Fabulous students choir fully prepared for Hong Kong choral festival in July

New Zealand Secondary Students Choir in Concert directed by Andrew Withington and Rachel Alexander

Accompanied by Brent Stewart (piano) and percussionists, with Elizabeth Andrew (soprano) and other soloists from the choir

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Saturday, 28 April 2018, 7.30pm

A rather damp, cool evening after days of beautiful, calm weather did not daunt family, friends and supporters of the choir; the church was packed.

The 55-member choir proved to be in great form, and well-trained in a diversity of choral music.  Their interpretations were always adapted to the style and age of music being performed.  Diverse tone and approach were sensitively observed.  I found myself writing down ‘men’ and ‘women’ for items where part of the choir only was singing; it was not easy to think that these were all teenagers still at school, such was their accomplishment.

Singing 19 diverse items in 9 different languages would be a major challenge for any choir; that this choir did it with aplomb after a week’s workshop in Wellington was astonishing.  The choir only meets during school vacations, not weekly like most adult choirs.  Even more surprising to mere adults is the fact that most items were sung without the musical scores, i.e. from memory.

The programme began with ‘Kanaval’ by Sydney Guillaume of Haiti, and was sung with great vigour and commitment in the Haitian Creole language, accompanied by various percussion instruments, and clapping at times.  It was a confident, joyful and effervescent performance, from memory.

The second item was conducted by assistant director and vocal consultant, Rachel Alexander.  It was ‘Prelude’ by Norwegian-American composer Ola Gjello, sung in Latin.  It featured chanting against long held notes, almost drones, held by other parts of the choir.  The piece consisted of ‘Exsultate’ and ‘Alleluia’.  Part of the text was sung by the female voices, later rejoined by the men.  There were blocs of pentatonic harmony.

The rearranged double choir then sang, with harpsichord, ‘Magnificat’ by Pachelbel; with soloists from the choir.  It was notable for the bright vocal sound and was one of the few items for which the choir required the printed scores.

It was followed by the beautiful ‘Lacrimosa’ from Mozart’s Requiem, in yet another formation, accompanied by the fluent piano of Brent Stewart, assistant director and accompanist.  A lovely subdued tone issued from the choir; a magnificent fortissimo was produced when required.

David Childs is a New Zealand composer; his ‘Salve Regina’ (in Latin) was sung unaccompanied and from memory.  A quite gorgeous, varied and attractive piece this; it had luscious harmonic clusters and a solo.  All the singing was very fine.  Again, dynamics were varied and beautifully controlled.

An evocative flute made an appearance in ‘Hine Ma Tov’, a Jewish hymn based on Psalm 133 (in Hebrew) by American Neil Ginsberg.  Delicious harmonies were present in the piece.  As elsewhere, the singers were spot-on together at the opening of the work and at cadences.  The male voices were more prominent in this item; the female voices were inclined to be a little strident at times.

‘Stemming’, by Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960) was in the Danish language, another unaccompanied item sung without scores.  It was followed by an Austrian folksong for tenors and basses: ‘Buana, geht’s tanzn’ performed with percussion accompaniment.  The voices were good and strong, the words clear; it was a polished performance.

The higher voices had their turn, with a song in English: ‘Bring me little water Sylvi’, by African-American Huddie Ledbetter (1888-1949), whose song ‘Goodnight Irene’ was all the rage when I was very young.  The rendition involved humming and clapping (“body percussion”).  The voices produced a pleasing silky tone.

The last item in the first half of the concert was ‘Unclouded day’, by American Rev. J.K. Alwood, arranged by Shawn Kirchner.  This gospel song featured counterpoint, fugue – and blue-grass musical style, making it an interesting item, sung unaccompanied by the full choir.

After the break (needed after the time sitting on those backless forms!) we had two items by the Puanaki whanau of Christchurch: both action songs accompanied by guitars.  ‘Pakipaki’ was first, and was most effective, the choir believable as a bunch of Maori warriors.  The second, ‘Te Mura o Te Ahi’, (The flame of the fire) was loud and exciting.  At first the choir was chanting rather than singing, then their utterances turned to dense harmony.  The whole was very rousing.

Still in Te Reo, the choir sang a waiata – the well-known ‘Hine e hine’ by Te Rangi Pai, unaccompanied, in an arrangement by Andrew Withington.  It was a most beautiful arrangement – I must say more so than another I heard recently.  This one was not pitched too high, so sounded more authentic and more mellow and lyrical.  Pronunciation was clear and accurate.

Two compositions by prolific American choral composer Eric Whitacre followed.  ‘The Seal Lullaby’ was accompanied by clear, flowing lines on the piano.  An enchanting piece, much of it was wordless, with the singers making ‘oo-oo’ sounds.  Certainly a soothing lullaby.

Then came ‘Cloudburst’, a much more extended piece.  It’s dramatic – but you can’t go away humming it.  There are many different vocal sounds, and many kinds of body percussion, plus piano.  Those words that are used are Spanish.  The sounds of rain, both gentle and stormy, were produced in various ways.  One of the most striking is thumb-clicking, which sounds exactly like big drops falling on wet ground.  A drum added thunder.

There are swarms of notes, words against humming, and some solo sections.  This difficult work was performed confidently and strongly; these singers are at a standard almost unbelievable for secondary school students.  This was a virtuoso performance.  I have heard the work once before, in Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul, where the ample resonance lost it the precision we had here.  The choir had sung this and some of the other items in a concert in Palmerston North in January.

The most appealing piece in the whole programme was ‘Spring Rain’ by contemporary Latvian composer Ëriks Ešenvalds, commissioned last year by the New Zealand Youth Choir and the New Zealand Secondary Schools Choir.  It was in English with guitar (Carson Taare) and a fine soprano soloist, Elizabeth Andrew, from Dunedin.  However, I did not find that her words were as clear as those of the choir.  As throughout the concert, rhythm, timing, intonation, consistent vowels and dynamics were all virtually faultless.  Everything was thoroughly musical.  This song could cause a tear or two well up by its sheer beauty, as rendered by this choir.

Now for something completely different…  a medley of songs from My Fair Lady, sung in harmony with piano.  A Cockney accent was used to effect where required, and the songs were sung with relish.  I thought ‘I’ve grown accustomed to her face’ was a little too legato for its character.  However, the rollicking arrangement by Andy Beck (USA) was a lot of fun.

The concert ended with another item in te reo, this time the well-known old cicada song ‘A Te Tarakihi’ by Ngati Maniopoto and Alfred Hill, arranged by Brent Stewart.  With a drum soloist, it was stirring stuff, though I thought, not only because scores were used, that it was not quite as thoroughly rehearsed as other items.  Finally a Samoan sequence arranged by Stephen Rapana: ‘Maia soma e/Malie Tagifa’.  Clapping and movement preceded the singing, which was conducted by a choir member (presumably Samoan).  Drum, action, change from standing to sitting and back to standing were all part of the performance.

Standing too for the audience – a standing ovation for this fabulous choir, who astonished mere adults with their skill, memory, and multi-lingual performance.  Bravo!  The choir is to travel to Hong Kong in July for an international choral festival and then to Shanghai; fund-raising is under way.



Behn String Quartet opens Wellington Chamber Music’s 2018 season – brilliantly

Behn Quartet
Kate Oswin (Christchurch-born, violin), Alicia Berendse (violin, Netherlands), Lydia Abell (viola, Wales), Ghislaine McMullin (cello, England)
(Wellington Chamber Music)

Debussy: String Quartet in G Minor
Jack Body: Three Transcriptions
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 3 in F major, op. 73

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 22 April, 3 pm

Wellington Chamber Music Inc opened its 2018 season of seven concerts with a multi-national string quartet (naturally, one cannot use the word -ethnic when speaking of members of several nations inhabited by one ethnic group, European peoples), led by a New Zealander.

It’s probably unusual for a musical group to adopt a literary name. Aphra Behn was a late 17th century English woman playwright and novelist. She’s always interested me: go to the end of this review to read a bit more about her.

Debussy String Quartet
An excellent programme began with Debussy’s only string quartet. It caught my attention at once with the gorgeous warmth and homogeneity of sounds produced by the four women, and it prompted some inadmissible thoughts that might be sexually discriminatory towards male string players. It struck me that, unlike some male players, here there was absolutely no sense that any player was in the least concerned about being distinguished individually.

I have never felt that Debussy’s writing for quartet led particularly to sounds that were so closely knit, not just in their ensemble, but more strikingly in their unified tone. Furthermore I was enraptured by their subtly elastic rhythms and pacing, and that was even more evident in the second movement, Assez vif et bien rythmé. Where they could play up the hesitancy that seems inherent in the music, and to permit the varied musical personalities of the players to be heard. Here for the first, but not the last time, the viola of Lydia Abell which opens so vividly over pizzicato from the others, made the kind of sound that really justifies the distinct role of the viola in a string quartet. But her sound was never at the expense of the ensemble which remained so happily at one.

The second violin of Alicia Berentse opens the third movement (Andantino, doucement), but the viola soon takes up its plaintive song and I began to wonder whether I was becoming rather unhealthily obsessed with it; but I realised that it was actually the violist alone whom I could see properly, and so tended focus unduly on her playing, from a position a bit too far back to see the other players (sight lines are a bit of a problem when players remain at floor level). But the cello of Ghislaine McMullin took its turn with the ultra douce melody, with equally rapturous playing, and the viola enjoys a particularly striking episode later in the third movement. The remarkable pause in the middle of the third movement never ceases to surprise me.

However, the cellist too has rewarding episodes, particularly in the last movement where she opened secretively with her winding theme which suddenly springs to life. And while the two violins play distinctive, energetic roles, it was again the interesting contributions by viola and cello that mostly impressed me.

Jack Body’s Three Transcriptions has become a fairly popular piece, and a unique piece it is. Being based on three very different folk pieces for exotic instruments, the translations to string quartet do strike one from time to time as eccentric, somehow eviscerated and without the authentic character which would, I’m sure, have been uniquely arresting and enlivening. But they are what they are, and these performances, different of course from what I’ve heard from the New Zealand String Quartet, stood their ground. They captured the essence of the Chinese Long-ge, jew’s harp as well as simulating the jagged rhythms of the Ramandriana from Madagascar. But they couldn’t really replicate the excitement of a great deal of Balkan musical traditions (I’m much more familiar with Greek and Serbian folk/popular music). Yet they were fired with the music’s energy and handled capably the exotic playing techniques that Body demanded, with an occasional shout simulating the ecstatic response of the dancers.

Shostakovich’s Third String Quartet, written at the end of the war, in 1945, begins in a surprisingly cheerful way, making no reference to the horrors just ended, but soon an unease arises over what Stalin now had in store for his people now that the Communist Party could get back to its main purposes. It’s in five movements, though the programme note could have been misleading, showing the fourth movement as Adagio – Moderato; Moderato in fact describes the fifth movement.

The second movement calls up a somewhat funereal quality with a slow, rising, minor triad on the viola; the notes call it a sardonic waltz; how would Andrei Zhdanov (who led the 1947 attacks on ‘formalist’ music that devastated Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian) have interpreted this uneasy music? For there is little scope to misinterpret the heavy opening strokes by all four players in the third movement, and they employed just the right weight to the compelling rhythms that shift, rather imperceptibly from a 2/4 to ¾ beat. The ending, abrupt like the suddenness of an execution, and shocking in its calm acceptance, brings art and politics into immediate and inseparable proximity.

A similar air dominates the fourth movement, with meandering, uneasy motifs, the most telling parts with viola and cello, though the atmosphere lightens when violins do join, and there’s no mistaking the very temporary lifting of the pervasive tone of apprehension here with the slow disappearance of hope as violas and cellos are alone over the last minute or so. And though the last movement is a little quicker, in what sounds like triplets in duple time (actually 6/8 rhythm), the fifth movement does little more in terms of painting a picture of political life in Soviet past-war period, than suggest a low profile and the best one can do to maintain a happy face.

Being a deeply political person I find this, and much of Shostakovich, engrossing and disturbing, particularly as it is once again becoming relevant in the second decade of the 21st century. The Behn Quartet, whose name suggests acknowledgement of a comparable affinity between the temper of the political world and that of the arts, also played as if they thoroughly understood what Shostakovich was saying in this powerful and eloquent work.


About Aphra Behn
I confess I didn’t have to Google the name ‘Behn’ as I was familiar with it both through my father’s knowledge (he was chief librarian of the Turnbull Library for nearly 30 years, and his discourses at home shaped me. Milton and 17th century literature (and music) are among the library’s international strengths) and my own English literature studies at university. I knew her place in Restoration England (the reigns of Charles II and James II, and later), in theatre and writing in general. Though details of her life, including the way she rose from very modest origins to literary distinction are a bit sketchy, she was successful in both fiction and drama; and she was a rare, feisty, liberated woman writer who at one point had acted as a kind of double agent for the English Crown in the Netherlands.

She was noted as a writer of some fairly bawdy tales, dealing frankly with Lesbians, and being remarked at the time as writing in a vein that was more likely from a male than a female pen (the Restoration was a famously licentious period in literature and the arts).

She lived from 1640 to 1689, and her musical contemporaries were Purcell and John Blow; and on the Continent, Lully and Corelli.

Her other contemporaries were Dryden, Newton, Boyle, Pepys, Bunyan, Nahum Tate (famous as the librettist of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas), Christopher Wren, and Milton was in his last years; philosophers: John Lock, Spinoza and Leibnitz.

I heard the distinguished 17th century scholar speak at the recent Festival: A C Grayling, an inspiring, strong minded figure with admirably sane political and religious views.  Read his The Age of Genius: The Seventeenth Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind.


Nota Bene at Sacred Heart Cathedral: an enjoyable concert by a very accomplished choir

Nota Bene, directed by Shawn Condon

Love’s illusions: Songs of Romance, Passion, Vanity and Loss

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Sunday, 22 April 2018, 3.00pm

An imaginative concert full of delightful songs beautifully sung, it attracted  a moderate audience.  The diversity and careful planning of the programme was let down, in my view, by being broken up by too much applause.  Since it was divided into five Parts, it would have been sensible to have asked the audience to keep applause to the end of each Part.  As it was, almost every song was applauded.  The conductor spoke to the audience at the beginning, but his utterance was too fast and too quiet to be heard in the rear section of this quite large church.

The first Part was entitled ‘Innocence’.  It began with ‘Aftonen’ by Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960).  In the case of this and all other songs not in English, a translation of the text was given in the printed programme, as were composers’ and poets’ names and dates, plus brief but excellent programme notes. The 20-strong choir sang this gentle evening song unaccompanied (as was most of the programme) with splendidly pure tone.  The serene landscape was depicted most effectively.  Close harmony and humming were notable features beautifully executed.

Next up were songs by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924).  Conjecture is perhaps pointless, but mine is that if Elgar (whose dates are close to those of Stanford) had not come along when he did, we would esteem Stanford much more highly.  Although well-known for his music for the Anglican Church, Stanford wrote much secular music too.

Three songs from his set of Six Elizabethan Pastorals were performed.  They were in almost a folksong idiom.  Notable was the clear English pronunciation of the words by the choir, here and throughout the concert, aided by the generous acoustic of the high-ceilinged church.  This despite the floor being totally carpeted.  The bright idiom of these songs brought a transformation from the quiet, calm, meditative Alfvén piece.  The second song (no.3 in the set), ‘Diaphenia’ contained lively, interesting melody.  ‘Farewell my joy’ was another Stanford song.  I found the music served the words by Mary Coleridge supremely well.

Part II was entitled ‘Devotion’, and opened with ‘Amor de mi Alma’ by Spanish sixteenth-century poet Garcilaso de la Vega, set by a composer unknown to me, Z. Randall Stroope, a contemporary American.  There were tricky minor key intervals and harmonies to be negotiated (successfully) in this quite complex writing.  The closing lines were particularly lovely, setting the words translated as “ Were it necessary for you I would die, and for you I die.”

We moved to more familiar territory (words-wise) with Philip Sidney’s ‘My true love has my heart’, set by Eugene Butler, another contemporary American composer.  It was accompanied on the piano by Shawn Condon, and sung by the women of the choir; it was a delight.  It was followed by Gerald Finzi’s beautiful setting of Robert Bridges’ ‘ My spirit sang all day’ – which I consequently had on the brain for the rest of the day.  The composer’s great interest in literature as well as music equipped him to set the words so well.

‘Go lovely rose’ followed; a setting by Chris Moore, another contemporary American, was for men only, and was unaccompanied, like the Butler song.  The last item in this Part was ‘A boy and a girl’ by renowned American choral composer Eric Whitacre.  The full choir sang this piece, featuring much close harmony.  Quite long, it seemed to me somewhat ponderous at times.

Sustained humming was gorgeous.

Part III bore the heading ‘Vanity’, and began with that other doyen of American choral music, Morten Lauridsen – settings of Les Chansons des Roses, and Dirait-on, poems by Rilke.  (I empathised with the words of the first, translated as ‘Against whom, rose, have you assumed these thorns?’, since a few days earlier a rose thorn had pricked my right thumb, causing it to swell and go black right from the base to the upper knuckle.)

Again, pronunciation was excellent.  Lauridsen has favourite intervals in my experience, and here they were, in this admirable song.  The second song (accompanied) I have heard before; it was a very fine setting.

After the interval, a smaller group sang two songs by Parry.  The composer died in 1918, thus his music being programmed by Tudor Consort recently, and by this choir.  They were the opening item in Parrt IV, ‘Affection’.  The blend in this smaller group of voices was not always satisfactory.  The second song, ‘If I had but two little wings’ fared better – it was more cohesive.  Both were attractive items.

Next was Sibelius.  Shades of Mendelssohn hovered round a song fn German for the full choir.  It had variety and composer and singers made good use of the words.  We remained in Finland with a traditional melody from the Swedish-speaking island of Åland with modern words – and vocal effects, all well executed.

Another Finnish song initiated Part V ‘Mystery and Tenderness’ ; ‘A mermaid’s song’ by Juha Holma.  I think, from reading the biography of the conductor printed in the programme, that Holma is a personal acquaintance of the conductor, who is completing a PhD at a Finnish university.  The piece used vocal effects, including whispering.  While well performed, the song did not appeal to me.  Whitacre’s ‘The Seal Lullaby’, with piano accompaniment, was a pleasing song with a rocking rhythm, particularly in the piano part..

A concession to New Zealand came in David Hamilton’s arrangement of ‘Hine e hine’.  The melody was at a very high pitch– surely many notes higher than the original, and for me the arrangement spoiled the beautiful simplicity of the song, though the parts weaving below the high melody were interestingly written.  The singing sounded strained at times.

Lastly, Part VI – Longing.  First up was a song by a Japanese composer of note: Toru Takemitsu, entitled ‘Shima e’ (To the Island).

Personally, I don’t enjoy the custom of some choirs of singing ‘pops’ at the end of a programme.  I want to go away with something uplifting and beautiful in my head.  ‘Ev’ry time we say goodbye’ by Cole Porter and ‘Both sides now’ by Joni Mitchell are first-rate songs of their genre and were  impeccably sung, the latter by only six voices with piano, but…  Again I felt the simplicity of the second song had been lost by too-clever changes of key.  Daisy Venables was the more than adequate soprano soloist.

Finally, an appropriate song for Wellington: ‘Winds’ by Mia Makaroff, another contemporary Finnish composer; much of her writing (she composed both words and music) is in English.  This was a fine piece of choral writing.  Like the rest of the programme, it was very well sung.

Shawn Condon directed clearly and undemonstratively.  The choir appeared to sing just as well in the items he accompanied on the piano.  An American now working in Wellington, he is about to take over as Artistic Director of the Bach Choir of Wellington.  The choir’s skill in singing in so many different languages was admirable, as was the variety of tone colour and dynamics.

As usual at a Sacred Heart concert, I heard complaints about the uncomfortable forms that are the seating.  Yes, cushions have made a difference, but the design (if one can use that word in such a case) of the seating makes them very hard on the back.  Pews they are not.  Another reason for not applauding between every song – it makes the concert unnecessarily long.

Nevertheless, this was an enjoyable concert by a very accomplished band of singers.


Paul Dukas’s Sonata the climax of John Chen’s monumental Waikanae piano recital

Waikanae Music Society presents
John Chen (piano)

Music by Handel, Chopin and Dukas

HANDEL – Keyboard Suite No.8 in F minor HWV 433
CHOPIN – Piano Sonata No.2 in B-flat Minor Op.35
DUKAS – Piano Sonata in E-flat Minor (1900)

Memorial Hall, Waikanae.

Sunday 22nd April, 2018

April has been a bumper month for piano recitals in the Wellington region, this being the third I’ve attended and reviewed in as many weeks. What’s astonished me about each of them has been their utter distinctiveness, with not a single recurring piece between the three, and a sense of adventure very much to the fore in each instance, in terms of the repertoire and its presentation.

Firstly, Michael Houstoun’s Lower Hutt recital wrought a well-nigh flawless balance of sensibility between a group of contrasting pieces whose overall qualities enhanced the uniqueness of character demonstrated by each one in turn, to wondrous effect. The following day, Jason Bae’s lunchtime recital at Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music’s Adam Concert Room presented a demanding group of virtuoso works, which included a New Zealand premiere alongside three rarely-performed others, all played with finely-honed sensitivity and terrific panache.

And, just last Sunday, a Waikanae audience enjoyed the rich elegance and cumulative power of John Chen’s playing of three works representative of their different eras – baroque, romantic and fin de siècle – to overwhelming effect by the concert’s end. Honours were perhaps divided between the last two pianists regarding  enterprise in terms of rarity, with Bae playing an “off-the beaten track” programme, and Chen giving us a rather more substantial work from a composer, Paul Dukas, whose fame of course largely rests with a single work, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.

As well, like Houstoun’s, I thought Chen’s programme cleverly worked out, the pianist taking his audience on a kind of grand tour of innovatory keyboard music from three very different eras. Handel, of course, represents the Baroque sensibility at its most winning and attractive, with the choice of the eighth of the composer’s keyboard suites a particularly poignant one, due partly to the “dark” key of F Minor.

Solemn, yet still with a flow expressing both shape and energy, Chen contoured the music’s opening pages with all the colour and variety of tone available on a modern grand piano, a sense of expectation preparing us for the Fugue which followed the Prelude. I liked the pianist’s balancing a sense of fun amid the fugue’s forthright utterances, giving the music its composer’s characteristic “living” quality. The Allemande beguiled us in Chen’s hands firstly with its opening simplicity, and then with its embellishments at each section’s repeat, while the Courante delightfully set its canonic voices in teasing, playful, motion, though still allowing the final Gigue pride of place in conclusive momentum. Here was beautifully pin-pointed playing from Chen, both free-flowing and and angular by turns, the repeats with their inversions of the opening tickling our sensibilities with their delightful “on the other hand” insouciant wryness, the conclusion thrown off with a theatrical touch of elan.

With the Chopin Sonata’s opening, Chen then plunged us into a different world of romantic expression, giving the portentous opening plenty of dramatic weight, but then tempering the wildness of the following allegro, the playing allowing the agitations some shape and coherent utterance, propulsive without becoming hysterical. We got the first movement repeat to underline this balancing act between heart and mind, Chen actually going right back to the Sonata’s beginning, here, instead of merely re-immersing us directly in the turbulent waters of the Allegro, The development continued the pianist’s way of shaping the discourse, the climactic points treated as part of the music’s flow rather than ends of excitement and release in themselves.

Perhaps Chen was commenting in his own wry way on Chopin’s friend and contemporary Robert Schuman’s extraordinary verdict on the Sonata as a whole, calling the work’s movements “four of Chopin’s maddest children” (this from the composer of Kreisleriana!). Here, the music seemed to fit sonata-form like a glove, as justly as had Beethoven’s similar gestures and propulsions in his revolutionary “Pathetique” Sonata’s first movement over a generation earlier. The second movement’s vigorous opening, too, had more of a chunky, almost laconic quality with Chen, rather than seeming to express anything sinister or demonic-sounding in its intent. This seemed far more in keeping with the lyricism of the central section, its beauties resembling tender endearments more readily to my ears than prayer or invocation in times of trouble.

That feeling of relief from oppression belonged more here to the world-famous third movement’s trio sequence, its heavenly beauties realised by Chen with hypnotic focus and powerful simplicity, all the more effective when set against the dark menace of the opening “Funeral March”. The pianist conveyed impressive ceremonial splendour in his playing of the march’s noble melody, as well as grimmer realities with his tolling dotted rhythms and drum-roll trills, though again, everything was as musical as it was graphic, the “madness” not discounted by the playing but kept at bay.

Surely one of the boldest strokes of genius with which to round off a classical work was Chopin’s finale, the part of the work which gave Schumann the most difficulty, in that he couldn’t accept the whirlwind of notes that the former gave us as “music”- vis-a-vis his actual words – “….what we get in the final movement under the title “Finale” seems more like a mockery than any music……and yet, one has to admit, even from this unmelodic and joyless movement a peculiar, frightful spirit touches us, which holds down with an iron fist those who would like to revolt against it, so that we listen as if spellbound  and without complaint to the very end, yet also without praise, for music it is not………” Yet Schumann also had the grace to admit, in the same article, that “perhaps years later, a romantic  grandson will be born and raised, will dust off and play the sonata, and will think to himself, “The man was not so wrong after all.”

John Chen took the music at face-value, perhaps underplaying the romantically-charged impulses generated by the hands in unison by bringing out the delineations of notes with more clarity than usual, but still creating for the poetically-minded a picture of “the wind blowing the leaves across the freshly-dug mound of the hero’s grave”. Had Schumann heard a performance such as this he might well have upped and exclaimed that the music’s time had indeed arrived, and that the “romantic grandson” had already been born and raised, and was here showing us how “right” the composer’s work was already sounding in his hands…….

Having reimagined the relatively familiar, Chen then turned his attentions to a work more heard about than actually played, up until recently the preserve of pianistic legends such as John Ogdon and Marc-Andre Hamelin. This was Paul Dukas’s epic Piano Sonata, grandly-conceived and densely-worked in typically rich, late-Romantic language, a work whose four-movement design and monumental scale actually exceeds half the total duration of the composer’s entire published output (Dukas was notoriously self-critical as a composer).

Though Dukas, unlike some of his contemporaries, was no great pianistic talent, his Sonata remains one of the most significant of French Romantic Piano works. Dedicated to Saint-Saens, and first performed by the renowned French pianist Edouard Reisler in 1901, the work was at once acclaimed by Debussy who wrote a review, stating at the outset that “Monsieur Paul Dukas knows what music is made of : it is not just brilliant sound designed to beguile the ear until it can stand no more… For him it is an endless treasure trove of possible forms and souvenirs with which he can cut his ideas to the measure of his imagination.” Though the music brings to mind something of the profundity of Beethoven, the brilliance of Liszt and the harmonic richness of Franck, it directly reflects Dukas’s own creative ethic, both structure and emotion realised in discursive, though beautifully-sculpted ways, the outcome at once refined and concentrated, leaving the impression of not a single note being wasted.

John Chen began the work steadily and patiently, letting the detailings “unfold”, and giving the impression of the music and musician allowing each to “play” the other, such was his apparent absorption in the sounds and their interaction. Here, the first group of themes gave a dark-browed and troubled impression, while the second calmed the agitations with melting lyricism, here shared in canonic manner between the hands, and there sounded in the bass with deep, rich tones, the contrasting sequences playing out their characters with both volatility and deep reflectiveness, the latter beautifully sustained here by the pianist throughout the movement’s coda.

A chordal melody, reminiscent of Edward MacDowell’s contemporaneous “To a Wild Rose” in feeling, began the slow movement, albeit with a series of delicate chromatic explorations that soon took the music’s textures and tones far above “Woodland Scenes” to what seemed like the firmament overhead…….here, Chen’s fastidious ear for detail brought out a kaleidoscopic world of sensation and impulse, his beautifully-resonant bass-notes opening up the vistas, and his gentle but insistent cross-rhythmed traversals of the terrain having an almost epic Brucknerian quality in places. And, finally, the pianist’s reproducing of the composer’s remotely twinkling “stars in the sky”- like impulse-notes which brought the movement to a close I found simply enthralling.

What an explosion of energy and frenzy accompanied the opening of the Scherzo! – rapid-fire impulses punctuated by whiplash chords! Tumultuous sounds, here brought about by the pianist’s fantastic control of both declamatory utterance and eerily-voiced mutterings. Even greater surprise it was, then, to be confronted with a sudden hiatus in the form of a slow-paced, angular fugue, a trio-like section whose quiet, almost disembodied tones had a disturbing quality of their own akin to that of the eye of a storm, remote, almost alien in relation to their context.

Debussy thought the Sonata’s finale “evokes the kind of beauty comparable to the perfect lines of a mighty architecture, lines that melt and blend with the colours of air and open sky, harmonizing with them completely and forever”. Certainly the grand chords with which the movement began suggested imposing structures, around which were woven meditative-like musings, which eventually gave way to the muscular thrusts that began the anime section. From these swirlings a grand theme emerged, not unlike Franck in heroic mode. John Chen’s energies were remarkable in conjuring up the necessary weight and stamina to realise these epic outpourings. The return of the opening of the theme was a heart-warming moment, which became more energised, with exciting motoric accompaniments, and with various inventive  treatments of it thrown at us to make of what we could – a ferment of excitement! The gradual amplification of these elements generated an echt-romantic glow in Chen’s hands, almost pre-Hollywood in its scale (Debussy’s “lines that melt and blend with the colours of air and open sky”….), before the apotheosis-like climax brought forth the coda, by turns brilliant and monumental in effect. With playing that engaged the the music fully ,the pianist carried his audience with him right to the end, earning, and richly deserving, rapturous acclaim from all sides. Bravo!



Sasha Cooke’s entrancing Berlioz songs, a bewitching premiere and masterpieces of Debussy and Ravel: thanks to De Waart and the NZSO

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke

Salina Fisher: Tupaia (premiere)
Berlioz: Les nuits d’été, Op. 7
Debussy: La mer
Ravel: Boléro

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 21 April 2018, 7:30 pm

Though this turned out a great concert with an enthusiastic reception of Ravel’s Boléro at the end, I had heard a number of less than excited reactions to the programme beforehand. There’s an ‘attitude’ surrounding Boléro, and not the whole world loves Debussy as much as the music historians generally do. That left Les nuits d’ été, but then there are still a sad few who have inherited an earlier, unregenerate attitude towards Berlioz.

Sasha Cooke will be remembered for her April 2012 concert with the NZSO, singing Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Which I reviewed with very happily, and later that month she sang Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer, in a concert that also included La mer (does Sasha have a psychic connection with the sea?).

But the programme had begun with a new commission from Salina Fisher, getting in early to celebrate next year’s 250th anniversary of Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand. Tupaia was the Tahitian with an extraordinary knowledge of Pacific navigation who was persuaded by Joseph Banks to join Cook’s expedition seeking ‘the great southern continent’, and reaching New Zealand (a bit of a let-down).

The composer wrote that her work drew “inspiration from the idea of celestial navigation: the constant and gradual shift in perspective necessary to perceive the ‘rise and fall’ of stars and ultimately to move forward”. It began with that low almost inaudible sound that opens Also sprach Zarathustra, expectant, mysterious, mostly from strings but then with chimes from the high register of the marimba, drums and eventually brass and other instruments. The arrival of alto flute lent a touch of clarity to the sound suggesting clear skies in a starry night.

Though she didn’t succumb to any obvious or hackneyed sea-depicting devices, Fisher’s music rose and fell over its eight minute duration, evoking generally subdued imagery, undefined, unpretentious, though undoubtedly inducing a sense of isolation in an empty ocean.

Les nuits d’ été  
Berlioz’s great cycle of six songs by Théophile Gautier was for me the main and most engrossing work on the programme. Berlioz is my favourite French composer, and I’m not given to ranking people; but aware of the long years when so many critics and music historians determined not to recognise his genius, when I had fallen in love with the Symphonie fantastique at an early age, has made me a rather fervent proselyte. And it has helped feed a consuming francophilia in general.

If I’d found Sasha Cooke’s Mahler songs so enrapturing six years ago, I found each of these melodies, in turn, beautifully articulated, restrained, illuminating so perfectly both the melodies and Berlioz’s subtle and sympathetic orchestrations. Le spectre de la rose ranks as one of the most inspired and moving creations, right up with the most lovely of Schubert and Schumann Lieder (and Berlioz composed his cycle in 1840, Schumann’s year of Lieder: something in the air?). Her modest and undemonstrative singing through its long lines captured the magical sense of Gautier’s poems without artifice or unnecessary emphasis, even in the second, more intense stanza.

And in Sur les lagunes her warm and rich mezzo voice found beautiful engagement, hovering as it does around the lower register, yet rising in passion to match the words of the last lines.

After both Le spectre and Lagunes there was clapping, hesitant perhaps but driven, I felt, not through unawareness of the conventions, but by an overwhelming compulsion; I felt the same.

There’s a kind of recitative element in Absence, immaculate, poignant, this one reveals the lost love that is perhaps at the heart of the entire cycle; Cooke’s slow, aching interpretation with its long pauses was so breath-taking that even the impulse to clap its exquisite performance was stilled.

Au cimitière, rather than a funereal utterance such as one might expect, expresses more complex, varied emotions and here her voice found a more overt spirit; each stanza in turn so individual, interpreting so acutely the sense of the lines. Finally, L’île inconnue, ends the cycle with the most up-beat song, yet again it’s discreet, a model of sympathetic orchestration, characteristic of French orchestral clarity and consideration for the singer, and with keen attention to the audibility of every syllable. Whatever the great strengths of the music of the second half, this music and this singer left Les nuitsd’été for me the best thing of the evening.

La mer is probably, after L’après-midi d’un faune, the most played of Debussy’s orchestral works; and I wonder why we don’t hear all or even parts of Images more often, or Nocturnes.

I had the strange, fleeting impression of a connection between the opening bars of La mer and Salina Fisher’s piece. Even though here were harp and timpani and cellos… capturing dawn over a calm sea; but Debussy employs more overt visual impressions, though I have rarely found it useful or even interesting to seek extra-musical notions to embellish music or assist appreciation of it. Fortunately, this music, and its superbly careful and balanced playing under De Waart needs no props. While not in any way denigrating the orchestral virtuosity of Debussy’s foreign contemporaries, schooled in other musical environments, the traditions passed down through the Paris Conservatoire from Berlioz (not that he taught there), lived through Franck and Lalo, Saint-Saëns and Bizet, D’Indy, Chausson, Fauré…. to Debussy and Ravel.

Clapping again broke out at the end of De l’aube à midi sur la mer: deserved for sure, but did they think at about eight minutes, it was all over?

The performance was beautifully balanced, again orchestral parts integrated so that brass, under perfect control, can be heard so consummately judged in the space, without the engineering that gives a rather dishonest impression of the sound to the record listener.

Finally Boléro. No matter how often one might have heard it – and live performances are not that common – there is something truly hypnotic about its sheer repetitiveness and I have never failed to feel its unique force in a live performance in the concert hall (on record, it’s a quite different matter). Ravel himself remarked that though there was no music in it, “it was a masterpiece”.

Except that there is music in it. It simply takes the most fundamental device in most music – the repetition of a theme, usually several themes, over and over, and generally varied in many ways (ever counted the number of times principal themes in many of Schubert’s works are played, with little change?). With Boléro his tune is varied at every reiteration – through its instrumentation: where is the compositional law forbidding that?

This was paced with perfect discretion, deriving through a steady if imperceptible crescendo along with the bewitching instrumental additions, a riveting performance. There was no doubt, noting the stentorian applause and shouting, that it had again worked its ‘illegitimate’ magic on most of us.

NZSM Orchestra’s “Triple” celebration with the Te Kōkī Trio

Te Kōkī New Zealand School Of Music  presents:
Music by Brahms, Beethoven, Debussy and Lilburn

BRAHMS – Tragic Overture
BEETHOVEN – Concerto for ‘cello, violin and piano with orchestra
DEBUSSY – Nocturnes (excerpts) – 1. Nuages  2.Fetes
LILBURN – Suite for Orchestra (1955)

Te Kōkī Trio : Inbal Megiddo (‘cello), Martin Riseley (violin), Jian Liu (piano)
New Zealand School of Music Orchestra

Kenneth Young (conductor)

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Tuesday, 17th April, 2018

There was palpable excitement among those gathering within the none-too-spacious vistas of  St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Church for the most recent concert given by Te Kōkī New Zealand School Of Music’s Orchestra with conductor Kenneth Young, most certainly due to the event’s extra attraction in presenting the fabulous Te Kōkī Trio as guest soloists in Beethoven’s wondrous Triple Concerto! – of course, each of the Trio’s soloists are currently heads of their respective instrumental disciplines at the School of Music in any case, which somehow added to the integral splendour and prestige of the occasion.

Under Kenneth Young’s tutorship this orchestra has seemed to me to gradually develop over the years the skills and confidence needed to tackle works from the standard repertoire which I would have considered ambitious to a fault for student players to even attempt, and proceeded to bring them off with considerable elan. True, the students always appear to have heart-warming support from their various tutors in performance, even when the latter are performing as soloists – we noticed, for example how both Inbal Megiddo (‘cello) and Martin Riseley (violin) from Te Kōkī Trio joined the full orchestra after the interval, in the wake of their Beethoven performance – and I feel certain that Jian Liu (piano) would have done the same had there been a keyboard part for him to play! But there were a number of others, whom the programme rightly named, spread across the various disciplines, whose presence in the band would have been empowering, to say the least!

It’s a scenario which seems to augur well for continued first-class performances by New Zealand orchestral musicians in this country, let alone develop the players’ individual instrumental skills for solo and smaller ensemble work. What we’re all waiting for in Wellington, now, is a venue that’s rather more accommodating spacious than St.Andrew’s  for orchestras such as the NZSM ensemble, without resorting to the capacious vistas of the MFC – which can even dwarf both Orchestra Wellington and the NZSO, depending on the numbers required for particular repertoire. So, how far advanced is the Town Hall’s promised earthquake restoration project, again?

This evening we were given an eclectic programme, each piece a challenge for the players in its different way, as befitted the concert’s purpose. First up was the hoary old Tragic Overture, by Brahms, which I confess I wasn’t heart-thumpingly excited about hearing – possibly because I’ve sat through many an “auto-pilot” performance of this music, seeming to amble through its paces with little “edge” given the attack, phrasings or rhythms, “standard fare” at its worst. Happily, Ken Young and his players obviously had no intentions of the music being made to sound anything other than totally enthralling, right from the first note – the attack of those first two chords was electrifying, the ensuing atmosphere charged with expectation, and the focused trajectories of the music that followed leading urgently and surely towards drama and excitement.

Conductor and players brought about this state of things by keeping the focus the whole time on where the music was headed, and then committing themselves to realising those cadence-points with the utmost concentration and urgency. Consequently, the music became the conduit through which all the efforts of the players passed, the result feeling like a kind of “living entity”, instead of merely a well-polished run-through. The passionate urgencies of the string-playing in the first, agitated section were beautifully contrasted by the poised eloquence of the winds during their more lyrical sequences mid-work, the oboist the most prominent of a number of heroes, here. The winds all made characterful and plangent contributions right up to the heart-warming burst of sunshine from the horns that allowed the violas their generously-phrased moment of glory before handing over to the violins.

There was no let-up, no slackening of tensions right up to the end of the piece, with the strings again squaring up to the conflict and matched by the winds’ and brass’s darkly passionate colourings and the timpani’s steady underpinning of the climaxes. If all performances of this work evoked such a spirit among orchestral players, I would happily change my tune regarding the music – here, the piece was made to bristle and boil, its trenchant sounds recreating a living sense of tragedy.

Having been nicely “primed” by these expressive urgencies, we were all the more expectant of the delights that the next piece of music would bring – Beethoven’s warm-hearted Triple Concerto, which brought to the performing platform the three aforementioned soloists from the Te Kōkī Trio. With a grand piano and two other places for string soloists required in front of the orchestra, the auditorium’s capacities were put under some stress, though with the help of the upstairs balcony, everybody seemed to fit in, just! As well they did, because the performance was of an order that will, I believe, give rise to reminiscences of the “Ah! – you should have been there to hear…” variety from among those present, in years to come.

The opening orchestral tutti is, quite simply, for me, one of those “squirming-with-delight” sequences whose ambience evokes a kind of cosmos eminently receptive to human habitation, a state of potential being amply filled by the arrival of the soloists, one at a time, here, all personalities in their own right, and imbued with interactive skills of all kinds. Inbal Megiddo’s ‘cello was the first to “appear”, brightly-and eloquently-voiced and very much at one with Martin Riseley’s violin, both relishing their triplet figurations that prepared the way for the piano. Jian Liu’s playing straight away had a matching, bright-eyed eagerness which readily gravitated to the mode of enthusiastic exchange that characterised most of this movement.


To reproduce all of my scribbled notes regarding this performance (I was, I confess, somewhat carried away by the sheer eloquence of the playing from both soloists and orchestra) would be sheer folly, like comparing prosaic mutterings to Shakespearian poetry – so I will confine myself to comments which somehow convey a sense of the whole. I particularly enjoyed Inbal Megiddo’s playing at the top of her range, with Beethoven making sure the instrument could be heard at nearly all times; and both hers and Martin Riseley’s violin-playing created a teasingly entertaining combination of exchange and unanimity in their passagework, with Jian Liu’s bright-toned piano adding both colour and a multi-voiced aspect of character to the discourse. This reached its first-movement apex both at the climax of the “development” section, and towards the end, with a “sighing” three-note descent leading to the coda, the three soloists scurrying through their firstly upward and then downward scales with great alacrity, amid crashing orchestral chords – so exciting!

The slow movement exuded pure romance at the outset, the orchestral strings’ rapt tones preparing the way for the ‘cello’s singing entry – a treasurable moment! The gently undulating piano followed carrying the melody forward, with violin and piano singing in tandem, before the violin was allowed ITS moment – honour was thus satisfied, the orchestra then essaying a dark and mysterious clarinet-led Weber-like sequence, which brought the soloists in singly by way of arpeggiated musings. Of a sudden, the ‘cello seemed to want to go out and play, and it was all on again, via the finale – though on this occasion I thought Inbal Megiddo’s playing more dutiful-sounding than enthusiastic with her introduction, a beginning that didn’t quite for me, launch things with sufficient “gusto”.  It took the orchestra to really set the polonaise-like rhythms on fire, though once the soloists reached their concerted “racy triplet rhythms” passage, punctuated at the end by the orchestra, things found their “stride” with a will, and there was no looking-back!

In fact the playing of the finale from here on generated tremendous momentum, which was thrilling in its own way, though I ought to register my fondness (excuses, excuses!) for the legendary, but much-maligned Karajan-led EMI recording of the 1970s with its starry lineup of Russian soloists, because of the po-faced “schwung” created in parts of that performance’s finale, particularly those minor-key polonaise-dance sequences. Here, by contrast, it was all thrust and counter-thrust, with those racy triplet-rhythms sounding positively dangerous at the performance’s speed, the risk-taking element inextricably tied up with the music’s joyous quality.

As for the helter-skelter coda (or rather, Coda No.1!), we simply gripped the sides of our seats and held on as Martin Riseley’s violin raced forwards, gathering up both ‘cello and piano, and challenging the orchestra to continue the chase, which they did, most excitingly! After various soloistic ups and downs, the piano introduced “Coda No.2”, a return to the polonaise dance rhythm, punctuated by great chordings from the orchestra and a brief frisson of skittery triplets from the soloists, and we were home, to the accompaniment of deservedly rapturous acclaim from all sides!

We all needed the interval to let off some rhapsodic steam in the direction of anybody else who would listen (most of the others were busy doing the same thing!). Once done, we gradually brought our metabolisms back down to normal from fever pitch, and settled back into our seats for the very different musical offerings of the concert’s second half.

The first of Debussy’s Nocturnes, Nuages (Clouds) began as if the sounds were reconstructing New Zealand poet Dennis Glover’s words in music – “detonated clouds in calm confusion lie”, with winds and strings enabling the phrases and textures confidently yet sensitively, the cor anglais mournfully repeating a motif that practically became a mantra for the scene, while the strings wove diaphanous sounds whose intensity varied as if controlled by unseen magic, the horn calling from a kind of fairy-nymph land of promise, and the winds floating their airborne phrases with great surety, a blip or two of no consequence against the steady evocation of timelessness, here beautifully realised by conductor Young and his players.

As for the second piece, Fêtes (Festivals), it straightaway seized our sensibilities by the ears, with the strings’ joyous clarion-call attack, infectious tarantella rhythms featuring excitable winds and  great brass shouts reinforced by timpani, with a spectacular flourish from the harp and percussion re-igniting the music’s thrust in a different direction – all so visceral and scalp-prickling! After we got further excitable exchanges between winds and strings – the latter barely able to contain their growing excitement – the distant procession’s sounds suddenly fell magically upon our ears from the harp and lower strings (Ottorino Respighi surely had this passage in mind when writing the last of his “Pines of Rome” in 1924), the remote brass calls creating magical vistas as the music moved forward, Ken Young controlling his forces like a general, and his troops marshalling their various forces with a will.  Horns shouted a welcome to the oncoming commotion, and the percussive sounds loomed ever closer (cymbals and side-drum splendidly giving voice) as the procession tumultuously passed through the scene and was eventually swallowed up by it, with ambient echoes resounding, and the festival rounding off its celebrations.

Festive sounds of a different kind were then brought into play for the concert’s finale, Douglas Lilburn’s 1955 Suite for Orchestra, a work written for the then Auckland Junior Symphony Orchestra, whose members must have found its playful angularities something of a challenge at the time. Lilburn composed the work while under the spell of the music of his older American contemporary, Aaron Copland, whose influence can be discerned in places, most noticeably in the finale. (Later, after some less-than-positive contact with the American, and an abortive visit to Tanglewood in the United States, to attempt a meeting with him, Lilburn seemed “cured” of any such further inclinations towards homage in that direction!).

In five shortish movements, Lilburn demonstrated the orchestral mastery he was soon to famously turn his back on, and explore what he called his own “total heritage of sound, meaning all sounds, and not just the narrow segment of them, traditional, imported, that we’ve long regarded as being music….” He meant, of course, an electro-acoustic sound-world, and made good his determination, to the bemusement and bewilderment of those who considered he hadn’t yet finished exploring what he had to say in traditional forms. For now, here was a playfulness and ease of expression worthy of any of his off-shore contemporaries, including the strangely deprecatory Copland – the opening Allegro of the Suite squawks with unashamed delight in places at the joy of setting such sounds into play, raucous, assertive, droll, sentimental and skittery, a “like it or not” spirit very much at large.

The Allegretto was a lovely, angular Waltz, the players tossing their pizzicato notes  across the orchestral platform, as strings and winds shared a serenade that had a whiff of “Old Paint” and its like, amid the rhythmic angularities – in places Lilburn’s almost Bartok-like humour of deconstruction came across splendidly, the lower brass adding a droll “Concerto for Orchestra” touch before the end. The brass began the Andante with slow, rising chords, echoed by the winds, as the strings intoned a plaintive melody, one which build to epiphany-like intensities at the end – a lovely, intensely-felt performance!

In complete contrast was the somewhat skeletal opening of the Moderato which followed, bleak winds and angular timpani giving way to a kind of “road music”, Young and his players firmly establishing those ambiences characteristic of their composer, here “at large” in the midst of landscapes he loved. And what fun everybody had with the concluding Vivace, the playing generating an orchestral energy which swept listeners along with dancing feet – a true Antipodean hoe-down! The sudden changes of atmosphere were breathtaking in their short-lived, but powerfully-focused moments of hymn-like serenity amid the riotous festivities, whose concluding shouts made a celebratory conclusion to a memorable concert!

Inbal Megiddo (‘cello) and Te Kōkī Trio record music for the ages

DEBUSSY – Two Instrumental Sonatas and a Piano Trio
Violin Sonata in G Minor (1917)
‘Cello Sonata in D Minor (1915)
Piano Trio in G Major (1879)

Te Kōkī Trio: Martin Riseley (violin)
Inbal Megiddo (‘cello), Jian Liu (piano)
Rattle Records 0069 2017

JS BACH – Six Suites for solo ‘Cello BWV 1007-12
Volume One ( Suites 1-3)

Inbal Megiddo (‘cello)

Atoll Records ACD 228

Inbal Megiddo is presently the head of ‘Cello Studies at the New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University of Wellington, and has appeared in numerous concerts in Wellington both as a soloist and as a member of Te Kōkī Trio, an ensemble in which she is joined by two other faculty members, Martin Riseley, and Jian Liu, the respective heads of violin and piano studies at the school. Her career as a performer and teacher had previously taken her to various places throughout Europe, Asia and America before she came to New Zealand to take up a position at Victoria University’s Music School.

She’s now made recordings for Rattle, the first half of a set of Beethoven’s ‘Cello Sonatas with Jian Liu (the second disc is currently in preparation), and here with Te Kōkī Trio as listed above, in a recording of two of Debussy’s instrumental sonatas and his Piano Trio. She’s also recording for Atoll Records what’s intended to be a complete set of JS Bach’s Suites for Solo ‘Cello, the first disc of which is reviewed here. Prospective buyers may prefer to wait for her integral 2-disc set of these works, though people wanting a sample of her playing of this repertoire will be more than happy with this single CD, as the performances, to my ears, are strongly recommendable.

Recorded a year before the Bach/Atoll CD, the Rattle recording features Te Koki Trio, whose members variously bring together three chamber works by Claude Debussy. There are two instrumental sonatas from the composer’s last years, one for ‘Cello and Piano (1915) and the other for Violin and Piano (1917), the latter being the composer’s last completed work. The trio then comes together for the disc’s final work, an early Piano Trio (1879).

The Violin Sonata begins the concert, here given a strong and atmospheric performance by Martin Riseley (violin) and Jian Liu (piano), the opening, perfectly-poised piano chords straightaway taking us into the composer’s characteristic sound-world of wonderment, joined after a few seconds by the violin’s more questioning voice. As the first movement moves, kaleidoscope-like, through its different realms, the instrumental interactions change from assertion to surrender with easy mastery, all brought off beautifully by the players. The violin’s exotic-sounding inclination to slide between notes in two or three places add to the mystery of the discourse, as do the beautiful balances achieved between the two players in the softest moments, realising the composer’s flights of fancy with intense concentration and focus.

There are a couple of strangely protracted between-movements pauses on this recording, as here, sharpening the listener’s eagerness to engage with the rest of the work! The quixotic second movement then delivers us playing of such impish drollery at the beginning, I found myself smiling (sometimes out loud!) at the po-faced audacity of it all! But what melancholy both Riseley and Liu brought to the music’s lovely middle section! And how easefully they then charted the course as the music moved disconcertingly between humour and wistfulness over the final pages. The final movement opened in a dreamlike manner, before the instruments roused themselves with alacrity, the violin in particular rushing about, rather like a caged bird wanting to break free, and compelling its partner to dance. As everywhere, I liked the performance’s risk-taking with these volatilities, the various figurations delivered by the players with engaging spontaneity rather than mere crystalline perfection. Again, Debussy’s fertile imagination takes the music unexpectedly into sultry, suggestive climes, violinist and pianist relishing the volatility of it all, Liu’s piano suddenly scampering away, with Riseley’s violin in hot pursuit. The music returned to the movement’s opening “caged bird” energies, but then surprised the listener once again, as the violin slowed the note sequences down to become almost childlike in expression. After a final accelerando from the depths and back into the light, the players suddenly and exuberantly threw their notes skyward in a gesture of wry finality.

Where the Violin Sonata began pensively and poetically, the ‘Cello Sonata opened with solemn grandeur and ceremony, the piano preparing the way for the ‘cello to adopt a similar mode, though both players soon relinquished the grandeur for more poetic exchanges, Inbal Megiddo’s instrument singing in beautiful accord with Jian Liu’s well-rounded tones. How excitingly the two instruments then raced together, as if for possession of a hilltop or a favourite hiding-place, before stopping to fully relish the surrounding silent spaces, the soft playing of both cellist and pianist a breath-holding sequence of pleasure at the end!

Something of a “how-de-do” marked the exchanges at the second movement’s opening! –  in pizzicato mode the ‘cello became a kind of conspirator with the piano’s terse utterances. Again in an exotic-sounding setting, the instruments whimsically switched from staccato/pizzicato to legato/arco, while exploring as many timbres in between as fell in with fancy, making for a somewhat hallucinatory ride through a dreamscape! Impulsively, the finale breaks the mood with lively figurations from both instruments, the energies then giving way to introspection throughout a central section, until Megiddo and Liu revitalised the music’s tumbling aspects with almost manic focus, to the point where the music suddenly cried “enough”, and curtly silenced their efforts.

Playing the disc to anybody unfamiliar with the music would probably invite shock and disbelief on the listener’s part upon being told that all three works presented here were by the same composer! As a demonstration of how much distance someone’s creativity can travel in a lifetime, Debussy’s Piano Trio of 1879 makes for a profound listening experience in retrospect, while remaining totally enjoyable on a visceral level. Its first movement is the longest of the four, a graceful Andantino with songful lines for each instrument, the material conventional, but with everything confidently and meticulously wrought. A whimsical Scherzo has an attractively exotic feel to its opening gait, its central Trio section given the right amount of contrasting sentiment and circumspection by the players – while the slow movement’s Andante Espressivo, again beautifully set out for the instruments, charms with its slightly perfumed lyricism, Te Kōkī Trio allowing the music to speak for itself within a salon-like context.

Marked “Appassionato”, the last movement works up an acceptably “charged” level of feeling within the music’s own range and scope, again impressing with its workmanlike construction and level of expression, and indicating something of the boy Debussy’s obvious potential as a creator in years to come. Full credit to Te Kōkī Trio for taking so much trouble with the work, here in Rattle’s crystalline recording, sounding gloriously prodigious, if a tad disconcerting regarding content, in the company of its two more sophisticated “latter-day” siblings!

Turning to the Atoll disc of Inbal Megiddo’s performances of the first three of JS Bach’s ‘Cello Suites, one encounters something of the rarefied world of Debussy’s late Sonatas in terms of the relationship between economy of means and richness of expression. Inbal Megiddo’s playing, recorded by Wayne Laird in the precincts of Stella Maris Chapel, at Seatoun, in Wellington, sounds equally as glorious, her characterful playing captured in all its variety of utterance as a truly lifelike
representation, which I can’t wait to hear again on completing my task of committing these thoughts regarding the disc to the record.

Megiddo’s performances are recorded in numbered order, so I began my listening with the Prelude of the very first Suite, a performance which combined heart and mind, reaching for its emotional points with such surety and purpose, while keeping the music’s structures intact – the figurations were at once surely negotiated and yet imbued with a sense of liberation which empowered the listener to surrender to the music and the playing with the utmost confidence. After a freely-flowing and fanciful Prelude, the Allemande continued the process of unlocking the music, drawing from the player such strength and confidence as to enchant the listener. The Courante combined forthright impulse and purpose with a sense of fun – an unbuttoning of joyful expression, music which here expressed the idea of life’s essential cheerfulness in the face of worldly troubles, rather as Schubert was wont to do in his music. The Sarabande, deeply-felt and long-breathed in its phrasing, was Romeo to the Courante’s Mercutio – the figurations here spoke of imaginings and projections of thoughts and feelings beyond earthly boundaries. The Menuets were properly contrasted, the first confident and eager in its deportment, and the second, contrasting dance its more circumspect side, the opening a descent rather than the upward-leaping figure of the first dance, the legato of the figurations adding to the solemnities. I liked the rustic twang of the repeated opening dance’s final phrase. Dance-like, too was the final gigue, the player vigorous but flexible in her trajectories, impulsiveness hand-in-glove with a teasing flexibility, the sounds of sympathetic strings activated adding to the warmth and bustle..

Suite No.2 begins with D Minor circumspection, the playing expressing a care for solemnity of mood which gave the music the feeling of a soliloquy, one rising to expressive heights with beautifully-phrased ascents towards long-held notes. The Allemande seemed no less serious at the outset, the figurations eloquently speaking with the tones of a philosopher, the repeats nicely hinting at variations in emphasis, setting nothing in stone, but seemingly open to conjecture. Impulsively interrupting the discourse, the Courante burst in, all elbows and knees, proclaiming action rather than thought, clearing the way for the somewhat ceremonial pronouncements of the Sarabande, grand and stately, though Megiddo’s repeat of the opening made one catch one’s breath at its extra “layered” quality, the second time round, the dynamics given more open spaces to explore. Megiddo warmed the music to its task in the second part, sharpening the intensities, while keeping the beautiful shape of the whole. She found positive minor-key purpose in the first Menuet, making the major-key relaxation in Menuet II a joy, and links these nicely to the Gigue in mood, the playing resonantly voiced, and almost peasant-ish, in some places, in its suggestion of a dance-like drone.

We got plenty of C Major splendour in Megiddo’s opening of the Third Suite, great, confidently-arched roulades of sound, and with the player not afraid to saturate the music’s tonal palate with richly-wrought repeated arpeggiations, fearlessly and generously generated for our pleasure. After this, the Allemande seemed more-than-usually light on its feet, putting the following Courante even more on its mettle, the energies playful and teasing, the tones adding different kinds of timbral emphases to the narrative, to “spice up” the story. Very free at the outset in the Sarabande, Megiddo gave the music a full-throated voice, before varying the intensity in the repeated passage, expressing the emotion, and then stepping back to re-experience its effect at a distance – in these measured, beautifully controlled sequences she seemed to play both player and listener roles, the music having transfixed both and bound them inextricably together. We then got two Bourees instead of Menuets (these always remind me of sailors’ dances!), the first of which Megiddo gleefully propelled through its figured routine, pausing for reflection throughout the second of the two episodes, and then returning to the more overtly physical of the dances with renewed vigour. But the most unbuttoned exuberance was left to the final Gigue, which here under Megiddo’s fingers swept everything before it in a torrent of unbridled joy and confidence, the music-making compelling in its detailings and infectious in the sheer elan of its execution. (Sustained applause!)



Kapiti and Palmerston North choirs in rewarding performance of Dvořák’s Stabat Mater

Kapiti Chamber Choir and Renaissance Singers, Palmerston North, with orchestra, conducted by Eric Sidoti
Soloists: Barbara Paterson (soprano), Ellen Barrett (contralto0, Jamie Young (tenor), Simon Christie (bass)

Dvořák: Stabat Mater

St Paul’s Church, Paraparaumu

Sunday 15 April, 2:30 pm

This seems to be the Dvořák year in Wellington, as two days earlier I had heard players from Orchestra Wellington perform two of his chamber works – the String Quintet No 2 and the Serenade for wind instruments, cello and bass. Orchestra Wellington is featuring five of Dvořák’s symphonies in their 2018 season; and RNZ Concert are playing them all this week! Most welcome as we tend to hear little other than the New World Symphony (No 9) and the cello concerto from our orchestras; and from chamber music groups only the familiar American string quartet and the (admittedly gorgeous) mature (No 2 in each case) piano quartet and piano quintet.

The combination of a good local choir and visitors from Palmerston North ensured at least one thing, that the volume of sound was appropriate to the demands of the music. Dvořák’s Stabat Mater is a major choral work, written in the era of great popularity of large choirs and large-scale choral music, a period when over-blown compositions, sometimes inspired more by religious compulsion than musical inspiration, were produced in response to popular demand. This piece cannot be classed with such works, as Dvořák matches his religious convictions with committed, deeply felt music.

Inevitably, amateur choral skills are usually greater than amateur orchestral abilities, and that might have been evident in the orchestral introduction, but it was a small price to pay for the plain advantage of having an orchestra instead of a piano or organ to support a major choral work composed for choir and orchestra. Yet the opening choral passage led by strings, caught the grieving tone sensitively with its descending phrases; though later on balances between strings, woodwinds and brass proved more difficult.

The soloists generally managed their parts well, though in the early stages tenor Jamie Young sounded somewhat stretched; and while soprano Barbara Paterson settled well into some of her later more extended singing, her first entry lacked a certain warmth in its higher register. But she had happier experiences in both vii, ‘Virgo virginium’ and viii, ‘Fac, ut portem Christi mortem’. Bass Simon Christie sounded comfortable right from the start and his contributions always sounded particularly appropriate. Contralto Ellen Barrett, who emerged in part ii, where soloists sang without the choir, sounded as if she believed in her texts and her voice blended warmly with the other soloists.

In ii, for the four soloists (and in later sections that entailed soloists without choir) they grew into their distinct roles, generally supported by well-modulated orchestral accompaniment; these were certainly among the more persuasive, satisfying sections.

The choir returned for iii, the ‘Eia, Mater, fons amoris…’ with its hypnotic repetition of one of the music’s moving, dotted motifs, and it was good to hear Christie again, now with the choir in ‘Fac, ut ardeat cor meum’ (iv).

The tone of the piece changes at section v, as the choir sings a less grieving, consolatory episode in swaying triple time; but I was surprised at the rather excessive sforzando ‘poenas’. Nevertheless, it emerged as a moment of respite from the pervasive sorrowful tone till that point.

The tenor alone sings the steady-paced vi, ‘Fac me vere’ (repeated with choir a great many times) showing more comfortable control of the carefully distinct words in those verses. The choir on its own produced effective, emphatic phrases, with which Young joined.

The choir, again on its own, delivered a restrained and rather charming ‘Virgo virginum’, with bare strings supporting the slow, wide-spaced melody. Then in the only section for duet, Paterson and Young wove their lines together, thoroughly integrated now (in spite of the soprano having to utter lots of multi-syllables). Barnett got her solo turn in the penultimate section, now with sensitive orchestral support, though the composer needn’t have burdened her with such heavy brass; I enjoyed the second verse of this section particularly: ‘Fac me plagis’ with its supportive oboe and other winds.

The last section is in the nature of a lamenting funeral march, with choir shifting abruptly from mf to ff, and finally the familiar theme from the first section returns to bring a more peaceful, even enlivening, mood to its conclusion. So in spite of the hard to deny shortcomings intrinsic to an amateur choir and orchestra, this was a persuasive and satisfying performance that’s a credit to conductor Sidoti and his soloists and of course all the singers and instrumentalists.

Returning to Dvořák performance again; there are so many of his works that ought to be better known, apart from the last two or three symphonies; there are violin and piano concertos, unjustly neglected; there’s the lovely string Serenade; all 16 Slavonic Dances and the Slavonic Rhapsodies, the sparkling Scherzo Capriccioso and bagatelles that include a harmonium part and a variety of other chamber music; five symphonic poems; a Requiem and a Te Deum, and so on….

Admirable, enterprising concert of Dvořák from Orchestra Wellington players

Players from Orchestra Wellington

Dvořák; Serenade for winds, cello and double bass in D minor, Op 44 (B 77)
Merran Cooke and Louise Cox – oboes, Mark Cookson and Chris Turner – clarinets, Leni Maeckle and Penny Miles – bassoons, Shadley van Wyk, Dominic Groom and Vivian Reid – horns, Brenton Veitch – cello, Paul Altomari – double bass

Dvořák: String Quintet No 2 in G, Op 77 (B 49)
Monique Lapins and Konstanze Artmann – violins, Sophia Acheson – viola, Brenton Veitch – cello, Paul Altomari – double bass

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Friday 13 April, 12:15 pm

Dvořák wrote two serenades: the first, for strings in 1875 and the second, for winds plus cello and bass, in 1878. We heard the latter.

His two serenades occupy a rather special place in music of the Romantic era, the wind one especially, as there had not been a work of comparable charm since Mozart’s 80 years before, and none quite as fine later. Though perhaps not influenced by Dvořák, there were two comparable works within a decade of his Serenade: Gounod’s charming Petite Symphonie approaches it, and Richard Strauss’s Op 7, a prodigious 18-year-old’s remarkable work which really stands on its own feet!

The Wind Serenade
The first impression of the playing was of a bold sound when my feeling of the music is for a somewhat neutral beginning, reflected in its minor key; it’s Moderato, quasi marcia. I wondered whether it would compromise the scope later, for dynamic variety, but that feeling soon evaporated. But what I did miss a little was a warm, easy flowing momentum which the minor mode also seems to suggest. There was a good deal of excellent playing, and early on oboe and bassoon caught my ear particularly.

The second movement is a minuet (the single sheet programme didn’t indicate movements), and I actually spent a little time wondering whether it was a minuet, with its interesting duple time running alongside the minuet rhythm. But there was no alternative of course, and there was, properly, a contrasting trio, much more sprightly, in the middle which might indeed have been in some other dance style. The alternating oboe and clarinet phrases were a delight. This movement had the happy effect of demonstrating the composer’s quite beguiling use of wind instruments,

It was only in the slow movement (Andante con moto) that the absence of flutes struck me, following the instrumentation of the great Mozart Serenade for 13 wind instruments (but not for Strauss who does use flutes); only reeds allowed! But there were some lovely horn ensembles and time to rejoice in the composer’s intuitive handling of all his instruments in turn, even the cello and bass. It’s my favourite movement (when I was young I liked the fast movements best), but I had to admit that when the finale – allegro molto – began, it carried me along in its intended joyful spirit.

Because I did continue to feel a little overwhelmed by the volume of sound produced (I was in the fourth row; a friend seated at the back told me that he had no such experience), I was looking forward to the string quintet, since I usually find strings better adapted to the church acoustic.

String Quintet Op 77
The numbering of Dvořák’s works is confusing as he adopted a very cavalier approach to the matter so that musicologists would be able to justify their time spent in the hilarious task of working out just when and how his compositions were written. He bestowed Op 77 on his second string quintet, though it was a relatively early work, originally with an earlier opus number 18, written in 1875 when he was 34. It is unique in being scored for string quartet plus double bass; the first string quintet (for orthodox instruments) had been his second work, in 1861, aged 19; he gave that Op 1. A third quintet, in E flat, Op 97 was written after the string quartet in F, Op 96, ‘American’, when he was in the United States in 1893.

It’s a lively, imaginative, though underplayed work. Why, when musicians think of Dvořák chamber music, is it always the ‘American’ (used to be called the ‘Nigger’) quartet or the wonderful piano quintet?

I last heard it played by the New Zealand String Quartet and the virtuoso NZSO bassist, Hiroshi Ikematsu, in 2011 at St Mary of the Angels.  It is a delight; it starts from the bottom, bass and cello intoning secretively, then engaging the higher instruments one by one, up to the bright-toned violin of Monique Lapins; ready for the first big theme, naturally bass heavy, to burst out fully formed. It’s entitled Allegro con fuoco.

The performance was full of energy. One normally hears these players, generally briefly, within the symphonic sound mass of Orchestra Wellington, and it was both a revelation and pleasure to hear them as polished chamber musicians too. After the first elaboration of the main theme, Brenton Veitch delivered his energetic yet lyrical account of it before they all took over. In fact, throughout the first movement Veitch’s part was particularly distinctive.

The same thrusting energy appears in the second movement which, though in triple time, is not a minuet but Scherzo, allegro vivace. There’s a distinct change of tempo and tone in the middle, slower and more lyrical and the quintet demonstrated a more meditative quality.

The slow movement is marked Poco andante and its wistful opening theme was not only musically related to its predecessors, but was the first opportunity to hear the quintet’s more legato, lyrical playing. It’s not especially Slavonic in spirit, as I think Dvořák wanted to establish his reputation in conventional western European, let’s say, Germanic, music. His nationalistic music was largely expressed in the Moravian Duets, the Czech Suite, Slavonic Dances, the first set of which, Op 46, were written in the same year as the Quintet; and so on. And the last movement, conventionally Allegro assai, is very driven and full of energy. It can probably be played with even more passion and brio than these players produced.

This was a performance that achieved two things. The unearthing of some chamber music (if we can stretch the term a bit for the Serenade) that doesn’t get much attention in a string quartet dominated world, and there’s a great deal more of it – quintets, sextets, septets, nonets and so on by many of the great composers (Mozart’s wind serenades of course) and some not so great – just two: Spohr’s Nonet, Berwald’s Septet (we do get plenty of octets by Schubert and Mendelssohn).

And secondly, I am delighted that Orchestra Wellington is moving in this enterprising direction, filling the musical gap I mention, as well as putting themselves before the public more often, letting people know that excellent musicians also inhabit Orchestra Wellington. It’s an initiative that presents worthwhile music instead of (or in addition to) being drawn in the direction of pop, film music and other kinds of cross-over material which I have serious misgivings about.

And it needs to be noted that this concert, very modestly priced, drew the biggest crowd at St Andrew’s that I’ve seen for such a concert for a long time.





Jason Bae – an enterprising, exploratory and heroic performer

Te Kōkī New Zealand School Of Music

A recital by Jason Bae

Debussy – Images oubliées
Esa-Pekka Salonen – Dichotomie (NZ Premiere)
Grieg – Ballade Op.24
Medtner – Piano Sonata No.11 Sonata tragica Op.39 No.5

Jason Bae (piano)

Adam Concert Room,
Te Kōkī New Zealand School Of Music,
Victoria University of Wellington

Friday, 13th April 2018

Korean-born NZ-adopted pianist Jason Bae made a welcome return a week ago to the Wellington region for a lunchtime recital at the School of Music’s Adam Concert Room, Victoria University. He brought with him a programme he’s taken to a number of venues around the country, one whose content suggested that there would be no compromises on an artistic level, despite the degree of informality and relaxation often associated with a “lunchtime concert”. This was a programme deserving of serious, five-star attention from start to finish, and received playing that fully realised the “serious” intent of the pianist’s enterprising choice of repertoire.

Bae has already made his mark in the world of piano-playing with many prize-giving performances and awards in various places around the world – according to his web-site, his recent activities include performing recitals in Helsinki, Finland and in Seoul, Korea, as well as currently in New Zealand.  The young pianist is also turning his attention to orchestral conducting, making his New Zealand conducting debut with the Westlake Symphony Orchestra in Auckland. He’s obviously one of those multi-talented musicians who has the aptitude to succeed at whatever he turns his hand to.

Judging from the programme we heard Bae perform at the Music School on Friday, there’s no ‘resting on his laurels”, no trotting out well-consolidated warhorses with which to impress audiences. These pieces required his listeners to come some of the way themselves towards the music, itself extremely varied in content and character, rather than simply let it all “wash over” the sensibilities in a generalised way. Perhaps the best-known of these works, albeit in a roundabout fashion, was that of Debussy’s “Images oubliées” (an earlier work than each of the two, better-known sets of “Images”, but one which, for some reason, wasn’t published in the composer’s lifetime). Recently,  though, there has been some recorded attention given both to Medtner’s solo piano works and to Grieg’s hitherto neglected output outside the “Lyric Pieces”. Certainly the remainder of Bae’s programme indicated there were treasures aplenty awaiting more widespread awareness and approval.

The opening of the Debussy work (Lent) brought forth exquisitely-voiced tones from the young pianist, the sounds resembling some kind of ethereal recitative, accompanied by the softest, most velvety of arpeggiations. This accorded with the composer’s own description of the pieces as “not for brilliantly-lit salons…..but rather, conversations between the piano and oneself”. Bae allowed a beautifully-appointed ebb-and-flow of colours and contours, a kind of nature-benediction in sound, allowing the tones at the end to breathtakingly mingle with the silences.

The second piece “Souvenir du Louvre” bore a close relationship with a movement from the composer’s later “Pour le piano”, a rather more fulsome version of what became the Sarabande from the latter work. Again, the pianist’s evocations were meticulously directed towards detailings of wondrous delicacy, with dialogues throughout sounded between the piano’s different registers, sculpted strength set against liquid movement. Debussy’s original was actually written for Yvonne Lerolle, the girl both Degas and Renoir painted at the piano, and for whom the composer described the piece with the words “slow and solemn, even a bit like an old portrait” (hence the title).

The title of the third piece betrays its inspiration even more candidly than does the later work it (only) occasionally resembles – “Jardins sous la pluie” from “Estampes” with its well-known folk-song quotations. Here it is somewhat teasingly called by the composer “Quelques aspects de ‘Nous n’irons plus au bois'” (Aspects of the song “We will not go to the woods”), with the added afterthought, for the benefit of his young dedicatee, “…because the weather is dreadful”…….Bae’s fleet-fingered playing evoked a game of chase through the woods, by turns lightly-brushed and hard-hitting, with some tolling bells sounding towards the end, the piece then disappearing literally into thin air.

By way of introducing the next work on the programme, Bae spent some time talking with us about his relationship with a composer who’s better known as a conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, after which the pianist performed Salonen’s work for solo piano “Dichotomy”. One of a select few of brilliant contemporary performing musicians who significantly compose, Salonen has a number of important works to his credit, for orchestra, two concerti (piano and violin), and a large-scale work for orchestra and chorus, “Karawane”, which premiered in 2014 in Zurich.

Salonen’s work isn’t exactly “hot off the press”, Dichotomie having received its premiere as far back as 2000, in Los Angeles. The composer wanted a short, encore-type piece as a present for a favourite soloist, Gloria Cheng, but, as he discovered, the material he wrote seemed to take on a life of its own,  and expand to proportions bearing little relation to its actual conception. Jason Bae explained to us, along with his account of a serendipitous encounter with Salonen that led to his espousal of the composer’s work, how the music came to be, its two-movement structure representing a relationship between the two “kinds” of music that Salonen seemed to create almost involuntarily. Thus the first movement of this work, Mechanisme, represented machine-like processes, while the second, Organisme, had a more naturalistic way of developing and extending created material. Salonen wanted to explore how these very different styles might, by dint of juxtaposition, “borrow” qualities from one another which could affect their development.

I confess to being fascinated by what I heard, which is a way of paying tribute to Jason Bae’s playing of it as well. The opening of Mechanisme was indeed motoric and Prokofiev-like, the rhythms growing and developing in dynamically varied ways, with different sequences taking on different and unpredictable characters, variously syncopated, symmetrical or angular. Bae’s playing built to almost frighteningly orchestral levels of volume and intensity, before abruptly adopting flowing, legato phrasing that suggested some kind of counter-impulse had been mysteriously, even covertly activated within the work’s being. It preluded a mercurial section where one sensed the creative process was in a kind of ferment of crisis (the machine, perhaps, trying to be human?), with the musical argument appearing to fragment under scrutiny, almost to the point of stasis. A final counter-burst of incendiary energy, notes swirling and figurations exploding in every direction, left the music almost insensible, with only a few legato-phrased, wider-spaced chords holding the centre, and pronouncing the “new order”.

The following Organisme brought forth shimmering, exploratory textures containing reiterating figurations attempting to secure their tentative foot-and finger-holds in the music’s fabric. I thought it Debussy-like in places in a textured sense, the basic materials gradually coalescing and producing a kind of ambient glow, with beautifully voiced fragments of melody floating by on wings of air. The trajectories were passed from hand to hand, thereby suggesting a kind of osmotic continuity of flow, one which inevitably built up tensions of a kind that saw the tones take on increasingly rhythmic and thrustful expression, becoming tumultuous in the sense of a storm, the pianist sending great arabesques of tone shooting upwards and into the ether. Having resisted the temptation to inhabit “the dark side” the music made a flourish of quiet triumph, and the piece ended enigmatically – all told, an enthralling listening experience, thanks in part to Bae’s brilliant advocacy.

Further explorations were furnished by the pianist with his programming of Edvard Grieg’s rarely-heard Ballade Op.24, in my view one of the composer’s greatest works. It was one of the pieces that the tragically short-lived New Zealand pianist Richard Farrell recorded (as part of an all-Grieg recital disc), but has yet to claim a regular place in the concert repertoire. Though part of this is due to the piece’s technical difficulty, my feeling is that Grieg is still regarded by many people as a “miniaturist”, able to turn out  pretty Scandivavian picture-postcards in the form of his numerous “Lyric Pieces”, but lacking the ability to handle larger forms (despite his magnificent Piano Concerto!). Debussy’s well-known swipe at Grieg (“a pink bonbon filled with snow” was his description of one of the latter’s “Elegiec Melodies”) hasn’t helped the latter’s cause – but less well-known is the remark made by Frederick Delius to Maurice Ravel, that “modern French music is simply Grieg, plus the third act of Tristan”, to which Ravel replied, “That is true – we are always unjust to Grieg.”

Justice was certainly done to Grieg by Jason Bae, here a rather more turbo-charged reading in places than that of Richard Farrell’s poetic soundscapings, one underlining the music’s virtuoso aspect, while giving the more ruminative passages enough space in which to breathe Grieg’s bracing air. The work is basically a theme-and-variations treatment of a Norwegian folk-song melody,  “Den Nordlanske Bondestand” (The Northland Peasantry), and ranges from extremely simple elaborations of the theme to full-scale, almost orchestral outbursts of expression, including some forward-looking, even daring excursions into harmonic conflict, particularly during the work’s final cataclysmic section, before the music suddenly dissolves all such conflicts and returns to the melancholy of the original theme. In general, I thought Bae most successfully brought out the music’s brilliance and sharply-etched contrasts, underlining in places the music’s debt towards and kinship with that of Liszt (Variations 11 and 12 are here particularly overwhelming in an orchestral sense!) but also paying ample tribute to Grieg’s own originality. The pianist’s playing of No.9 allowed the composer’s singular gift for melodic piquancy its full effect, while No.10 here vividly captured the music’s characteristic rustic charm and feeling for grass-roots expressions of energy. In the wake of this performance I’m sure Bae would have garnered in many listeners’ minds fresh respect for Grieg as a composer.

The recital concluded with a work from a figure whose music has only recently received the kind of mainstream espousal needed for it to flourish. Russian-born Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951), a younger contemporary of Rachmaninov and Scriabin, received much the same acclaim as a result of his musical studies in Moscow, but then elected to devote himself entirely to composition rather than pursue a career as a pianist. However (and perhaps not surprisingly) the piano figured in practically all of his major compositions, both prior to and after leaving Russia in 1921. Altogether, Medtner completed fourteen piano sonatas, Jason Bae performing for us the eleventh (which the composer subtitled Sonata Tragica, possibly as a reaction to the aftermath of the Russian Revolution) The sonata, incidentally, was one of a set of pieces separately entitled “Forgotten Melodies” (Second Cycle) by the composer. Those who have a taste for idiosyncratic numbering methods of musical compositions will find much to enjoy in Medtner’s own various enumerations of these works.

None of which is relevant to Jason Bae’s performance of the music, which seemed to me to front up squarely to the piece’s overall character, with its big-boned, declamatory  aspect at the beginning and the war-like march that follows proclaiming a Slavic temperament, with the swirling textures obviously breathing the same air as did Rachmaninov’s music. Bae gave the flowing lyricism which followed plenty of “soul”, allowing the deeper textures to make their mark amid the frequent exchanges between the hands, then gradually building the excitement to almost fever pitch, before strongly arresting the flow of the music with a portentous left-hand, almost fugue-like version of the opening declamation – all very exciting! The pianist’s beautifully wrought filigree finger-work introduced further agitations, the music building inexorably towards a kind of breaking-point (Bae’s left hand performing miracles of transcendent articulation) at the apex of which the sonata’s main theme thundered out at us most resplendently and defiantly! It was music that, in this player’s expert hands, punched well above its own weight, with a bigness of utterance which belied its brief duration!

Very great acclaim greeted the young pianist, at the conclusion of this challenging, and in the event splendidly-achieved presentation of some monumental music.