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.

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