music had a generalised English, as distinct from a Continental feel, and Herbert Howells’s own piano quartet has been offered as a possible influence. Would Walton have heard Bartók in 1918? something at the start of the last movement suggested it. It was too soon for the iconoclastic Walton of the Bloomsbury years to be audible anywhere, but there could have been touches of Ravel, for there was much in it of a surprising sophistication.

It began with a clear conception of certain melodic ideas that seemed authentic rather than arbitrary, and an understanding of the art of building music in a formal shape. It was indeed formal in having four movements –  a bright, positive opening, a scherzo that seemed singularly assured, then a calm Adagio in a nocturnal mood, with muted strings, and finally an energetic Allegro that might have attempted to emulate the radical composers of the Continent, even certain rhythmic elements from Eastern Europe (do I mean Bartók?though what was known of him in England in the First World War?).

Writing for the quartet as a whole was quite mature, and it was clear that the young composer had a refined appreciation of the characteristics of each instrument – a solo viola passage caught the ear. Music from the first movement returned in a natural-sounding was to bring it to an end.

Andrew Leathwick’s quartet
A quartet by the group’s pianist Andrew Leathwick, followed. He introduced it, but in rather too casual a way, without sufficient care for enunciation and for the rhythms of his speech to be easily followed. The music largely explained itself – an opening that was almost secretive, improvisatory, slowly awakening with long phrases carried high on the violin strings. The second movement, entitled ‘Freely’, began with muted violin and cautious piano notes and signs that the composer became aware of the need to retain the listener’s attention with an almost Dvořákian melody. The composer seemed sensitive to the particular character of each instrument, subtly varying colours and dynamics; the viola carried a vaguely familiar elegiac tune which I couldn’t attribute. The composer recorded that ‘the great Romantic composers’ had inspired the last movement – Con moto. Those influences were clear enough. The whole piece, written in an idiom (idioms?) of earlier music made me aware of the styles of music that music students now feel free to write, far removed from the strenuously avant-garde, ‘original-at-all-costs’, audience-alienating music that I used to subject myself to in my early years reviewing for The Evening Post in the late 80s and 90s.

The style adopted in this piece is now accepted in a more open and tolerant musical environment in music schools, though one naturally hopes that it will not discourage a freedom to explore more adventurous approaches that make judicious use of influences from the music of the recent past.

Rosemary Collier’s review of this piece will be found in the review of 24 September.

Brahms’s Piano Quartet No 3
The last piece was Brahms’s Piano Quartet No 3, Op 60.  As I noted above it’s not as well-known as the Op 25 quartet, or perhaps even as the second one. But here was a performance that did it credit. It launches itself in a distinctly C minor manner, commanding, weighty and serious minded, rather than seductive, first in the Adagio opening and then the Allegro non troppo main part. But it’s exactly what a paid-up Brahms-lover looks for; not what the censorious Schoenberg who orchestrated the Op 25 piece because he thought it too dense for chamber music, would have enjoyed at all.

For it is indeed almost symphonic in its textures although the quartet produced all the clarity that I needed. Though the second movement is more animated, it dwells in a similar  sound world, darkly impassioned, with energetic piano writing that Leathwick handled, though the piano lid was on the long stick, in excellent accord with the strings.

The third movement, Andante, opens with a soulful, though sanguine duet between piano and cello which offered Alexandra Partridge (and again the pianist) an admirable opportunity to be enjoyed. And the finale too confirmed that impression left from all that had gone before of a carefully studied approach in which the essence of Brahms had become thoroughly embedded. Rapport between strings and piano was always perfectly integrated in terms of balance and interpretive view.

It ended a very satisfying chamber music recital, offering a sound reason to take comfort in a cultural relationship with Australia.