Demanding song recital reflects more ambition than accomplishment

‘The Story of the Birds in the Trees’
William McElwee (baritone) and Heather Easting (piano)

Fauré: Dans les ruines d’une abbaye, Op.2 no1; Les berceaux, Op.23 no.1; Clair de lune, Op.46,no.2
Howells: King David
Schumann: Dichterliebe Op.48

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 27 June 2018, 12.15pm

It is not often that I attend a lunchtime concert at St. Andrew’s and come away disappointed, but that was the case this time.  I am fond of Fauré’s songs and deeply devoted to Schumann’s Dichterliebe.  But this time I could not say I was enchanted by what I heard.

The first song went well.  The second, like a number later on, was perhaps a little low for William McElwee’s voice, in places; the low notes were not mellifluous.  French language was well- pronounced.  ‘Clair de lune’ is a delightful song.  But the singer’s tone was a little harsh at times, and there was a lack of subtlety.  I was reminded of what I heard an adjudicator of a singing competition say once: ‘Chew the words’.

Heather Easting’s piano accompaniments here, and throughout the recital, were splendid, with good variation of tone and dynamics suited the words.  A good feature of this concert was that applause came only at the end of each bracket.  Maybe there was an instruction to the audience about this before the singing began; I was a little late, and missed any pre-concert announcements.

Another excellent feature was that the translations of the songs were printed in the programme, and the names of the poets set by the composers were printed.  Too often they are not given credit.

It was not always easy to catch the words of the Howells song; being in English they were not printed in the programme.  Sometimes here, and again in some of the Schumann songs, the singer was a little under the note; not badly flat, but not right on pitch.  Tone and timbre needed to be varied more.

Perhaps Schumann’s Dichterliebe was too tough an assignment.  The first song speaks of love, desire and longing, but I did not hear these sentiments in the voice part – no excitement or surprised joy.  The second song is one of tears and sighs, but here it seemed to have the same tone and expression as the first one.

The third song is faster, and here some excitement crept in to express feelings.  There was  subtlety in the fourth, (‘When I look in your eyes…’).  The next song should have conveyed breathless anticipation and joy, but I could not hear those emotions.  The great ‘Ich grolle nicht’ is a powerful, dramatic song, about the lover not bearing a grudge although the object of his love appears to have turned against him.  The low notes were too low for the singer to be able to provide them with any expression.  I could not hear any tension or drama – it was too plain and unvarying, but improved by the end.  Another singers’ aphorism I have heard is ‘Do something with every note’.

Throughout, the German language was pronounced well.  The 11th song (‘A youth loved a maiden..’) was livelier, musically, but the voice lacked animation.  The following song (on a sunny summer morning…) needed a calm tone.  The piano accompaniment was exquisite, not least in the lovely postlude to the song.  The 13th  (‘I wept in my dream…’) revealed the  attractive high notes of the singer – they were pleasant and strong.

The 14th song (‘I see you every night in dreams’) had a beautiful piano accompaniment.  The penultimate song suited McElwee’s voice better and sounded fine.  The final song had more character to it and showed off again the singer’s good high notes.  The extended piano postlude was glorious and gentle.

This song cycle is one of the plums of the vocal repertoire, but the fruit here were unripe.  It is emotional and dramatic, and these characteristics needed to be revealed in the voice.


The Heath Quartet – from church and the chamber to the open air

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:

The Heath Quartet
Oliver Heath, Sara Wolstenholme (violins)
Gary Pomeroy (viola), Christopher Murray (‘cello)

JS BACH – Choral Preludes
GARETH FARR – Te Kōanga (CMNZ commission)
JOSEF HAYDN – String Quartet No.55 in D Major Op.71 No.2 (Hob.III:70)
BENJAMIN BRITTEN – String Quartet No.2 in C Major Op.36

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Wednesday, 27th June, 2018

This was a concert whose music-making I thought extraordinary, and I’m still thinking about why this was so days after the event! It was partly to do with the repertoire, which featured a range of diametrically opposed modes of expression from different composers, and partly the result of the Quartet’s singularly “interior” way of realising these different modes, in search of the music’s different and unique essences. That the players succeeded in inhabiting the contrasting structures and vistas of each of the works seemed to me to be borne out by the remarkable diversity of the different pieces’ sound-world. The character of each one had its feet unequivocally planted in the soil by the players and its raison d’etre proclaimed as eloquently as it seemed possible.

I thought the diversity of repertoire underlined by the effect of the opening of Gareth Farr’s evocative Te Kōanga, with its timeless realisations of “mauriora” – the breath of life – in the wake of life-giving exhalations of a different kind from a world away, which had begun the concert. The first music was that of JS Bach’s, the pieces being arrangements for string quartet of three of his Chorale Preludes, the sounds at once austere and tender, abstracted and warm-blooded, and seemingly coaxed from out of the silences by the players. The programme note indicated that the pieces came from the Orgel-Buchlein, an instruction-book which contained a number of melodies derived from Lutheran Chorales. Bach’s son Carl Philippe Emmanuel edited a collection (published in 1788) of these four-part works from which the selection of three here could well have been made.

Each of the pieces were brief realisations of a particular mood associated with an expression of faith, the first, Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein, (When in the hour of utmost need) BWV 641,. a succinct impulse of unshakeable faith, the sounds at once tender and vibrant. The second,  Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (The old year has passed away) BWV 614, sounded at the outset even more inward, its minor key setting expressing a quiet anxiety through  reiterated melody notes and upward chromatic lines as well as a questioning conclusion. I thought the third piece, O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde gross, (O Man, bewail your great sin) BWV 622, seemed somewhat at odds with its title, the sounds expressing great solace and quiet well-being. A brief ascending passage introduced a sense of striving, one which soon passed, if briefly echoed once again before the music’s serene conclusion.

Came the Gareth Farr work, commissioned by Chamber Music NZ, in memory of musician and luthier Ian Lyons who died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2015 in Wellington. In a brief printed note, the composer emphasised that the piece “was not a lament for Ian – rather, it is a joyous celebration of the things that were important to him”. Translated, the piece’s title, Te Kōanga, means “Spring” or “Planting Season”, and was intended by the composer to signify regeneration associated with the return of the sun and of the spring, with its attendant manifestations of new life and growth.

The music began with vividly ambient evocations of natural sounds – rustlings, murmurings, and birdsong – from violins and viola, over ostinato-like pulsatings from the ‘cello, which the other instruments were gradually drawn into. Atmosphere then became drama with sudden alternations between chorale-like utterances and pulsations, the rhythmic sections echt-Farr, catchy and funky, with even the birds unable to resist the “tow” of the trajectories. The sounds then drifted as if airborne, the violin intoning an exotic -sounding impulse of fancy, a plaintive, wistful strand which the accompanying instruments harmonised, again alternating full-throated Vaughan-Williams-like chordal progressions with delicate wind-blown wisps of sound, then turning the chords into bouncy Bartokian bowing gestures that drily scraped and rasped on the strings. A glow seemed to come over the soundscapes as the birdsong impulses returned, as full-throated as before, as if nature had put on a show and was now bidding us take our leave – but from out of the sounds began a valediction, sombre chords and a lamenting figure, which drifted upwards, held us for a moment, and disappeared into the silences – I sat stunned by all of this at the piece’s end, enthralled by the playing and indescribably touched by the beauty of it all.

What better music to reacquaint us with our lives that that of Josef Haydn’s – in this case, his String Quartet No.55 as per programme, Op.71 No.2, one of three with this Opus number, but belonging to a group of six (including three more published as Op.74) dedicated to one of the composer’s Viennese aristocrat friends, the Count Apponyi. They are regarded as the first string quartets written for public concert performance, rather than for noble connoisseurs in private houses. This change was brought about by Haydn, after almost 30 years of service to the Esterhazy family having been “pensioned off” by a new Prince, and becoming free to offer his services as a composer elsewhere. Enter the impresario Johann Peter Salomon, who persuaded Haydn to visit London in 1791, a venture which brought the composer great renown, and resulted in a second visit three years later. It was for this visit that the composer wrote these quartets which were grander in scale than any he had previously composed.

Right from the work’s beginning the extra amplitude of the writing was expressed by a slow introduction, a feature that was to become commonplace in Haydn’s late instrumental music. Here this took the form of full-throated chords sounding a rich D Major, before tumbling into an allegro whose energies and excitements seemed to take the listener on an exhilarating roller-coaster ride, with many an exciting thrill of ascent/descent and heart-stopping lurch sideways! Particularly striking were the unexpected exploratory modulations of the recapitulation, forays into territories which must have raised many a contemporary listener’s eyebrows in places.

The slow movement’s opening phrase was beautifully voiced by the first violin and most tenderly supported by the murmuring accompaniments throughout. A ’cello-led phrase swung the music into even more heartfelt realms, the expression generating considerable intensity of a kind one might in places associate with a later, romantic age, the playing then bringing out Haydn’s extraordinary inventive way with his material, involving, by turns, strong accents, delicately-pointed phrasings, and delicious triplet sequences. Delectable, too, was the Menuetto, sprightly and strutting at the outset, and in complete contrast with the sombre, and somewhat ghoulish chromatic aspect of the Trio, like a sudden remembrance of a bad or disturbing dream, before returning with renewed pleasure (and some relief) to the opening dance.

As for the finale, the Allegretto gave a “slow-motion” aspect to the music at the very beginning of the finale, one of a machine not properly wound up, or malfunctioning because of some hidden impediment – however, the initial “containment” of the music served to heighten the sense of release, when, two-thirds of the way through the players increased the tempo, and raced joyously to the piece’s end, despatching the final chords with a flourish.

After the interval we made ready to square up to the Britten, the composer’s Second String Quartet in C Major, a work which was premiered on the 250th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell, a composer for whom Britten had the highest veneration, in fact using in his work a Baroque dance-form, the Chaconne (Chacony), often employed by Purcell himself. Upon reading beforehand about the Heath Quartet’s choice of this work by Britten I wondered why they chose to open the concert with Bach rather than some Purcell, thereby drawing a more immediate link between the latter’s and Britten’s music. The most obvious choice would have been Britten’s own arrangement of Purcell’s 4-part Chacony in G minor for strings – perhaps the Heath Quartet players thought such a course was TOO obvious…….

Whatever the case we were duly presented with a totally compelling listening-experience in the form of this work, one in which the disparate elements of the concert thus far seemed to be brought together as a kind of living musical entity. Beginning with a warm and rich C Major opening, the players emphasised the music’s recitative-like character, with unison declamations over a cello drone, the lines both angular and eloquent. As the music energised and diversified, the exchanges were further enlivened by forceful accented figures, then becalmed by more lyrical contrasts, as from the violin at one point, and the ‘cello at another. Slashing chords over ostinati stirred the blood momentarily, though the music’s mood was obviously bent on further exploration rather than over-relishing any single moment, as whimsy followed whimsy, such as questioning upward glissandi, and irruptions breaking up impulses of forward movement. Ultimately the music seemed to me to express contrasts, between single and concerted sounds, order and disunity, harmony and chaos – the ending characterised this beautifully, its hard-wrought serenity disturbed by a final jog-trot figure!

The second movement’s exhilarating ride, with pesante-like unison shouts sounding over scampering triplets, took us into almost spectral territories, the energies sharp and incisive, despite their thistledown lightness in places, conveying a sense of anxiety amid the excitement, with the punctuating shouts of the downstrokes reminiscent of Mephistofeles’ shouts of “Hup!hup!” in Berlioz’s “La Damnation de Faust”! It came across as a kind of intermezzo movement, really, partly due to its brevity, and partly in retrospect as the precursor to the work’s imposing finale – a Chacony (sometimes called a passacaglia – a theme-and-variations movement), with 21 variations divided into four groups by solo cadenzas from cello, viola and first violin. Britten’s original programme note from the work’s premiere in 1945 refers to the sections expressing aspects of the theme’s (a) harmony, (b) rhythm,  (c) melody, and (d) formal structure. Good to know?

What seemed more to the point from a concert listener’s perspective was the effect of the overall musical journey, one launched by “the” theme, a strongly-accentuated unison line with a kind of “Scottish snap”, a grand and forthright statement which then seemed to fragment into endlessly inventive realisations. We heard burgeonings of upward-and-outward harmonic probings, the solo violin stratospheric in its trajectories, the ‘cello freely modulating the bass line, and the upper strings pushing their explorations to extremes, the sounds seeming the result less of contrivance than of instinct.

Following the ‘cello’s cadenza, the player began a dotted rhythm which spread across the ensemble and took on Nibelung-anvil-like insistence, the music incorporating a swirling  octave descent, a relentless three-note figure, and an anguished-sounding reiterated cry whose canonic delivery screwed up the tensions to bursting point. The floodgates opened with a baton-change running up-and-down figure, from which the viola launched into his (accompanied) cadenza, the violin maintaining a “held” note throughout, and sweetly taking up a theme, which was then repeated in thirds with the other violin, to heart-warming effect, a further upward modulation intensifying its beauty and poignancy. Mid-movement the hall was hushed by the players’ distillation of these beauties and their surety of placement of the changing moods of the music.

A lyrical moment for the violin was further charged by the ensemble’s amazingly heartfelt burgeoning of the melodic contourings, which led to the same instrument’s cadenza, brief but vigorous, and from which the final group of variations sprang. Intensive tremolandi led to a demonstrative series of mighty, concluding chords, whose repetitions immediately brought to my mind the ending of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, with its similarly spaced-out shouts of triumph over various opposing forces. Their cumulative effect here was overwhelming, the sense of an epic undertaking completed an intoxicating feeling on all sides!

As I write this I’m still imbued with a tingling sense of having experienced something quite out of the ordinary – very grateful thanks to the Heath Quartet members for taking us on such a wondrous journey!