Rebranding strikes academia: Victoria University victim of corporate-style image-making

Rebranding strikes academia

In a radical break from the knitting pattern that Middle C usually follows, I am driven to raise my voice to protest about the planned rebranding of my alma-mater, Victoria University of Wellington, or simply ‘Vic’ as it has always been universally known. Music in Wellington has its most important educational institution in Victoria University.

This ‘review’ is prompted by the publication of Dave Armstrong’s column in this morning’s Dominion Post drawing attention to the announcement by the Vice Chancellor that the obscene word ‘Victoria’ would be dropped from the name.

In May I became aware of the proposal and wrote to the Vice Chancellor. This is the essence of my letter, slightly modified:

The propensity to change long-standing names has always seemed to have been a characteristic of authoritarian regimes, most conspicuously used by Communist states.

I happen to be a graduate of the university (actually, a pre-1961 graduate of the University of New Zealand). For me, the habit of changing a name other than for an overwhelmingly important reason, has always struck me as a mark of an immature institution, and in particular, one that places greater importance on what might be called ‘political correctness’ or fashion than on tradition, constancy; even integrity.

I am not the least persuaded that there is any merit in the argument that its name is a matter of confusion. Ours in the Victoria University of Wellington; surely that is clear enough: after all this is the capital city.

Two other universities (and I imagine there may well be others) that use the name Victoria, are mentioned; both geographically related. They are perfectly justified, but they too are likely to be subject of confusion by people who take no trouble to identify them. What are they doing?

I suspect that a secondary, unstated reason is the lingering imperialist flavour associated with the name; it may also reflect a pro-republican spirit. I too am in favour of a republican constitution, but it has nothing to do with the anti-Victorian temper that arose in the early decades of last century!

Many universities carry names associated with a founder or a political leader whose reputation, by standards of today, might be dubious. But those universities will have achieved a reputation that obliterates the shortcomings of that individual. My university should likewise be mature and self-respecting enough to withstand such adolescent, ephemeral pressures.

I plead that you take a more academically and politically mature view of this matter, and retain the name which already has more than a century of history behind it.

I had a very courteous and friendly reply from the Vice Chancellor and an update in the last few days about the council’s decision, to press ahead with the change.

He followed up last Friday with a circular letter announcing that: “The University Council today approved in principle a change to ‘University of Wellington’ along with the adoption of a new Māori name of Te Herenga Waka.”

And the letter added that “This is a draft decision and Council will consider further feedback over the next two weeks. This can be emailed to ‘’ or posted to ‘The Chancellor, Victoria University of Wellington, PO Box 600, Wellington 6140’.  Feedback closes at 5:00pm Monday 13 August 2018.”

And there’s a petition: And in its report on the issue, Stuff has an article on the subject:

Armstrong mentions several other reasons to oppose this senseless move.

They include reference to the university’s not irrelevant behaviour over the Karori campus, the former Wellington Teachers’ College, which should have been held for educational purposes, sold for $28 million to Ryman!!

For me, a curious weakness in the case is the list of other universities (or tertiary institutions) around the world that enjoy the word ‘Victoria’. There are nine. Are any of them embarrassed at having the offensive word attached to them, and planning to change their name, and if not why not? And why, as the one that may well be the oldest and most distinguished, is our Victoria University so lacking in self-confidence, a sense of its own reputation and traditions?

I think it is disgraceful.


Swedish-New Zealand ensemble beguiles Waikanae with varied pieces: brand new, interesting, much loved

Klara Kollektiv (Anna McGregor, clarinet; Manu Berkeljon, violin;Taru Kurki, piano)
Waikanae Music Society

Anthony Ritchie: Picture Stone: Trio for clarinet, violin and piano. Op.198
César Franck: Sonata for violin and piano
Brahms: Clarinet Sonata no.1 in F minor, Op.120 no.1
Khachaturian: Trio for clarinet, violin and piano

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 29 July 2018, 2:30 pm

On picking up my printed programme when entering the hall, I recalled the last chamber music concert I reviewed: Wellington Chamber Music Trust’s concert at St. Andrew’s Church in Wellington on 15 July, where larger-size programmes (double A4) were available; an example Waikanae should follow, given the older-age group that comprises the bulk of the audience.

This time the audience was considerably smaller than is usual at this venue, which was a shame.  An interesting programme and top-class players were received enthusiastically.  The trio comprises two New Zealanders resident in Sweden, and a Finnish pianist who also resides and teaches in Sweden.

The opening work (Picture Stone) was written specifically for Klara Kollektiv, last year, and the current New Zealand tour is its premiere outing.  This work, and the Khachaturian are common to the other programmes the Trio will play in New Zealand, but the other works differ.  A few introductory remarks gave us the interesting thought that if we see a painting we do not like in a gallery, we can simply walk away.  Not so with music in a concert.  However, we were assured that the Ritchie work was very likable, and this proved to be the case.

There were headings in the printed programme to indicate topics considered in the music, but they were not formal movements, and the music was continuous, with no breaks.  The headings: Dawn – Child – Journey – Battle – Sacrifice.  The title ‘Picture Stone’ refers to ancient Viking artefacts.  The music takes the point of view of a child in Viking times, contemplating such a stone, and imagining a journey and battles.

After a piano opening, very appealing but somewhat mournful tones came from violin and clarinet, the latter featuring some very high and shrill notes.  The music contained a lot of repeated notes and repeated phrases, and a spiky, jaunty effect, perhaps depicting the child.  This was followed by running figures, especially on the piano, which I considered perhaps denote the journey.  Then a livelier section – battle?  Or sacrifice?  A chord on the piano held for some time by the sustaining pedal and all the players remaining still for some time, presumably symbolising sacrifice, ended the work.  The music was rewarding, but like much music, another hearing would give the opportunity for forming a better impression of it.

I have to confess that the Franck sonata is not one of my favourite chamber works.  One hears it not infrequently on radio, sometimes in arrangements for other instruments.  However, these musicians played it very sensitively, and with plenty of variety from rubato excellent tone, and changes of dynamics.  Thus they made it interesting and diverse compared with other renditions I have heard, which can strike me as merely long-winded repetition.

The music moved from allegretto ben moderato in the first movement to an allegro second.  Again in this faster music, the violin’s tone was varied and lovely, while the piano playing was excellent and full of subtlety.

The third movement, Recitativo – Fantasia, began with a strong and forthright recitative, while the fantasia was played with a variety of timbres, moving from delicacy to almost bombastic utterances, and back again, its pace becoming variable.  Imaginative playing from all the players made for enjoyable listening.

Strong themes and references back to the opening movement feature in this and the Finale (allegrettto poco mosso) – but there is a lot of repetition, and the canon in the last movement becomes tedious as it goes over and over a simple theme related to the first movement theme.  The massive ending required prestidigitation from the pianist – something she was well capable of.

After the interval came the Brahms sonata.  The composer’s fondness for the clarinet in the latter stages of his composing career was evident in his beautiful melodies and  acrobatic figures.  There was plenty of interest to be found in the writing for both instruments.  Following an allegro appassionato first movement, the second (andante un poco adagio) developed a rather plaintive melody, creating a charming effect.

The allegretto grazioso third movement exploited the full range of the clarinet, while providing plenty of appeal in the piano part.  The movement was short and sweet.  The vivace finale was fast and playful, and made a good summing up. This was a satisfying performance, marked by clarity.

Khachaturian’s Trio piano opening struck me as orchestral in style.  The andante opening movement was notable for the delectable writing for both violin and clarinet.  It was short but attractive.  The second, allegro, was bouncy and bright,  and became fast and furious, using folk tunes as a basis, as in the other movements.  In the middle section, the piano became somewhat independent of the other instruments.

The third, and last, movement (moderato) opens with solo clarinet, then the piano is added, and finally violin, in a duet with the clarinet.  The clarinet repeats its part while the others go into new byways.  The Trio has a rather sudden but peaceful ending, after much liveliness.

The trio’s encore was a surprise: a song (presumably a Swedish folk-song), sung by Anna McGregor, accompanied by piano improvisation (very discreet) and violin drone.  In between the verses, the violin played a little tune above the notes of the drone.  So out of character with the rest of the programme, this was an unusual diversion.


Tudor Consort advances four centuries to the contemporary, war-stricken world with great success

The Tudor Consort directed by Michael Stewart with Andrew Joyce, cello

Exaudi – Songs for cello and choir
John Tavener: Exhortation and Kohima; Svyati 
Jocelyn Morlock: Exaudi
Bach: Suite No 4 in E flat for solo cello
Richard Rodney Bennett: A Farewell to Arms

Saint Mary of the Angels

(Apologies for lateness of filing; it has induced endless journeys into peripheral subjects: all fascinating but irrelevant)

Saturday 28 July, 7:30 pm

Director of The Tudor Consort, Michael Stewart, spoke to introduce this generally unfamiliar (apart from the Bach) programme. As well as drawing attention to aspects of the music, he remarked on what might be felt as a departure from the choir’s usual territory, concentrating on early and Renaissance music (though there have generally been interesting deviations from that prescription), to tackle an entirely 20th, even 21st, century programme. He commented on the choir’s interest in collaborations with sympathetic musicians whose activities lie largely in other territory; on this occasion, NZSO principal cellist Andrew Joyce.

Some in the audience might have come across the pieces by Tavener; I had not, as far as I remember. That was where they started: Exhortation and Kohima, one relating to WWI, the other to WWII. It was commissioned for the festival of Remembrance in the Albert Hall in 2003. The two parts were sung separately – Exhortation at the beginning and Kohima at the end of the concert.

Exhortation is a setting of the famous lines from Laurence Binyon’s For the Fallen. It began with strong, clear sopranos whose voices echoed around the nave, and then several voices – both male and female – emerged from behind the west door, delivering a long, consoling response, melodic in a secular though not irreligious spirit.

The second Tavener piece was Svyati, a Russian Orthodox prayer (Tavener, for many years, before eventually declaring his agnosticism, was deeply interested in Orthodox rituals and music). It involved cellist Andrew Joyce. Tavener had explained that the cello represented the Priest or the Icon of Christ and suggested it might be played at a distance, perhaps from the opposite end of the building.  But here Joyce sat at the intersection of the centre and cross aisles, slightly behind and to my right. That created an unexpected immediacy so that when men’s voices emerged, singing in Church Slavonic (which I think is rather the equivalent in the Orthodox ritual, to Latin in the Roman), their involvement was almost imperceptible, intoning alone till eventually joined by the rest of the choir. The note didn’t make entirely clear to what extent the setting might have been Tavener’s original of some kind of adaptation of the original Slavonic hymn. It moved through several phases with the cello entering and then falling silent between choral episodes, and it held the attention through long passages of near silence from the singers; one didn’t feel the need for more. It’s impact was singularly moving.

The title work of the concert, Exaudi, was that of a recent work by Canadian composer Jocelyn Morlock, According to the pre-performance publicity, it is her own highly personal response to Tavener’s work though the programme itself didn’t enlarge on that. Exaudi was a commission from the Vancouver Musica Intima vocal ensemble and included a cello part played by Stephen Isserlis. Here the cellist, Andrew Joyce, sat at the right front of the choir, and contributed a vividly contrasting element to the chanting by bass voices, and later by especially high women’s voices that seemed to weave a quite complex harmonic fabric. It ended with repeating phrases moving higher and higher, quieter and quieter.

It was as well to have the interval at that point, as Joyce’s rendering of Bach’s fourth cello suite inhabited such an entirely different music-sphere. Joyce was now on his own in the centre of the performance area. He handled the repetitious broken chords, up and down triplet quavers, that dominate the Prelude with a mixture of seriousness and lightness, coloured with fluttery gestures, that held the listener’s curiosity throughout. Comparable rhythmic variety and distinct pauses had the effect of connecting the long, flowing phrases in the Allemande which, to state the obvious, becomes ever more complex and rewarding with every hearing (or playing). Joyce’s Courante was characterised by little rushes on the rising phrases, almost becoming blurred but never losing clarity; on the other hand, the courante can be played with such studied detail that its flowing, ‘running’ character risks being lost; not here.

Before starting the Sarabande, Joyce paused pointedly, shifted on his chair as if to draw attention to the importance of what was to follow; the sarabandes in each suite are occasions for spiritual stock-take, and his playing indeed took on a distinctly more profound spirit.

The challenge for the cellist in the Bourrées is somehow to give some individuality to every one of the endless repeats of the short, unvarying motifs; Bourrée No 2 usually seems a long time coming, and there was a risk here. Each movement has a different role to play in the suite and the Gigue’s is to send the audience away, forgetting the tragedies and horrors that are the normal accompaniment for our lives, and it worked pretty well.

The choir then returned to sing A Farewell to Arms (no relation to Hemingway) by Richard Rodney Bennett (it took me ages to get him sorted from Robert Russell Bennett, the American, famous for orchestrating Broadway musicals as well as original composition). It was written on commission for a Minneapolis choir in 2002, it consists of two distinct poems written half a century apart.

The first is a 17th century poem by the obscure Ralph Knevet (roughly contemporary with the many post-Tudor poets like Herrick, Herbert, Carew, Marvell, Waller, Suckling … and Milton…. ). His poem began: ‘The helmet now an hive for bees becomes…’. It’s followed with a hardly audible break by a poem by the slightly less obscure Shakespeare contemporary, George Peele, entitled Polyhymnia which begins: ‘His golden locks time hath to silver turned…’; the programme notes described its somewhat convoluted provenance.

Bennett was something of a poly-stylist, a classical composer fundamentally; one with solid serialist, avant-garde credentials; but also jazz (I heard him in such a recital maybe 15 years ago in the National Library’s then theatrette) and popular styles; but this was thoroughly approachable, a mainstream choral composition though unmistakably of our era.

Andrew Joyce’s elegiac cello plays an extended introduction before the choir enters, led by women’s voices with men sounding somewhat secondary. Choir and cello were nicely matched, and the music, while calmly meditative, was agreeably melodious with attractive, wide intervals. The presence of the cello struck me, increasingly, as the element that grounded it and offered persuasive support to the choir which, alone, might have struggled to hold attention through its near quarter hour duration.

Then came the second part of Tavener’s Exhortation and Kohima, specifically called the Kohima Epitaph. The Battle of Kohima marked a major battle in north-east India, from April to June 1944, which drove the Japanese from critical positions and turned the tide of the war with Japan in that theatre. The words ‘When you go home, tell them of us and say, For your tomorrow, we gave our today’ are attributed to John Maxwell Edmonds.

To return to the spirit of the concert’s first piece was a congenial device, and even, now, without the cello which had become such a rewarding element in most of the other pieces, it focused the audience beautifully on the quality of the choir’s performance and the subdued beauty of Tavener’s setting.

Finally. The Tudor Consort’s programmes are admirable: it’s A4 size, printed in large type so that even if the light is dim (which it wasn’t and could have been turned down a little to help atmosphere) it was very readable.


Tutors at the ASQ Academy confirm their stature in rare Shostakovich quartet, plus other masterpieces

St Andrew’s Lunchtime Concerts
Aroha String Quartet: concert by tutors from the 2018 ASQ International Music Academy

Mozart: Piano Quartet in G minor, K 478 – 1st movement
Shostakovich: String Quartet No 11 in F minor, Op 122
Dvořák: String Quintet in E flat, Op 97 – 1st movement

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Thursday 26 July, 12:15 pm

Rosemary Collier’s review of Wednesday’s concert by participants in the 2018 Aroha String Quartet International Music Academy, offered a view of the level of performance skill that emerged from the week-long participation in the Academy, the fourth in what has become an annual event. Middle C appears to have overlooked them in the past. Further recitals by participants are taking place in the evenings and notably on Saturday evening, 28 July.

This however, was an opportunity to hear performances by the tutors themselves: the four quartet members, plus others who contributed to the tutoring demands of the participants.

The main event at this recital was Shostakovich’s eleventh string quartet. But I will leave comments on it till last.

The concert began and ended with first movements of a couple of major pieces (it struck me that this might be an infection spread by the misguided behaviour of RNZ Concert which is now broadcasting, through most of the day, just single movements of works that composers had taken great pains to compose as complete, balanced works of art).

Mozart’s two great piano quartets do deserve to be heard in their integrity. However, it can be forgiven in circumstances like this, in a brief lunchtime concert that’s a sort of testimonial presentation. Here, in the second quartet, we had the rare chance to hear the fine pianist Emma Sayers along with violinist Donald Armstrong, and viola and cello from the Aroha Quartet itself. It was a remarkably vivid performance, driven by buoyant energy, each instrument exhibiting its individuality, almost to the point of sacrificing perfect ensemble; but I hasten to say, that was never affected.

It was equally delightful to hear the first movement of Dvořák’s string quintet, Op 97. It may have been programmed to complement the performance of his string quintet, Op 77 (which uses double bass instead of a second viola or cello) by Academy participants the day before. It’s not a well-known piece; Dvořák is a somewhat unfortunate composer who’s known to the average music lover for just one piece in each class of music – the New World Symphony, the Cello Concerto, the American Quartet, the Piano Quintet, Op 81, perhaps the Dumky Piano Trio, the Carnival Overture and some of the Slavonic Dances. In each genre, there are many other delightful works.

This is one of them and it’s first movement got a performance that revealed its beauties and character admirably. The players were Aroha’s first violin, Haihong Liu, violist Zhongxian Jin and cellist Robert Ibell, plus Donald Armstrong on second violin and Brian Shillito, the second (or was he technically, first?) viola. A viola (I couldn’t see which) opens the piece with a typically ruminative, Slavic theme, a minor third, quickly joined by other players who soon assured the major key’s dominance. Though the programme note remarks on the presence of Algonquin drumming patterns, I can only take their word for it. Even though, the movement ends with a typically climactic peroration which could well be heard as the end of the Finale, it should have given listeners a strong inducement to hear the rest.

Shostakovich No 11
Few of Shostakovich’s quartets other than No 8 are much played, though I think over recent years we’ve heard Nos 4, 5, 9, 11… and certainly one or two others.

It is a unique piece, unorthodox in form, written in 1966 as a memorial for the death of his close friend Vasily Shirinsky, second violinist in the famous Beethoven String Quartet. It’s in seven movements, of varying lengths and character. Though it is not uniformly tragic in mood, in its entirety it emerges as a remarkable, deeply felt creation. The first violin opens alone with a feeling of unease, a motif of cold beauty before being joined by the others to create a bleak though very human landscape.

The second movement also opens in a sort of pretend brightness, with the violin alone and it continues in a sort of fugal fashion, the staccato motif punctuated by ironical swoops by different instruments. It expresses a feeling of reluctance to give voice to much lyricism; nevertheless there are melodic thoughts, though presented sparingly, offering no reason for unalloyed delight.

The third part, enigmatically entitled Recitative entered with shocking violence, with harsh bowing by the cello. While each movement presents a very different musical character, there is no let-up from the pervasive feeling of anguish or anxiety, even in the bizarrely entitled Humoresque which seems to be the composer in typical disguise, with wild endlessly throbbing thirds on the violin.

As the notes pointed out, the sixth movement, Elegy, is the heart of the work, the longest movement at about four minutes, and the quartet drew from it a profound sense of terror and pathos. In the Finale, Shostakovich allows the first violin to offer a tiny hint of comfort, but in spite of the return of the slightly droll, upwards violin scoop, over pizzicato, he seems to deny the listener much hope.

In spite of the utterly different depictions of life by Mozart and Dvořák played before and after it, the Shostakovich was the music, played uncompromisingly, with utter sincerity, that stuck in the mind.

Though I have come to think I’d heard all Shostakovich’s quartets, I think this must have escaped me, but it will remain embedded for the rest of my life. (But one can say that about so much of his music: would we have such a store of awful, soul-searing music if he had not lived through such distressing times?).

As I hinted at the beginning, it is surely time for one of our resident quartets to stage a mini-Shostakovich festival at which all 15 quartets are played. Since I heard most of them in a revelatory series of late-night (10.30 to midnight) concerts by a gifted Israeli quartet at the Verbier Festival ten years ago, I have the feeling that Night suits their character, and that such an atmospheric presentation, in the right place, could capture the imagination of a few hundred Wellington music lovers.

Klara Kollektiv musicians vary the musical fare to resounding effect

Hutt Valley Chamber Music presents:
Anna McGregor (clarinet)
Manu Berkeljon (violin)
Taru Kurki (piano)

ANTHONY RITCHIE – Three Scenes (for solo clarinet – 2016)
CÉSAR FRANCK – Sonata for violin and piano  (1886)
DOUGLAS LILBURN – Sonatina for clarinet and piano (1948)
JEAN SIBELIUS – Romance for violin and piano Op.78 No.2
BÉLA BARTÓK – Contrasts, for clarinet, violin and piano  (1938)

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Thursday 26th July 2018

I wondered on first sighting whether the name “Klara Kollektiv” indicated the first names of the group’s three musicians – could this be “a bevy of Klaras”, a “Klaras kollektiva”, so to speak? And then I saw Anna McGregor’s name in the publicity, which in the nicest possible way put paid to my brief whimsy, as subsequently did the ensemble’s playing throughout the concert, demonstrating part of the title’s true purpose, ”klara” being Swedish for ”clarify”. Each of the pieces presented had either a simplicity or a startling vividness of utterance in performance, nicely balancing the content with its exposition, and bringing us closer to the music as a result.

As for the ”kollektiv” part of the title, it referred to the group’s collaborative aspect, the two New Zealanders, Anna McGregor and Manu Berkeljon, joining musical forces with Finnish pianist Taru Kurki for this current Chamber Music New Zealand tour. Both McGregor and Berkeljon have previously toured here with other musicians – see Middle C reviews from 2014, and – and will presumably continue to do so on future occasions for our much-anticipated pleasure.

As the above linked reviews suggest, the venture seems to bring out the very best from the players, the music-making to my ears having a special kind of eloquence, perhaps born of both commitment to the cause and a delight in partnership, between performers and with composers as well.  The concert’s opening item featured a work for solo clarinet by Anthony Ritchie, written for Anna McGregor in 2016 – in three movements, or ”Scenes”, the music took us on a journey of exploration, firstly, in an opening movement subtitled Stealth, of the clarinet’s capacity for contrast and colour, in setting cheek-by-jowl passages of cat-like tread against sudden raucous squawks of alarm. The music allowed for plenty of theatricality, both in the instrument’s startling variations of sound-character and the player’s capacity for physically choreographing the music – one (eventually) thought beyond one’s childhood memories of Sylvester-the-cat and Tweety-bird cartoons to more enigmatic scenarios or narratives as the music unfolded.

The second part, Bush scene, presented tranquil and ruminative resonances at the start, McGregor’s long-breathed phrases generating eons of endless time and stillness with each impulse (beautifully-controlled playing!), before moving into a livelier, more rhythmic sequence with a chatterbox-like aspect becoming more and more eloquently ”passionate” (excuse the word) of utterance, and then subsiding and returning to the stillness of the opening. Finally, Play danced with infectious fun and energy, McGregor relishing the contrasts between sequences, setting ”cool” against ”full-on”, and ”impish” against ”soulful”,  her intonations unfailingly true across a brilliantly varied dynamic range of expression.

What followed couldn’t have been a greater contrast, with Manu Berkeljon (violin) and Taru Kurki (piano) setting in motion the limpid opening tones of César Franck’s Violin Sonata, the music most beguilingly “awakened” by the players, pianist Taru Kurki’s beautiful colourings preparing the way for violinist Manu Berkeljon’s rapt purity of line, both musicians giving us the notes as if freshly discovered throughout the opening exchanges. Once or twice a hesitancy in the violinist’s phrasing ruffled the music’s surface momentarily – the final ascent seemed a tad off-balance, which hurried the concluding string phrase – but generally, the sense of rapturous awakening to delight was shaped most winningly throughout.

Happily, the pianist seemed less interested in the second movement’s ”virtuoso roar” than in finding a matching voice to intertwine with the violin’s, Franck’s own brilliance as a performer reflected in the piano part’s occasional near-Lisztian demands. What commanded special attention was the dialogue between the instruments in the movement’s central section, the exchanges by turns thoughtful and impassioned, with Taru Kurki seeming to me to give more attention than usual to the middle voices in her keyboard outpourings. Despite a couple of awkwardly sounded figures amongst the agitations, both players captured the growing excitements and burgeoning momentums of the music’s accelerando-like conclusion.

More heartfelt dialogues followed, in a slow movement which moved from the ”stand-and-deliver” mode on both sides to gestures of accord between the two instruments, as from out of the tremulous explorations and recollections of times past grew a long-breathed theme which seemed to unite the gestures and impulses in one accord. Franck’s canonic finale continued this ”entente cordiale”, with both Berkeljon and Kurki giving us the tenderest and most delicate treatment of the opening I’ve ever heard, saving the blood-racing moments for the music’s bigger climaxes towards the end, and instead fully engaged in realising some of the composer’s typically sinuous modulatory byways amongst the music’s ebb and flow.

After the interval we were treated to another home-grown piece of music, this time for clarinet and piano – Douglas Lilburn’s lovely Sonatina for clarinet and piano, written in 1948.  In three movements, the music began with a distinctive Lilburn rhythmic fingerprint in the piano part, over which the clarinet sang long-breathed, out-of-door phrases, the loveliness of McGregor’s playing enhanced by Kurki’s resonant way with the piano rhythms in a way that opened up the landscapes for us.

The Andantino second movement began with sombre, chant-like piano tones, and long-breathed responses from the clarinet, with McGregor simply making the music her own by dint of the generosity of her tones and the expansiveness of her phrases. Kurki played the ensuing flurries rather more delicately than did Margaret Nielsen on her recording with Peter Scholes, bringing out, I thought, a birdsong-like character more readily, the clarinet murmuring its assent in reply. What mastery in the writing, here! – so much ground seemed to be covered in such a brief space of time, with the clarinet’s musings suddenly given thrilling amplitude, McGregor and Kurki allowing the composer’s burst of emotion full rein to the music’s end.

The two musicicans took what seemed to me a sturdy, unhurried view of the final movement, making it almost sound like ”road music”, with the composer’s characteristic rhythmic kicks keeping everything sufficiently on the move. Again I marvelled at McGregor’s naturalness of phrasing, heightening the sense I often feel with Lilburn’s sound-world of something ”caught from the air”, and here, with some invigorating support from Kurki, taking us out-of-doors on a bracing and rewarding adventure.

Somewhat surprisingly when considering the music’s composer, we found ourselves back in the drawing-room for the Sibelius piece for violin and piano which followed. Though it may sound heretical to say so, I thought it a mildly charming but otherwise flavourless work, much less interesting, for instance, than Elgar’s ”Salut d’Amour” – and I count myself as a reasonably paid-up Sibelian, violently in love with those tone-poems and the great symphonies! I’m obviously an insufferable snob, but I would have vastly preferred the musicians to have chosen something a bit more characterful – and if something Finnish was wanted, why not go for broke salon-wise with an arrangement of the same composer’s ”Valse Triste”? – at least it’s music which has a bit of characteristic brooding atmosphere!

Nobody could ever accuse Béla Bartók’s music of being bland or unatmospheric, which was what the Kollektiv concluded the scheduled part of the programme with, by way of compensation! – this was a work called ”Contrasts”, written for and dedicated to violinist Josef Szigeti and clarinettist Benny Goodman in 1938 and given the title ”Rhapsody”. It was originally intended (by Goodman and Szigeti) that the work be a two-movement piece which could be recorded on a single 78rpm disc, but the composer had other ideas – not only were each of these movements Bartók wrote too long for such a scheme, but he also had in mind a middle movement which he produced AFTER the original pair of movements were premiered! Bartók himself, with Szigeti and Goodman, subsequently performed and recorded the whole work, now renamed ”Contrasts”, in a justly-famous 1940 recording.

First up was the Verbunkos or ”Recruiting-dance” movement, which began with a lovely, swaggering rhythm generated by the strumming violin and warbling clarinet, at first keeping in step with the piano’s marking time, and then breaking out and exchanging phrases in vigorous virtuoso mode. The piano valiantly persisted with the dance-rhythms, in the face of both violin and clarinet awaiting their chance to forcefully declaim their points of view, their phrases building up into a series of strident exchanges. After some curmudgeonly rhythmic by-play amidst all three instruments a brief but agitated clarinet cadenza concluded with the violin and piano sneaking the music to a close!

The ensuing Pihenö (Relaxation) featured long, slow-moving lines from clarinet and violin, with the piano occasionally playing tremolandi or slow ostinati. The music’s mood seemed in places to derive from the composer’s ”night music” mode in other works, except for a brief frisson of excitement between violin and clarinet, after which the charged nocturnal stillness drifted slowly backwards through the music’s last few moments, everything beautifully breathed and floated by the players.

With Manu Berkeljon laying down her violin and picking up another prior to the last movement we knew something was afoot – and so it proved!  Suddenly we were plunged into a kind of ”danse macabre” by the violinist’s opening chords as the Sebes movement began, the hair-raisingly madcap molto perpetuo in which everybody joined not unlike the sounds of a klezmer band playing as if possessed! Gradually the pace fragmented and changed to a wistful, gently syncopated gait, with some eerie chromaticisms thrown unexpectedly into the mix! All of this was swept away by the return of the frenetically-paced opening, leading to a wild cadenza from Berkeljon’s violin, skin and hair flying, before the others rejoined the fun-and-games, with wild, exuberant cries emanating from all the instruments as the players drove the music to its exhilarating conclusion!

We’d been promised an encore by the players provided our applause at the concert’s end was enthusiastic enough (a foregone state of things in the wake of such engaging music-making!), and so the musicians duly reappeared on the stage ready to give us a little more. Then, to everybody’s surprise and delight, Anna McGregor forewent her clarinet and, to the accompaniment of folksy violin figurations from Manu Berkeljon and hypnotically-voiced piano chords from Taru Kurki (the overall instrumental effect being somewhat like a hurdy-gurdy), she sang a plaintively beautiful rendition of a song called ”Worldes Bliss”. It made for a haunting and memorable ending to an interestingly varied and thoroughly engaging concert.

Admirable results of a week of string instrument coaching from the Aroha String Quartet

Aroha String Quartet International Music Academy

Participants’ Concert of music by Dvořák, Popper, Albinoni and Elgar

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 25 July 2018, 12.15pm

The Aroha Quartet is innovative in a number of ways, not least in convening this annual week-long course for amateur string players of all ages, participants coming from Australia and China as well as New Zealand.  The music they produced, without much time for rehearsal, was remarkable.

An almost-full St. Andrew’s Church heard the music performed by 25 enthusiastic amateur musicians.  The concert began with the first movement of Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No 2, Op. 81 in A, written in 1887.  It is an attractive work of chamber music, in the composer’s cheerful, lyrical yet romantic style.  After a false start, the cello opened the piece, with light piano accompaniment.  Both players acquitted themselves well, as did the other three musicians.  I was particularly impressed by the pianist’s excellent playing; at the opening it was appropriately subdued.  Then there is a shock when the other players all join in with vigour.  The pianist was Nicholas Kovacev of Wellington.  His playing was never too loud for the strings, his phrasing was splendid, as were his dynamics and fluency.

It is to be expected that a group of amateurs of all ages, who have played together for only a few days, will not have perfect intonation at all times.  However, they tackled this mature music with a will, and with skill and commitment.  On the whole, the tone they produced was good.  The music was conveyed competently and confidently.

The second work was a short Gavotte in D minor (Op.67/2, first published ca.1880) by David Popper (1843-1913).  This was performed by a group of 5 cellists, all of whom were mature men.  It was good to see them taking part in a course consisting mainly of young people.  Their sound was generally good and their ensemble spot-on.

The last chamber work was the first movement of another Dvořák quintet, this time for strings, including bass.  It was Op.77 no.2, written in 1875.  There was some lovely playing, especially from the first violinist, who also led the string orchestra that followed.  She is from China and is listed in the programme variously as MeiJuan Chen, or May Chen.

The quintet showed great attention to dynamics, but the interpretation was perhaps insufficiently subtle.  However, on the whole this was a good effort, with strong playing when required.

All the course participants came together to play a piece by Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751), introduced by Donald Armstrong, who conducted.  This was Albinoni’s Concierto a Cinque, Op.5 no.1.  As the title says, it is for five parts: two violin parts, two viola, and cello (plus bass).  It was a very lively and tuneful work in two movements, well-executed and thoroughly enjoyable.

Finally, we had Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, published in 1892.  Its three short movements are    allegro piacevole, larghetto and allegretto.   Such a number of cellists were attending the Academy that the four who played in the Albinoni were replaced by five others for this work.  Elgar’s rather nostalgic sentiment was conveyed well by the players.  Cellos, at the beginning, violas and violins all have their turn to shine on their own, and all did well, but especially the violas.  This was a very creditable performance, ending with a ringing crescendo and a three-fold chord.


Interesting recital of Romantic French music for cello and piano

Miranda Wilson (cello) and Rachel Thomson (piano)
Wellington Chamber Music Trust

Louise Farrenc: Sonata in B flat for piano and cello, Op.46
Lalo: Sonata in A minor for cello and piano
Chopin: Sonata in G minor for cello and piano, Op.65

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 15 July 2018, 3 pm

The first thing that struck me at this concert was not musical – it was pleasure at having a large-print programme!  Others, please copy, for those of us who find it hard to read the normal-sized print, especially in a darkened auditorium – which this wasn’t.  A further improvement in readability would be to use a different type-face; the fashionable sans-serif fonts do not pass readability tests s well as the ‘old-fashioned’ Times New Roman etc. fonts.

The first work played by the duo was by an unfamiliar name: Louise Farrenc (1804-1875).  The excellent programme notes by Miranda Wilson told us of this French woman, who was  a professor at the Paris Conservatoire as well as a composer, pianist, and music printer.  The numbering of the sonata, her opus 46 from 1859, reveals that she wrote a considerable quantity of music.

Strong playing opened the first movement (allegro moderato).  The music was melodious and, as the programme note said, it was largely rooted in classicism, despite its date.  It was in that tradition with the piano being to the fore, as reflected in the title, putting the cello after the piano.  However, this didn’t mean that the cello does not have plenty of lovely tunes to play.

Miranda Wilson threw herself at the music with energy and enthusiasm; her rapport and accord with pianist Rachel Thomson was exemplary.  (Apparently they played together as students at Victoria University, years ago.)  It was good to see Miranda back in her home city; she currently lives and teaches cello in the United States.

This was a worthwhile work to have unearthed for an all-French programme.  There were plenty of changes in mood through the movement, and lots of fast finger-work, especially for the pianist.

The andante sostenuto second movement was sober but straight-forward at the beginning.  A gorgeous singing tone was created by the cellist, who had more of the melody line here.  The mood was slightly melancholic – or maybe just nostalgic, before becoming briefly more joyful.

The finale of the three-movement sonata was marked allegro, and used some of the thematic material from the previous movement, decorated this time.  It became quite rollicking in places, with both players rushing all over the place, but the musical shape was always apparent.

Édouard Lalo’s music is largely known through his Symphonie Espagnol, but he wrote a considerable quantity of other music, including numbers of concertos.  This sonata was written three years before Farrenc’s sonata, but bears a much more noticeable Romantic character.  It features a very dramatic opening; the work brought the cello to the fore compared with the Farrenc.  There was more contrast and greater drama, plus a wider dynamic range.  Many bold statements were advanced, and the music was harmonically more adventurous.  (It’s inevitable to make comparisons with the dates of composition were so close.)  It was also a longer work.

The second movement (andante) gave opportunity for some sonorous playing from Miranda, in a long-drawn-out melody of a highly romantic nature, which was followed by very robust passages, then rippling piano figures over a pedal point on the cello.  In this it was similar to a passage in the Farrenc work.

Such was the apparent ease of execution by these two musicians, one could think they had been playing this music together for a long time, which is obviously not possible with one in New Zealand and the other in the USA.

The allegro finale had plenty of variety.  There were delightful pizzicato motifs on the cello, matching staccato on the piano, and the work ended with a grand statement.  I did miss beauty of tone through some of this piece.  Factors that may have had a bearing on this were firstly, the very bright acoustic in St. Andrew’s church and the fact that the piano lid was on the long stick, and also the circumstance that Miranda Wilson was playing a borrowed cello.

We turned to the pure Romantic now, with Chopin’s sonata, a more familiar work.  The allegro moderato first movement was decidedly romantic in idiom.  Here I found the tone a little too abrasive for the idiom.  The sound was usually quite loud, even in a venue full of people’s sound-absorbing bodies.  However, the accuracy of the notes was impeccable.  The pianist’s part was notable for many cascades up and down the keyboard.

The scherzo second movement was jaunty, lively, and varied.  It was followed by a peaceful largo movement.  Here we had euphonious cello and delicate, melodic piano.  The music’s tranquil mood grew slowly.  Here was some of the most mellow cello sound of the concert, in long, elegant, well-rounded phrases.

It was a short movement, so we were soon into the allegro finale.  It developed themes from the slow movement, but the pace was faster, of course; it was very busy.  This work was written in 1846, so prior to the two works in the first half of the programme, but it was very much more the Romantic piece.  Lilting moments there were, in between the rushing gaiety around them.  Chords from the cello were somewhat brutal, but made an emphatic end to an interesting concert of fine music played by accomplished performers.


Trpčeski’s emphatic restoration of Grieg concerto and a blazing Shostakovich Tenth from Martín and NZSO

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jaime Martín with Simon Trpčeski – piano

Shostakovich: Festive Overture and Symphony No 10 in E minor
Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op 16

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 13 July, 6:30 pm

Last Friday Jaime Martín conducted the National Youth Orchestra in a stunning concert, drawing from young players performances that were both accurate and full of energy. He has shown the same gifts with the parent orchestra.

Shostakovich’s Festive Overture was written just shortly after the death of Stalin and the composition of the 10th symphony; it can more easily be read as music that complies superficially with the expectations of the regime, than the symphony does. If you listen, seeking clues to his real feelings about Stalin’s tyranny, they can be found, right from the ritual brass fanfares and, a minute in, the urgent squeal of the solo clarinet; but one soon falls under the influence of the warm, happy melody from horns as Shostakovich writes the music that fits the occasion. And Martín drove it with an almost reckless flawlessness, instruments tumbling over each other. Just as we’d got used to the huge energy that Martín extracted from the Youth Orchestra, similar electrifying expressiveness worked with the professionals of the NZSO too.

The last local performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto seems to have been in September last year from Orchestra Wellington with Jian Liu. My records show the last performances by the NZSO, however, were in 2005, by Pascal Rogé. From the NZSO’s earliest years, the Grieg was played very often: nearly 100 performances, including a dozen in Wellington, up to 2005. But it has long been regarded by the musical elite as too ‘popular’ to have a place in the Pantheon of great piano concertos.

This performance, if Jian Liu’s last year hadn’t awakened audiences to the truth, put it squarely in the class of great piano concertos. Written aged 24, and certainly strongly influenced by Schumann’s concerto in the same key, it rather refutes the view that Grieg could not handle traditional large-scale forms, even though its rich melodic character has probably not won it friends among those for whom ‘tune’ is a dirty word. The piano leads from the front, not merely with its big chordal pronouncement but with the feeling of melodic integrity and the handling of its evolution. Simon Trpčeski left no doubt that the opening pages came from real musical inspiration, with no sense that Grieg was simply filling his pages with passagework; the dramatic episodes made organic sense and the cadenza, opening thoughtfully, avoided the sort of vacuous flashiness that had come to characterise many of the piano concertos of the post-Beethoven-Chopin-Schumann-Mendelssohn era.

Although I tend to deplore the boringly formulaic style and content of musician biographies as printed in programmes (and I know, they are dictated by the respective artist managements), Trpčeski’s catalogue of orchestras, conductors, venues, festivals and recordings is unusually remarkable. But the notes have scarcely anything about his Macedonian background. I have a particular interest in the Balkans; I first saw the ruined Skopje a few months after the terrible 1963 earthquake, and have travelled through several times, including a visit to the beautiful Lake Ochrid, lying between Greece, Albania and Macedonia; and I hope that both Greece and Macedonia can build on the recent accord over the name, as I have affection for both parts of Alexander the Great’s former homeland.

The piano part felt part of the orchestral fabric rather than as the orchestra’s rival for attention, suggesting that its role was to explain, to enlarge ideas intelligently, to explain a slightly different point of view. One could notice Trpčeski’s close rapport with the orchestra and with the conductor: at the start of the second movement he nodded subtly, approvingly, at what he was surrounded by, and such gestures were repeated. It’s not a long movement, but engaging enough, straight away, often taking pains to duet with solo instruments – flute, horn – in a genuine partnership. And the third movement, Allegro moderato molto, was fleet, light in spirit, leaving what weightiness existed to the orchestra.

For his encore, Trpčeski drew attention away from himself, by inviting Concertmaster Leppänen to join him in the second movement of Grieg’s Third Violin Sonata which served to remind the audience that even though Grieg didn’t persevere with large-scale orchestral works (he did write a youthful symphony but acute self-criticism set it aside; in truth, the symphony often sounds meandering and lacking momentum), he wrote several fine sonatas.  This sonata is a major work and should be played more: in fact it was given an excellent performance by Jian Liu and Martin Riseley at Paekakariki earlier this year. And this excerpt was a splendid demonstration of its quality.

Shostakovich’s Tenth
The second half of the concert offered an exciting performance of one of Shostakovich’s finest symphonies. It was the first written after Stalin’s death, and unlike the Festive Overture, a subtle examination of the nature of the era that had just ended and of what might lie ahead.  I haven’t heard a live performance since the NZSO’s in 2009.

It opens with sombre accents that might not be immediately identifiable as Shostakovich, though not for long, as horns and other brass soon made clear, then clarinet and flute, distinctive though quiet. It’s a very long movement – about 20 minutes – and explores almost all the territory (though not the actual notes) that is explored more particularly in the other three movements.

The second movement began with the powerful aural as well as visual impact of the entire, near-60-strong string body bowing fiercely in perfect accord, biting hard along with side drum, with ferocious intensity and producing an overwhelming feeling of energy and determination: there are indeed moments (for me, most moments!) when the experience of live performance exceeds anything you can even dream of from a recording or a broadcast. Then there’s the strange, rather unexpected fade-out, though it employs the same material; then rising again to end abruptly. These unusual phenomena in a symphony one knows fairly well, never cease to surprise.

The third movement opens mysteriously, with an uneasy five-note theme, mainly strings, an utter contrast with the second movement. But soon, a solo horn toys with a pregnant idea, alternating with bassoon; gradually they come to another brass-heavy tutti passage comparable with the threatening sounds of the second movement. But soon it fades, uneasily, like the cessation of a violent rail storm.

In its opening minutes there’s no hint of a conventional last movement: dramatic, often optimistic, creating a world in which crises have been overcome. Instead, it’s uneasy until a hesitant solo clarinet leads to sudden gaiety – and Shostakovich’s gaiety is usually embellished with sarcasm or mockery and the listener (and the Soviet Composers Union) are left with the disturbing feeling that sounds from hard brass and side drums don’t perhaps mean what they say. Conductor and orchestra handled these murky, obscure feelings brilliantly, eventually seeming to draw from the score a genuine sense of hope, even perhaps, optimism, saying that the future might be better than the immediate past had been, with a climax that blazed with excitement.

It was an astonishingly powerful and committed performance in which this newly emerged conductor, who’d spent most of his career as an orchestral player, showed how he could inspire and energise an orchestra in a quite thrilling manner.

Polished recital of Lieder by Clara Schumann and Brahms, and Robert’s Scenes of Childhood

Göknil Meryem Biner (soprano) and Tom McGrath (piano)

Robert Schumann: Kinderszenen, Op 15
Brahms: Ständchen, Wie Melodien; Meine Liebe ist grün
Clara Schumann: Am Strande; Sie liebten sich beide; Liebst du um Schönheit; Er ist gekommen; Ich stand in dunklen Träumen; Lorelei

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 11 July, 12:15 pm

I didn’t hear the recital in March 2017 by this couple from Dunedin, though my colleague Rosemary Collier reviewed it. It seems many years since I have heard them. They form an attractive duet and the music they choose is the kind that is not much performed these days: the song recital is a bit out of fashion and there is a deep-seated belief among the classical music impresarios: that classical song recitals don’t sell (and nor do piano recitals, though that myth seems to be evaporating).

McGrath was born in Wellington, studied music at Canterbury University and at the Richard-Strauss-Konservatorium in Munich; he teaches in the Otago University Music Department. Biner was born in Munich, Turkish descent, and also studied at the Munich conservatorium.

This song recital attracted a good audience, by St Andrew’s lunchtime standards.

It began with Robert Schumann’s piano pieces, Kinderszenen (Scenes of childhood). Contrary to the impressions of some, they are not all pieces easily played by children (though some are, like ‘Träumerei’), though they can be expected to sound interesting to children (as well as adults, of course). McGrath’s playing was full of fun (‘Hasche-Mann’), colour and warmth (‘Glückes genug’), though one has heard performances in which the different moods and scenes are created with greater individuality. But as a unregenerate Schumann devotee, there was nothing I didn’t enjoy.

The notes in the programme described the relationship between the Schumanns and their protégé, Johannes Brahms, 23 years younger than Robert, 14 years younger than Clara. Both had a profound influence on the young Brahms’s development. So Biner chose three of Brahms’s songs: first the familiar Ständchen (Serenade) which took her voice quite high with an almost shimmering effect. And Wie Melodien zieht es mir and Meine Liebe ist grün; songs not so familiar depend on the performer’s commitment and ability to carry the listener away, and the combination of the expressive voice and the imaginative piano that Brahms always brings to his songs invested them with warmth and pleasure.

So no great aural readjustment was needed to enjoy the rest of the recital, devoted to the neglected songs of Clara Schumann (though one doesn’t need to dig very deep into the resources of the Internet to find that there are reputable recordings of them). First of all, I expected to hear interesting piano parts and my hopes were met; she was one of the finest pianists of the 19th century after all, and McGrath handled her sophisticated piano writing comfortably. It is interesting to note that, in contrast with Brahms’s songs – there are large numbers to folk poetry and poems by secondary poets – Clara, like Robert, chose poems by well-known poets. The first a German translation of Burns’s On the Shore, to a setting that captured the turbulent high seas, where the piano indeed almost made the chief contribution. No hint of Scotland; it was in a purely German Lieder idiom, and as imaginative a setting as many of the less known of Brahms.

She sang settings of three poems from Heine’s early collection Die Heimkehr. The first Sie liebten sich beide (They loved one another), the music expressing easily the painfully hesitant lines; and Ich stand in dunklen Träumen, the music avoiding excessive grief, though the words certainly invite it. And they ended with Clara’s setting of about the most popular poem in the German language – the famous  Lorelei – Ich Weiss nicht was sol les bedeuten.

It’s not easy to get the indelible music for Lorelei by Friedrich Silcher out of one’s head of course, but Clara’s setting is very evocative; it creates an unease, and employs throbbing  bass notes in the piano, a little reminiscent of Schubert’s Erlkönig. The three Heine poems invited over-ripe expressions of grief but her settings went just far enough without exceeding the degree of restraint that is essential to good art.

The other two poems were by the hugely prolific poet, Friedrich Rückert: Liebst du um Schönheit and Er ist gekommen. The first struck me as an interesting and wise poem and the music captured its sane, comforting feeling. The second touched me with its flowing melody and the idiomatic, fluent piano accompaniment. Musical settings of Rückert poems are only exceeded by those of Goethe and Heine: Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder are among the most famous; there’s also his five Rückertlieder, but you will find dozens of his poems set by Schubert, Schumann and many others.

Perhaps I go on a bit about musical settings of German poets; it’s because of the very rich yet unpretentious treasury of German lyrical verse that attracted most of the great composers in the 19th century; a phenomenon that has no parallel in The English-speaking world where poetry that inspires musical setting is not nearly as plentiful, and where comparable composers simply did not exist.

Apart from the pleasure of hearing these two polished artists performing together in such a comfortable musical relationship, it offered a taste of the huge quantity of German Lieder that remains, for many otherwise well-informed music lovers, rather unknown.


Admirable exploration of challenging Purcell and gorgeous Fauré from Nota Bene

Nota Bene, the Chiesa Ensemble and Tom Chatterton (organ), directed by Peter Walls

Fauré: Requiem
Puccini: Requiem
Purcell: ‘O sing unto the Lord’; Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary; ‘Rejoice in the Lord Alway’

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Sunday 8 July, 3 pm

Looking back through Middle C’s archive, I was a little surprised to discover that Nota Bene was founded as far back as 2004; we have reviewed 18 of their concerts since our beginning in 2008. It was founded by Christine Argyle, and has been under the direction of several others since, including, quite often, Peter Walls.

Concerts are usually constructed round a theme, and the theme here was death and the celebration of death. Such a theme lends itself to a huge variety of approaches and differences of style dictated by history. The juxtaposition of funeral music by Purcell and that of Puccini and Fauré might have seemed eccentric; but that merely means that the rewards for finding and thinking up connections between disparate things are so much more intriguing. It might encourage making judgements too, and I think the second half, largely dominated by the Fauré Requiem, was the more successful.

It is hard to say whether one should be more admiring of performances of music that are delivered with ease, where all the circumstances come together happily, than of music that is intrinsically challenging, the idiom and style harder to come to terms with; is being tackled by voices few of which are professional, and perhaps in a space, the Catholic basilica, in which every little flaw, lack of balance and ensemble weakness can be heard.

It is hard to say whether one should be more admiring of performances of music that are delivered with ease, where all the circumstances come together happily, than of music that is intrinsically challenging, the idiom, technical demands and style harder to come to terms with.

Purcell: O Sing unto the Lord 
The latter environment affected the three anthems by Purcell. O Sing unto the Lord is described as a “relatively late work” – 1688: he was an elderly 29 years old! And it’s one of his literally hundreds of choral works; making Purcell’s achievement more comparable to Schubert’s or Mozart’s, also dead by age 35, than to any other composer.

Its elaborate orchestral introduction was most impressive, not perhaps as an exercise in authentic Baroque musical performance, but certainly for its beautiful warmth and period feeling, and sheer opulence, placing him clearly in a position equal to the finest Continental composers of his time.

I had intended to get to the pre-concert talk but a family matters intervened. My own reading of the usual sources (e.g. notes to a Hyperion recording) indicate that the prominent bass voice and the scoring for a large string orchestra suggest a special occasion. The same source remarks that “Although the writing is overtly celebratory, behind it is the deliciously wistful quality”, and this indeed was the character of the performance.

After a long and fairly elaborate orchestral prelude, the imposing, solo bass episode, sung by Daniel O’Connor, unusually rotund and well projected, was a striking start to the anthem proper. Then the body of the choir entered with ‘Alleluia’, in contrasting triple time. After another orchestral section, the choir created markedly distinct contrapuntal lines in their singing of the rest of the first verse. It is clearly hard to capture properly, in spite of the triplet rhythm one might have expected to carry it confidently along. A charming duet between soprano and alto, ‘The Lord is great’, created another atmosphere in this constantly varying music. And a more subdued choral dialogue followed in the next verse, ‘O worship the Lord’. The formal variety continued with alternating phrases between O’Connor and the body of the choir in the final section.

I’m sure that it’s easier to achieve a smooth, well integrated performance from a larger choir; and one might have wished that performance by a small choir, probably more like what was available to Purcell, would produce more refinement and sensitive shading of articulation and harmonies; a big challenge that wasn’t quite met.

This rather overlong consideration has found its way into my description mainly on account of the remarkable fecundity and inventiveness of Purcell’s work. Nor did the following anthems present fewer hurdles or complexities to unravel.

Funeral Sentences for Queen Mary
Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary of 1695 (less than a year before his own funeral) was of course less ‘celebratory’; here again the challenges of this sophisticated music were audible, but the choir, sounding thin, faced with the task of creating a regal lament of high seriousness, really struggled.

My memory of first hearing this piece was at a concert maybe 20 years ago by a Victoria University choir, probably conducted by the then Professor Peter Walls in the Adam Concert Room, which impressed me, imprinting it in the memory; there, I may have been moved, uncritically, having no earlier performance to compare. Here I couldn’t help feeling the absence of a richer, more opulent ensemble, and that a rather larger choir was needed, or at least one that had been able to achieve more perfect ensemble through persistence and devotion, more rehearsal than an amateur choir can be expected to get. Perhaps it would have been better if the whole choir had sung certain passages for single voices.

However, here was the opportunity for the horns to shine and for the support of the organ to be heard, but I have to say that the long instrumental postlude cried out for the greater spiritual impact that sombre brass instruments might have provided. Nevertheless, there was sufficient musical power in this careful and faithful performance to be moved by the greatness of the music.

The third Purcell anthem, the well-known Bell Anthem, ‘Rejoice in the Lord Alway’, ended the first half. Such a different and obviously less deeply felt piece again employed solo voices quite extensively in the verse sections: Virginia Earle, Paddy Geddes and Shawn Condon; their contributions were agreeable and significant, even though a certain tentativeness again suggested inadequate rehearsal.

Two Requiems
It was interesting if not revelatory to hear Puccini’s truncated part of the Requiem – the opening section, Requiem aeternam, written in 1905 for the 4th anniversary of Verdi’s death. In a suitably pious tone, with organ joining the orchestral accompaniment, there were, naturally, distinctive traces of the operatic Puccini. The choir seemed better attuned to it than they had been to the Purcell works.

Then Fauré’s Requiem.  The rich opening chords from the orchestra presaged a performance that was faithful to Fauré’s original conception, and thoroughly suited the church’s acoustic (it was premiered in Fauré’s own church, the great Madeleine in the middle of Paris); it included the church’s main organ too, sustaining a prolonged pedal note in the Introit under the pianissimo full choir.  There was much to admire and genuinely to enjoy; consoling men’s voices singing the repeat of the words ‘Requiem aeternam’ were lovely. And the unaccompanied soprano moments in the following Kyrie touched the emotions.

The benefits of a fine orchestra were very clear in the opening of the Offertorium, and later, before the calming entry of sombre voices; and the tremulous solo from baritone Daniel O’Connor, with ‘Hostias’, followed by the reprise of the first passage’s choral writing, sung in exemplary ensemble, created a rich and satisfying statement.

In the magically spiritual Sanctus Anna van der Zee’s violin solo soared over particularly lovely high voices, momentarily disturbed by the dramatic men’s voices in the concluding ‘Hosanna in excelsis’, an episode that offered a very special emotional commentary.

The organ introduces the solo soprano (Daisy Venables) voice in the Pie Jesu, which was a particularly successful episode that in no way calls for larger forces than were available here.

Men, tenors only I think, sang the first section of the calm Agnus Dei, followed by the full choir repeating the first passage, gently becoming more intense.  One of the most arresting yet magical episodes, one that came off very well was the change of gear for the final lines, ‘Requiem aeternam’, switching back to the home key of D minor.

Baritone O’Connor enjoyed another lyrical solo episode opening the Libera me; and though we are told that Fauré avoided the punitive ‘Dies Irae’ which is intrinsic in the normal Requiem setting, a brief statement of it appeared, with horns at hand, in the latter stage of the Libera me.

And no matter how familiar the In paradisum has become, it too, with a more conspicuous organ accompaniment and the high soprano voices by themselves, worked its magic, certainly on me, and I’m sure on the entire audience.

While the Purcell pieces had presented certain difficulties, whatever challenges the Fauré offered were handled with the deepest sensitivity, quietude and conviction.