Recital from pianist and concertmaster at Orchestra Wellington’s Saturday concert

Christopher Park – piano (who was soloist in Bartok’s piano concerto No 1 with Orchestra Wellington at the concert in the MFC on 27 October, and Amalia Hall, the orchestra’s concert master
Mozart: Violin Sonata No 17 in C, K 296
Brahms: Violin Sonata No 1 in G, Op 78
Scharwenka: Suite for violin and piano, Op 99

St Andrews on The Terrace

Tuesday October 30, 12:30 pm

The audience at Orchestra Wellington’s Saturday concert in which Christopher Park played Bartok’s piano concerto No 1 was invited to this lunchtime concert, and came along in good numbers (though fewer than for Johannes Moser after the NZSO concert where he’d played Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto); he was joined by the orchestra’s concert master Amalia Hall, a friend, who was apparently instrumental in getting him to New Zealand to play the terrifying Bartok piece.

Mozart’s Violin Sonata No. 17 in C major, K. 296, is the first of his fifteen ‘mature’ sonatas; it was composed in 1778, aged 22, in Mannheim when Wolfgang and his mother were on their unhappy journey to Paris (his mother died there, and father Leopold never forgave Wolfgang for his carelessness). It must nevertheless by considered a ‘middle period’ work, since there were 16 earlier ones written in childhood and adolescence.

Few ordinary music lovers would have all of Mozart’s violin sonatas systematically embedded in their minds: there are as many as 36, including several incomplete ones, and the 16 composed in his childhood, which occupy most of the Köchel numbers below 30. This one was familiar to me but no more.

Initially, the piano dominated the violin somewhat, though given the fact that Mozart’s instrumental sonatas were published as for piano (or harpsichord) ‘accompanied by’ the other instrument, the violin’s inferior role in it was hardly conspicuous. Writing for both instruments was sparkling, offering opportunities for technical display and exuberance, with many decorative, flamboyant arpeggios. There’s a contrasting middle section, in contemplative minor key. It was marked by striking originality and character.

The second movement, Andante sostenuto, opens with a rather routine first theme, but continued with a warm, more flowing second melody. It’s probably unfamiliarity with the work that left me with the feeling that the last movement, a Rondeau, was not especially memorable, rather suggesting the tone of Boccherini, though a march-like middle section created a well-balanced composition. In all, the performance by both players captured its characteristics and its distinctly Mozartian virtues with great accomplishment.

Brahms’s first violin sonata was obviously a far more mature work, with emotional and musical qualities to which the two players gave conspicuous attention. Amalia’s playing delighted in the swaying rhythm in the first movement, as well as in the subtle dynamic changes that accompanied the variations of tempo, all encompassed by the instruction Vivace ma non troppo.(mainly ‘non troppo’). Even though the Mozart sonata had singular strengths, given the composer’s age at the time, the elaborateness of Brahms’s composition and the stylistic variety dramatized the way music had evolved in the hundred years (exactly) between the two works. In the Brahms there’s a feeling of sobriety, compositional sophistication and depth that characterised the late Romantic period; it was an interesting case study in the evolution of music. These thoughts were highlighted by the polish and conviction of the playing.

A singular seriousness of purpose colours the second movement and the pair captured its meditative beauty, especially in their handling of the lovely second theme, given richness and warmth with double stopping by the violin and complementary treatment on the piano part.

The last movement is no bold heroic finale, just Allegro molto moderato, emphasis on the ‘Moderato’. was again the opportunity to be touched by her ability to sustain long melodic lines filled with genuine emotion.

Philipp Scharwenka 
The totally unfamiliar piece in the recital was a Suite by Philipp Scharwenka. I had assumed that this was the composer whose name cropped up in old piano albums – the composer of a popular, outwardly impressive Polish Dance, not really all that difficult. But the pianist told me that the latter was by Xaver Scharwenka, the younger brother of the composer of today’s Suite. The two bothers attract similar space in most musical reference books.

Philipp was born in 1847, in the then-Prussian-occupied Poland – the Grand Duchy of Posen (now Poznan). Perhaps they both help fill that empty space in the chronology of German/Austrian composers between Brahms and Mahler, thinly inhabited by Bruch, Humperdinck and ???… – The surname as well as his birth and early life in Polish-majority territory, suggests, like his contemporary Moritz Moszkowski, possible Polish family origins but I find no mention of that.

The four-movement Suite suggested Brahmsian influences (though that would have been almost impossible to avoid in late 19th century Germany, unless a Wagner/Liszt acolyte). Though he avoids the word ‘sonata’ its shape and scale might have invited that description. The first movement, Toccata, passes through an interesting sequence of musical ideas and treatments, often agitated, which suggest a more genuine imagination than a marginally gifted composer might produce, with its several shifts of tempo and mood, a feeling of substance and creative talent. And the performance by the two excellent musicians demanded serious attention, persuading one that a second hearing might bring increased admiration and even pleasure.

The other movements are Ballade, Intermezzo and Recitativ und Tarantella. The Ballade was slower and more contemplative, with touches of attractive melody that even became implanted. The scherzo-like third movement changed the tone again, with a fast cross-string work-out for the violin, leaving a very lively impression that could well have suggested earlier origins, Schumann or even Schubert. And the last movement, after a tentative sort of opening – the Recitative, continued in a comparable, energetic vein, calming for a moment, but soon plunging again into the rapids; it then picked up folk-dance rhythms that became distinctly challenging, especially for the violin, though both instruments were treated to music of very similar interest and demands.

Though I had had no idea what to expect from this piece by a composer unknown to me, well before the end and thanks to a splendidly committed and accomplished performance, I had concluded that this was a most interesting piece and that one should explore more of Philipp Scharwenka’s music.

So this recital of over an hour’s length offered interesting discoveries, performed with great flair and accomplishment.

Great performances of unfamiliar Bartók and major Dvořák introduced by young geniuses

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei with Christopher Park (piano); joined by Arohanui Strings (Sistema, Hutt Valley), led by Alison Eldredge

Simon Eastwood: Infinity Mirror, for Arohanui Strings
Smetana: The Moldau (Vltava from Ma Vlast)
Bartók: Piano concerto No 1
Dvořák: Symphony No 8 in G Op 88

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 27 October, 7:30 pm

Each year, one of Orchestra Wellington’s concerts is embellished by a contribution from Arohnui Strings, the Sistema-inspired children’s orchestra based in the Hutt Valley. They took their places at the beginning of the concert in the place of most of the regular strings of Orchestra Wellington, interspersed by a few of the professionals to lend some body to the sound. The nerves and excitement of the young players infected the audience too as they opened the concert, under conductor Marc Taddei, with Simon Eastwood’s Infinity Mirror, commissioned for them by SOUNZ (Centre for New Zealand music). The string elements were sympathetically scored for the young players while there was supporting music from marimba, xylophone and timpani, creating a happy ensemble.  It was followed by Dvořák’s Humoresque (which is actually No 7 of his eight Humoresques, Op 101), and the young string players clearly relished the chance to play an actual classic of the repertoire.

That was followed by Alison Eldredge leading a dozen or more very young musicians across the front of the stage to play the famous last section of the William Tell Overture, plus a Maori item. All of which occupied about half an hour. As a result the concert lasted till about 10 pm.

Denis Adam
In his opening words, Marc Taddei spoke about the death last week of the man who has for several decades been one of New Zealand’s most important benefactor of the arts: Denis Adam; and he dedicated the performance of the Dvořák symphony to his memory. There have been obituaries in the press and references from all those indebted to his Foundation’s generosity, acknowledging his wide-ranging philanthropy. Middle C must add its name to those by recalling that the Adam Foundation was the leading financial supporter of Middle C when it began in 2008, to enable a website to be created and for the reviews to be collected and printed.

At a more personal level, the Adam Foundation gave funding to support a concert series that I had undertaken: two series of lunchtime concerts, in 2000 and 2002, during the New Zealand International Arts Festivals. It will be recalled that daily lunchtime concerts were an important part of the early festivals, from 1986 to 1998. When the festival in 2000 dropped these popular concerts that gave prominence to New Zealand musicians, I decided to tackle the job, along with my wife, Jeanette. We were very lucky to find a talented manager and planner in Charlotte Wilson (now a RNZ Concert presenter), who in the space of about three months did most of the organising and negotiating with fifteen groups of musicians.

The series was very successful, and a surplus was carried over for another series in 2002. It too ended with a modest surplus which has been used to support classical musical enterprises since then.

The grown-up musicians then took over, with a piece that was my first love as a nine-year-old, hearing it played in the then ‘Broadcasts to Schools’ which had the important effect of implanting classical music sounds, permanently, in unprejudiced, receptive minds: Smetana’s Moldau, the German name of the river which later became known by its proper Czech name, Vltava. The performance captured the moods of the river as it passed through Bohemia’s countryside and towns, but it struck me that it hadn’t had quite the studied attention that either the Bartók or the Dvořák music demonstrated next.

In most ears Bartók’s music can sound more alien and unapproachable than that of any other Balkan/Central European composers (it had not been that way with Liszt whose music has come to be denigrated as not truly ‘Hungarian’). Interestingly, while other composers used the indigenous music of their country in a recognisable framework for listeners in western Europe, Bartók took the more challenging route, sacrificing easy popularity by treating the Magyar music of his country in ways he felt were faithful to its non-Western character.

His first piano concerto was not a work of impetuous, iconoclastic youth as Prokofiev did; Bartók was 45 when he wrote his first concerto (and you might feel that he should have been over his impulse to shock and upset; many great composers were dead by that age!). However, it is a useful weapon in the armory of an adventurous young pianist like Christopher Park; in his hands it was utterly committed: brilliant, fearsome and astonishingly idiomatic.

For the orchestra and conductor, however, the challenge would have been of a very different order; because of its technical and interpretation difficulties it’s rarely performed. Geoffrey Norris, in a Gramophone article a couple of years ago speculated about its treatment:

“Are the concertos rarely performed because they are not popular, or are they not popular because they are seldom performed? In a pragmatic sense, the comparative sparsity of performances could well be explained by finance or, at least, by the demands of orchestral schedules. Particularly in this straitened age when rehearsal costs have to be ruthlessly budgeted, the hours needed to get the First Concerto up to scratch could be punitive. Even present-day British orchestras, acknowledged for their swift, reliable sight-reading, have been known to find a first run-through of the First Concerto troublesome. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is said to be a doddle by comparison.”

In the light of that view of the concerto’s (he’s speaking, mainly, of the first two) difficulties, here we had a part-time orchestra with very constrained rehearsal time, tackling it.

Piano Concerto 1: 1st movement   
While it opens with chilling ferocity, reminiscent of parts of The Rite of Spring, that is not the prevailing character of the piece, for after the hard-hitting piano and timpani and the fierce response from brass, convention is acknowledged with sombre bassoons, bass clarinet, and strings in staccato melodic snatches that offer sign posts that are not hard to recognise when they reappear.

Bassoons soon supply an almost conventional tune and later, they offer a hesitating, rising motif all of which contribute to a structure whose parts become recognisable, almost old friends later on.

I’m tempted to say that the piano has the hardest time of it, but then Christopher Park had had an intensive relationship with it for much longer than the orchestra. He had become its master, hitting all the right keys at the right time, as well as capturing its radically non-western idiom as if he’d lived with it from childhood. For Marc Taddei and the orchestra, in spite of the limited time (equals ‘funding’) available, the music’s alien character seemed of little consequence; almost masking its extraordinary success in keeping pace and meeting the technical difficulties. Each time I was tempted to think a passage wasn’t too challenging, I would be struck by another fearsome orchestral flare-up that demonstrated both Taddei’s impressive grasp of the entire work and our orchestra’s real acumen.

Though I’ve listened to recordings of the concerto, this was my first live hearing and the impact of the real thing was a revelation: the orchestration, the careful, studied employment of particular instruments, to far greater purpose and deliberateness than in much 20th century music.

At the start of the 2nd movement, a discreet side drum presages the piano and one by one, timpani, snare drum, cymbal; then very specific percussion; after a couple of minutes, a lone oboe then a clarinet, flute, bass clarinet, cor anglais, but no strings at all. Though not a conventionally contemplative movement, these sounds stayed with me in the most haunting way. But it was of course Christopher Park’s piano that perpetuated the sense of astonishment, for his feat of memory to start with, for his technical panache and profound intellectual grasp of Bartók’s musical idiom and intent.

An entirely new energy emerges as the 3rd movement, launched by various drums, muted trombones, then the piano; again, always in the limelight, commanding wonderment. The orchestration is always precise, deliberate, and this imposes special demands on players, as more general, indiscriminate scoring can conceal smudges; I won’t say there were none but the energy and tempo were of far greater importance and a matter of both astonishment and delight.

Applause was enthusiastic, and Park played an encore, from an utterly different planet: the 20-year-old Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor (Lento con gran espressione), Opus Posthumus.

Dvořák: the Eighth
The common ground for this year’s series, the last five of Dvořák’s symphonies: No 8 followed after the interval. That distance was vital to settle the head and emotions after the extraordinary impact of the Bartók. No 8 is in the sanguine key of G, not subject to painful soul-searching or grieving. The opening, after the calm introductory cellos, then trombones, released its alternating tuttis and folk-tune like themes in a delightful way. Here was a focused energy, that was perhaps a bit lacking in Vltava; the brass was vivid with precision and clarity, and the strings, perhaps not at quite the strength that a Dvořák symphony demands, were splendidly secure.

But their playing of the lovely woodwind-led second movement, Adagio, was both dynamic and poetic; I always especially loved the slow descending scales on strings with a pensive oboe; the long, near-silences that mark the movement seemed exactly in tune with the composer’s spirit; and there are disturbed moments, of unease, atmospheric horns, throbbing strings. It’s a movement rich in changing emotions: for me the Adagio is the very centre of the work; until, that is, we reach the striking and moving parts of each of the other movements.

As so often with third movements, even one as charming, a sort of waltz, as this, its first phase opens peacefully, followed by the more pensive, though equally beautiful second part – a sort of ‘Trio’ to a traditional Scherzo. Every movement has its striking contrasts between unsullied delight and long moments of uncertainty, regret; and all these phases were clearly and vividly created in a great performance. So the last movement, after its brilliant trumpet fanfare drops to a slow, stately episode with the orchestra’s cellos biting into their rising arpeggios; but suddenly bursting with brio as the whole orchestra creates its own driving version of that arpeggio. The last movement is full of variety, yet with just the right amount of repetition and reflection, with a limpid clarinet handling it wistfully as the end approached.

If I have suggested that earlier parts of the symphony held the greatest intellectual and emotional interest for me, hearing the work live in the hands of Taddei (without score before him) and the orchestra, after many years without the opportunity, bringing it to a heart-warming conclusion through its disparate last movement, renewed my understanding of the wonderfully inventive and universal character of the Eighth Symphony.

Exuberance and poetry from pianist and conductor Lars Vogt with the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

BEETHOVEN – Overture “The Creatures of Prometheus) Op.43
MOZART – Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K.467
WEBERN (orch. Gerard Schwarz) Langsamer Satz
MOZART – Symphony No. 36 in C “Linz”

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 26th October, 2018

Review for “Upbeat” RNZ Concert (with David Morriss)
Monday 29th October 2018

There’s always great interest whenever somebody decides to take on the dual role of soloist and conductor in the performance of music – we had Freddy Kempf here with the NZSO a few years ago playing the entire cycle of Beethoven Piano Concertos, for example, which, from all accounts , was a great success. And now, with even more historical precedent in the case of Mozart’s Piano Concertos, here was Lars Vogt demonstrating his skills in that respect with one of the most famous of all Mozart’s concertos, popularly known as the “Elvira Madigan” concerto, due to its use in a 1970s Swedish film of the same name. How did his playing and conducting of the concerto come across for you?

He is obviously a brilliant pianist and, on this showing, a talented and exciting conductor. In fact I found more interest in what the orchestra was doing under his direction than I did with what he was doing at the keyboard – his playing was predictably brilliant, but at times I thought the passage-work became a bit mechanical – he would ever-so-slightly race the figurations faster than I wanted them to go, giving the music in places a “machine-like” quality, I wanted him to “savour” the music more, and allow it a bit more light and shade.

Of course other people will have “heard” the music somewhat differently – simply where one is sitting in the hall makes a tremendous difference to how one “hears” the music, and the microphones placed over the top of the orchestra will pick up a different kind of “quality of sound with anything we play to that which I heard on Friday evening. I thought, for instance, that from where I was sitting the violins seemed to be dominated by, even sound underpowered next to the wind and brass instruments in tutti – but others could well feel different, depending on where they were sitting. Music, as we know, evokes very subjective responses, and it would be a very boring world if we as listeners all felt the same way about everything we heard.

The slow movement we’ve just heard part of had a silken, light-as-a-feather quality throughout, but with plenty of variety in the exchange of phrasings between piano and orchestra. The only thing was that, at this tempo it was all over so quickly! – It came across as more divertimento-like than as a serenade, beautifully done though it was.

All-in-all, do you think he was able to successfully combine the functions of both soloist and conductor in this performance? We know that Mozart did this – conduct his own concertos from the keyboard – and most successfully, by all counts. 

I find myself wondering whether these people who direct from the keyboard need to be so demonstrative in their direction of the players. I was speaking to someone from the orchestra who had played in the Freddy Kempf performances of the Beethoven concerti shortly after, and I remember this person saying that they wished Kempf had simply sat still and directed the players from the keyboard and not jumped up and down from his seat all the time. I imagine it varies from musician to musician what they feel is necessary to do to achieve control when conducting, but I still found it distracting, as I did Kempff’s movements.

I wondered whether there was an element of anxiety in Vogt’s playing, wanting to get to the next orchestral entry to bring the players in, or trying to keep an “edge” to the overall performance. The playing in the slow movement we’ve just heard was lovely – but for me, the finale was the most successful movement, because it had an overall “bubbling exuberance” spirit from everybody that was extremely well-captured, as was a slightly more wistful sequence in the music’s alternate minor-key sequence from the opening

Also in the concert there was a real rarity – an early work by Anton Webern which I’m sure most people on hearing would never associate with the actual composer! Rather like a piece of early Schoenberg, do you think?

This was Webern’s single-movement work “Langsamer Satz”, which I thought was a beautiful piece! I found myself thinking, “How could this have been written by Webern?” – because it was so romantic-sounding, which is the antithesis of what most of the music by Webern I’ve heard sounds like! I thought this piece had the makings of some kind of modern classic, like Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht, or Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

Of course Webern’s original, written in 1905, was for string quartet (Webern himself never heard the work, incidentally). It was the only movement he completed of a planned string quartet, and was lost for well-nigh 60 years.  After being rediscovered and played, the piece came to the attention of American conductor and composer Gerard Schwarz, who thought it would sound more effective if transcribed for string orchestra, with a bass part added. This was done and first performed in 1982.

Concluding the concert was Mozart’s “Linz Symphony  – one of a trio of Symphonies named after cities the work had a particular association with – the “Paris”, the “Linz” and the “Prague”. Mozart was supposed to have composed this work in four days – does it sound like a “rush job to you?

Not even slightly – of course Mozart was renowned for his ability to put things together inside his head before they’d even been committed to paper – and this symphony seems as though it almost “wrote itself” in that respect – he must have been truly inspired by his surroundings or put in a frame of mind that gave his imagination full reign, because the work has a wonderful “spontaneous” quality right throughout. The only detail in the playing I found difficulty in “placing” in an overall sense was the conductor’s somewhat abrupt way with the opening chords, before the music relaxed in the quieter sections which followed. I found it hard to marry the two sections together, because the music has always seemed to me to continue in the same rhythmic vein, albeit muscular and arresting at the beginning and suspenseful and charged in the subsequent passages. I thought it could have all been done in one tempo. Apart from this, I thought the overall conception of the movement beautifully brought out the music’s different characters in a flowing and unified way.

The name “Linz” (after the city of Linz) suggests something with a certain “public ” character, as if drawing attention to the characteristics of a city as a whole, something, of course representative of a great number of people, something easily identifiable with a place’s particular set of characteristics.

Yes, you’re right – it seems to be a very “public” statement, doesn’t it, especially compared with other symphonic works like the two G Minor symphonies. The very opening is a “call to attention”, with a kind of rumbustiousness that follows, driving the music forward, the second movement is dance-like rather than ruminative and deep, and the third movement – well, the third movement is an out-and-out invitation for people to kick off their shoes and join in the Minuet. It was so infectiously played, here, that in the trio section, one could almost imagine the dancers’ impatience to get back to the dance when the Minuet finally returned!

There used to be a famous rehearsal recording of this symphony available, one conducted by the great Bruno Walter in the 1950s – 1955 I think….. It illustrates how much Mozart interpretation has changed over the years, as you can hear if you own Walter, Klemperer or Karl Bohm recordings of these works – and yet Mozart remains the same spirit in the hands of each conductor.

I was sitting close to John Button, the DomPost critic, and asked him at halftime whether he remembered the Walter rehearsal recording – he immediately said, “Yes, especially Mr Bloom, the oboe player!” Walter talks a lot with “Mr Bloom”, the oboist in the orchestra, whose name was hereby captured for all time on these records! I believe this recording was from 1955, which is pretty old, now – and yet the chance to hear a famous conductor painstakingly rehearse a work that he knows and loves is one I wouldn’t think anybody interested in music and music interpretation would want to miss.

What would you say unites those different styles of playing so that you could say – yes, it still sounds like Mozart? What did you hear on Friday evening that bore a relationship to those older performances we know?

Well, after the somewhat abrupt start, with those assertive, swiftly-played chords I’ve already mentioned, I thought the playing and conducting brought out a sense of “line” that I hear on those older recordings – and that was what I think gave Lars Vogt’s conducting of the symphony such overall strength. It was a consistency – a kind of “connective tissue” – which I felt was made up of things such as the feeling of the players being encouraged to “own” their musical phrases, so that this sense of “caring” about the music was constantly being presented to us  – that’s what I mean by “line” not everything played legato, or anything like that, but, as I’ve said, a consistency.

The other prevailing sense for me was Vogt’s bringing out the music’s character – and I felt this was better, more strongly achieved in the symphony than in the concerto because the conductor was free to conduct and “focus” the music’s on-going consistencies, generating a truly infectious exuberance and not just note-spinning, which I thought parts of the concerto weren’t entirely free from. Again, there are parallels with an older style of music-making, the best of the modern performances just as concerned with the music’s overall feeling as with some kind of so-called “authentic” way of playing it. This came to full fruition, I think, in the symphony’s finale, which seemed to engage every player and bring out the music’s essential joyfulness.


“Hammers and Horsehair” (joined with birdsong) enchant an Aro St audience in Wellington


Romantic Music from Bohemia, Austria and Germany

JAN KALIVODA – Three Songs for voice, ‘cello and piano
Der Schöne Stern (The Beautiful Star)
Die Abendglocken (The Evening Bells)
Der Wanderer (The Wanderer)

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – Sonata in A Major for ‘Cello and Piano Op.69

ROBERT SCHUMANN – Kinderscenen (Scenes from Childhood) for solo piano Op.15

FRANZ SCHUBERT – Two Songs for voice and piano
Suleika 1
Im Haine (In the Wood)

Song for voice, ‘cello and piano (originally for voice, clarinet and piano)
Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock)

Rowena Simpson (soprano)
Robert Ibell (‘cello)
Douglas Mews (square piano)

Aro Valley Community Centre Hall,
Aro St., Wellington

Thursday, 25th October 2018

We sat amid soft lighting on comfortable, homely furniture, talking softly with our fellow audience-members while listening to pianist Douglas Mews “tuning up” his square piano and then “playing us in” with music that I for one didn’t know – it actually sounded, appropriately enough, like a kind of improvisation, perfect for warming up player, instrument and our increasingly attentive ears, until all was ready. ‘Cellist Robert Ibell having by then “tuned up” his own instrument, it was time for soprano Rowena Simpson to welcome us to the concert on behalf of all three musicians.

I had previously heard singer and pianist performing together (also in the Aro Valley, as it happened!) as long ago as 2013  in a most entertaining soiree-like presentation entitled “Lines from the Nile”, an evocative, if fanciful slice of local music performance history, cleverly devised and written by Jacqueline Coats. If there were fewer opportunities this time round for Rowena Simpson to demonstrate histrionic as well as vocal and musical abilities, the repertoire itself plus the singer’s glorious song-bird-like tones made up for any possible lessening of overall effect upon the concert’s audience.

More recently, I’d encountered the “Hammers and Horsehair” combination of Douglas Mews and ‘cellist Robert Ibell, in a splendid 2016 concert at St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, playing repertoire from a similar period to this evening’s, though with no actual repetition of repertoire. I commented then on the “rightness” of their use of period instruments for this music, and was delighted all over again this evening at the musicians’ continued ability to make their beautiful instruments speak with what sounded to my ears like voices “belonging” to this music. Modern instruments can, of course, “do it” as well, if the interpreter is sensitive and visionary enough, but here we had performers and their instruments sounding so integrated as to take themselves right into the various worlds of the pieces played – an extraordinary fusion of sensibilities.

The musicians presented occasional readings which linked the music performed to either its era, or to its mood, or sometimes to the contributions made to New Zealand’s musical life by various German speaking musicians.  However, we began the concert with three songs by Czech-born composer Jan Kalivoda (sometimes spelt as “Kalliwoda”) who lived from 1801 to 1866 – the  German texts of the songs were translated and the words reproduced in the concert’s written programme, enabling us to savour all the more the pure, bell-like tones and exquisitely-floated phrases brought to the music by Rowena Simpson’s lovely soprano voice.

The beautifully-tailored accompaniments gently brought out the flowing triplet rhythms of the first song “Der Schöne Stern” (The Beautiful Star), making the perfect “sound-cushion” for the voice’s solicitous expressions of hope and comfort to a fearful, despairing heart. The following “Die Abendglocken” began with a beautifully-voiced ‘cello solo, the arco phrasings demurely turning to pizzicato when accompanying the voice, both ‘cellist and pianist complementing the soprano’s rapt exploration of the song’s varieties, in places hushed and atmospheric, in others radiant and full-throated. Finally, a brisk ¾ rhythm brought in “Der Wanderer”, the music enthusiastic and urgent as the singer waxed lyrical about “strange lands where unfamiliar stars shine in the heavens”, Robert Ibell’s cello-playing giving weight and colour to the surge of rollicking energy at the music’s end.

Beethoven’s ‘Cello Sonatas were the first written for that instrument which gave it proper “soloist” status. Rowena Simpson told us that the manuscript of this particular work was headed “Amid tears and sorrow” (Inter Lacrimas et Luctum), though the impression given by the work itself doesn’t really accord with such sentiments, possibly prompted by the composer’s thwarted interest in one Therese Malfatti, who eventually married one of the composer’s aristocratic patrons, Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein, an amateur ‘cellist and the dedicatee of this sonata.

Simpson then told us briefly about Maria Dronke, a German-born Jew who came to New Zealand with her husband John and their two children in 1939 to escape Nazi persecution. Maria, who had been a well-known actress in Berlin, began teaching drama and voice production in Wellington, while John, a Judge whose legal training was not “recognised” in New Zealand, worked in menial jobs until he was able to secure a position as a double-bass player in the National Orchestra. Maria eventually became well-known as a play producer, drama and poetry recitalist and teacher, and included New Zealand poetry in her recitals – she helped lift the levels of acting and production of local theatrical ventures, as well as enlivening the cultural and social climate with her presence. According to Edith Campion, a former pupil, she was “volatile, brimful of temperament and never tepid….” She died in Lower Hutt in August 1987.

The Beethoven Sonata seemed the perfect “rejoiner” to the tale, the music’s personality as distinctive as that of the subject of Simpson’s brief anecdote. From the cello’s questioning opening phrase and the piano’s “raised eyebrows” reply, the music played with our sensibilities through minor-key agitations, and succeeding phrases whose ascents seem never-ending, everything capturing the composer’s whimsical fancies and cast-iron sense of overall direction, so that the music’s “character” sang out with all of its volatilities and overall purposes given their due. The jovial scherzo’s skipping energies were brought out with both tremendous fire and playful humour, right up to the movement’s unexpectedly throwaway ending.

I thought the brief but heartfelt slow movement demonstrated the players’ melting rapport, the phrases and colourings beautifully varied, making the most of the sequence’s interlude-like brevity, before the finale scampered in from out of nowhere, the irruptions of energy resulting in the occasional finger-slip or strained intonation, but more importantly adding to the fun and excitement of the music, the players challenging our capacities (and their own capabilities) to keep up with the rapid-fire figurations and their variants. I was astonished at the sheer transcendence of sound generated by these instruments via their own particular timbral and tonal qualities, a tribute to the skill of the players in making their instruments “speak” with such overall impact and specific focus on detail, and to their bravery in taking “risks” in aid of getting the music’s spirit across to us.

The instrument Douglas Mews was using had its own colourful history which I fancy I had heard something of at a previous concert, if it was, indeed the same instrument, one brought to New Zealand from the Shetland Islands in 1874. The next item on the programme certainly showed off the instrument’s characteristics in a way appropriate to the music, its capacity for expressing both intimate and assertive feeling, and its characteristic colourings in different registers and with contrasting dynamic levels – a “way more” volatile instrument than the average grand piano! It seemed perfectly suited to convey the worlds within worlds aspects of Robert Schumann’s exquisite pieces collectively known as “Kinderscenen”, all but two of its thirteen pieces performed by Mews for us.

A reading of Katherine Mansfield’s poem “Butterfly” set the scene for the music – sequences of deceptive simplicity containing as much reflection as movement, but just as liable to “irrupt” in forthright ways as each succeeding “picture” was brought into view. Though the most popular of the set of pieces, “Traumerei” (Dreaming) here made an unforgettable impression under Mews’s fingers, played with song-like expression, giving each note its own distinctive, but still organic, inflection. The middle section conveyed moments of urgency, with impulses momentarily creating micro-tensions that dissolved as simply as they were wrought, the whole then rounded with a lump-in-throat ascent that caught us in thrall for the briefest of moments before allowing the dream to drift away.

The “Knight of the Rocking-Horse” which immediately followed came as a bit of a shock, as the usual “At the Fireside” ( which Mews chose to omit) is a somewhat gentler “waking up”! After this tempestuous number, and the volatile “Frightening”, we were reclaimed by gentler forces and gradually becalmed, the concluding “The Poet Speaks” here properly eloquent and reassuring in Mews’ hands, and altogether part of a memorable musical journey.

Rowena Simpson then read for us a couple of extracts from a diary kept by Anna Dierks (b.1856), the daughter of a Lutheran pastor who married a missionary in Upper Moutere, later living in Waitotara and then Wooodville. She was obviously musical and when in Nelson was distressed at the lack of quality in her local church choir – an 1875 entry mentions “terrible singing”. She had obviously decided she would attempt to rectify the situation, but it wasn’t an easy task, as an entry a couple of years later (1877) indicates, re choir practice – “It is not easy to lead such a choir – but the Lord will give me strength!”.

Singing of an obviously different order from Simpson concluded the evening’s programme, three of Schubert’s numerous songs, the first, Suleika I, with a text written by Marianne von Willemer, a contemporary and friend of Goethe’s, whose poetry was actually published by the latter under his own name. Willemer and Goethe had had a kind of literary “relationship”, taking pseudonyms and trading poems under the names of “Suleika” and “Hatem”. It all made for a particularly potent amalgam of impulses, a “gift” for a composer to render as music!

The opening of the song recalled the composer’s earlier setting of the same poet’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade” in its agitations, adroitly modulating between major and minor as the singer poured out the music’s intensities, Simpson carrying the feeling of the words so beautifully, doing well with the stratospheric intensities of the vocal line. These highly-charged feelings subsided into  a touching concluding sequence, conveying “the heart’s true message”, drawing forth tender phrasings from the singer and pulsing chords from the pianist, leaving the “infinite longing” of the setting to ceaselessly echo in the silence.

The second song was “In the Woods” (Im Haime), a song the programme notes described as “a bitter-sweet Viennese waltz-melody. I thought the performance most successful, with soaring vocal phrases supported by a beautifully-lilting accompaniment, and each verse of the song sounding like a true exultation of the forest’s capacities for inspiring feelings of well-being.

Before the final item ‘cellist Robert Ibell thanked the audience for “braving the elements” to attend the concert. Referring to the group’s recent twenty-concert tour of the country he recounted the experience of connecting here and there with certain people who had, in turn, a previous association with the instruments the musicians took on the tour. He also quoted from the writings of Julius Von Haast, geologist and explorer, who came to New Zealand from Germany in 1858 with a view to providing information regarding the country’s “suitability for German emigrants”, staying on in New Zealand and eventually becoming the first curator of the Canterbury Museum. Haast was a violinist and a singer, and his wife was also a singer, enabling them to take part in musical events in Christchurch, where they lived. Ibell quoted from Haast’s words – “geology during the day, and music in the evening” which the latter had written to a fellow-geologist, by way of imploring him to come and visit!

The final item was Schubert’s “The Shepherd on the Rock”, his resplendent setting of words by Wilhelm Muller and Karl August Vanhargen von Ense, a work that the programme note called something of “a mini-cantata” in its range and scope, written by the composer during the final months of his life for the soprano, Anna Milde-Hauptman. She wanted a display piece with an especially brilliant conclusion. Schubert never heard it performed as he died just weeks after the work’s completion. Notable also for its inclusion of a clarinet part, the work was here performed with the ‘cello taking over the former instrument’s role.

At first, to hear the ‘cello playing the lines one normally encountered on a clarinet sounded odd; but as the work proceeded I came to enjoy the contrasting timbres and tones, in the sense of a completely different kind of relationship, more of a “real” partnership than the original singer/clarinet echo scenario. Here the soprano’s delivery was radiant in every way, following the long, sinuous ‘cello lines throughout the opening, and awakening the “echo-impulses” from the music’s textures. It was the piano’s turn to shine during the melancholic middle section, with liquid, fluid tones, underlining the loneliness of the shepherd amidst the quiet and empty vistas, illuminated most beautifully by the soprano’s stratospheric ascent and the cello’s introduction of more hopeful impulses, taken up and flung further on high by the soprano’s bell-like exultations, here an exhilarating effect of joyful release, with caution tossed to the four winds! We all loved it to pieces!

We didn’t let the musicians go until we had extracted what we could out of them, so intense was our pleasure at what we had heard. In reward for our appreciation we were given as an encore some music by Louis Spohr, a charming duet between a girl and a bird, in which (so we were told) the bird sang of spring and the sun, and the girl sang of love! Singer and ‘cello both played their parts winningly, the trio enjoying the conventional but still effective ecstasies of the music, before concluding the piece with some delicate, exquisite-sounding phrases. It was music-making that gave rise to thoughts of how fortunate we all were to have witnessed and enjoyed it all.

A lunchtime concert for the exploratory and spirited on violin and cello

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts

Rupa Maitra (violin) and Margaret Guldborg (cello)

Pieces by Halvorsen, Bréval and Ravel

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 24 October, 12:15 pm

Duos between the piano and many other instruments are numerous, but between pairs of other instruments, without a keyboard, rare; though string quartets and less often string trios and quintets seem to be popular and work well.

This was an opportunity to put it to the test.

Halvorsen’s Passacaglia based on a theme from Handel’s harpsichord suite in G minor is not completely obscure. The tune lends itself to variations and Halvorsen made it into something of a virtuoso showpiece, though it’s rather more than that; and though this performance didn’t exploit its bravura character, it was played with imagination. While Handel’s fingerprints were evident in the character of the melody, the late 19th century, a Paganini/Sarasate spirit guides these variations. In some ways it was not a propitious opening piece as it drew attention to a contrast in tone, even in control of articulation, between the two instruments; the cello tone was rather more polished and mellow than the violin’s where the high register tended to be thin.

The Duo by Jean-Baptiste Bréval, cellist, and a close contemporary of Mozart, was found in a collection of Airs varies for violin and cello and produced a curious sound that probably reflected the very different musical climates between Italy/German lands and France. The variation character was not as conspicuous, wide-ranging as might be found in German music of the period; the composer called for a lot of harmonics as well as very high normal fingering on the cello, and Guldborg handled them comfortably. As might be expected from a cellist-composer, that instrument tended to be more conspicuous.

The major work in the recital was Ravel’s Sonata for violin and cello of 1922. I think most listeners, blindfold, would find it hard to identify the composer, other than through a process of elimination, and even then ‘Ravel’ might be deleted. Nor is identification easier because of its connection with Debussy’s death four years before.

Each of the four movements is emotionally and stylistically distinct.  The first movement, Allegro, calls for curious kinds of duetting, counterpointing, handling the two instruments, sometimes in happy accord, sometimes as if in different universes; lots of demanding playing high on the fingerboards of both instruments.

The second movement, Très vif, rhythmically a different creature from the Allegro, insistent, short motifs, but then a long, almost elegiac, passage from the violin, its pedigree still very obscure. In many ways it struck me as singularly avant-garde, not inconceivable in the immediate post-war years, post dodecaphonic, Schoenbergian era, yet essentially tonal.

The only quasi peaceful episode is the ‘Lent’ third movement. It’s thoughtful but even here there is nothing of a more familiar character that might shackle it to Ravel. Margaret Guldborg had spoken briefly about it, hinting at its possible kinship with Shostakovich (and the 2nd movement with Stravinsky), but neither helped. There were tortured, abrasive elements; and there were moments that I thought listeners with more open-minded ears than mine might have rated as melodic; and there were passages of dialogue between the two instruments that were arresting, though not in a language in which I am fluent.

The cello opened the last movement, Vif, actually, ‘Vif avec entrain’, (lively with enthusiasm), gruffly, in the cello’s low register, as was Maitra’s violin, which also revealed an adventurous spirit. I also enjoyed what I felt as a characteristically Ravellian, comedic element, notably in the rhythmic games played: in the way the two challenged each other. It is some years since I heard it played live, and again I was persuaded by its considerable musical value, though its beauties are probably not to be enjoyed without effort.

In this, the contrast in timbres and colour between the two instruments, to a certain disadvantage in the other two pieces, became a positive element in a piece that demanded attention to every detail. So it proved a lunchtime concert that challenged a little, as well as opening one’s mind to unfamiliar but worthwhile repertoire.


Polished viola student performances of Bach suites plus some unfamiliar music at St Andrew’s

St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

NZSM Viola Students: Zephyr Wills, Deborah King, Grant Baker; accompanied by Catherine Norton

Music by Schubert, Britten, Bach, Enescu, Kreisler and Walton

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 17 October, 12:15 pm

One rarely goes to a recital by students from Victoria University’s school of music (also known as the New Zealand School of Music and Te Koki), without being surprised to be exposed to interesting, often unfamiliar music played admirably by gifted players.

Zephyr Wills began with the first two movements of Schubert’s sonata for Arpeggione, the odd and short-lived hybrid guitar-cello (D 821). No one today plays the weird instrument for which Schubert was invited to compose (though you’ll find an example on a modern replica on YouTube), and it’s usually played on the cello (I wonder how it sounds on a guitar). So the viola struck me as a very engaging, persuasive choice, bridging the gap between cello and violin in a way that seemed to find the best of both worlds. Though I can’t claim to find it an especially beguiling piece of Schubert, Wills and Catherine Norton exploited its pleasant, melodic character charmingly, especially the second movement, Adagio, which was calm and played with particular sympathy.

He followed with Britten’s Elegy for solo viola, a youthful work, of 1929, when he was only 16, yet it illustrates Britten’s early readiness to explore some of the more radical tendencies of the early 20th century. Elegiac in tone, though the young composer can hardly have had much reason to adopt funereal demeanour. There were eloquent double-stopping dissonances, and evocative use of the mute, as a feeling of grief took hold. It drew attention to a very promising first-year student.

Deborah King played two pieces: the first, the Prelude from Bach’s second cello suite, in D minor. In the minor key, it is mildly sombre; she was careful in the formation of each note, excellent intonation, and the her confident bowing spoke of resilience and strength.

George Enescu is getting more and more exposure these days, and his music, while still with certain Romanian folk elements, sounds to me much more mainstream, of its early decades of the 20th century. This fairly early piece, Konzertstück  – he was 25 – seems to have been composed for the viola; and Deborah King created a pretty persuasive case for it, as it moved between sunny and passing overcast moods; each instrument presented it in perfectly idiomatic fashion. The piano played a distinctive, enquiring part, not a mere accompaniment, and later it seemed to aspire to the character of a concerto. In truth however, I didn’t feel driven  to hear it again.

Grant Baker played the Prelude from Bach’s 4th cello suite, in E flat, one of those that Johannes Moser played on Sunday afternoon in this same venue. Series of variegated arpeggios, drawing attention to the implicit, shifting harmonies. Though his playing’s persuasive praeludial style seemed to call pleadingly for the following allemande movement.

Baker followed with another solo piece, the Recitativo and Scherzo-Caprice which Kreisler wrote to play, himself; though it exists in a viola arrangement (not clear whether by Kreisler). The Recitativo creates a tone that seems unusual for Kreisler, with a good deal of mild dissonance through double-stopping and fluttering trills. But the Scherzo-Caprice is in striking contrast, the mood more arresting and optimistic than the emotionally dark Recitativo. Rhythms, intonation and general spirit sounded thoroughly authentic.

Perhaps the most significant music in the concert was the second and third movements, Vivo, con molto preciso and Allegro moderato,  of Walton’s viola concerto. Baker’s performance provided a very persuasive reminder of the stature of the work, distinctively of its period, though not following the style of most English music of the 1920s. So it was lively and interesting; and though the third movement seems to be rather too careful to avoid melody that might stick in the memory (a jotting during the performance remarked that ‘”melodic” might be to stretch the meaning of the word’). However, Baker played the decorative lyrical parts with aplomb, and I was happy to remain listening to the two players as the recital went 15 minutes over time.

It struck me that the Victoria University school of music may be the best place in the country for aspiring viola students, under the dedicated, sympathetic tutelage of New Zealand String Quartet violist, Gillian Ansell.


No better way of concluding a year’s worth of glorious music-making! Ensemble LTJJI at Hutt Valley Chamber Music’s final 2018 concert.

Hutt Valley Chamber Music presents Ensemble LTJJI

Vesa-Matti Leppänen and Andrew Thomson (violins)
Julia Joyce (viola) / Andrew Joyce (‘cello) / Diedre Irons (piano)

MOZART – Piano Concerto No.12 in A Major K.414
(arranged by Mozart for string quartet and piano)
DVOŘÁK – Piano Quintet in A Major Op.81

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Monday, 15th October

Undoubtedly a mouth-watering prospect on paper, this concert nevertheless had some surprises in store, almost entirely in the realm of the transcription of Mozart’s Piano Concerto K.414 for piano and string quartet, made by the composer himself to increase the music’s likelihood of being played in whatever form.  He obviously had very little faith in the extent of his audiences’ musical sensibilities, describing in a letter of December 1782 to his father the difficulties of pleasing audiences of the time :  – “…in order to win applause one must write stuff which is so inane that a coachman could sing it, or so unintelligible that it pleases precisely because no reasonable man can understand it…”

In this same letter, quoted by the writer of this present concert’s excellent programme notes, Mozart talks about this work being one of a group of three concerti (K.413-415) “from which connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction”, but which those listeners less knowledgeable could still enjoy “without knowing why….”, a gentle sideswipe at the conservative Viennese tastes of the time. The original concerto was scored for oboes, horns and strings, though Mozart himself sanctioned the work’s performance without winds, and obviously went from there to recasting the work as a piano quintet.

Transcriptions of any work involving an orchestra for smaller forces are often revelatory, as anybody who’s familiar with Franz Liszt’s recasting of all the Beethoven symphonies for solo piano will know (and, frustrated with the limitations of a single keyboard when dealing with the “Choral” Symphony, Liszt reworked that particular transcription and produced an additional version –  for two pianos!). For some people such activities remain anathema – to entertain or consider anything but the original is regarded as a misguided effort, a corruption and even a betrayal! Others, including myself, prefer to think of transcriptions (skilled ones, of course!) as a kind of  “added value”, even when “reduced” forces are used!

Such people of the former persuasion ought to thank their lucky stars they weren’t born in the Baroque era! – there, (and afterwards for a good while) transcriptions abounded, as musicians lived and worked in a far less self-conscious and more pragmatic performing environment than today’s. In fact our era’s obsessiveness with “urtexts” is a relatively recent phenomenon, as witness the rise (and fall) of once-common performances of things like Hamilton Harty’s arrangements of both Handel’s “Music for the Royal Fireworks” and “Water Music” – what it means is that symphony orchestras don’t get to play this music in any form except the original version(s), any more – which they’re too big and wrongly constituted instrumentally to attempt without criticism – talk about cutting off noses to spite faces!

Back to Mozart, and to the performance of the “Quintet” version of the Piano Concerto in A Major K.414 – the missing wind parts were responsible, in the original version, primarily for “colour” rather than thematic content, and thus able to be practically dispensed with on that score, though to enjoy what one remembered of the music’s full flavour one had to have recourse to one’s imagination at times! Still, I found this transcription a fascinating curiosity, however much I might have missed those colours and timbres – and with musicians of calibre the playing offers delights over and above such considerations, as was certainly the case here!

From the work’s beginning one registered the care and responsiveness of the players to the different dynamics and nuances of the lines, the writing here so sensitively and subtly detailed, one felt treated like a guest at a delicious supper, the piano adding to the repast its own special flavour under Diedre Irons’ sensitive fingers. To the strings’ lovingly-caressed lines during the development the piano contributed a discourse which in itself was a miracle of declamation, Irons’ playing (as I’ve often noted) unfailingly articulate, her every touch a delight, every trill, every ornament a unique experience for the listener.

The strings’ rich cantabile at the slow movement’s beginning was raptly taken up by the piano, the ensemble producing a typically Mozartean amalgam of rarefied loveliness expressed with both tenderness and strength. And we were made aware of a darker side to existence, as the strings’ heartfelt answer to the piano’s lyrical musings was immediately succeeded by a brief but telling sea-change towards anxiously-shadowed realms, before the opening calm was restored.

The players relished the fanfare-like whoops of glee shortly after the finale’s jog-trot beginning,  before worrying a repeated three-note descending figure almost to death, pursuing it in its various incarnations right throughout the music’s course! Eventually, the strings cranked up some concerted excitement and “surrounded it with their wagons”, leaving the piano to explain it further in a cadenza, one which became amusingly interactive, the to-ings and fro-ings between piano and strings allowing the tiny tune to escape and scoot to safety, amid some “oh well, what a great adventure!” concluding statements from the ensemble!

As it turned out, the evening’s fun was just beginning, the Dvořák Quintet being given what I would describe as “the works” by this gifted ensemble. Right from the deceptive, gently-rocking introduction, the music was projected with enormous volatility involving both eloquence and energy, the lyrical phrases spaciously articulated, and the contrasting rhythmic thrustings startling in their dynamic force! I loved the sweetly-laden quality of the players’ lyrical lines, as well as the players’ focused attack and sustained energy during the more agitated sequences.

Along the way the individual contributions to the music’s ebb-and-flow were delivered with distinction, Andrew Joyce’s eloquent cello solo at the movement’s beginning matched by Julia Joyce’s similarly sonorous viola solo which introduced the second subject. The violins’ work in thirds – a characteristic Dvořákian fingerprint – perfectly demonstrated the qualities brought to tone, line and ensemble by leader Vesa-Matti Leppänen  and second violin Andrew Thomson, as Dvořák put his themes through their various paces, the whole melded together by Diedre Irons’ strong, flexible playing at the piano.

The second movement was a Dumka, originally a kind of epic Ukranian ballad of a melancholic nature, but appropriated by Slavic composers to characterise music that typically changes its mood abruptly, alternating between melancholy and gaiety. Dvořák certainly made this form his own in many instances throughout his music, most profoundly in his famous “Dumky” Trio, where each of the movements is a “dumka” in its own right. Here, it was the music’s melancholy which straightaway set the mood, the piano’s extraordinary poignant lament answered by a deep-voiced viola solo, the playing from both musicians straightaway touching the heart! True to its penchant for volatility, the dumka then set the sounds bustling along energetically, pizzicato strings and piano relishing their rhythmic criss-crossings! The ‘cello, soon afterwards joined by the viola, then returned to the opening theme, a sequence of great beauty, though again the discourse was interrupted by a more vigorous section, a physical and exhilarating scherzo-like episode! And so on….interestingly, a reviewer writing in London’s “Athanaeum” magazine in 1888 found this movement all too much: –  “ It is difficult to regard the form of the “Dumka,” or elegy, as satisfactory. Two themes are presented several times, each with various modifications, but without any regular development. The movement, therefore, gives the impression of patchiness, despite the beauty of the melodies.”  Chacun à son goût!

Described as a “furiant” (though nothing to do with “furious” or “fury”, as the Czech word means “loudmouth” or “unrestrained person”) the third movement lightly skipped its devil-may-care way through the world, the performance here dancing between moments of feathery brilliance and rollickingly good humour. The players pulled back for the heart-easing trio section, the viola giving voice to a lullabic version of the main theme, one which lulled our senses before suddenly accelerating back into the high-spirits of the opening dance.

And so to the final movement, beginning with a call to attention and a summons to the dance, a joyful rustic-sounding celebration of a delight in living! I remember reading a commentator’s words many years ago, written in regard to the same composer’s Fifth Symphony (which we heard Orchestra Wellington play, earlier this year)  – “…an expression of joy so intense that it brings tears…” – a thought that could have applied just as well to these players’ exuberance and delight in bringing us such joyous music. What visceral engagement with the allegro’s rhythms! – what charm, and insouciance they brought to the folkish second subject, with its touches of melancholy – and how deftly they launched the fugato’s mischievous excitement, tightening the interactions almost to combatative point before winding the music down, allowing the viola to steer things back to the music’s second subject, and the piano to grandly give the signal that the threads must be gathered up and set in order!

So it was that the music becalmed in order that heads be counted and everything else put right with the world – the strings repeated the piano’s signaling gesture in agreement, and everybody turned for home, with the meandering steps through the gloaming gradually quickening and turning to a playful race, carrying all before it in a last frisson of playful excitement. And when we had finished acknowledging these splendid musicians’ efforts with our applause, it seemed to all of us that there would have been no better way than what we had heard to finish Hutt Valley Chamber Music’s 2018 concert season!




Admirable concert of well-chosen music from Wellington Youth Orchestra under Mark Carter

Wellington Youth Orchestra conducted by Mark Carter with Samantha McSweeney (flute).

Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, Op 84
Copland: Appalachian Spring
Mozart: Andante in C for flute and orchestras, K 315/285e
Tchaikovsky: Suite from The Nutcracker
Riley Centre, Wellington High School

Sunday 14 October, 6 pm

The last musical occasion I was in the Riley Centre (alias, the school hall) at Wellington High School was, I think, for the splendid International Viola Congress in 2001, led by the indomitable Professor Donald Maurice (as was the most recent one in Wellington in 2016). My recollection of the acoustic then was confirmed on Sunday. The orchestra has tended to confine itself in recent, post-Town Hall years, to smaller and acoustically constricted places like St Andrew’s and the Sacred Heart Cathedral; this hall struck me as better suited to the character of the orchestra, in allowing all instruments to be heard clearly but not in an acoustic that was inclined to draw attention to inexperience.

The Egmont Overture is a fine piece for a youth orchestra: I can attest from personal experience, having played it in the predecessor of the Wellington Youth Orchestra, back in the 1950s. I have never grown tired of the dramatic character of the work that blooms into a triumphant Coda at the end. And I hope current orchestra members still derive the same emotional delight from it.

Here, conductor Mark Carter transmitted a strong sense of its heroism as well as its deeper humanity. Balance between strings and woodwinds was excellent, and the violin sections in particular sounded like thoroughly rehearsed professionals.

I don’t think I’ve heard Copland’s Appalachian Spring played by amateurs before and was delighted to realise how well is suits young players. There’s a lot that’s not too difficult technically, but a lot, on the other hand, that demands finesse and can reveal weaknesses in intonation and control of articulation and dynamics. The leisurely opening music is dominated by strings, flutes and soon clarinets, admirably finding the right open-air, springtime feeling (though Copland did not compose the ballet, for Martha Graham, with a specific scenario or even a title in mind: the title was suggested at the last minute when Martha suggested a line from a poem by Hart Crane).

The quiet opening exposed the players, rather to their benefit, and they showed reassuring pleasure in their charmingly animated playing. Later came a fine, attenuated trumpet on top of more general brass, and further opportunities to admire fairly important bassoons as well as the solo opportunities for trombones (the latter were all Youth Orchestra players – though several other sections, including the strings, were strengthened by a few guest players).

This longish piece, containing a great deal of slow, delicate music as well as much that’s sprightly and animated, can lose audience attention and patience in unskilled hands: not here.

Then came the Mozart Andante, written as an alternative slow movement for one of his flute concertos. It proved semi-familiar to me and was well worth hearing. It evolved, slowish and attractive, the solo part beautifully played by flutist Samantha McSweeney who is in her second year at Victoria University school of music.

The concert ended with the Nutcracker Suite; at least, most of the dances from the Suite. Here, there were charming episodes from flutes and other winds, including rather impressive horns (admittedly including a couple of guest players) excellent harp contributions and throughout, seamless, well integrated strings. Though there were, of course, minor blemishes, it was possible to listen to these all too familiar pieces with the same delight as from a professional orchestra.

I don’t believe citing individual players for praise is helpful for a band of young players however; generalities are more appropriate. Certainly, the polish and confidence, what seemed a real balletic flair, audible in Nutcracker, and elsewhere, was singularly impressive and evidence of both the overall level of musicianship and the result of first class direction by conductor Mark Carter.


Monumental NZSO concert of Russian masterpieces with cellist Johannes Moser

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian with Johannes Moser – cello

Borodin: Overture: Prince Igor
Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No 1 in E flat
Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, selections from the ballet

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 13 October, 7:30 pm

Plus a review of Johannes Moser’s solo cello recital
Bach: Cello Suites Nos 1 in G, 4 in E flat and 3 in C
St Andrew’s on The Terrace
Sunday 14 October, 3 pm 

The NZSO concert Saturday 13 October

This Russian programme might have been expected to be a winner, but it wasn’t, in terms of audience size.

However, in terms of musical quality and sheer excitement, it was a tremendous success. It’s a surprise to me that Shostakovich’s 1st cello concerto didn’t fill every seat; does that suggest that our musical horizons are getting narrower every year? For it’s a truly stupendous work, and we heard one of today’s most brilliant cellists sitting at the front of the stage.

Secondly, does a crowd smaller than is expected suggest that the general run of classical music lovers doesn’t hear properly some of the greatest ballet music ever written; that there’s a huge gulf in taste and intellectual curiosity between ballet groupies and Beethoven groupies?

Even the opening overture should be better known and more sought after than evidently it is.

Borodin’s Prince Igor Overture
My first encounter with it, on the radio many years ago, was associated with the then popular story that Borodin had not written the overture down, but that Glazunov had heard him play it on the piano, and with his phenomenal memory, went home and scored it completely. Roughly true but both Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov left written accounts. Rimsky wrote: “…Glazunov and I settled the matter as follows between us: he was to fill in all the gaps in Act III and write down from memory the Overture played so often by the composer…”

Glazunov’s own account is this:
The overture was composed by me roughly according to Borodin’s plan. I took the themes from the corresponding numbers of the opera and was fortunate enough to find the canonic ending of the second subject among the composer’s sketches. I slightly altered the fanfares for the overture … The bass progression in the middle I found noted down on a scrap of paper, and the combination of the two themes (Igor’s aria and a phrase from the trio) was also discovered among the composer’s papers. A few bars at the very end were composed by me.”  

These quotes are from the splendid Wikipedia article on the opera which is fascinating, evidently authoritative and very much worth reading.

Productions are rare in the west, and I was lucky enough to catch it conducted by Mark Ermler in the Olympiahalle in Munich in 1989. A film from the Metropolitan Opera was screened here a couple of years ago.

Borodin’s great historical opera may be heavy-going for some, but it’s got a lot of hit tunes and the Overture contains some of them. It opens calmly, remotely, but in a couple of minutes conductor Peter Oundjian had successfully anticipated the opera’s epic grandeur with fierce brass heroics on top of general orchestral energy. What a splendid introduction to the later direction of Russian music, parallel with Tchaikovsky and Rimsky, but on through Rachmaninov, Glazunov, Medtner, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Kabalevsky, Schnittke, Weinberg (?)…

Shostakovich Cello Concerto – Johannes Moser
This was Johannes Moser’s second visit to New Zealand. In 2016 he played Lalo’s cello concerto, impressing, but it’s not a work on which super-star reputations are often built. However, he could not have made a more astonishing impact than in his performance of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. It was written in 1959 a few years after Stalin’s death, for Rostropovich who famously committed it to memory in four days, and played it with the Leningrad Philharmonic under Mravinsky the same year.

Even more memorably (for us), Rostropovich played it with the NZSO under Maxim Shostakovich in one of the orchestra’s most famous events, in the 1988 International Arts Festival in Wellington (an era when we had truly great international festivals). I will never forget sitting side-on in the MFC gallery, hearing and watching that monumental performance.

Now this weekend’s performance was on a par, from a cellist who had likewise utterly absorbed the work. He played with a ferocity that was chilling, often producing a sort of vibration (different from vibrato) that created all the emotional power that a full orchestra might have supplied; for the work is scored only for strings orchestra and modest pairs of woodwinds (though they are not merely decorative in their contributions), timpani, celeste… and one horn (Samuel Jacobs) whose role was pivotal, somehow providing all the chilling, suspenseful, intense atmosphere that made more elaborate orchestration superfluous.

The cello dominates the first movement, but there are fleeting, less troubled, almost lyrical and rhapsodic passages in the second movement, plenty of scope to hear the orchestra’s dramatic strength under Oundjian’s highly expressive leadership. The four movements are played without break, so the extended and often magically beautiful cadenza which slowly takes shape at the end of the second actually comprises the third movement.

The last movement returns to the troubled spirit of the first, involves the cello in impressive passages combining bowing while plucking strings with the left hand. The work ends with repeated assertions of both the composer’s self-awareness and the emotional value of the signature DSCH (his name abbreviated in German musical notation) as an enigmatic motif. Just in case we were to forget who the composer was: but neither this performance, nor the work itself will ever make that likely.

A charming encore by John Williams was something of an antidote, perhaps a bit long considering the environment.

Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet 
The second half was taken with a memorable performance of about half of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet music – about an hour. The programme book did not attempt to list the numbers included: most were familiar from the three orchestral suites that Prokofiev himself put together, but there were certain episodes not so familiar. Again, perhaps there was a bit much; without the important accompaniment of the staged ballet, the music itself, even in all its variety, dramatic strength, visual evocativeness and its ability to conjure one’s recollections of the ballet itself, doesn’t quite hold a concert audience as does a Mahler or Bruckner symphony of similar length.

Nevertheless, this was a performance that should have reinforced the belief that we have here an orchestra of real international distinction, able to capture a huge range of musical colours and narrative characteristics. A score like Prokofiev’s, though not demanding all the peripheral instrumental forces that some Strauss or Mahler scores do, make prolonged demands on everything from heroic virtuosity to chamber music subtlety and refinement with equal conviction.

So at its end, apart from delight at having lived through the previous two and a quarter hours, I remained all the more disturbed that an obviously remarkable concert had not pulled a full house.


Solo recital by Johannes Moser
St Andrew’s on The Terrace
Sunday 15 October, 3 pm

The added attraction of a solo recital by the soloist was advertised for the following afternoon. It’s a practice that the orchestra should adopt routinely with its soloists who could often serve to attract people to kinds of music – chamber music or song – that might normally be outside their main interests.

At St Andrew’s on Sunday, 3 pm, Moser played three Bach solo cello suites: No 1 in G, No 4 in E flat and No 3 in C. The church was near full. And the three performances were of spell-binding, compelling strength. We have come a great distance from the days when it was proper to play these and other baroque music as if in a straight-jacket, as if baroque instruments and their players didn’t allow rhythmic, dynamic expressive variety. These performances were hugely fluent and expressive with episodes in the preludes and the sarabandes, for example, that were emotional, pensive and full of humanity, and where clusters of notes and double-stopping turned them into impressive ensemble works rather than just one person on one cello.

And on the other hand we heard lively dances in which Moser’s suggestion that the suites could be heard as if describing the phases of a social gathering, from introductory, exploratory preludes through somewhat formal, conversational allemandes to more relaxed, letting-hair-down courantes, gigues or bourrées (in nos 3 and 4), was an interesting way of envisaging developments.

It was indeed a most rewarding hour-an-a-half, both for the audience, and I hope for the orchestra management which should be inspired to expand on this example.

In earlier years, such concerts were organised routinely – just one example, I recall recitals by Julius Katchen in the St James Theatre; but they were frequent.

But I see nothing to indicate such recitals in the 2019 programmes. Surely some of the soloists featured would be delighted to offer small-scale recitals – mezzos Susan Graham and Anna Larsson; soprano Lauren Snouffer; pianists Joyce Yang, Denis Kozhukhin, Steven Osborne, Louis Lortie; violinists Carolin Widmann, Jennifer Koh; trumpeter Håken Hardenberger, the orchestra’s own horn-player Samuel Jacobs … or the quartets of singers in the Choral Symphony and Messiah???


Choral concert to celebrate new digital organ at Cathedral of Saint Paul

Organ Festival: Choral anthems 

Choirs and Choristers of Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul, Choir of the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Sacred Heart (Directors Michael Stewart and Michael Fletcher, organists Richard Apperley and Michael Stewart)

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Saturday, 13 August 2018, 7 pm

With the organ moved to the side, the rather small audience had full view of the choirs in their red cassocks.  In his introduction, Michael Stewart referred to ‘choral blockbusters’; we had a few of them!  First was Handel’s famous coronation anthem ‘Zadok the Priest’.  It was sung with the usual robust cheerfulness, as was the next anthem, Parry’s ‘I was glad’.  Richard Apperley accompanied this in fine style, giving a ringing fanfare at the beginning.  The effect when the choir came in was thrilling.

Again (cf Friday night’s organ recital) I did not hear the clarity from this digital organ that would have been present in the pipe organ that was damaged in the November 2016 Kaikoura earthquake.  In the quiet parts, Apperley used the Choir manual, and throughout both choir and organ had a commendable range of dynamics.  The choir moved to several different positions for the different items; throughout, the singing was good.  The sound from the two choirs was unified in singing this music, which is tricky in places.  It is one of Parry’s most effective compositions, and not as bombastic as some of his utterances; rather it has a positive mood.

Before his solo item, Michael Stewart remarked that the organ was very comfortable to play.  He played ‘Fête’ by Jean Langlais (French composer for the organ again), an appropriate choice for initiating a new organ.  In festive style, we were caught up in a whirligig of excitement.  Especially in the slower sections, both Solo (right hand) and Choir (left hand) organs were used.  The final passages were jubilant, with plenty of foot-work.

Now it was the turn of the children who make up the Cathedral Choristers.  First, they sang a piece by Sir John (alias Johnny) Dankworth: ‘Light of the World”.  This was beautifully sung.  Next was ‘Look at the world’, words and music both, by the prolific British choral composer John Rutter.  This was a more difficult sing, but well performed.  Both items were sung in unison, accompanied by Richard Apperley.   The choristers were joined by the Cathedral choir to perform Jonatham Dove’s ‘Gloria’ from his Missa Brevis.  This British composer’s bright and jazzy piece incorporated a rapid organ accompaniment and a grand ending.

Gerald Finzi, another Brit. despite his surname, wrote charming, lyrical music. The combined three choirs sang his anthem ‘Lo, the full, final sacrifice’, with words by the mystical poet Richard Crashaw, who flourished in the early seventeenth century.  The performance was notable for the very fine men’s voices.  Not to demean the women, who sang extremely well, but it is often the men who are the weaker parts of a choir.

It was good to have the words printed in the programme, because it was not always easy to pick them up in this resonant building.  The music was very varied; some pensive, some jubilant.  Likewise the organ accompaniment – very dramatic.  The piece ended in a calm, peaceful ‘Amen’.

After the interval came an organ solo from Richard Apperley.  In his introductory remarks, the organist said that his improvisation upon this piece was the final music at the last service in the Cathedral before the earthquake – therefore the very last on the pipe organ.  He explained that the music built to cataclysmic effects, not inappropriately.  It was not clear if today’s performance included improvisation.

The piece was ‘Evocation II’ by Thierry Escaich, another French organist and composer, this time, contemporary. A repeated pedal note and staccato chords above gave a sense of foreboding as did the alternation between manuals, and gradual build-up of volume.  It ended in a ‘Wow!’ moment.

Michael Fletcher from Sacred Heart Cathedral now conducted the two adult choirs in Edward Bairstow’s ‘Blessed city, heavenly Salem’, with Michael Stewart at the organ.  The composer’s dates (1874-1946) put him between Parry and Rutter.  A lyrical  piece, it was in a style distinct from both his predecessor and his successor.  The music changed moods to suit the words.  The choirs not only sang accurately, they exhibited a splendid soaring tone.  The organ also went from ff to ppp.  A soprano solo in the last verse, with sotto voce accompaniment from choir and organ, was most effective; the anthem had a beautiful, subtle ending.

Zoltán Kodály was the only non-English composer represented.  His quite substantial choral and organ work, ‘Laudes Organi’ simply means ‘In praise of organs’.  It was based on a medieval text, and was written in 1966, a year before the composer died.  The organ as an instrument goes back to much more ancient times than the medieval; the Romans had small organs.

The Latin text was translated in the programme.  The second verse consists of instruction to the musician who will play the instrument.  The organist is instructed not to stand on the bellows, but to practice hard.  The choirs were preceded by a long, varied organ introduction.

The choral music not only featured very effective part-writing, it was illustrative of the words, notably at the beginning of the second verse: ‘Musician! Be a soldier; train yourself…’  Before the last verse (of four) there was a gorgeous organ interlude.  A jubilant organ postlude followed by a lovely polyphonic ‘Amen’, and final grand organ chords ended the work.  This was very fine singing and organ-playing indeed.

Like much of the composer’s music, the tonalities ran through a bunch of keys, or rather, made use of Hungarian modes, not exclusively those used in northern and western European music.  This made the music striking, significant, even magical in places; an admirable composition.

The last item of the evening was Vaughan Williams’s setting of the canticle ‘Let all the world in every corner sing’, words by the great metaphysical poet and cleric George Herbert.  After a great build-up from the organ, the choirs came in, in full voice for this well-known and dramatic setting.  Gymnastics were required from the organist, especially on the pedals.  Like the previous item, it was directed by Michael Stewart, with Richard Apperley at the organ.  Great refinement was evident in the quiet passages, before the piece’s upbeat ending.

Thus ended a memorable concert, aptly celebrating the new organ.

Yahoo New Zealand Mail

    • 👤ROBIN L H

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