Berkahn shows how you can have fun with Bach

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts

Jonathan Berkahn and friends: Bernard Wells (guitar, whistle, piano); Megan Ward (fiddle, viola); Karla Norton (Fiddle); Emily Griffiths (fiddle); Tom Stonehouse (bodhran)

The Daughters of Invention: music based on the thematic material of Bach’s Two-part Inventions
Jonathan Sebastien Berkahn: movements from a suite: Allemande, Courante, Gavotte
J S Bach: Two-part Inventions 1 in C BWV 772, 2 in C minor BWV 773, 3 in D BWV 774, 10 in G BWV 781, 11 in G minor BWV 782, 12 in A BWV 783, 13 in A minor BWV 784
Berkahn‘s Digressions on each of the Bach inventions

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 28 February, 12:15 pm

This was one of those concerts that looked enigmatic from the outside, and I wondered whether it was going to deserve a review – not that I’ve ever failed to be greatly entertained by all my previous encounters with the multi-talented Berkahn.

The secret here was to take several of Bach’s Two-part Inventions and respond to what Berkahn takes to be Bach’s suggestion, taking them as starting point to turn “their thematic material to wholly un-Bachian ends, in genres mostly derived from the Irish traditional music I play with friends every Tuesday night at the Welsh Dragon”; in Berkahn’s words.

They began with three of Berkahn’s typical Bach suite movements, such as found in the keyboard Partitas and suites for orchestra, violin, cello and keyboard. An allemande, courante and gavotte; they were played by Berkahn and his cellist son Samuel. They were not bad imitations of the real thing, charming and very agreeable.

Then came seven of the Funfzehn Inventionen as they are called on the facsimile title page (in the Fraktur font) found in my Dover edition of Bach’s keyboard music. Designed as exercises for Bach’s eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann, these ‘Inventios’, as Bach calls them, are very approachable, not necessarily impossible for the amateur, melodically attractive.

They do not often feature in ordinary keyboard recital programmes, and I have to confess to being rather delighted at their charm and plain musical interest, and I certainly admired their performance. Berkahn’s approach was lively, fully aware of whatever shafts of wit might be found and I find that I wrote the words ‘exemplary playing’ with respect to the first two. And No 3 enjoyed a gentle triple metre.

Bach’s advertisement suggested that with dedication to these studies the conscientious student could acquire “a strong foretaste of composition”. And that was clearly enough to give Berkahn licence for his delightful elaborations. His first Digression made use of the ideas in both the first and second Inventions which he combined nicely, sounding comfortably idiomatic. The other players were employed in varying combinations: in the first, Berkahn played his own piano accordion and Bernard Wells the guitar; the three violins (he pointed up his intended folk-style by calling them fiddles) joined one by one. It all sounded perfectly natural and not all that distant from what Bach might have done if his purpose had been more light-hearted.

Wells gave a nice folkish colour to the third Digression with his whistle and Tom Stonehouse contributed his bodhran – a percussion instrument. In the 11th Digression, entitled ‘waltz’, instruments changed hands again with Wells at the piano, Megan Ward changed to viola, and Berkahn again played the piano accordion. Hardly a Johann Strauss copy, it moved gently, evolving in a most natural way. No 10 followed, merging into a jig, with Ward now borrowing the whistle, to create a nice Irish feeling.

And so it went: entertaining playing, with evident enjoyment by all the participants and casual, droll comments from Berkahn; it built to a finale – the Digression on No 12 in the happy key of A major, turning into a reel. All joined in, including cellist Samuel Berkahn. Hereabouts in my notes I wrote ‘these inventions are such fun’; not the sort of insightful, penetrating remark proper music critics should make.

Concerts involving Jonathan Berkahn (in this case a relative of his named Johann Sebastien Berkahn) are generally likely to have an unorthodox or surprising aspect as well as being fun. This one was all of that.


Memorable musical and emotional experience from Jordi Savall, Hespèrion XXI and Tembembe Ensamble Continuo

New Zealand Festival 2018

Hespèrion XXI and Tembembe Ensamble Continuo
Folias Antiguas y Criollas: From the Ancient World to the New World
Directed by Jordi Savall

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 24 February, 7:30 pm

I always find it interesting, and indeed relevant, to look back to find when international musicians were in New Zealand previously. My own reviews for The Evening Post, and then The Dominion Post record Jordi Savall’s coming to the then New Zealand International Arts Festival in both 1996 (when they gave concerts in both the Town Hall and St Mary of the Angels) and 2000, which was the last time we saw Savall’s wife, Montserrat Figueras. She was to have come again with Jordi’s ensemble for Chamber Music New Zealand in November 2008, but could not. She died in 2011.

I have also seen a media reference to them at WOMAD 2012 in New Plymouth.

The 2008 programme created a broad exploration of Medieval and Renaissance music, mainly across the Mediterranean region from Morocco and Spain to Sarajevo, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Istanbul and Iran, with glances at France and England.

Their programmes today still often encompass comparably wide regions; but for us the focus was narrower, if more in-depth. On Saturday, it was the pervasive influence of a simple tune or bass figure (which can, according to taste, be called a ground bass or basso continuo), ‘La Folía’. This the concert’s title, Folías Antiguas y Criollas: From the Ancient World to the New World.

Savall’s Programme essays
Savall’s own programme note points to the significance of the ‘dialogue’ between medieval and Renaissance European music and the music of Spain that was deeply influenced after it travelled following Columbus to the New World, by ancient oral traditions of pre-Colomban as well as African cultures.

So I must first express admiration for Jordi Savall’s essays in the programme book, and to repeat what I write frequently, lamenting the charging for programmes. From observation, fewer than half of the audience had programmes, declining them when the price of $10 was mentioned. It is a seriously misguided policy to devote time and expense to preparing programmes, and then to charge so much, or even to change at all, so that many turn away from the programme sellers; especially where they contain significant and fascinating information, that might just help educate an audience and help them put in context what they are hearing. Our audiences are left poorly educated enough in our school system that any chance to broaden horizons and deepen knowledge should be grasped.

Universality of La Folía
The programme’s main theme was the phenomenon of the Folía, and the first bracket was devoted to ancient examples of it. They were almost all in the form of variations or ‘diferencias’ on the basic theme or bass line that is La Folía (or Follia in other languages).

Savall identifies the importance of two particular ancient cultures that were important in assimilating and integrating Iberian music. They were the cultures of the Llanero and Huasteco oral traditions, together with Mestizo folk music derived from African cultures. The Llanero is the grassland region of eastern Colombia and western Venezuela; the remnant of Huasteco speakers are mainly in the state of San Lius Potosi north of Mexico City and some in Veracruz.

What struck me very particularly was the affinity of music from very different cultures that nevertheless had common roots, or that had merely been influenced by different cultural traditions: it all stimulated enjoyment of the interesting and attractive connections and contrasts; for me, and I had to observe in most of the sold-out auditorium.

The first piece, La Spagna by Diego Ortiz who lived through most of the 16th century, gave us a clear basis by which to compare other treatments of the folia and other Portuguese, Spanish and (mainly) Mexican music of the 1500 to mid-1800 period. Over those years La Folía might be regarded as a kind of symbol of the evolution of popular earlier music into more sophisticated, court and ecclesiastic music from the 16th century. And the theme was brought emphatically into ‘classical music’ by Lully, Alessandro Scarlatti, Marais, Corelli, Geminiani, Vivaldi, Bach and much later in Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli.

There followed a couple of ‘folía’ improvisations, the second of them the famous but anonymous Folías Rodrigo Martinez where percussionist David Mayoral’s drum arrived and an apparently unidentified female musician played castanets.

The players and their instruments
I should comment here that while the players were listed with some details of the instruments they played, it would have been interesting (and for me at least, necessary in writing this) to have known who was who on stage along with their holding up the instrument or instruments they played. Photos of the many unfamiliar Mexican and Central American – Huasteco and Llanera – instruments would have been good value in a $10 programme.

Savall himself, seated on the far left, played treble and bass viols with extraordinary subtlety and virtuosity, contributing the most important melodic and emotional element of the performances; his direction of his ensembles colleagues seemed almost casual, though in fact precise and energising. For ensembles they were: five named as of Hespèrion XXI, and six of the Mexican Tembembe Ensamble Continuo.

Savall’s own group consisted of the notable traditional harpist Andrew Lawrence King, seated centre whose contribution was important as was David Mayoral with a variety of percussion; Xavier Diaz-Latorre played guitar and theorbo and Xavier Puertas the violone, or large viol, which I might have called a bass viol had that name not been taken by Savall’s own somewhat smaller ‘bass viol’.

Tembembe Ensamble Continuo comprised three instrumentalists, two singers (Ada Coronel and Zenen Zeferino) who also played, respectively the vihuela and jarana jarocha, both guitar-like instruments; and a dancer (Donaji Esparza).

The three instrumentalists: Leopoldo Novoa played marimbol (‘a plucked box musical instrument of the Caribbean’ {Wikipedia} held between the lower legs) and two kinds of Huasteco guitars, a Llanera harp and a ‘quijada de caballo’, literally a horse’s jaw; Enrique Barona commanded a huapanguera, the large guitar-like instrument of the Huasteco region of Veracruz, a jarana jarocha and mosquito, other varieties of Veracruz guitars, maracas and others; and Ulises Martinez played the violin and sang.

However, all of this variety went for little as there was no attempt to identify the instruments and their sounds.

The composers and their evolution
While several pieces were by anonymous composers, named composers included – 16th century Antonio de Cabezon, Pedro Guerrero and the Italian, Antonio Valente, whose improvisatory ‘Gallarda napolitana’ incorporated some satirical New Zealand references from Zenen Zeferino, which some of the audience obviously caught, but I missed: I couldn’t share the laughter.

Francisco Correa de Arauxo and Gaspar Sanz lived mainly in the 17th century (Sanz featured memorably, for me, in the 2014 Festival recitals by distinguished guitarist Hopkinson Smith). The female dancer Donaji Esparza, appeared during Sanz’s La petenera. She brought a simple though striking grace to the performance. In her earlier offerings, her approach was simply complementary to the music, with clear though unostentatious footwork; but her later contributions displayed a more impressive Zapeteado style that involved her feet becoming percussive instruments: virtuosic and energetic, though still without egotism. However, it would be a mistake to have expected a flamenco character in her performance.

Santiago de Murcia lived mainly in the 18th century. He represented the Huasteco culture of Mexico, with the famous El Cielito Lindo (not to be confused with the hugely popular mid-20th century song of the same name that’s almost become Mexico’s national anthem). It was in Santiago’s enchanting Cielito Lindo that Zenen Zeferino first appeared, his large commanding voice (amplified indeed but its vigorous character was clear enough); he was joined by Ada Coronel, flowers in her hair, a perfect complementary presence who proved just as vivid and confident a performer as Zeferino.

The second half began with El balajú jarocho, music of the Huasteco culture (Moncayo’s famous Huapango is of the same source, the Vera Cruz province) and was one of several expressing particular joy.

Towards the end
The penultimate bracket consisted of 18th century composer (contemporary with Vivaldi and Bach) Antonio Martin y Coll’s Diferencias sobre las folías, perhaps ‘variations based on Las folias’ which might have completely summed up the history of La folía; they varied in tempo and mood enormously, almost encompassing the whole range of human emotions:  Jordi Savall on bass viol, and step by step, Andrew Laurence King’s harp, Mayoral’s drum; castanets, other percussion and the great variety of guitar-variants from the two ensembles.

And at the end, the final Jarabe loco (jarocha) by Antonio Valente; Huasteco music again. The title apparently means ‘crazy syrup’), and the subtitle is ‘Gallarda napolitana’ (Neapolitan galliard? There’s a Savall CD that includes it entitled: ‘Renaisance Music for the Court of the Kings of Spain’). There was a hypnotic sobriety about it.

One doesn’t look for especial musical complexity or sophistication (in a Teutonic sense) in an exploration of the diverting and extremely lively musical culture that has always characterised the Mediterranean world, and in the cultures across the Atlantic that developed from it with a multitude of indigenous influences. Just profound musical delight in styles that are both largely foreign to northern Europe but which supply us with an indispensable counter-balance of musical delight, emotional exhilaration, and rhythmic and melodic energy.

The audience erupted ecstatically at the end.

Jordi Savall is 76 and looks and performs as if 20 years younger. Let’s hope he brings us another of his diverting programmes very soon.

Two resounding recordings from Rattle – classics and a feisty newcomer

Sonatina – piano (1960) / Three Pieces – violin and piano (1967)
Black, White and Coloured – solo piano (selections – 1999/2002)
Swan Songs for voice and guitar (1983)
Dance Suite from “Ring Round the Moon” (1957 arr. 2002)
Jian Liu (piano) / Martin Riseley (violin)
Jenny Wollerman (soprano) / Jane Curry (guitar)
Rattle RAT-D062 2015

MODEST MUSSORGSKY – Pictures at an Exhibition
Henry Wong Doe (piano)
Rattle RAT-D072 2017

How best does one describe a “classic” in art, and specifically in music?

Taking the contents of both CDs listed above, one might argue that there are two “classic” compositions to be found among these works, one recognised internationally and the other locally, each defined as such by its popularity and general recognition as a notable piece of work. If this suggests a kind of facile populist judgement, one might reflect that posterity does eventually take over, either continuing to further enhance or consigning to relative neglect and near-oblivion the pieces’ existence in the scheme of things.

Though hardly rivalling the reputation and impact in global terms of Modest Mussorgsky’s remarkable Pictures at an Exhibition on the sensibilities of listeners and concert-goers, it could safely be said that New Zealand composer David Farquhar’ s 1957 incidental music for the play Ring Round the Moon has caught the imagination of local classical music-lovers to an extent unrivalled by any of the composer’s other works, and, indeed by many other New Zealand compositions. I would guess that, at present, only certain pieces by Farquhar’s colleague Douglas Lilburn would match Ring Round the Moon in popularity in this country, amongst classical music aficionados.

The presence of each of these works on these recordings undoubtedly gives the latter added general interest of a kind which I think surely benefits the lesser-known pieces making up each of the programmes. In both cases the combinations are beautifully thought-out and judiciously placed to show everything to its best possible advantage. And visually, there’s similar accord on show, the art-work and general layout of each of the two discs having its own delight and distinction, in the best tradition previously established by the Rattle label.

So enamoured am I still with Farquhar’s original RIng Round the Moon for small orchestra (that first recording featuring the Alex Lindsay Orchestra can be found by intrepid collectors on Kiwi-Pacific Records CD SLD-107), I thought I would give myself more time to get used to the idea of a violin-and-piano version (arranged by the composer in 1992). I therefore began my listening with the more recent disc, Pictures, featuring pianist Henry Wong Doe’s enterprising coupling of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and a 2016 work by Auckland composer Eve de Castro-Robinson, A zigzagged gaze, one which similarly presents a series of musical responses to a group of visual artworks.

Mussorgsky’s collection of pieces commemorated the work of a single artist, Victor Hartmann, a close friend of the composer, whereas de Castro-Robinson’s series of pieces, commissioned by the pianist, were inspired by work from different artists in a single collection, that of the Wallace Arts Trust. In the booklet notes accompanying the CD the composer describes the process of selecting artworks from the collection as “a gleeful trawling through riches”. And not only does she offer a series of brief but illuminating commentaries regarding the inspirational effect of each of the pictures, but includes for each one a self-written haiku, so that we get a series of delightfully-wrought responses in music, poetry and prose.

Henry Wong Doe premiered de Castro Robinson’s work, along with the Mussorgsky, at a “Music on Madison Series” concert in New York on March 5th 2017, and a month later repeated the combination for the New Zealand premiere in Auckland at the School of Music Theatre. His experience of playing this music “live” would have almost certainly informed the sharpness of his characterisations of the individual pieces, and their almost theatrical contrasts. For the most part, everything lives and breathes, especially the de Castro Robinson pieces, which, of course, carry no interpretative “baggage” for listeners, unlike in the Mussorgsky work, which has become a staple of the virtuoso pianist repertoire.

While not effacing memories of some of the stellar recorded performances of the latter work I’ve encountered throughout the years, Wong Doe creates his own distinctive views of many of the music’s sequences. He begins strongly, the opening “Promenade” bright, forthright, optimistic and forward-looking, evoking the composer’s excitement and determination to get to grips with the business of paying tribute to his artist friend, Viktor Hartmann whose untimely death was commemorated by an exhibition of his work.

The pianist relishes the contrasts afforded by the cycle, such as between the charm of the Tuileries scene with the children, and the momentously lumbering and crunching “Bydlo” which immediately follows. He also characterises the interactive subjects beautifully – the accents of the gossipping women in “The Market-Place at Limoges” tumble over one another frenetically, while the piteous cries of the poor Jew in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” are sternly rebuffed by his well-heeled, uncaring contemporary.

I liked Wong Doe’s sense of spaciousness in many places, such as in the spectral “Catacombs”, and in the following “Con Mortuis in lingua mortua” (the composer’s schoolboy Latin still manages to convey a sense of the transcendence he wanted) – the first, imposing part delineating darkness and deathly finality, while the second part creating a communion of spirits between the composer and his dead artist friend – Wong Doe’s playing throughout the latter properly evoked breathless beauty and an almost Lisztian transcendence generated by the right hand’s figurations.)

Only in a couple of places I wanted him to further sustain this spaciousness – steadying a few slightly rushed repeated notes at the opening of the middle section of “Baba Yaga”, and holding for a heartbeat or so longer onto what seemed to me a slightly truncated final tremolando cadence right at the end of “The Great Gate of Kiev”. But the rest was pure delight, with the fearful witch’s ride generating both properly razor-sharp cries and eerie chromatic mutterings along its course, and the imposing “Great Gate” creating as magnificent and atmospheric a structure of fanciful intent as one would wish for.

Following Mussorgsky’s classic depiction of diverse works of art in music with another such creation might seem to many a foolhardy venture, one destined to be overshadowed. However, after listening to Wong Doe’s playing of Auckland composer Eve de Castro Robinson’s 2016 work, A Zigzagged Gaze, I’m bound to say that, between them, composer and pianist have brought into being something that can, I think, stand upright, both on its own terms and in such company. I listened without a break to all ten pieces first time up, and, like Mussorgsky at Viktor Hartmann’s exhibition, found myself in a tantalising network of connection and diversity between objects and sounds all wanting to tell their stories.

The work and its performance here seems to me to be a kind of celebration of the place of things in existence – the ordinary and the fabulous, the everyday and the special, the surface of things and the inner workings or constituents. As with Mussorgsky’s reactions to his artist friend Hartmann’s creations, there’s both a “possessing” of each work’s essence on de Castro-Robinson’s part and a leap into the kind of transcendence that music gives to things, be they objects, actions or emotions, allowing we listeners to participate in our own flights of fancy and push out our own limits of awareness.

As I live with this music I’m sure I’ll develop each of the composer’s explorations within my own capabilities, and still be surprised where and how far some of them take me. On first hearing I’m struck by the range of responses, and mightily diverted by the whimsy of some of the visual/musical combinations – the “gargantual millefiori paperweight” response to artist Rohan Wealleans’ “Tingler” in sound, for example. I’m entertained by the persistent refrains of Philip Trusttum’s “The Troubadour”, the vital drollery of Miranda Parkes’ “Trick-or-Treater” and the rousing strains of Jacqueline Fahey’s “The Passion Flower”. But in other moods I’ll relish the gentle whimsicalities inspired by Josephine Cachemaille’s “Diviner and Minder” with its delight in human reaction to small, inert things, and the warm/cool beauties of Jim Speers’ “White Interior”, a study of simply being.

Most haunting for me, on first acquaintance, however, are “Return”, with Vincent Ward’s psychic interior depiction beautifully reflected in de Castro Robinson’s deep resonances and cosmos-like spaces between light and darkness, and the concluding tranquilities of the initially riotous and unequivocal rendering of Judy Miller’s “Big Pink Shimmering One”, where the composer allows the listener at the end space alone with oneself to ponder imponderables, the moment almost Rimbaud-like in its powerful “Après le déluge, c’est moi!” realisation.

Henry Wong Doe’s playing is, here, beyond reproach to my ears – it all seems to me a captivating fusion of recreativity and execution, the whole beautifully realised by producer Kenneth Young and the Rattle engineers. I can’t recommend the disc more highly on the score of Eve de Castro-Robinson’s work alone, though Wong Doe’s performance of the Mussorgsky is an enticing bonus.

Turning to the other disc for review, one featuring David Farquhar’s music (as one might expect of a production entitled “Ring Round the Moon”) I noted with some pleasure that the album’s title work was placed last in the programme, as a kind of “all roads lead to” gesture, perhaps to encourage in listeners the thought that, on the face of things, the journey through a diverse range of Farquhar’s music would bring sure-fire pleasure at the traversal’s end.

Interestingly, the programme replicates a “Remembering David Farquhar” concert on the latter’s seventh anniversary in 2014, at Wellington’s NZSM, curated by Jack Body and featuring the same performers – so wonderful to have that occasion replicated here in preserved form. The disc is packaged in one of Rattle’s sumptuously-presented booklet gatefold containers, which also features details from one of artist Toss Woolaston’s well-known Erua series of works, and a biography of the artist.

Beginning the disc is Sonatina, a work for solo piano from 1950, which gives the listener an absorbing encounter with a young (and extremely promising) composer’s music. Three strongly characterised movements give ample notice of an exciting talent already exploring his creativity in depth. Seventeen years later, Farquhar could confidently venture into experimental territory with a Sonata for violin and piano which from the outset challenged his listeners to make something of opposing forces within a work struggling to connect in diverse ways. A second movement dealt in unconventionalities such as manipulating piano strings with both fingers and percussion sticks, after which a final movement again set the instruments as much as combatants as voices in easy accord.

The Black, White and Coloured pieces for piano, from 1999-2002, are represented in two selections on the disc – they represent a fascination Farquhar expressed concerning the layout of the piano keyboard, that of two modal sets of keys, five black and seven white. By limiting each hand to one mode Farquhar created a kind of “double” keyboard, with many opportunities for colour through interaction between the two “modes”. Altogether, Farquhar had twenty-five such pieces published in 2003.

I remember at the NZSM concert being less than enamoured of these works, thinking then that some of the pieces seemed too skeletal and bloodless compared with the originals, especially the settings of Negro Spirituals – but this time round I thought them enchanting, the “double harmonied” effect producing an effect not unlike Benjamin Britten’s treatment of various English folk-songs. A second bracket of these pieces were inspired by diverse sources, among them a Chopin Mazurka, a Landler from a Mahler Symphony, and a theme from a Schubert piano sonata, among others. Again I thought more highly of these evocations this time round, especially enjoying “Clouds”, a Debussy-like recreation of stillness, stunningly effective in its freedom and sense of far-flung purpose.

Swan Songs is a collection of settings which examines feelings and attitudes relating to existence and death, ranging from fear and anxiety through bitter irony to philosophical acceptance, using texts from various sources. Written originally for baritone voice and guitar in 1983, the performances I’ve been able to document have been mostly by women, with only David Griffiths raising his voice for the baritonal record. Here, as in the NZSM Memorial concert, the singer is Jenny Wollerman, as dignified and eloquent in speech as she is in song when delivering the opening “The Silver Swan” by Orlando Gibbons (it’s unclear whether Gibbons himself wrote the song’s words or if they were penned by someone else). Throughout the cycle, Jane Curry’s beautiful guitar-playing provides the “other half” of a mellifluous partnership with both voice and guitar gorgeously captured by producer Wayne Laird’s microphones.

Along with reiterations of parts of Gibbons’ work and a kind of “Swan swan” tongue-twister, we’re treated to a setting by Farquhar of his own text “Anxieties and Hopes”, with guitarist and singer interspersing terse and urgent phrases of knotted-up fears and forebodings regarding the imminence of death. As well, we’re served up a setting of the well-known “Roasted Swan” sequence from “Carmina Burana”, Jenny Wollerman poignantly delineating the unfortunate bird’s fate on the roasting spit. As in the concert presentation I found the effect of these songs strangely moving, and beautifully realised by both musicians.

As for the “Ring Round the Moon” set of dances, I suspect that, if I had the chance, I would want to hear this music played on almost any combination of instruments, so very life-enhancing and instantly renewable are its energies and ambiences. I’m therefore delighted to have its beauties, charms and exhilarations served up via the combination of violin and piano, which, as I remember, brought the live concert to a high old state of excitement at the end! And there’s a lot to be said for the process of reinventing something in an unfamiliar format which one thinks one already knows well.

What comes across even more flavoursomely in this version are the music’s angularities – though popular dance-forms at the time, Farquhar’s genius was to impart the familiar rhythms and the easily accessible tunes with something individual and distinctive – and the many touches of piquant harmony, idiosyncratic trajectory and impish dovetailing of figuration between the two instruments mean that nothing is taken for granted. Martin Riseley and Jian Liu give masterly performances in this respect – listen, for example, to the ticking of the clock leading into the penultimate Waltz for a taste of these musicians’ strength of evocation! Only a slight rhythmic hesitation at a point midway through the finale denies this performance absolutely unreserved acclaim, but I’m still going to shout about it all from the rooftops, and challenge those people who think they “know” this music to try it in this guise and prepare to be astounded and delighted afresh.

Most accomplished performances of piano trios by Psathas and Brahms

Glow-worm Trio
Laura Barton, violin; Daniel Smith, cello; Liam Wooding, piano

John Psathas: Island Songs
Brahms: Piano Trio No 2 in C, Op 87

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 21 February 2018, 12.15 pm

An ambitious chamber music programme by an enterprising and highly skilled trio was attended by a larger-than-usual audience, confounding the fears of organiser Marjan van Waardenberg, who thought the weather would put people off.  But no; by 12.15 it was just a normal Wellington windy day, with sunshine.

There were no programme notes, but two members of the trio briefly introduced the items, in turn.  However, it would have been an advantage to have been told the tempo markings for the movements.  And the opus number was incorrect; the Brahms’s trio, No 2, is Op.87, not 78 as shown in the printed programme.

These omissions aside, the performance was outstanding, with confident, fluent, relaxed players who were thoroughly in command, and at the end were given an enthusiastic and prolonged response by the audience.

The Psathas work’s opening was slow and somewhat menacing in character, with short, detached notes from the strings, and continuous ripples on the piano, gradually rising to a crescendo, then dying back again.   There were pizzicato passages for the strings.  An increase in excitement followed, that fell away at the end.

The second movement started tentatively, with the cello playing entirely pizzicato.  Difficult cross-rhythms abounded, but were dealt with calmly by these accomplished musicians.

The final movement was forthright and insistent, but with considerable variation in dynamics, which made it interesting.  The work was written in 1999, originally for strings and clarinet.  The composer later arranged it for  piano and strings, for the Ogen Trio.

Brahms’s Trio in C major is almost symphonic at times; a grand, confident work.  Its melodious opening (allegro moderato) was given beautiful, lyrical playing.  There was lovely control of tone and dynamics.  The music built to an affirmative, full-bodied close.

The andante con moto slow movement had a wistful yet gutsy character.  After various perambulations, the theme returned, this time sotto voce.  It was followed by an explosion into the theme, fortissimo.  A new, contemplative, quiet theme followed, shared by the instruments.  Finally there is a return to the opening theme.  All was played with sensitivity and panache as appropriate.

The third movement (scherzo: presto) had scampering figures on all instruments, and the most sumptuous lyricism.  The finale (allegro giocoso) was robust, syncopated, joyous, lilting.  These characteristics alternated with bold statements.   We heard gorgeous cello tone.  To end, there was a return to the opening theme of the trio.

The pianist used an i-pad (or similar) for the Brahms score, but relied on the page-turner to press the button rather than using a foot pedal.

A most creditable and accomplished performance was given by these players; two New Zealanders and an Australian, fellow-students at the Australian Academy of Music.


Atoll Records releases CD conspectus of Ken Wilson: Music For Winds

Music for Winds by Ken Wilson

Atoll Records / CD

Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra (1963)
Patrick Barry and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra strings, conductor Hamish McKeich
Wind Quintet (1965)
Zephyr Wind Quintet
Introduction, Theme and Variations (1965)
Adrianna Lis E flat flute, with string quartet
Duo for Clarinet and Bassoon (1963)
Peter Scholes and Ben Hoadley
Spiderweb for solo clarinet (1988)
Peter Scholes
Duo for Two Clarinets (2002), Duo for Two Clarinets (2004)
Peter Scholes and Andrew Uren
Two clarinet quartets: Slow Piece, & Variations on a Theme of Paganini (1963)
Peter Scholes, Andrew Uren, Donald Nicholls, Elsa T.W. Lam
Octet (1961)
STROMA (consisting of NZSO players), conductor Hamish McKeich

Monday 19 February 2018

A worthy addition to Atoll’s now substantial catalogue of recordings of music by New Zealand composers, this CD should delight many music-lovers.  That it is already doing so is proved by its place at number three on the RNZ Concert Classical Chart, on Saturday, 18 February.  They played an excerpt from Ken Wilson’s Wind Quintet of 1965.  This was recorded by Kiwi Records on LP in the mid-1980s, and much more recently appeared on CD.

On the new CD it is played by Zephyr Wind Quintet, made up of principal wind players from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.  It is a fine, crisp recording, as indeed are those of the other works on the disk.  Chief among these is the Concerto for clarinet and string orchestra, composed in 1963, which receives a marvellous performance from the NZSO with soloist Patrick Barry.

Ken Wilson’s music is great – its Poulenc-ish quirkiness is so much fun.  Also enjoyable is the more serious music.  For those to whom Ken Wilson is an unfamiliar name, it won’t be a surprise to learn that he was a clarinetist as well as a composer.  He was a teacher and mentor, and taught many New Zealand wind players, as well as young musicians in the USA, where he spent a substantial period of his life.

Other works vary from the Octet of 1961 (over ten minutes’ duration) and shorter pieces for clarinets in combinations, down to the ‘Spiderweb for solo clarinet’ (1986) at one-and-a-half minutes.  The most recent of the ten pieces is a Duo for two clarinets, written in 2004.  All exploit the clarinet in interesting and surprising ways, such that only a highly competent player could do.  The shorter pieces are played by a variety of performers, prominent among whom are clarinetist Peter Scholes and the bassoonist Ben Hoadley.  The Octet is played by  STROMA, the Wellington-based contemporary music ensemble.

This disk will be enjoyed not only by lovers of the clarinet, but all lovers of good music.


Michael Houstoun memorably opens Waikanae’s chamber music recital series

Waikanae Music Society
Michael Houstoun (piano)

Bach: English Suite No 2 in A minor, BWV 807
Chopin: Four Ballades (Opp. 23, 38, 47, 52)
Mozart: Sonata No 8 in A minor, K 310

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 18 February, 2:30 pm

This is the season of series launches. The Waikanae Music Society, in contrast to certain other comparable chamber music groups, is in good shape, thanks to an immediately attractive programme of eight concerts, with no patronisingly-popular concerts that fail to touch those likely to be interested in real chamber music; plus an enticing ticketing policy that makes it cheap to subscribe and to attend most concerts.

And that’s compounded by a big population of older people, many of whom seem to be cultivated and musically inclined. The proof of their success lay in the huge audience – I’d guess around 600 – which was of course in substantial part because of Michael Houstoun.

To recruit Houstoun to launch the series was a very good move (and the society chair Germana Nicklin presented flowers and life membership of the society to patrons Sir Rodney and Lady Gillian Dean, in particular, for their help with this concert). It was Houstoun’s 15th recital for the society, and he marked that by playing the same Mozart sonata that he’d played at his first one in 1987: the A minor, K 310.

Bach English Suite
But the concert began with Bach’s English Suite No 2 in A minor (chosen to chime with the key of the Mozart?). Houstoun’s Bach sounded immediately comfortable in the acoustic of the big auditorium and he exploited fully the Fazioli piano’s warmth. Considering its minor key, it was full of positive energy and in complete sympathy with piano rather than harpsichord; Houstoun didn’t subject his playing unduly to the harpsichord’s subtle dynamic boundaries which can obviously be relaxed on the piano. The sparkling Prelude was perfectly conceived.

There are six movements (counting the two bourrées as one); the elegant calm of the Allemande quieted the emotion that the fluid Prelude had established. The varied dance-derived movements might suggest greater distinctness than actually emerges in these, and in most of Bach’s suites. The Courante returns to a mood of sparkling cheerfulness and the Sarabande, in very slow, chaconne-like triple time, sometimes a hard-to-discern rhythm; it’s by far the longest movement.

The last two (three) movements are based on livelier dances. Houstoun’s Bourée I seemed to climb cheerfully up the hill, and then relaxed coming down, at a gentle pace. The Gigue was far from a boisterous peasant romp, but flowed evenly and stayed within the dynamic limits already set.

Chopin Ballades
Chopin’s four Ballades make a thoroughly rewarding package, and the performances by Houstoun the instinctive Chopinist, never sounded simply like a hundred other more routine accounts. There were discreet tempo (No 1 started uncommonly slowly) and dynamic shifts that always seemed just what the composer might have had in mind. (Incidentally, Houstoun clearly intended them to be listened to in pairs, with no applause between Nos 1 and 2, as he remained seated, hands poised for the next: the message didn’t seem to penetrate the audience for clapping again separated Nos 3 and 4. These things are not recondite affectations; they are sought by the performer and the audience should watch body language).

I can never hear No 1 now without recalling the diverting account by amateur pianist-cum-ex-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger (Play it again), of his year-long struggle to master it. Houstoun certainly made it sound rather easier than Rusbridger found it, but its mighty challenges were still, very evident.

Though they can hardly be heard as four parts of an integrated suite, with their very different spirits and narratives (Chopin apparently had narrative backgrounds, but never revealed them) it is rewarding to hear them all together; after all, Chopin chose to use the same word to describe all four. So No 2, in F major, is more sanguine and less tortured than parts of No 1, though its sudden shocks never fail to surprise no matter how many times you’ve been there. Long pauses were an interesting, very telling aspect of Houstoun’s performance.

Nos 3 adopts an easy triple rhythm, never quite a waltz: subdued, with less drama, though with a turbulent left hand that created a feeling of unease. And No 4, after its hesitant opening, led to an uneasy passage with its complex left hand underlay; Houstoun evoked its spirit of uncertainty, embroidered with insight and sympathy. Typically, after a long pause and a prolonged episode of indecision, it hurls itself into a short, tumultuous finale.

This was the end of the concert and Houstoun played an encore: a less familiar Chopin Nocturne, Op 15 No 1.

Mozart’s sonata K310
But the second half of the concert had begun with Mozart’s A minor sonata, one of the great ones which, in a 1950s performance by Walter Gieseking, introduced me in my late teens properly to Mozart’s sonatas. It entranced me (and yes, you can now find it on YouTube!). I have to get used to the reading of the opening bar with an acciaccatura (if I have the term right) rather than an appoggiatura, which seems to be the convention today; Houstoun’s account was considered and absorbing, appropriate to its description Allegro maestoso. In the slow movement, Houstoun’s occasional stretching and slight swaying of the rhythm accorded with the description ‘cantabile con espressione’, even though it might have seemed somewhat unMozartian. Such touches contributed to a performance of one of only a couple of Mozart’s sonatas in a minor key, as masterful, authoritative and beautifully poetic, fleshing out a recital that very obviously fully rewarded the large audience which almost entirely stood in admiration at the end.


Masterly playing of Bach’s first sonata and partita from Martin Riseley

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts
Martin Riseley (violin)

J S Bach: Solo Violin Sonata No 1 in G minor, BWV 1001
and Partita No 1 in B minor, BWV 1002

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 14 February, 12:15 pm

It takes other professional and voluntary organisations a long time to organise a few concerts drawing mainly on New Zealand musicians. But impresario extraordinaire Marjan van Waardenberg probably spends a good deal of the summer, putting together something approaching 50 concerts – one a week – at St Andrew’s; perhaps more than all the other chamber music organisers in Greater Wellington combined. They have become an important institution in Wellington’s musical life, providing a down-town venue for students at Victoria University’s school of music as well as a way for established musicians to remain in the public eye.

I gather she has concerts pretty well finalised for the whole year.

As well as offering surprisingly accomplished student performances, we also get to hear top-class professionals in music that is often overlooked by the mainstream promoters.

Bach’s six solo violin works are a case; we hear the cello suites from time to time, and certain of the keyboard suites and partitas but the violin sonatas and partitas, apart from familiar ones like the 3rd partita, seem neglected.

Martin Riseley is Associate Professor and head of strings in the university school of music; in addition he has recently reconnected with Christchurch where he began his tertiary violin studies in the 1980s, becoming Concert Master of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra.

Both the first and second violin sonatas and partitas are in minor keys which indeed seem to lend them a more solemn, less sunny aspect. But as with most music that has less immediate appeal, they all reveal their beauties and musical strengths, slowly, after a few hearings, and I guess my tally is far more than that.

The opening Adagio of the G minor sonata really set the tone of Riseley’s performance, not revealing much lyrical, legato character, but rather his care with detailed articulation that captured its intensely elegiac tone. Fugue is the title of the second movement; on the violin it is a counter-intuitive process, but his playing showed how clearly its fugal character can be heard as well as its strong rhythmic character. The third movement, Siciliana, is laid out to present marked contrasts between phrases on the G string and those on the high strings, which Riseley handled in an easy swaying rhythm. And he drove through the Presto finale, leaning on the first beat of the bar in clean, energetic playing.

Partita No 1, is fundamentally in four movements, but it becomes eight as each is followed by a ‘Double’, or a variation, though it’s sometimes hard to identify aspects of the basic theme since the Doubles dwell on the bass line of the movement itself. So this Partita is about twice the length of the Sonata. The first movement is an Allemanda (Bach uses French and Italian terms seemingly randomly) is marked by double dotted motifs, that explore the violin’s full range, and its complexity always strikes one as particularly profound; its ‘Double’ is brisker and more legato and flowing in style. The Corrente is faster, in triple time, and more sanguine than the first movement, but the real quick movement of the suite is its Double, that Riseley played brilliantly at almost twice the speed of the Corrente itself.

The slow movement is the grave, triple time Sarabanda with routine double stopping that sometimes seems de trop; the following Double is again quicker, more sanguine and flowing. Then comes the last movement, marked Tempo di bourée, a movement that is probably more familiar than most of the others. And its Double is in a flowing rhythm that doesn’t seek to startle, and Riseley handled its long-breathed lines unostentatiously, not attempting to mitigate the pervasive B minor tonality that has generally cast its sombre mood over the whole work.

Martin Riseley’s masterly playing has whetted our appetite to hear all six sonatas and partitas. I wondered to Marjan afterwards whether this was the first of three St Andrew’s recitals for Riseley to play all these great works; she thought not, for now, but agreed it should be done.

National Youth Orchestra’s summer concert a brilliant showcase for cellist Balzat in Elgar concerto

NZSO National Youth Orchestra conducted by Guy Noble with Matthias Balzat (cello)

Beethoven: Leonore Overture No 3, Op 72b
Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor, Op 85
Dvořák: Symphony No 8 in G, Op 88

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 3 February, 7:30 pm

To start the year, neither Peter Mechen nor I was prepared to forego hearing the National Youth Orchestra and debated the question of authoring a review. We settled by both giving up something we each hated being deprived of – that is, the entire concert.

The compromise: I cover the first half and Peter, the second.

Much as one attempts to avoid repetitious expressions of amazement at the remarkable accomplishment and musicianship exhibited by the National Youth Orchestra, and talented young musicians generally, those qualities of talent and insight are drawn out by gifted mentors and conductors and cannot be ignored.

Though the MFC was at least half full, these concerts deserve full houses. Professed music lovers should never miss them; there, as well as hearing thoroughly rehearsed performances, they will often be exposed to great music that seems to get overlooked in regular concerts. Dvořák’s earlier symphonies are a case.

Leonore III
The first half of this concert was rather more familiar, for the Elgar cello concerto gets a fair amount of exposure, and Leonore 3 is probably the most played of Beethoven’s four overtures for his much revised opera Fidelio, and more than his several other great concert overtures.

Guy Noble is an Australian conductor who has a reputation for popularising and demystifying classical music, often working with young people, hosting educational programme and collaborating with musicians in the pop world. The effect of his easy manner on the players quickly became clear in the opening bars of the overture.

Leonore Overture No 3 was the overture for the first revision of Fidelio in 1806; it’s generally considered the most substantial of the four overtures, using material from the opera, including famously, the trumpet call announcing the arrival of the minister, Don Fernando in the nick of time, releasing the illegally imprisoned Florestan. It’s sometimes played in Act II of opera performances.

Just a musicological aside: there were other operatic interpretations of the actual event during the French Revolution. The programme note referred to two French settings: only one was French: Pierre Gaveaux (Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal, 1798). Two later settings by Italian and German composers in 1804 just preceded Beethoven’s: L’amor coniugale by Donizetti’s famous teacher Simon Mayr, and Ferdinando Paer’s Leonora, ossia l’amour coniugale.

The opening, after the big call to attention, proceeded with the exquisite hushed first phrases on strings bearing a secretive message that set the tone for the whole performance – in turn restrained, suspenseful, heroic, joyous…, moving with an unusual secretiveness till the lovely rising triadic theme from principal flute Matthew Lee (and he shone again with the main theme later) signalled the beginning of the drama. The music rose confidently, dwelling not on the events in the opera’s first act but inspired mainly by Leonore’s bravery and her ultimate triumphant rescue of her husband. Its performance, marked by careful balance between strings and brass whose playing was particularly dynamic, though timpani was occasionally too strong. It certainly left one aroused, rather hoping that the entire opera would follow.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto
A few years ago I suffered Elgar cello concerto over-exposure, and Dvořák’s too, through regular attendance at the Christchurch cello competition inspired by late, lamented Alexander Ivashkin. The Adam International Cello Competition ran from 1995 to 2009 and its end was a result of the Christchurch earthquakes, perhaps one of the most lamentable losses due to the earthquakes.

This performance by Matthias Balzat, last year’s winner of the National Concerto Competition and a number of other important competitions,  awakened me again to its very special character, its deeply pensive musical inspiration, far from the character of Elgar’s earlier, ‘imperial’ symphonic works.

The cello, together with an orchestra that proved comparably sensitive to the unique spirit of the music, produced a totally arresting performance right from the cello’s other-worldly opening with merely hesitant gestures from other strings. The cello part’s handling by the 18-year-old Waikato University graduate (a James Tennant pupil) of the gorgeous main theme of the first movement Adagio set the tone for the heartfelt, melancholy music, which permeates the piece, especially the third movement – also Adagio.

Those two movements are filled with a profound meditative spirit which can be ascribed to its composition after his wife’s death, the First World War and presentiments of the end of Empire; cello and orchestra captured its spirit, exquisitely, in perfect unity.

In the brief but arresting second movement – Molto allegro – Balzat exhibited a fully-formed, virtuosic confidence, sustaining a feeling of trembling expectancy. He coped with all that ferocious demi-semi-quaverish tremolo with energy that would have won the admiration of Jacqueline du Pre. And the last ten minutes or so – Allegro – Moderato – largely rids the scene of the lingering grief, at least in the orchestra. The cello’s sometimes wild ride was subdued with spacious, beautifully phrased passages where some of the Adagio’s depth of emotion resurfaced.

Perhaps it’s taken some time for my appreciation of the concerto to recover from the Christchurch competition’s over-exposure: this performance by a very gifted young cellist and an orchestra under a conductor who emerged as rather more than merely a good front man and colourful advocate for classical music, accompanying in the most apt, sensitive and unobtrusive way, restored this great concerto’s place in my musical pantheon.

(Peter Mechen’s continuation, covering the Dvořák symphony, follows below….)

Dvorak – Symphony No.8 in G Major
A truly Bohemian symphonic musical experience – one of Dvorak’s masterpieces

by Peter Mechen

After the interval, conductor and orchestra returned to the platform to tackle one of the most adorable of romantic symphonies, Dvorak’s G Major Eighth Symphony. For many years concert-goers and record collectors knew the work as No.4 (a number of the composer’s earlier symphonies having not been published and numbered, as it were). Dvorak had previously made a breakthrough as a symphonist with his Sixth Symphony (the first one to be published), a work whose outer movements were unashamedly (and fascinatingly) modelled on Brahms’ Second Symphony. He followed that with the stern, and in places tragic tones of his Seventh Symphony (originally labelled No.2), which, though obviously a greater, more original work, is in a sense, the least “Czech” of all his symphonies, owing little to ethnic dance elements or melodic expression.

With the Eighth, the composer declared that he wanted to write something completely different, “with individual ideas written out in a new manner”. The result was a work which, more successfully than any other the composer had produced, spoke with a truly distinctive voice, expressing easily and naturally within a symphonic framework those ambiences and rhythms we most readily associate with Bohemian music. Apparently Brahms, who was one of Dvorak’s most avid supporters, was not impressed with the work, considering its ideas “attractive but fragmentary”, and lacking the symphonic focus required to give an impression of strength and true seriousness.

But Dvorak was by this time more than ready to be his own man as a symphonist, and where one finds, in the previous symphony, plenty of “strength and true seriousness”, here in the eighth there’s a joyous exuberance added to the symphonic argument which brings it all to life in a far more characteristic central European way. Everything flows in a thoroughly uncontrived manner, though still beautifully crafted and characterfully detailed. Like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, this is music which for me “age cannot wither….nor custom stale…..”

So it was with some initial concern that I listened to conductor Guy Noble’s direction of the work’s introductory bars with his young players, the melancholic opening phrases seeming to me pushed along and not allowed much chance to properly “voice” the turns of their phrases. Fortunately, things started to “flesh out” – the succeeding episodes were given more space for the players to build and shape their tones, the strings relishing their accompanying triplets beneath the winds’ soulful utterances, and gathering strength and momentum as they pushed upwards towards their climaxes, with everything excitingly capped by the brasses.

The detailings came thick and fast from this point onwards – a lovely flute phrase lead to a heart-warming partnership with the violas, one replicated by the violins and oboes, the horn barely able to contain its excitement as it summoned the rest of the orchestra to arms, leading to a thrilling and resplendent climax, in the wake of which sounded the dulcet tones of the cor anglais. The music’s volatility kept things moving, clarinets buoyed along by the lower strings’ rhythms, and thoroughly galvanized by the strings’ brilliant, gleaming ascent, answered by the brasses, and driven to an exciting ending, the timpanist splendidly on the ball with his rapid-fire detailings.

I thought the slow movement’s performance particularly successful, everything deeply considered and beautifully shaped, with the minor-key irruptions properly volatile and dramatic. And what a stunning contrast was afforded by the trio section’s dancing rhythms, the violin solo plaintively singing, and urging the rest of the strings on. Nothing was stinted, here, the strings fervent and fiery, the timpani strong and unremitting, and the solo trumpet gleaming at the snow-capped climax.
How confidently the players moved from episode to episode here, under their conductor’s beautifully-paced direction, with the horn and then the strings inviting groups of winds to forcefully having their say, and make something strong and virile of the exchanges.

But I particularly enjoyed the strings’ heart-on-sleeve manner with the dance-tune’s reintroduction, their tones saturated with warmth, and the horns chuckling with pleasure in their accompaniments. What a tremendous moment it therefore was when the music darkened unexpectedly once more, brass and timpani making their presence felt while the strings strove to keep the agitations within control, allowing the disturbances to pass and put themselves to rest.

The scherzo exuded grace and confidence, the instrumental detailings having enough thythmic elbow-room to sing and deliciously dance at the same time, not perhaps as indulgently as some performances I’ve heard, but still with beguiling effect. And in the trio, firstly the winds and then the strings flooded the textures with feeling and sentiment, the strings adding a touch of portamento, making for an ambience so very beautifully realized. The coda then properly galvanized our sensibilities, rousing us from our reveries in preparation for the work’s finale.

Trumpets splendidly called the opening, echoed by throbbing timpani and dark- browed winds, before the strings ambled in, the violins particularly bright and focused when counterpointing the lower strings, and then incisive and muscular when the allegro kicked-started – a lovely airy wind-and brass exchange contrasted nicely with the more “boots-and-all” sections – all very rustic and vigorous and exuberant.

I greatly enjoyed the “skin-and-hair” excitement of the middle-section, especially the shouting brass, with the trombones and tuba making telling contributions, and thought the quieter variation sequences worked the music’s contrasts to perfection – what lovely playing from the individual instruments here – flute, clarinet, oboe, horn, bassoon, all underpinned by strings so beguilingly. It made the final stamping, cheering payoff all the more effective, with the final brass clamourings tumultuous!

Obviously I find it difficult to contain my love and enthusiasm for this music when writing about its performance – but here, the players’ enthusiasm and the conductor’s steady and unflagging hand combined with the composer’s natural exuberance to give a truly joyous overall effect. I forgot to mention that I noticed ‘cellist Matthias Balzat (the soloist in the first-half concerto performance) sitting with the other cellos during the symphony’s performance, enjoying the music-making as much as any, and delighting those of us who noticed him there all the more.

I thought the music-making remarkable under the circumstances, continuing with the strong impression the first half of the concert made upon my reviewing colleague, Lindis Taylor. I hope people will find our sharing of this first Middle C orchestral review of the season to their taste, and look forward to it all coming together for you to read.

NZSO opens the musical year with Bach, Rameau and Locatelli

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, led by Vesa-Matti Leppänen

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos nos. 1 in F (BWV 1046) and 3 in G (BWV 1048); Air from the Suite no.3 in D, BWV 1068
Locatelli: Concerto in E flat, Op.7 no.6 ‘Il Pianto d’Arianna’
Rameau: Suite from Dardanus

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Friday, 2 February 2018, 7.30pm

The orchestra made a start to the New Year that was rather different from usual.  A band without conductor, but led from the violin, that was made up of between 12 and twenty-five players, depending on the work being played.  Unusually, the players stood to perform, except of course the harpsichordist (Douglas Mews) and the cellists; the horns and percussion had chairs to sit on in those movements where they were not playing, in the Rameau Suite.  The men’s dress was black shirts, business-style suits and dark ties, not full penguin-rig.

It was a thoroughly refreshing performance; I heard audience members expressing this sentiment as they walked away afterwards.  I was fortunate to be sitting at the front of the church, and so did not suffer from the effects of the long resonance time which may have affected people sitting further back in the packed venue.  However, I could see and hear well and my fears about fast baroque music sounding jumbled in this venue were unfounded.

What I heard was crisp, vital playing.  The string players for the most part adopted baroque bowing technique, played with greater detachment of the notes than they would employ in playing Classical or Romantic music, and rendered stress and phrasing in a baroque manner. The wind instruments were all modern ones; their greater force than had their ancestors in the Baroque period meant that they were sometimes a little too loud for their string colleagues.  Nevertheless, their contribution was tasteful; there was no attempt at vibrato, and notes were frequently slightly detached.  The playing was in a straightforward manner.  However, when the winds were playing, the harpsichord could barely be heard.

The concert began with a fanfare from two trombones placed in the side gallery, near the front of the church.  They were unannounced and their contribution was not to be found in the printed programme.  When Leppänen spoke to the audience following the first Bach concerto he mentioned the fanfare as a celebration of the opening of the 2018 NZSO series, but did not name the composer.  Two of the musicians whom I asked thought that it was Monteverdi, which seemed not only likely, but appropriate, being brass sounding from a high gallery à la St. Mark’s in Venice.  It sounded great in this acoustic.

Brandenburg No 1
The first, and longer, Brandenburg Concerto, was played stylishly.  The contrasts between Minuet, Trio, Polacca, were delightful.  The concertino players: Leppänen, plus three oboes and two horns, were admirable.  Leppänen’s leadership of the ensembles was effective throughout the concert.

The Locatelli work is seldom heard.  It is described as a short opera without words, but sad in theme (‘pianto’ is Italian for tears, weeping), depicting the sufferings of Arianna, deserted by her lover, a story much beloved of writers of opera.  The composer’s dates were 1695 to 1764.

This work was performed by a smaller ensemble.  After an andante-allegro movement, came a largo with a singular and appealing violin solo, followed by an even slower grave movement.  Throughout, the instruments depicted the drama.  Another allegro led to a final largo; an unusual way to end an orchestral work, but appropriate to the tragedy of the operatic story; mournful for the sad end of Arianna.   Again, there was beautiful playing from Leppänen.  The music could not be said to be as inspiring as that of Bach, nor as lively as Rameau’s offering to come.

After the interval came another unusual work, by baroque French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau.(1683 to 1764).  The suite consisted of 14 movements, but some of these were repetitions.  Dardanus was an opera by Rameau written in 1738 but greatly revised in 1744.  A very sprightly Overture was followed by ‘Air gracieux pour les Plaisirs’, and gracious it was, featuring flute.  Then we heard percussion, consisting of a traditional (not modern) timpani (strictly timpano, in the singular) and a tambourine, expertly played by Thomas Guldborg and Leonard Sakofsky respectively, in a movement, repeated, named for the instrument: ‘Tambourin’.

The Pleasure ended, with the ‘Entrée pour les Guerriers’.  The movement was indeed martial, with drum in a very lively march.  It was followed by a repeated rigaudon, a French dance of lilting quality.  It began with strings only, then woodwinds joined in.  The next movement, ‘Air’, was slow and piquant in character.  Minuets were elegant and yet bright, with a change to the minor key for contrast.  The ‘Tambourin’ returned, but with piccolo adding a sparkling quality.

‘Air Tendre’ opened with a cello solo, soulfully played by Andrew Joyce, then flute entered.  There were notable passages from Leppänen’s violin.  The final ‘Chaconne’ featured oboe, and later bassoon joined in.  The mood was jolly and sombre by turns, and completed a delightful suite that was lively and interesting at every turn.

Brandenburg No.3
We returned to Bach for his Brandenburg Concerto no.3, probably more popular than the no.1, as the audience showed by their prolonged applause at the end.  A smaller ensemble performed it, in a very energetic and rhythmic style, the allegros being faster than one often hears.  Again, it was a complete contrast with the preceding work.  In this music I was aware of the vibrant and rich viola tone.  The adagio was short and solemn, before a return to liveliness for the last allegro.

Leppänen spoke again, saying that the encore had been included in the printed programme: the firm favourite known as ‘Air on the G string’ (Air from Bach’s Suite no.3 in D, BWV 1068).  A larger orchestra played this final item.  The pizzicato on cellos and double bass was most effective, and the beautiful melody was fully exploited, without any un-baroque excess.

All in all, a most satisfying concert to open the year’s NZSO season.