Gaudete at St Mary of the Angels with Baroque Voices and Palliser Viols

Baroque Voices and Palliser viols present:

Music by Anon, Tompkins, Byrd, Gibbons, Hume and Ross Harris

Baroque Voices (directed by Pepe Becker)
Pepe Becker, Rowena Simpson (sopranos), Milla Dickens, Alex Granville (altos) Richard Taylor, Phillip Collins (tenors), Isaac Stone, David Morriss (basses)

Palliser Viols (directed by Robert Oliver)
Lisa Beech, Sophia Acheson (treble viols), Jane Brown, Andrea Oliver (tenor viols), Imogen Granwal, Robert Oliver (bass viols)

St Mary of the Angels Church, Boulcott St.,Wellington

Wednesday 20th December, 2017

This was a beautifully devised and presented programme, appropriately given the name “Gaudete” as a kind of seasonal evocation, an enjoining spirit of joyfulness, as well as a reflection of the sentiments proclaimed by both words and music throughout the evening, such as with an eponymously-named work written especially for these musicians by New Zealand composer Ross Harris.

The term “verse anthem” is the English equivalent of the German “cantata” and the French “grande motet”, the form being originally for voices and viols or organ. In an entertaining and illuminatory note accompanying the concert’s programme, Palliser Viols director Robert Oliver elaborated on the development and popularity of the form, and its use by the greatest composers in England of the day, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons and Thomas Tomkins.

We also learned about Oliver’s regard for the solo viol music of Tobias Hume, which the former had played and loved ever since he bought his first bass viol 50 years ago. Here, Hume’s work, though actually written for two instruments, demonstrated to us both a composer’s and a virtuoso performer’s skills. Hume’s advocacy of the viol even occasioned a brief war of words with fellow-composer John Dowland (who favoured the lute) over the respective merits of their chosen instruments, Dowland going so far as to having his views published!

Merely the act of entering and sitting within the breathtakingly beautiful interior of St Mary of the Angels at a time of day when the stained glass windows were still activated by the light served to give rise to feelings of well-being both spiritual and secular. We were thus disposed mightily towards the prospect of hearing “sweete musick” by the time the instrumentalists and singers appeared.

They came bringing tidings of great joy from various sources, the first a setting by William Byrd of verses by one Francis Kindlemarsh, “From Virgins wombe this day did spring”. Beautiful though this opening setting was I though the vocal line too low for Pepe Becker’s normally radiant voice, and thought that an alto’s tones would have better suited the melody’s range in each of the verses – the setting “came alive” in the sections enjoining us to “Rejoice, rejoice”, the ensemble’s voices inviting the words to exult and dance, which the viols also did of their own accord in an introduction to the second verse.

The accompanying Pavan and Galliard for six instruments gave the Consort a turn to demonstrate its skills, the sounds in this acoustic taking on a “bloom” which liberated any hitherto confined spirits and allowed them air and space, the gently-insinuating rhythms having both a solemnity and a carefree aspect which held us in thrall. After this, the Galliard enlivened our enchantment with its evocations of dance and gaiety and high spirits.

Following the relative restraint of Byrd’s “From Virgins wombe”, we were somewhat galvanized by the weight of tone from the whole ensemble at the beginning of Thomas Tomkins’ “Rejoice, rejoice and singe”, the voices sounding like a great throng in comparative terms. Each verse featured invigorating exchanges between individual voices, soprano and tenor in “For Happy weare the tidings”, and the line being tossed from singer to singer in “Blessed is the fuite”, the piece finishing after the men and women alternated between “For beholde, from henceforth” and “blessed, blessed virgin Marie”, before concluding on a tremulously sweet chord, to angelic effect.

Just as captivating was, I thought, Tomkins’ Fantasia for six instruments, the Consort of viols beginning with a modern-sounding phrase whose tonality seemed to shift uncannily, before a series of chromatic descents focused the strangeness of the terrain even further. I loved the sensation of simultaneous movement and stasis in the music, the energies gradually unlocked and pulsating, a sequence which led to a gorgeous overlapping figure building up and intensifying the textures towards the end – music of blood-flowing emotion!

Orlando Gibbons’ “Behold I bring you glad tidings” reiterated excited, hopeful voices at the phrase “glad tidings”, the joy occasionally leavened by seriousness at “A Saviour which is Christ the Lord” and purposeful repetition at “Unto us a Son is giv’n”. Then all was uplifted at “Glory be to God on High” with a great ascent, given rich weight at its base by the men’s tones – everything nicely controlled. Lovely playing by the Consort, both resonant and clearly-focused at one and the same time in this acoustic, brought us the Fantasia which followed, the music cleverly “fantastic” with lines both ascending and descending at once in places, and followed by beautifully “charged” withdrawals of tone into modal-like realms of the kind loved by Vaughan Williams.

In the wake of these iconic-like pieces came Ross Harris’s “Gaudete”, the fruit of the composer’s desire to write something for this actual concert, after having written separate piece for each ensemble previously. A tumult of voices and instruments at the beginning conveyed the excitement of the news of the Saviour’s birth, the cries of “Gaudete, Christus est natus” reiterating at intervals during the piece, providing some contrast with the relatively sombre “road journey” of the verses, at “Tempus adest gratia” (The time of grace has come), and later, “Ezekielis porta Claus petransitur” (The closed gate of Ezekiel has been passed through). I was given the whole time the sense of a journey from darkness to light, from ignorance to enlightenment, from fear to hope, the music’s trajectories conveying a kind of direction and purpose punctuated by revelations expressed with utter joy. I thought the work heartwarming and the performance exhilarating!

After the interval came one of those treasurable “Pepe Becker” moments, with music which admirably suited her voice – this was the anonymously-written 17th Century Christmas song “Sweet was the song”, an angelic soprano voice accompanied by a single viol, the sounds again given a certain bloom by the acoustic to memorable effect. Just as remarkable was the enchantment of four viols accompanying the song’s second verse, voice and instruments conveying an overall sense, in the sound’s pure quality, of something eternal.

Following these celestial outpourings the instrumental consort music of Tobias Hume brought us back to terra firma, but delightfully so – here, instead, were earthy, characterful tones, in places attractively nasal, while elsewhere the timbres were sweet and ingratiating. These were two duets whose titles – “Sweet Music” and “Musick and Mirth” – suggested contrasting pieces were in store, the first vocal in character, and the second dance-like. The performances’ rhythmic control and subtle variation of pulse was a joy, the trajectories breathing easefully at all times, while the accenting meant that one never knew what next to expect – razor-sharp tones were followed by full, rich vocal lines, the music moving easily and excitingly through eventful contrasts. The “Musick and Mirth” section had a gigue-like character at the beginning, one which seemed to “morph’ into something rather more four-square and even more ruminative, before suddenly accelerating! – the players splendidly put across the music’s exploratory quirkiness to wonderful effect.

The anonymous, carol-like “Born is the Babe”, was the perfect foil for the instrumental pieces which surrounded it, bright, melodic and meditative, with its final line “who cured our care by suff’ring on the cross”. Then, as with Tobias Hume’s piece, William Byrd’s Fantasia for six instruments was filled with imaginative touches, beginning wistfully as if day-dreaming, before gathering more and more tonal weight with the lines overlapping, with lots of “echo-phrases” for our delectation. Rhythms began to throw out accents, enlivening the textures, and leading us towards a joyful dance variation, before rushing to an exhilarating conclusion.

For us in the audience it all felt and sounded fun to perform, as did the same composer’s “This day Christ was born” with its “lively rhythms”, and its magnificent peroration, gloriously put across by the musicians, the voices reaching upwards with “Glory to God on High” and the concluding Alleluiahs. As a kind of “Christmas bonus” the group treated us to a repeat performance of Ross Harris’s “Gaudete”, even more resplendently given this time round – the Monteverdi-like energies of the opening declamations, the almost Sibelius-like rhythmic trajectories of the repeated instrumental figures accompanying “Tempus adest gratia”, denoting the irresistible forces of change and enlightenment, as “the closed gate of Ezekiel” was left behind, and the soaring vocal lines riding the waves of expectation, leading to a final, confident and joyful “Gaudete”.

It all left we in the audience feeling joyful and expectant, and with a sense of wonderment and thankfulness at music’s power of transformation, as well as gratitude to those who performed it all so splendiferously! – omnes laudate!
















Legal choristers and instrumentalists in anniversary class action supporting child cancer campaign

Crown Law Presents: Counsel in Concert: Musical Anniversaries; in aid of the Child Cancer Foundation

Items by Monteverdi, Telemann, Haydn, Gershwin, The Beatles

Lawyers’ choir and orchestra, with soloists. Conducted by Owen Clarke

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Tuesday, 19 November 2017, (12.15pm); 5.30pm

It was heartening to see such a large bunch of lawyers who enjoy making music – and the large, mainly young audience who came to hear their second performance.  The 38-strong orchestra included some 21 players from the NZSO and Orchestra Wellington, but only one lawyer – the indefatigable Merran Cooke, who rehearses the performers and organised the concert.  The choir consisted of 53 singers.

The composers selected were a heterogeneous bunch, chosen for their anniversaries this year.  The programme notes gave details: 450 years since the birth of Monteverdi, 250 years since the death of Telemann, 250 years since the composition of Haydn’s ‘Stabat Mater’, 80 years since the death of Gershwin and 50 years since The Beatles’ ‘Sergeant Pepper’ album.

The first item, which included a harpsichord continuo, was the opening movement from Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610: ‘Deus in adjutorium’.  Those opening words are intoned in plainchant, followed by the magnificent ‘Domine…’ from choir and orchestra, each part singing on its own single note for a couple of pages.  The heightened drama of this effect is resolved in triumphant fashion when all parts shift on the word ‘Alleluia’.  It was a very effective performance, even if the splendid brass almost drowned out the choir at times.  It made a great opening for the concert.

Next was a welcome from the Solicitor-General, Una Jagose.  She spoke of the health and social benefits of making music in groups.  Telemann’s Der Tag des Gerichts, or The Day of Judgement (appropriate for legal professionals to perform).  Two choruses from this religious work were given: ‘Schallt ihr hohen Jubellieder’ and ‘Die rechte des herrn’.  Only a slight knowledge of the German language is needed to deduce that the first was about sounding jubilant songs, while the second deals with another suitable subject for lawyers – the rights of men.

A line-up of five soloists from the choir sang well in these excerpts, particularly Amanda Barclay, soprano, apart from starting slightly off-key.  Then the choir gave Telemann all they had, in a very vigorous performance.

The soloists sounded more comfortable in Monteverdi’s ‘Beatus vir’, a setting of Psalm 122 from his Selva Morale e Spirituale of 1640.  It is probably his best-known choral piece.  Four of the five soloists from the Telemann appeared again, with the addition of two other male singers.  The women on the whole acquitted themselves better than the men, and again, occasionally the choir and soloists were drowned by the orchestral sound.  However, with strings only, we heard more from the soloists.  The choir sang well, with plenty of lung power; the orchestra played with appropriate style.  Rhythm and articulation were good, and the beauty of the woodwind playing stood out particularly.  The choir parts were clear and confident.

Owen Clarke has conducted the annual concert for a number of years, even after moving to Auckland, and now Australia.  He spoke briefly to the audience about how he enjoyed taking part in this annual event.  He was followed by Lara Cooke (no relation to Merran Cooke), a teenager who has suffered two major bouts of cancer.  She spoke clearly, fluently and unemotionally about her experiences, and the help she and her family had received from the Child Cancer Foundation.  It was a moving experience to learn a little of what she had gone through, including having to move to Christchurch and Auckland at different times to receive treatment.

A medley from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess followed; an arrangement by Ed Lojeski.  ‘I got plenty o’ nuttin’ opened for the orchestra, and the wind players certainly opened their lungs.  Anna Rowe sang ‘Summertime’, amplified, to excellent effect – although in St. Andrew’s acoustic I did not think that amplification was necessary.  The choir came in too, and piano and percussion were added.  The choir reiterated the opening number, using the pronunciation ‘nothing’.  Then there was ‘It ain’t necessarily so’, with Ken Trass an excellent soloist, along with the choir.  ‘Bess, you is my woman now’ had similar treatment.

Idiomatic, well-rehearsed singing of a good standard were the marks of the entire medley, with clear words.  There were some delightful clarinet passages before the medley ended strongly with ‘O Lord, I’m on my way’.

Three Beatles songs concluded the programme, the music arranged by Daniel Hayles, a New Zealander who teaches jazz at the New Zealand School of Music here in Wellington, the skilled arrangement being commissioned for this concert.  The soloist was Mauricio Molina, a Wellington singer originally from Argentina.  I found his amplified voice too loud in the first song, in the St. Andrew’s acoustic.  The choir also sang, in Sergeant Pepper, Penny Lane  and All you need is Love, but in the first song they could hardly be heard.  Things were much better in the gentler Penny Lane.  The soloist was not too loud, his words could be understood, and the choir could be heard.  The triumphant ending of the last song had the audience joining in clapping the rhythm.  The beginning and ending of the song features phrases from La Marseillaise – a great effect.

Sponsors contributed to the cost of the concert; all audience donations would go to the Child Cancer Foundation. I trust this was a considerable sum; the musicians worked hard for it.




Organist Bruce Cash momentous performance of Messiaen’s La Nativité du Seigneur


Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992): La Nativité du Seigneur (1935)

Bruce Cash (organ)

St. Mary of the Angels Church

Sunday, 17 December, 3pm

To hear a splendid work of meditation for organ on the fine organ of St Mary of the Angels with its marvellous acoustics and its ambience since its recent restoration, was a treat in itself; to hear Bruce Cash play it so well was the icing on the cake. Bruce Cash had described the work in his interesting pre-concert talk, which was accompanied by slides. They included two of the wonderful, tall, narrow, stained glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and by audio examples from the work, from a recording of Messiaen’s organ at La Trinité church in Paris (where he played for over 60 years), and on the piano. Bruce Cash spoke of the Greek verse rhythms and Indian rhythms Messiaen employed.

Messiaen’s work is in nine parts; each part was introduced by titles and Biblical texts which he used, read in French by Robert Oliver. In what follows I will give the titles in English.

First was The Virgin and the Child. The magical opening passage with its distinctive descending figure, was a euphony for the Epiphany, with clear, repetitive melodies in different scales/modes. The music was subtle and unhurried. Perhaps an impulse of wonderment, of characterising Mary regarding her child. Beautifully clustered notes created a warbling melody, the child peacefully brought into being in the midst of hustle and bustle. The middle section sounded like a great outpouring of many-voiced joy, rhapsodic and free, with an ostinato carillon on the pedals – ecstatic stuff! The music returns to the opening, reiterating the descending figure – everything in cool colours; the music generating contrasting orange and yellow hues. As Bruce Cash said in his pre-concert talk, Messiaen was one of those who saw colours when he heard music.

Second was The Shepherds, which began with separated chords – were these the angels appearing? Some of the melodies were particularly song-like, or chant-like. The music exploited the huge range of sounds available on this organ, including those echoing the shepherds’ pipes. Clustered tones of wonderment, gentle rocking rhythm on reeds, hypnotic in effect and connecting with a greater peace from ages beyond understanding. Registrations were fresh and beautiful.

Third, Eternal Designs, had a broader, fuller sound, slow and grand. Was this an aural picture of God? Again, an interesting scale/mode was employed as the basis, and unusual harmonies were featured. The deep pedal notes gave the music a mysterious, other-worldly mood. Lovely long, rich, dark, solemn, deep undertones, reedy textures suggested relief and light, the bass reaching to the earth’s bowels.

The Word is the title of the fourth section. God declares ‘You are my Son’ to a discordant opening, then there are strident pedal sequences. There are rapid rhythmic figures and thickly clustered chords. A high, shrill melody was succeeded by a return to strident pedals, with shimmering ululations behind. This section was in two parts, the second having a more mellifluous melody appear, in meditative character, calm in its effect after the declamatory mood.

No. 5, The children of God, had a more disturbed, more excitable sound of clustered sonorities. The music developed loud expostulations, but with more conventional harmonies, then dissolved into reassurance. It was a short movement.

No.6, The Angels, featured spectacular galaxies of sounds. There were high and spiky fanfares and cascades, retreating at the end. The programme notes speak of a continuous peal of joy.

Jesus accepts the suffering was the title of no.7. Harsh reeds and blustering utterances contrasted with lighter, higher tones. The effect was like a conversation between two opposing forces – one bluff, angry, and the other mild, conciliatory. Then diapasons brought the voice of acceptance between the opposing ideas. The long final chord was at full volume.

No. 8, The Magi, or Wise Men brought music that was appropriately exotic. There was a travelling character to its rhythm and notation. A recurrent melody could be a song from the East. A more peaceful sequence followed – perhaps the visitors reaching the stable? There was a quiet chord to end. But I did not detect the star overhead that the programme notes described. Simplicity rather than grandeur was the mood.

The final part, No 9, God in our midst, opened loud and spiky, with ponderous pedals. This was followed by a mild sequence (the Virgin Mary utterance of the Magnificat); then angular sounds with rapid, high-pitched figures built momentum. Crashing chords and a brass voice blared forth before a triumphant Widor-like toccata ended the work.

Peter Mechen, who was also at the concert, offered his notes to me; he ended with “an unbridled frisson of energetic outpouring, the music descending spectacularly before winding up and growing like a vortex of cosmic proportion, heading inexorably towards the musics’ great final chord over a descending bass”.

This performance was an amazing tour de force; music played to perfection. What a composer! What an organist!


A Consort Christmas: Tudor Consort assembles brilliant and diverting package of words and music

The Tudor Consort directed by Michael Stewart

A Consort Christmas; carols and secular and liturgical pieces by Jean Mouton, Matteo Flecha ‘El Vielo’, Tallis, Francisco Guerrero, Byrd, Sweelinck, Praetorius, Peter Cornelius, Rachmaninov, Healey Willan, Howells, Poulenc, Richard Madden, and Gregorian chant  
and readings on Christmas themes from Robert Easting and Bryan Crump

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

Saturday 16 December, 7:30 pm

Given The Tudor Consort’s splendidly rehearsed and executed array of carols, chants, liturgical and secular songs connected with Christmas, one had to wonder whether the unusual quantity of Christmas-related music over the past few weeks had brought about some aural fatigue resulting in a smaller audience than I would have expected.

And so, to remind you of all the Christmas-like concerts over the past three weeks, look at the end of this review.

First came a Gregorian chant, Puer natus est nobis, which the programme described as the Introit for the third mass of Christmas Day, which sounded from the back (west end) of the church as choir members walked slowly up the centre aisle with music director Michael Stewart in their midst. Its spirit was one of optimism and joy.

A variant on that subject followed: Hodie Christus natus est by Jan Sweelinck, recorded in the programme as the Antiphon for Vespers of Christmas Day. Here emerged a marked characteristic of the choir’s performance – glorious, high sopranos, including voices that would be soloists in the Tallis Missa puer natus est nobis and elsewhere.

Readings: Robert Easting
After the Sweelinck, erstwhile choir member Robert Easting, Professor Emeritus (English language and literature) at Victoria University, delivered a splendidly orated recital of the 16th century ‘carol’ The Carol of Jolly Wat, replete with convincing contemporary pronunciation and profane histrionics.

(Introducing his verses, Easting mentioned the death this week of another distinguished Wellington academic at Oxford, Douglas Gray. It brought back memories: Gray was Dux at Wellington College in my third form year. By the time I was studying English at Victoria, he was junior lecturer in Professor Ian Gordon’s English Department, and I recall his lectures and seminars in stage II in Middle English and/or Anglo-Saxon. A further pedantic offering: one of our text books was Kenneth Sisam’s classic Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose, still somewhere on my shelves. Sisam too was a distinguished New Zealand scholar at Oxford).

You’ll find the carol in Helen Gardner’s New Oxford Book of English Verse. The idiom of this late Middle English, popular verse seemed to lie between the literary language of Chaucer and Langland, and the early Tudor poets who are still broadly comprehensible to our ears.

Readings: Bryan Crump
There were three later readings, by Bryan Crump who is familiar as an RNZ news reader. The first relating to a Christmas at Scott Base from a journal of Harry Jones, with amusing observations; the second, Marsden’s account of the first Christmas celebration in New Zealand, in 1814: a bit revelatory, especially in light of later exposure of Marsden’s violent proclivities; and finally a delightfully droll letter to Mark Twain’s (Samuel Clemens) daughter from Father Christmas.

The ‘serious’ music was interspersed by traditional carols in which the audience was required to join: God rest ye merry, gentlemen (in the programme, victim of common mis-punctuation – the comma before ‘merry’); Silent Night; Good King Wenceslas; Silent Night.

Tallis: Missa puer natus est nobis
The ‘composed’ music was by all those named in the heading. Tallis ‘Christmas Mass’, Missa puer natus est nobis, was divided into three parts and sung at three points in the programme; so it set the concert in what might be considered the heartland of Renaissance choral music. It is regarded as untypical of the Tallis known in most of his other music, perhaps because it was composed as the Catholic monarch, Mary, came to the throne in 1553, after the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, offering a much more friendly climate for Catholic musicians, as Tallis was. The absence from the score of soprano voices is attributed to Mary’s marriage to Philip II of Spain (the same Philip who features in Schiller’s and Verdi’s Don Carlos) whose Chapel Royal which was resident in England with the king seems not to have used high treble voices.

Bits of the mass had been published in the monumental ten-volume Tudor Church Music series in 1928 but no satisfactory performing version was known till 1961, when additional sections were discovered. Though the Mass remains incomplete (most of the Credo is still lost and some of the other movements have missing voices), it has now had several impressive recorded performances; it is now regarded as one of the great masterpieces of the Tudor era. A scholarly edition appeared in 1977 (these details from an article in the Musical Times, on the Internet).

Its characteristics
It has no Kyrie, but begins with the Gloria. As noted in Michael Stewart’s comment below, it follows the shape of Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi trinitas which was sung by the Tudor Consort in February last year; I reviewed it but had forgotten that detail. I’d noted there that the Kyrie was not regarded as part of the Ordinary of the Mass before the Reformation; though I’m not sure that’s altogether correct. Further, Tallis scored his mass for seven voices; seven soloists led it while the rest of the choir (as far as I could tell, sitting some way back) contributed wonderful richness to the Gloria, in which men’s voices dominated initially, while the high voices soon entered creating a luminous quality above the wonderful polyphony of the middle vocal lines.

I had wondered about references in other sources to the scoring, for seven voices, but no sopranos. When I contacted Michael Stewart to clarify it, he told me he’d mentioned it in his pre-concert talk, which I had missed; he explained: “The sopranos were singing ‘mean’ parts, which had a lower range than the ‘treble’ parts that one would expect from earlier music such as the masses of John Taverner… Compare the tessitura of the Tallis compared with the very high lines the sopranos had to negotiate in last year’s performance of Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi trinitas for instance. The mass would undoubtedly have been performed lower and with falsettists singing the women’s parts, but that necessitates men who can sing very low and very high, and would preclude the sopranos involvement!”

The second part of Tallis’s ‘Christmas Mass’ opened the second part of the programme: Sanctus and Benedictus. The solo sopranos (Chelsea Whitfield and Phoebe Sparrow) were also conspicuous in here. (The other soloists were Megan Hurnard – alto, Philip Roderick and Garth Norman – tenors, David Houston and Simon Christie – basses). The elaborate counterpoint, taking the text on interesting journeys in the Sanctus; the Benedictus lowered the dynamic level distinctly, giving the sopranos a hushed, ecstatic quality. The Agnus Dei was sung towards the end of the concert, slow and placatory, rhythmically complex, and harmonically dense.

Other Renaissance and later music
Much of the other music was also from the Renaissance, consolidating our feeling for the variety to be found in the early period (Mouton’s Nasciens Mater and the two more secular Spanish pieces, with peasantish, dancelike suggestions), and later composers (Byrd’s English setting of This day Christ was born and Praetorius’s In dulci jubilo).

Particularly striking were two liturgical settings by composers primarily known for orchestral and instrumental music: Rachmaninov and Poulenc: the best-known section from Rachmaninov’s Vespers (‘All night Vigil’), deeply felt, employing idiomatic-sounding Russian, Bogoroditse devo; and Poulenc’s O magnum mysterium the first of his ‘Four Motets for Christmas’.  It was a sumptuous, yet delicate performance that to me remains a fine model of mid-20th century music that is engaging and accessible and at the same time inventive, and sounding clearly of it age.

Music of the 19th and 20th centuries filled most of the second half: two distinct pieces entitled ‘The Three Kings’ (set to different poems), by Healey Willan (a curious yet interesting setting of a poem by Laurence  Housman – brother of A E H), and Peter Cornelius (better known perhaps as an opera composer – The Barber of Bagdad, still heard occasionally in Germany), with a very taxing solo part from Simon Christie.

Finally, pieces by Herbert Howells and Richard Madden. Howells’ ‘Here is a little door’, a curious, childlike text set to music that always strikes me as the quintessentially English, religious manner. While that was an a cappella piece, a 15th century verse, ‘I sing of a maiden’ by still-living Richard Madden was accompanied by Chelsea Whitfield at the organ, with solos by Phoebe Sparrow and Philip Roderick.

The pair of Spanish songs returned us to the 16th century, with composers Matteo Flecha ‘El Vielo’ and Francisco Guerrero: Guerrero’s A un Nino Llorando, with opportunities for well-contrasted female soloists to be heard (Whitfield, Melanie Newfield, Jane McKinlay, Andrea Cochrane and Amanda Barclay); and the latter a peasant-like, Christmas-related song in Riu riu chiu which offered a chance to hear other than seriously liturgical Spanish music of the period (with three good bass soloists – Christie, Houston and Thomas Drent).


Christmas (mainly) choral concerts of the past three weeks  

Vox Serbica
Supertonic Choir
A Soprani Christmas (Duo of singers Paloma Bruce and Ruth Armishaw)
Wainuiomata Choir
Baroque Voices in Monteverdi (not strictly Christmas)
Wellington Young Voices
Metropolitan Cathedral Choirs and Orchestra
Tudor Consort
Orpheus Choir and
NZSO Messiah
Bach Choir
Festival Singers and The Northern Chorale
Nota Bene:

And to come:

Messiaen’s La Nativité – organ Brian Cash
Counsel in Concert (not strictly Christmas)
Baroque Voices with Palliser Viols

A flavoursome taste of the “Baroque” at the St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series presents:
A Concert of Eighteenth-Century Chamber Music

Music by Georg Phillipp Telemann,
Johann David Heinichen, and Johann Sebastian Bach

Rowena Simpson (soprano)
Leni Mäckle (bassoon)
Calvin Scott (oboe)
Jonathan Berkahn (keyboards)

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington
Wednesday, 13th December, 2017

These four performers, a singer and three instrumentalists, provided for this concert a goodly range of musical expression inhabiting that style we loosely know as “baroque”. The programme was framed by works from two of the “giants” of the era, Georg Phillipp Teleman and Johann Sebastian Bach, and also contained a sonata for oboe and bassoon by someone whose name was unknown to me, Johann David Heinichen (1683-1729) , a composer whose relative present-day obscurity belies the fame he once enjoyed as “one of the three important “H”s of German music”, the others being , in the writer Johann Matheson’s opinion, Handel and Hasse.

We began with Telemann’s music, an aria from a cantata written for the first Sunday of the New Year “Schmeckt und sheet unsers Gottes Freundlichkeit” (Taste and see the friendliness of our God). I wish I had known this work before hearing it performed, as I’m sure I would have relished all the more the performance given by soprano Rowena Simpson and the ensemble – alas that one’s “baroque cantata-listening” rarely has the opportunity to extend beyond the stellar creative achievements of “you-know-who”, as there are obviously treasures such as this awaiting a resurgence of appreciation – ironic that Telemann’s music, so popular in its day, is now having to undergo a kind of process of rediscovery via performances such as these.

The church’s acoustic served the music well, ample enough but still bright and focused, a bias towards treble tones enhancing the music’s clarity. As with German baroque vocal music, the voice is really another instrumental line, here sung characterfully and with the twists and turns of the figurations given plenty of vigour, even in the most demanding, breath-testing of places (no alcohol involved!), and by the agile and articulate phrasings of the instrumentalists.

Even more curious as regards the ebb and flow of fame is the case of one Johann David Heinichen, as mentioned above, something of a celebrity as a composer and theorist in his day, and obviously worthy of reinstatement as regards reputation and his music. We heard a Sonata for oboe and bassoon whose four movements provided both entertainment and thoughtfulness in contrasting ways. First, an opening Grave reminiscent in places of Purcell brought forth liquid lines from Calvin Scott’s oboe, supported by confident, well-rounded bassoon figurations. This was followed by an Allegro that sounded rather more like a “concert of equals”, the melodic figures and runs shared and alternated, and the players beautifully reflecting each instrument’s timbral character in their phrasings – Leni Mäckle’s bassoon readily demonstrating, for example, its own unique expressive world as feelingly as its more ostensibly “romantic” partner.

The Larghetto which followed had a gentle, Siciliano-like rhythm, the oboe taking the melody with plenty of light-and-shade in the phrasings and the bassoon flexible and expressive in its accompanying figures. Finally, the concluding Allegro was a sprightly, oboe-led dance, with some tricky bass repetitions and runs for the bassoon – a true and rewarding partnership indeed!

Rowena Simpson then performed a soprano aria from JS Bach’s Cantata BWV 21 “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis” Bach himself was extremely partial to this Cantata, reintroducing it in revised versions on at least two occasions when applying for different cantorial posts. Bach’s conception is on a grand scale, taking as its subject the Gospel for the Third Sunday after Trinity, which contains the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-10). The soprano aria “Seufer, Thranen, Kummer, Not” (Sighs, tears, troubles and distress) uses a counterpointing oboe, and cello and keyboard (piano) obbligato, all of which here worked beautifully, the sorrowful oboe line working poignantly with the voice. The singer’s bright, engaging tones put the lines across to us with plenty of anguished feeling and focus, the slightly raw intonation of a couple of her notes enhancing the piece’s basic angst.

Jonathan Berkahn introduced the next item, a keyboard solo with the title “Pastorale in F”, which he played on the church’s chamber organ. He talked a little about the development of the “Pastorale” form, which was developed from the custom of the shepherds in areas around Italian cities and towns who came into the churches at Christmas time to play their musical instruments for the people worshipping before the Christmas cribs and mangers, in homage to the new-born Christ Child.

The piping style (or “Piffero”) in the first two movements imitated a drone bass and a bagpipe melody. (From this term comes “Pifa”, found in Baroque Christmas music such as Handel’s “Messiah” – and in a recent NZSO performance by conductor Brett Weymark, making splendid sense of the title by using a pair of oboes in that work’s “Pastoral Symphony”, despite Handel scoring the piece for strings alone!)

Jonathan Berkahn’s performance brought out lovely, gentle rocking rhythms at the outset, everything luminously-textured and beautifully “layered”, making an enchanting effect on the small organ. A bright-toned allegro second movement conveyed plenty of festive bustle, which contrasted with the third movement’s melancholy and solemn processional-like trajectories. Finally, we enjoyed a bright and cheerful outdoor dance, beautifully in effect and gorgeously registered, the repeat bringing heftier, even more celebratory tones, everything controlled with great aplomb.

To conclude the concert we were given an aria from the fourth part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio “Flösst mein Heiland” (Does your name, My Saviour instill the tiniest seed….) – a splendid effect, the music steady and processional, with echo-effects at the ends of phrases, some of which were provided by Jonathan Berkahn on a recorder, in between his contributions at the piano. With singing that gracefully and easily filled out the spaces and worked hand-in-glove with the oboe and the ‘cello, besides the enjoyment to be had from the evocative echo effects, the piece made a suitably well-rounded impression. It brought the concert’s strands together in what I thought a satisfying and rewarding way.

After we had finished applauding the musicians for their efforts, a “surprise” presentation was made to the St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace concert organizer, Marjan van Waardenberg, on behalf of both audiences and performers over the years, intended as a tribute to her tireless work in facilitating such a varied and high-quality series of concerts at lunchtime for the delight of Wellington’s music-lovers during the previous decade.

The warm response of the audience to this tribute demonstrated the value and esteem these concerts have come to hold in the concert-going life of the capital.

Cynthia and Gertie go Baroque with Purcell at Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre and Willow Productions presents:

Written and performed by:
Helen Moulder – CYNTHIA
and Rose Beauchamp – GERTIE

Directed by Jeff Kingsford-Brown
Design/Lighting/Stage Manager – Deb McGuire
Costumes – Janet Dunn
Theatre and Puppet Makers – Struan Ashby,
Anna Bailey, Rose Beauchamp

Circa Theatre, Taranaki St., Wellington

Wednesday, 13th December, 2017

(until 23rd December)

Firstly, a note of thanks to Cynthia Fortitude and Gertie Rallentando – Thank you both, for your indefatigable energies and your irrepressible buoyancies! Together, you were as a matching pair of Courtenay Place street-lamps to our sensibilities throughout the intoxicating journey upon which you launched us, offering support as well as illumination! Your concerted efforts generated such refulgence, shining forth from within the textures of one of the masterpieces of English music, Henry Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas”.

Cynthia and Gertrude are hell-bent upon performing a version of Purcell’s renowned work which charmingly as well as outrageously brings it all the more to life for present-day audiences. In fact one of Cynthia’s most telling and candid observations of the evening came towards the end of the show, her remark being that it was probably lucky that Purcell had been dead for four hundred years in view of what she and her colleague Gertie had wrought upon his most famous musical and dramatic work, over the course of the presentation.

Though raising a laugh, it was a piece of tongue-in-cheek repartee which perfectly and ironically accorded with the documented fact that Purcell’s librettists for many of his vocal and theatrical compositions gave him extremely rudimentary and at times uninspired material to work with – to the point where a contemporary of the composer’s, the satirist Thomas Brown, versified thus at the time:

“For where the Author’s scanty words have fail’d,
Your happier graces, Purcell, have prevail’d”.

Also, the librettist Nahum Tate, who adapted the “Dido” story from an episode in Virgil has come in for some damning criticism over the years, summed up by the following verdict of a modern-day commentator – “Little enough of Virgil remains (in the opera) – Dido is drastically simplified, and Aeneas is made into a complete booby. And the sense of cosmic forces at play is replaced by the machinations of an outrageous set of Restoration witches” (Joseph Kerman “Opera as Drama” 1988 University of California)

So, taking the advice of a literary genius who proclaimed “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, Cynthia and Gertie lost no time in cutting to the dramatic quick by adroitly revitalising the identities of the characters in the original story. Here, we encountered not Dido and Aeneas, but “Diana” and “Andy “as the ill-fated lovers, and with chaperone Amanda (rather than the maidservant, Belinda) ready at a moment’s notice to “unbottle and dispense” support and advice as if it were on tap. So, it was pretty much “instant update – just add water”, and with the help of the vernacular, away we were whirled on our dramatic journey!

But wait! – we wouldn’t have entrusted our evening’s entertainment to the unknown so easily without first assuring ourselves of the likelihood of these performers being able to “deliver” the goods, still – after all, anybody can put on costumes and don wigs and pirouette randomly around and about the stage, lip-and-finger-synching to music already being played. True, the immortal duo’s previous show “The Legend Returns” has already become a living classic, having made its way into the most distinguished annals of New Zealand’s theatrical history – but after twenty years, were the old instincts and impulses still firing on all cylinders? Did the flame still burn as brightly and energetically in those theatrical bosoms? Could Cynthia and Gertie still do it?

It took but a few moments to reassure us that all was as real and earnest, realigned and refurbished, as before – Gertie with her introductory harpsichordic displays of prestidigitation, and Cynthia with her congenitally “grand manner” and gesturings appropriate to a “practitioner of rallen-tando” swept up our sensibilities and lost no time in absorbing us in the business of their on-stage preparations . Cynthia primed her audience up superbly, charming and reassuring those whose front-row seats would normally have given their occupants grave concern at having “greatness thrust upon ’em” at any given moment and providing the rest of us with suitably inscribed flash-card response indications – you simply knew where you were with these two in charge!

So, we were given an invaluable Janus-faced view of proceedings, being party to these (sometimes surprising) preparations, as well as enjoying the pleasures of their ultimate fruition, thrills and spills included! Tempting though it is for me to here reproduce some of the choicest moments of the entertainment, it would be a pity to spoil their delightful surprise value! – without giving too much away, I might mention the highly-diverting and all-too-human use of performer-enhancement aids, with Cynthia (bless her!) in need of an occasional “pick-me-up-and-redirect-my-befuddlement” pill! – and the use of a puppet-theatre and its suitably recontextualised puppet figures to crystallise the opera’s action.

Helped further by a racy reworking of the all-too-prosaic original libretto, Purcell and his (renamed) characters were able to live again in their extremely visceral glory, thanks to the energies of our two star writer/performers, and the support they garnered from various quarters – flowing direction from Jeff Kingsford-Brown, suitably atmospheric set design and lighting from Deb McGuire, and lavishly resonating costumes from Janet Dunn. Then there was Struan Ashby’s charming puppet theatre, complete with figures  fashioned by Anna Bailey and Rose Beauchamp herself.

I should add that further support came from a suitably and skillfully-coached audience – after we’d survived a querulous “What are you doing here if you’re not auditioning for our show?” moment from Cynthia, we really came into our own in the Witches’ scene! In fact, our contributions, in the finest baroque fashion, were actually divided into parts rather than left as a kind of mindless unison!

Before concluding, I can’t resist letting slip the merest smattering of the libretto’s updated raciness, simply for sharing’s sakes! – and as the Trojan hero Aeneas seemed to come off worst as a character in Purcell’s original, it was only fitting that he was given more of his dues in this presentation – by way of preparing us for his puppet-entrance, the already-entranced Queen told us that “He’s genetically engineered /so he’ll be marvellous in bed”. Alas, as befits a modern operatic playboy, the eponymous hero, after accessing his hacked online updates, suddenly expostulated “Receivership? – I’ll have to run! I’ll have to get away! I need an exit strategy today!” Well, you get the idea!

It remained for the spurned Carthage Queen to bemoan her loss, and, bereft of love and hope, accept her time-honoured fate as one who died of a broken heart. Such were the conflicting emotions brought into play by Cynthia and Gertie recasting this scene as either one of the great comic tragedies or, alternatively, tragic comedies, I was and remain gobsmacked at the outcome’s cathartic effect! – I may even have to go the show again! What I do remember is that we in the audience, having a participatory role in the grand peroration, were caught up in it all to the extent that when the divine Cynthia indicated to us her “encore” flash-card and the irrepressible Gertie took the lead we capitulated like lambs to the slaughter!

Whoever similarly takes the plunge and “Goes for Baroque” with these two stellar performers, Helen Moulder and Rose Beauchamp, will be similarly transported, their appreciation of Baroque opera enhanced, perhaps even beyond the point of “no return”.

Masses in times of war celebrated by the Bach Choir under Ivan Patterson

Kodály: Missa Brevis
Haydn: Mass in D minor, H 22/11 (Missa in Angustiis or ‘Nelson’ Mass)

Bach Choir of Wellington, conducted by Ivan Patterson, with Douglas Mews (organ), Rowena Simpson (soprano), Maaike Christie-Beekman (mezzo), Jamie Young (tenor), Simon Christie (bass)

St. Peter’s Church, Willis Street

Sunday, 10 December 2017, 3 pm

With a great line-up of soloists and some marvellous music to sing, the stars were lined up well for the Bach Choir’s concert.  A sizeable audience was present to hear them.  The title for the concert derives from the fact that both masses were written under the stress of wartime conditions: Napoleonic Wars in Haydn’s case and the Russians beating back the Nazis in Budapest in 1943 in Kodály’s case.  The latter work had extra point by being performed within days of the composer’s birthday.

While the Haydn work was written to be performed with orchestra (here, organ substituted), the Kodály was scored for chorus and organ in its original version.  An impressive organ prelude to the work was almost impeccably played by Douglas Mews, and formed a fine introduction.  It was followed by a beautiful, almost ethereal ‘Kyrie’ movement. from the choir.

Jamie Young intoned the plainsong chant before the appropriate movements; before the ‘Gloria’ it immediately was striking and firm.  The choir followed, also strongly.  The soloists turn came in ‘Qui tollis’; it was notable for the solo singing of Maaike Christie-Beekman, who was strong and confident as usual, as well as producing a lovely tone.  Then Simon Christie sang, his sound firm and rich, followed by Jamie Young.  Finally the choir took over at ‘Tu solus sanctus’ and made a good ending to the movement.

Throughout, Kodály’s clear, uncompromising, different harmonies were apparent, but made some difficulties for the choir; intonation sagged in a few places, mainly in quiet passages.  Otherwise the singing was good, and clear.  Having sung this work, I know it is not easy.  Not only are some of the harmonies difficult, the bass notes required to be sung are sometimes very low.

The ‘Credo’ is sung by the choir, and the music differs for its three sections: God the Father and Creator; Christ’s Incarnation and Crucifixion; his Resurrection and Ascension.  The colours, tempi and moods of the music were expressed well by the choir, and words for the most part were clear.  The tone from the sopranos especially was splendid.

The ‘Sanctus’ opened with pianissimo from the women.  The altos sounded less secure than the sopranos.  Here, as elsewhere, there was plenty of contrast, and key modulations.  There was a need for more attention to consistent vowel shaping.

Varying tonalities featured in the ‘Benedictus’ also.  The choir a few times were not totally with the organ rhythmically.  The high notes for the sopranos were excellent.  However, I found grating the constant ‘Hosannerin’, having been tutored in choirs to make a brief glottal stop after the final ‘a’ in the word.

In the ‘Agnus Dei’, the ‘qui tollis’ was most beautifully introduced from the tenor and mezzo, soon joined by stratospheric sopranos.  It was delightful to hear ‘Agnus dei’ pronounced beautifully, and not as ‘Agnes Day’, who made an appearance on the radio in the morning.

The Missa Brevis is an impressive work, and some but not all of this was conveyed by this performance.  Douglas Mews had a huge role in this; the work ended with a magnificent postlude from him.

The ‘Nelson’ Mass is a very different work, although it too featured a grand organ introduction (in this version)..  Then the soprano appears early in the piece; her ‘Kyrie’ was clear and strong.  The choir men, however, were not quite in tempo for a bit following their entry.

In this mass in this mass there are wonderful contrasts between the grand and the intimate.  The ‘Gloria’ introduced the soloists – soprano, tenor and bass; all were first-class, and a joy to hear.  Douglas Mews’s variations of registrations throughout echoed the instruments that would be heard in the full orchestral version, and were splendidly realised.  Simon Christie gave us some gorgeous low notes in ‘Qui tollis’ against Mews’s gorgeous organ.  Rowena Simpson’s ‘deprecationem nostram’ was superb, likeweise the ‘quoniam’.  Some of the men’s vowels were what Peter Godfrey would have called ‘agricultural’.  Intonation was more secure here than in the preceding work, but then the Haydn is much easier to pitch.  Rowena Simpson had plenty of radiant solo singing in the here, whereas she did not have much to do in the Missa Brevis.

However, pitch dropped ajust a little in the ‘Credo’ movement.  The lively parts of the ‘Credo’, such as ‘Et incarnatus est’ found the choir flexible and agile.  ‘The ‘Et resurrexit’ was taken very fast, but the choir coped.  There are so many felicities in this wonderful work.

The ‘Sanctus’ received a splendid performance.  A feature of the ‘Benedictus’ was the beautifully phrased and articulated organ part.  There were a few raw notes from the tenors, but the rest of the choir sounded very good.  As elsewhere, the writing provided plenty of climaxes.

The ‘Agnus Dei’ was cheerful in character, yet subtle too, with complex interweaving of the soloists’ quartet.  They then joined the choir in the final ‘Dona nobis pacem’ section.

Altogether, it was a most successful concert.  The voices soared, as did the audience’s spirits.  Thank you Papa Haydn, Kodály and Bach Choir, accompanist and soloists.  St. Peter’s proved to be an excellent e with its beautifully restored pipe organ, its fine acoustics and its good lighting.


Admirable Sibelius as well as Lilburn and a rare trombone concerto from Wellington Chamber Orchestra

Wellington Chamber Orchestra conducted by Ewan Clark with David Bremner (trombone)

Lilburn: Suite for Orchestra (1955)
Tomasi: Trombone Concerto
Sibelius: Symphony No 2 in D major, Op. 43

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 10 December, 2:30 pm

Lilburn’s Suite for Orchestra was composed for the Auckland Junior Symphony Orchestra in 1955. Thus it was a sensible piece for a non-professional orchestra, though that is not to suggest that its wide-ranging moods, brilliant orchestration and rhythms that range widely from the utmost subtlety to the unusually boisterous are not very taxing.

Subtle brass playing is rarely a highlight of amateur orchestras and it was trumpets and trombones that had some difficulty in adapting to ensemble expectations, particularly in the opening Allegro movement. However the large string sections and both the horns (four of them) and woodwinds contributed the sort of sounds that are recognisably Lilburn. The middle movement, Andante, offered rewarding opportunities to oboes and horns; while the orchestra’s timpani has been problematic in this church in the past, Alec Carlisle’s handling ensured its role was perfectly integrated in the orchestral texture.

The fifth movement, Vivace, is a delightfully scored dance in Latin rhythms – Mexican I guess, which is no doubt the reason for J M Thomson’s programme notes for William Southgate’s recording remarking on a Copland influence (I imagine, with El salon Mexico in mind; a solo trumpet sounded very idiomatic). Conductor Ewan Clark gave the players their head in this movement and the result was perhaps a rare occasion when Lilburn lets rip – not too much, mind you. However, the performance was a happy opportunity to witness a not often heard aspect of his personality, and it was also sufficient to make the audience aware of the composer’s international stature.

Henri Tomasi (French, not Italian; of Corsican origin) flourished through the middle of the 20th century; he wrote a number of concertos, mainly for winds, and this one seems to have gained popularity. The opening movement is in triple time, entitled Andante et scherzo – valse, and this gave the piece a dreamy quality. David Bremner’s programme note mentions jazz influences – Tommy Dorsey in particular, though I tended to listen for French influences. Debussy and Ravel are there though not dominant, and there are rather more suggestions of later French composers such as Ibert or Jolivet; but Tomasi’s language, while essentially tonal, melodic in a Poulenc sort of way, sounds more radical, testing than either – more acidic, harmonically complex.

There were interesting forays for most other instruments. One interesting event was a sudden break off in the middle of the second movement (Nocturne) which had been going along in a calm, bluesy manner: a trombone breakdown. A gadget called a trigger broke; it enables the player to obtain low notes by diverting the sound back through the tube behind him instead of fully extending the slide forward. Since none of the orchestral trombonists was playing, one of those instruments came to the rescue. So it continued its rather charming (Ellingtonian, I thought) way.

The last movement too was rather diverting, though Bremner didn’t pull off a comparable stunt; here, there were offerings from side drum, timpani, xylophone…, all ear-catching, quirky and attractive.

I’d like to explore Tomasi’s other music.

Sibelius 2
Then came the main course: Sibelius’s Second Symphony. The work opened very promisingly, as we were drawn in with those expectant, pulsing strings and the oboe and then the four rapturous horns; and the strings long legato lines, handled with gentle emotion. This was the first Sibelius symphony I heard played live by the then National Orchestra in the 1950s, and still a feeling of rapture overcomes me.

The second movement is announced almost threateningly, with a startling timpani fanfare, followed almost silently by a longish pizzicato episode that emerges slowly from basses then cellos, overlaid by questioning bassoons. Its rather rhapsodic character – it’s labelled Tempo andante, ma rubato – and its increasing grandeur involved much from the fine horn section; and though other brass didn’t always blend in the otherwise good ensemble, the whole was certainly more successful and more beautiful than the sum of its parts. The slow movement runs to around a quarter of an hour and to hold audience enraptured throughout is a considerable challenge for a conductor, one that Clark met admirably.

The emotional crux of the scherzo movement, Vivacissimo, is the contrasting string of nine repeated notes (B flat?, and repeated a semi-tone higher) from the oboes and these were beautifully played. And the transition from a further evocation of those repeated notes through the steady build-up to the grand opening out into the Finale, Allegro moderato, remains just another of the glories of the work that I have simply never tired of, and although this was not to be compared with the many magnificent performances that one has heard by professional orchestras, live and recorded, any performance that seems driven by an awareness of the emotional and spiritual splendour that Sibelius conceived here, simply works. This one did.


Handel’s Messiah – music as a living entity

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
HANDEL – Messiah

Celeste Lazarenko (soprano)
Deborah Humble (mezzo-soprano)
Robert Macfarlane (tenor)
Jared Holt (bass)

The Orpheus Choir of Wellington
Chorusmaster: Brent Stewart

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Brett Weymark

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 9th December, 2017

This was a most interesting “Messiah”, containing as it did a number of interpretative and executive detailings I wouldn’t quite frankly have expected to encounter in the same single performance. Of course, for me to actually say that goes against the grain of what I’ve always felt about Baroque Music and its presentation, that its composers and musicians (and almost certainly its listeners as well) would have been intensely practical people for whom “getting the music out there” was the absolute priority, however consistent or inconsistent might have seemed the various detailings of the performances’ style or textural fidelity.

Most composers in that era were themselves performers, and for that reason were well acquainted with the practicalities of live music-making, with all its attendant thrills and spills. For this reason I’m inclined to think the average Baroque composer would have been somewhat puzzled at our present-day obsession with so-called “correct” and “authentic” performance practice, especially considering the extent to which conjecture plays a part in making present-day decisions as to how this music was played/ought to be played. There is so much we simply don’t know regarding how they did it in Handel’s time.

Some musicologists, are worried that the in-vogue HIP (historically-informed performance) movement has, by prohibiting any way of playing it except for what is deemed the “correct” way, had the effect over the years of putting early music increasingly in a museum rather than in a “living” context. This “holier-than-thou” attitude is now increasingly coming under fire, its critics declaring that HIP should be a means towards more imaginative music-making, and not an end in itself. And performers are excitingly taking more and more notice of this attitude, as witness what took place during parts of this “Messiah” performance.

It was obvious, right from the work’s beginning, that the conductor, Brett Weymark, had schooled his orchestral forces to deliver crisp, lean orchestral textures which kept Handel’s contrapuntal writing clear and exciting in its vigour and muscularity. In fact the orchestral playing throughout the work was a joy, the textures allowing the different voices to convey whatever character was needed from the context of the separate parts with clarity and focus, from the bright and forceful tones accompanying the Halleluiah Chorus, to the hushed, withdrawn atmospheres accompanying the bass’s recitative “For Behold, darkness shall cover the earth”.

What a delightful surprise, then, to encounter, in the normally strings-only “Pastoral Symphony” two oboes playing the melody in thirds – my thought was “Why didn’t Handel score it this way?” After all the oboe was one of his favourite instruments. It all sounded absolutely enchanting, and very appropriately “pastoral”, as if the shepherds were playing their instruments to their sheep.

The other instrumental contributions which need to be honorably mentioned are those from the solo violinist (Yuka Eguchi in tremendous form as acting concertmaster), solo cellist Andrew Joyce, often a supporting continuo partner to his leader, and playing as beautifully, along with organist Douglas Mews, and trumpeters Mark Carter and Michael Kirgan, the pair magical in the “Glory to God” sequences and splendid in the Halleluiah Chorus and in the final Chorus. And then Michael Kirgan’s solo in “The trumpet shall sound” made a splendid and festive impression throughout.

The chorus work matched the orchestral playing in impact, clarity, energy, colour and delicacy. In places I thought the tenors lacked the last ounce of “heft” (a common problem among choirs), but still contributed to the overall magnificence of the sound with focused commitment. Right from the opening chorus “And the Glory of The Lord” the voices grabbed and held our attention, as much by dint of the variety and colour of the different lines and by the singing’s overall strength and energy. Only briefly did the voices as a whole disappoint, when, during the opening of “Since Man came by Death” they didn’t invest the opening sotto voce murmurings with sufficient awe and despair, so that the outburst which followed had less contrasting impact. That apart, I thought the chorus work among the best I’d ever heard in a “live” Messiah performance. From so many terrific renditions of individual choruses I particularly liked “Surely he hath borne our griefs” – biting, theatrical and dramatic!

The soloists each had different strengths to offer, beginning with the engaging enthusiasm of tenor Robert Mcfarlane, with a warmly reassuring “Comfort Ye”, the voice with a slight warble under pressure, and lacking that last ounce of breath control to bring off the floating aspect of some of his held notes. Nevertheless it was a strong and characterful beginning, with qualities that he later brought to his extended sequence of recitatives and arias concluding with the vigorous ”Thou shalt break them”, a taxing succession of recitative and arias whose focus and purpose he maintained with credit.. He also added a theatrical touch during this sequence, actually turning and facing the chorus during their singing of “He trusted in God”, as if he was Christ directly confronting his tormentors.

Bass Jared Holt certainly gave his contributions everything he had, summoning up great dignity and sufficient portentousness to deliver “For behold” and its following aria “The people that walked” – while not a particularly deep bass, he made up in emphasis and characterization what his voice lacked in true heft, as he did also for “The trumpet shall sound”, later in the work. A curiosity, which I’d never before encountered, was the recitative treatment he gave to ”But who may abide” which prompted a whispered comment from my partner, “Is this the Readers Digest version?”

I thought mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble’s finest moment in the work came with “He was despised” whose opening phrases received particularly heartfelt treatment, the pauses between each statement given enough time to register and generate pity and wonderment; and then the middle section startlingly changing its character to one of great vehemence, vividly presenting the condemned man’s acquiescence in stark contrast to the pitiless and methodical cruelty and scorn inflicted upon him. Elsewhere she occasionally found, as do most mezzos, the music too low in places to be sufficiently “sounded”, though another memorable sequence was her duet with the tenor “Oh Death, where is thy sting”, both singers giving their irruptions of energy to one another and building up a sense of exultation at the victory of life and goodness.

Soprano Celeste Lazarenko used her beautiful voice exquisitely in places, playing her part in painting a wonderous scene of revelation to the shepherds in the fields, and conveying a sense of growing excitement at the presence of the heavenly host of angels – a great moment! She also made the most of “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, her voice reaching upwards with absolute security to those celestial heights in the music which convey such a sense of exultation. It was a voice whose sheer sound gave a lot of pleasure, which she used most winningly to focus on the music’s ecstatic quality.

I mentioned the performance’s capacity to surprise in places, never more so than at the beginning of the final “Amen” Chorus, when the soloists congregated together and individually began the fugue, singing the whole of the passage up to the entry of the strings. The conductor’s slow tempi gave a slightly mannered effect, which was emphasized when both strings and then the chorus came in at a faster pace – but nevertheless the idea and its execution certainly grabbed our attention. The rest was what we expected, but the point had been made – the work had been treated as a living entity in places, cocking a snoot at tradition for its own sakes and daring to reimagine some passages without doing violence to the whole. And the skill and sensibility of the performers ensured that whatever was done was brought off with style and focus, adding to a sense of wonderment and renewal.












Aroha Quartet: one of the year’s most wonderful lunchtime concerts

The Aroha Quartet: Haihong Liu and Ursula Evans (violins), Zhongxian Jin (viola), Robert Ibell (cello)

Haydn: Quartet in C, Op 76/3, ‘Emperor’
Dvořák: Quartet in F, Op 96, ‘American’

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 6 December 2017, 12:15 pm

Though St Andrew’s free lunchtime concerts usually populate the church very respectably, a professional group like the Aroha Quartet (though I assume they play, like all performers in these concerts, without payment) tends to draw a larger crowd and that was the case this week. Both the reputation of the quartet and the choice of music accounted for the responsive audience today; it enjoyed quite long applause, and several of the more discerning listeners stood at the end to show their delight.

The ‘Emperor’ Quartet, named for Haydn’s tune that had become Imperial Austria’s national anthem, is one of the composer’s most felicitous and popular, and it was clear from the start that we were to enjoy a performance that, rather than energetic and full-blooded, was emotionally warm and entertaining as well as insightful and alert to Haydn’s varied dynamics, articulation and ever-present humour. The players’ sensitivity to subtle changes in bowing, between legato and phrases that approached staccato, and the understated rhythmic changes that suggest diffidence or hesitation. Every repeat of a phrase displayed a studied individuality.

The famous tune in the second movement, Poco adagio, can sound hackneyed, but its performance here was seriously thoughtful, a classic example of an orthodox set of variations, handled with unpretentious skill and imagination.  And the Menuet with an almost swinging triple rhythm, elegant and polished, and the sharply contrasting Trio in the middle, beautifully poised.

Presto means different things to different players. The Aroha adopted a speed that was probably above average and did it with such commitment and skill that it was totally vindicated.

Dvořák’s most famous string quartet, like the Haydn, is not long – each is around 25 minutes – and thus ended at only a few minutes after 1pm. While its familiarity might be a reason to come to the concert for those averse to ‘music they don’t know’, there are no doubt others who feel they know it so well that it’s a bore; their folly could hardly be sustained here. The proliferation of alternative kinds of so-called entertainment has probably reduced the numbers in both categories. But judging by the reception to this performance there was a wonderful confluence of both classes; and tyros would have been startled into a state of ecstasy by the performance of both works.

There are just so many delicious and heart-warming aspects to this piece, as in much of Dvořák’s music (and I’m delighted that Orchestra Wellington are performing his symphonies in next year’s series – even the little-known fifth!).

It’s interesting that the viola (Zhongxian Jin) opens the piece and seems to emerge from the texture with more than commonly prominence – Dvořák was of course a viola player (like Mozart and many composer-violinists) and clearly enjoyed the subtle emotional warmth of the instrument. But the melodic delights are soon scattered around in a profligate manner.

Dvořák never allows his music to remain in the same rhythmic or melodic mode for long and for the beginner, no doubt, it can be hard to know what movement is being played, if one hasn’t been paying attention; but that variety is a major source of delight. When it dips into a meditative passage however, it’s never maudlin or sentimental, but constantly inventive and surprising. The slow movement, a sort of modified Largo of the Ninth Symphony, might come close to the sentimental, with its characteristic falling minor third, but its sheer melodic beauty prevents any falling away from complete integrity.

The third movement can hardly substantiate the legitimacy of the ‘America’ tag, as its affinity with the Slavonic Dances is so obvious; and the same rhythm persists through the Trio-like middle section. It was played with a wonderful lightness of spirit. Sometimes, the simply astonishing level of melodic inspiration causes me to jot down remarks like: ‘How come no composer had thought of such a gorgeous tune before this?’. It happens more with Dvořák than almost any other composer.

In the last movement, it’s the first violin that stands out with its enchanting, dance-like tune, which gives over to a related tune that simply intensifies the energy or, occasionally, allows for a slower passage that offers a respite from the vitality that drives the movement as a whole.

While I have noted aspects of the playing of leader Haihong Liu and violist Zhongxian Jin (both founding members), the conspicuous beauties in the playing of the newest member, second violinist Ursula Evans, and cellist Robert Ibell were just as striking, and their sustained excellence in ensemble and balance and their emotional subtlety and warmth places the quartet among the finest chamber groups in the country.

This was one of the year’s most wonderful lunchtime concerts; and perhaps not even to be modified by the word ‘lunchtime’.