NZSO’s season-opening concert splendid, popular programme under Hamish McKeich

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich

Rossini: Overture, L’italiana in Algieri
Haydn: Symphony No 104 in D ‘London’
Prokofiev: Symphony No 1 in D, Op 25 ‘Classical’
Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op 56a (Saint Anthony Variations)

Michael Fowler Centre

Wednesday 27 February, 7:30 pm

After nearly a fortnight touring this programme through seven towns throughout the country, the NZSO reached Wellington, where there was probably some expectation of highly polished performances. It was the first of the orchestra’s 16-concert, Podium Series. The surprise, to a certain extent, was that the orchestra not only seemed to have achieved a wonderful degree of clarity and flawlessness, but that it had lost no sense of spontaneity and delight in their playing.

Perhaps that was most striking in the overture, which was not only immaculate, but had lost none of its wit and its variety of subtle instrumental detailing that always highlighted Rossini’s smile-inducing orchestral writing. The mark of a gifted orchestrator doesn’t rest entirely with a flair for managing a huge orchestra, using exotic instruments to create a bewildering range of remarkable sonorities; Rossini knew how to generate excitement and delight through teasing the ear with quite economical instrumentation allowing single instruments to have fun and to entertain, handling quite conventional forces with imagination and sensitivity. The slightly reduced string body (14, 11, 10, etc) which was appropriate for this piece and for the tour, remained for the rest, including the Brahms.

The programme notes remarked that the opera itself, The Italian Girl in Algiers, was worth getting to know. However, Wellingtonians (and Aucklanders) know that, as New Zealand Opera staged it in both cities in 2009.

The overture
Once upon a time, concerts routinely began with an overture; it was a very good practice, for the very reasons offered by the programme notes: ‘music to put them in a good mood, excited and ready for what was to follow’; such an aim is as valid for a concert as for a performance of the opera for which it was written. That pattern fell out of fashion a few decades ago when orchestras decided that many of the best-known overtures were too trivial to accompany the challenging and heavily cerebral music in the rest of the programme. I’d love the old tradition to be reinstated: there are scores of excellent candidate overtures.

Happily, Hamish McKeich has common sense and no pretentions.

So the overture began with almost inaudible pizzicato and then the most beguiling solo oboe (from Erin Banholzer), establishing the mood delightfully; and later other winds, the highest and lowest, piccolo and bassoon, did likewise. Later, Rossini responded magnificently with the rich sounds of the strings and timpani, double basses making a particular impact.

Haydn’s 104
The symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, too, tend to be neglected by today’s big orchestras that are more equipped for the music of Beethoven and the 19th century. The suggestion that Haydn’s last symphony, the ‘London’, was a clear predecessor of Beethoven was convincingly demonstrated in this performance, the orchestra here employing forces much the same as in the overture, apart from baroque timpani. Here again, McKeich’s thoughtful handling of the music’s character was clear from the start in the careful, stately treatment of the introduction. The main part of the first movement was in striking contrast, bold and confident, taking pains to mark the distinct, Haydnesque surprise contrasts.

The slow movement emerged in some ways as slightly lacking distinction, though there were charming interjections by flutes and characteristic pauses. The Menuetto was allowed more distracting episodes, with a certain melodic variety; the greatest break in mood coming with the Trio’s move into a minor key, slightly slower, all managed sensitively. The fourth movement really brings no surprises, following the normal Haydn pattern, though with the employment of an orchestra much larger than he was used to in Austria, yet toying with certain passages and offering ear-catching moments as the use of long pedal notes from the bassoon that one doesn’t usually notice, and making excellent use of those sonorities.

The ‘Classical’ by Prokofiev
Prokofiev’s first symphony was, naturally enough, a youthful work, but not as adolescent as the radical exhibitionism of his first two piano concertos. Its humour seems to have been one reason for its programming in this concert. However, it’s hardly main-stream, Haydn-Mozart era, and it’s a bit hard to find much Haydn flavour, apart from a sense of humour, or any reflection of typical ‘classical’ music at all, given the term refers to music between 1750 and 1800.

With a normal classical-sized orchestra, pairs of winds, with only trumpets and horns in the brass, this was a clean, clear-headed performance, employing unannounced modulations and tunes that are much more recognisably Prokofiev, than ‘18th century’. The orchestra seemed totally at ease with the style. Though it’s not challenging, the performance held the attention, as neither composition nor its performance could be called routine. The third movement did deviate however, in the use of a dance that predated the classical minuet – the gavotte, which was often included in Baroque suites, especially Bach’s. Perhaps one missed the variety of a movement in triple time. The last movement, molto vivace, might have sounded a bit flippant, though it does no harm for the image of classical music to be subjected to allegations of non-seriousness – after all, Beethoven offered many such examples.

Brahms with (?)Haydn
Finally, we were back in the main-stream with Brahms. The origin of the tune is unimportant even though such musicological by-ways often interest people like me; however, the story is well-known. And it fitted with the concert’s theme. It might be Brahms’s first purely symphonic work apart from his two delightful serenades and the mighty first piano concerto; oddly, to my ears it lacks the interest of those earlier pieces. Regardless of the variety he brings to the theme-and–variations form, it doesn’t deviate from its B flat key, and even without perfect pitch, that becomes … well … monotonous. Nevertheless, I always found sufficient pleasure in its invention and rich orchestration, now with four horns, a contra-bassoon as well as the impact of Brahms’s genius to lift it above most of the symphonic music of the early 1870s (Bruckner, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák had hardly started). And the shortcomings of the tonality faded with the impact of the last, passacaglia-inspired variation that presages the marvellous finale of the fourth symphony.

However, under McKeich’s baton, the performance was thoroughly studied, the orchestra responsive and in top form. Their balances were rich and heart-easing, pacing, dynamics and rhythmic elasticity all warmly satisfying. As well as being a Bruckner passionné, I love Brahms too.



Side by Side with Sondheim at Circa a life-enhancing experience

Songs and Lyrics from the stage musicals of Stephen Sondheim

Julie O’Brien, Matthew Pike and Sarah Lineham (singers)
Musicians: Michael Nicholas Williams and Colin Taylor (pianos)
Director: Emma Kinane
Musical Director: Michael Nicholas Williams
Choreographer: Leigh Evans

Circa One, Circa Theatre, Wellington

Saturday 23rd February (until 22nd March , 2019)

I’m not exactly a veteran of live performances of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals – New Zealand Opera did a splendid “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” in 2016 (which production AND its performance I raved about, here on “Middle C”) and both the NZ Drama School and the NZ School of Music have presented sizeable excerpts from, respectively “Company” and “Into the Woods”, each of which was deftly, evocatively done. So Sondheim is a name which resonates for me more in reputation than actual experience – though judging from the amazing range and scope of the songs presented here this evening, he’s a composer whose work would seem likely to bear rich rewards upon examination.

Here, we were given something of a whirlwind tour with no less than twelve of the composer’s stage works represented – some repeatedly (both “Company” and “Follies” contributed eight songs each to the programme), though all the others were represented by either one or two numbers. Of the two most-represented shows, I thought the selection here in each case nicely touched upon the essences of the works, the songs from Company vividly encapsulating the lyricist/composer’s rather
savage anatomising of marriage as an institution via the portrayals of various couples and their interactions at a party given for their bachelor friend, Robert. As well as the married company, the “available talent” is no less caustically depicted via a sure-fire show-stopper of a first-half closer, “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”,  a trio featuring all three singers in a tour-de-force of energy, timing and sharp characterisation, with Matthew Pike as a thoroughly convincing “middle girl” – delightful.

“Follies” depicts a reunion of former showgirls, interacting with the ghosts of their former selves, re-instigating the trappings of their former glories, and reminiscing about former lovers, both sentimentally and naughtily – two of the girls, resplendent in feather boas, recall the particular talents of a particular boy in “Can that Boy” with suitably suggestive inflections putting lead in the pencil of the word “foxtrot” with suitable relish. Later, four consecutive numbers from the show take us to the beating heart of these faded glories, a trio (once again) of beauties introduce “La Grande Dame” extolling the charms of Paris, an Al Jolson-inspired “Buddy’s Blues”, and the heartbreak of a wannabe hopeful in ”Broadway Baby”.

Some of Sondheim’s most popular individual songs from other shows are here – I knew three of them instantly, the first, “Comedy Tonight” beginning the evening, both instrumentally (some nifty work by the two-piano ensemble of Michael Nicholas Williams and Colin Taylor, with barnstorming octaves in places from the former in the best romantic piano tradition) and vocally, the singers appearing one by one, bringing their very different vocal characteristics to the presentation mix. Another was “A Boy like That” from “West Side Story” for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics in tandem with Leonard Bernstein’s music, here presented as an individual number, though in a kind of medley entitled “Conversation Piece” various familiar songs from the show dominated the line-up.

But the show would have been unthinkable without the composer’s out-and-out signature tune, “Send in the Clowns”, from his work “A little Night Music”, a musical in which various relationships between people, both young and older are explored (it was based on Ingmar Bergmann’s 1955 film “Smiles of a Summer Night”. The song itself, unlike many we heard during the course of the evening, is more wry about than disillusioned with love and romance, and was presented here in suitably “Do I wake or do I sleep?” tones that also contrasted greatly with the high-octane thresholds of most of the evening’s “stand-and-deliver” excitements.

In contrast to the work of one of Sondheim’s mentors, Oscar Hammerstein, who became a kind of surrogate father-figure for the boy after his parents were divorced, most of the younger man’s stage works reflect an era of disillusionment and frustration within Western society, and specifically in the United States, presenting both the individual and whole groups of people at this time in conflict with their  expectations and aspirations, far removed from the worlds of standard fare like “Oklahoma”, “South Pacific” and “The Sound of Music”, with their “happy endings”. I remember being struck by something of this quality when encountering “Into the Woods”, at the end of which none of the fairy-tale characters get to “live happily ever after”. It’s the ambivalence about life that one comes away from Sondheim’s work feeling which matters and which is truer to life than any “dreams come true” scenarios.

Though the show wasn’t without its technical gremlins (resulting in the first half loss of a microphone for one of the singers) the performers, instrumentalists and singer/actors, threw themselves into this maelstrom of, by turns, wry and sardonic vexation and disenchantment, and brought a potent marriage of music and theatre to life. I thought the technique of getting the vocalists to “narrate” the context of each of the pieces made for an engaging, organic effect, perhaps to a fault in paces, as a few of the words were sometimes lost in an all-encompassing whirl of scenario-change activity.

It’s a tribute to the stage instincts of co-directors Emma Kinane and Michel Nicholas Williams that words, music and stage action here brought out for us all the variegated emotions and subtle detailings of Sondheim’s creations, given further ease and flow by Leigh Evans’ direct, unfussy choreography – the “clowns” were onstage in front of us at times, but they knew their place. Lisa Maule’s lighting I thought properly and stunningly “illuminated” what was important to notice and what was left to the imagination, engaging our sensibilities rather than putting things merely on a screen or in a box, enhancing the idea of our being in the same performing space.

I’ve already mentioned the almost visceral effects of the piano realisations generated variously by both players at their own instruments, with ample use of the “orchestral” effects of reducing the accompaniments in places, most movingly, to a single line. Each of the singers enhanced the songs’ individual contexts in this respect, so that we were readily taken by turns into those different, sometimes brashly-wrought, sometimes finely-delineated worlds of feeling as song followed song.

Each of the singers had their particular strengths, Julie O’Brien in particular “owning” everything she undertook, from the insanely tumbledown outpourings of “Getting Married Today” with its Gilbert-and-Sullivan-plus patter, through her naughtily teasing “I never do Anything Twice”, giving the fingers of her pianist Michael Nicholas Williams an anxious moment or two, to her ineffably moving, “imagined-out-loud” rendition of “Send in the Clowns” – throughout the latter, one could at any time have heard the proverbial pin drop most disarmingly. Matthew Pike’s gift for characterisation was evident throughout, but especially telling in “I Remember” (from the show ”Evening Primrose”),  a song requiring contrasting evocations of nostalgia, wide-eyed wonderment and spontaneous excitement, delivered here in spadefuls. And Sarah Lineham, bringing a completely different vocal quality to the mix, demonstrated a sweetness of tone and a stratospheric purity in places in her slower, quieter music, such as the opening of “Losing My Mind” from “Follies”, though her tones were more difficult to “catch” when her solo music quickened or hardened, as in the climax of the same number. However, I could forgive her anything after relishing her virtuosic solo trumpet-playing in “You Gotta get a Gimmick”.

Where Lineham also shone was in the ensembles, along with the other two – the contributions of all three in the first half’s closing “You could drive a Person Crazy” made for an absolutely delightful effect, as sharp and incisive as any “Andrews Sisters” realisation I’ve heard! The one or two stunning solo renditions apart, the overall effect of the presentation is one of superb teamwork, the only caveat being the extraneous microphone noises which made unwelcome contributions to the opening part of the first half – thankfully things seemed resolved and restored after the interval.

Sondheim fans will need no further urgings – the experience of hearing these songs so expertly brought to life has made me want to explore the composer’s work further, which I think in itself amounts to praise of a recommendable order. Many thanks to Circa and to the creative talents involved for providing such a life-enhancing experience!

Direct from Nelson: Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon in singular, absorbing solo and duet piano music

Waikanae Music Society

Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon – piano duet and solo

Bach: Two Chorales transcribed by György Kurtág: Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit and O Lamm Gottes unschuldig
Schubert: Lebensstürme in A minor, D 947
Debussy: Petite Suite
Beethoven: Sonata No 29 in B flat, Op 106 (Hammerklavier)

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 17 February, 2:30 pm

This concert was, reportedly, arranged through a somewhat unorthodox arrangement between the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson and the Waikanae society. I’d spent five days in Nelson and had heard Dénes Várjon playing about four times, including once with his wife Izabella. One of them included the Hammerklavier as well as the last sonata, Op 111; but the first three pieces in this recital were played after I left. I was delighted to hear them at Waikanae.

Bach was a major source of inspiration for contemporary Hungarian composer György Kurtág and he made several arrangements of arias from the chorales. I didn’t know these ones; and listening to these piano duet arrangements one could be forgiven for wondering who the composer was, as the early stages of both had an enigmatic character that really didn’t bring Bach to mind straight away. The sounds seemed influenced by at least late 19th century music: harmonically as well as in the pianists’ articulation and dynamics. But with the underlying Bachian melodies,  the music revealed such intense conviction and coherence, it slowly became clear that Bach was the unmistakable inspiration. In Gottes Zeit, the bass (Dénes) entered first and then Izabella with the treble part. Though the two pianists showed remarkable uniformity of rhythm and musical character, what astonished me was the way the primo and secondo parts had such distinct voices. In the second chorale, O Lamm Gottes unschuldig, I was fascinated by the sound Izabella drew from the piano, almost as if she had secreted a rank of organ pipes in the piano, so pure and bell-like was the sound. In speaking with others who were also mesmerised by it, I gathered that it was achieved by keeping the key slightly, very sensitively depressed, holding the hammers in a certain position on the strings.

It was a beautiful performance that created a profoundly meditative spirit, with the most intriguing counterpoint. In both the pieces, the fascination lay in the profound sense of Bach’s presence throughout, even though so much was conspicuously of the 20th century.

Schubert’s Lebensstürme 
The duo’s playing of Schubert’s late Lebensstürme D 947 was driven by a single-minded determination to draw attention to contrasts and similarities between the Bach/Kurtág pieces and the Schubert; their request for no applause at the end of the Bach was clearly to highlight unexpected relationships that might enrich audience response to both. Their close juxtaposition certainly did that for me. At the most superficial level one could hear comparable spiritual and intellectual characteristics in both. Schubert’s abrupt call to attention with heavy opening chords might not have been the clearest Schubert signature, but the following lyrical episodes did clarify the matter; and certain dramatic passages, and some quite elaborate material in the development section suggested that Schubert had Beethoven’s more serious and intense piano pieces in mind.

There is speculation that this piece was the first movement of a planned sonata for two pianos, and the structure of the piece and weight of the music, especially the first arresting theme which returned several times, made that seem very likely. It was again a most authoritative and engaging performance.

Petite Suite 
Debussy’s Petite Suite is familiar, not so much in its original four-hands version, but in the various orchestrations.  I must say that as with many (most?) French piano pieces of the late 19th century, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, that got themselves orchestrated are more interesting, even exciting, in their original piano version.  The tip-toe dancing  in the second movement, Cortètge, and the quirky, forthright music in Ballet, seems so perfectly attuned to the piano, especially with all the weight or lightness and colour available when four hands are engaged.

Much of this renewed delight in original piano versions is the result of the delightful, infectious playing by this gifted and inspiring duet.

In the second half, Dénes Várjon was left alone to play Beethoven’s Op 106, the Hammerklavier Sonata. My reaction to this performance, in a different space, on a Fazioli piano rather than a Steinway, was similar in some ways, though I guess that the warmer, perhaps easier to achieve lyricism and clarity on this piano in this space removed a certain amount of what I described, inspiring words like ‘tumultuous’, ‘abandon’, ‘the wild character of this performance’, ‘unbridled power’, ‘rebellious’.

The speed, energy and power of the performance were here at Waikanae, and the precipitate changes of emotion and mood, dynamic contrasts from bar to bar, again held the audience spell-bound. The delicious toying with the listener’s conventional expectations were still there to surprise, for example, the witty petering out at the end of the Scherzo. And teasing, aborted gestures that keep you in their grip in the slow movement.

But the last movement seemed to recall best the impression of abandon, of ‘rough and tumble’, the unexpected (even though familiar) halt in the middle of the last movement, and the massive forays that command the keyboard from top to bottom, made this an exciting and draining performance, fully the equal of what I’d heard in Nelson.

And, as in Nelson, it was a sold-out recital that won huge applause.


Tudor Consort opens 2019 season with Renaissance madrigals at summer concert in the sun

The Tudor Consort directed by Michael Stewart

Chansons d’amour

Renaissance Love Songs

Composers: Giovanni Gastoldi, Orlando de Lassus, Clément Janequin, Thomas Weekles, John Wilbye, Luca Marenzio, John Dowland, Carlo Gesualdo, Juan del Encina, Henry Purcell, Pierre Certon, Orlando Gibbons, Josquin des Prez, Pierre Passereau

Khandallah Town Hall

Saturday 16 February, 7 pm

The first concert of the Tudor Consort’s year was in a different place and sang music that was different from their normal pattern. Yes, it was from the Renaissance – almost entirely composed in the 16th century, the Tudor age, and the first couple of decades of the 17th. (Purcell was the only one seriously out of place).

And the music was not written for choirs or large ensembles; nor was there any religious music. It was, as advertised, entirely love songs and most of it could be classed as madrigals. Some were pure and chaste, others erotic though never exactly obscene. They had abandoned traditional choral uniform, looking as if they’d just got back from the beach or the garden or reading in the shade or a walk in the park. Michael Stewart’s introduction and remarks on most of the pieces were casual and entertaining; his control of the singers, giving life to the music, as usual, exemplary.

The concert opened with a signature song insisting on the indominatability of love: Amor vittorioso, upbeat and joyous, sung by the whole choir, eleven excluding conductor Stewart who did participate as singer a couple of times later. It signalled, pretty accurately, the happy time we had committed ourselves to, a generally innocent view of love.

Lassus’s madrigal was to French words: Bonjour mon Coeur. Slow paced, rather thoughtful, it was sung by just four singers, and though men were present, the slight lack of bass support, no doubt the way it was written, did not seem to fit its being sung by man to woman.

The third song, Amour, amour, also French, by a composer unknown to me: Clément Janequin, half a century earlier than the first two composers. Only three singers performed this time, in short, pithy song lamenting the conflicting nature of love.

Then a couple of English madrigals, a full century later than Janequin, and it showed: Thus sings my dearest love by Thomas Weelkes and Lady, when I behold the roses sprouting by John Wilbye. The first bright and positive from three women , the second six singers equally distributed. The latter, longer, displayed more elaborate polyphony, but not an unclouded view of love.

The next song, by Luca Marenzio, Tirsi morir volea, tested the moral fortitude of the audience as certain words, even in Italian, specifically morir, are not difficult to decipher; its meaning might have been rather explicit. The distinct lines of harmony rather exposed the five singers; yet in spite of some ensemble difficulties, the challenge was dealt as, one hopes, was its particular amorous meaning.

Dowland’s well known Come again, seemed to suggest a similar situation, with four men singing, covering the vocal range in a very satisfactory way, though a different problem might have existed with four men, without women.

The Schoenberg of the Renaissance and a Spanish revelation
Without dealing with every song, highlights from then included the typically singular motet by Gesualdo, whose exposure with the general exploration of Renaissance music has led to his fame as perpetrator of one of the most famous crimes passionnels. In the discreet words of Wikipedia: “The best known fact of his life is his brutal and violent killing of his first wife and her aristocratic lover upon finding them in flagrante delicto”. Being of the nobility himself he was able to escape punishment. (In the next century, composer Alessandro Stradella became the victim in such an affair). As a result of his remarkably radical and prescient harmonic ventures his music has gained special notoriety in recent years. This madrigal, Mille volte il di, sung by the whole choir, was an excellent, ear-bending example.

The following bracket of madrigals included two by Spanish composer Juan del Encina, the first for four voices, Mi libertad, to an intriguingly subtle poem (the words may have been his own as he was a poet and dramatist too). He lived about a century before most of the other composers in the programme (1468-1530) which also puts him a century ahead of Shakespeare; and the slow, moving quality of the music spoke to me with singular power.

The other madrigal by Del Encina, Señora de hermosura, called for all eleven singers plus conductor Stewart. Soon after it began the choir broke up and we heard in turn, and finally in enchanting ensemble, three groups singing from the front, from the left side and from the small gallery at the back of the hall (no doubt where the projection box was when it was a picture theatre). It made for one of the most delightful performances of the evening.

In between the two Encina pieces were Purcell’s famous If music be the food of love; and another madrigal by Lassus, Mon Coeur se recommande à vous which engaged five voices in a nicely balanced performance.

The Purcell part song is known, partially for its not-quite-Shakespeare words. The first seven words, yes, from Twelfth Night, but then ‘sing on’ instead of ‘play on’ and the rest elaborated and extended for Purcell by one Colonel Henry Heveningham. By the end of the 17th century Shakespeare’s stocks were at a low level, being ignorant of the all-important classical unities; and ‘improvements’ on defective Tudor drama were the fashion. However, it was charmingly sung by the entire group.

Then another name unknown (to me), Pierre Certon and his Que n’est elle auprès de moy was followed by another English madrigal, Ah, dear heart by Orlando Gibbons. And finally two French madrigals: Josquin des Prez’s famous Mille regretz, , and Pierre Passereau – Il est bel et bon, another song delighting in double entendre which brought this highly varied and diverting concert that was especially enriched with a few rather unfamiliar composers, to end in a sparkling and entertaining manner.




From The Night Watch – “Love Me Tender” – a Baroque-style celebration of love’s intangibility

Vivaldi:  Flute Concerto in G minor “La Notte”, RV439
Handel:  Duet: Che vai pensando folle pensier, HWV184
Concerto Grosso in D minor, Op.3 .no.5  HWV316
JS Bach: Cantata: Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit “Actus Tragicus” BWV106
Buxtehude: Wo soll ich fliehen hin?  BuxWV112
Telemann: Concerto for flute in E minor, TWV52:e1

The Night Watch: Singers –
Pepe Becker (soprano) Katherine Hodge (alto) Phillip Collins (tenor), Will King (bass)

Instrumentalists –
Katherine Mackintosh (violin/musical director) Annie Gard (violin) Imogen Granwal (viola da gamba/’cello) Robert Oliver (viola da gamba) Thea Turnbull (viol) George Wills (theorbo/guitar) Kamala Bain (recorder) Theo Small (flute/recorder) Douglas Mews (harpsichord)

Queen Margaret College Hall, Wellington

Sunday, 10 February 2019, 4.00pm

This is a new ensemble in town, ‘The Night Watch’ (after the Rembrandt painting, though both the Martinborough and Wellington concerts were held in daylight hours).  This group is a combo of New Zealand singers and instrumentalists with several Australian baroque instrumentalists from
Sydney. Despite the geography, there was no time separation here; the playing was magnificently co-ordinated and presented, under the direction of Catherine Mackintosh, a veteran of English ensembles The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, The Academy of Ancient Music and the Purcell Quartet.

Though every work in the programme was denoted in a minor key, the concert was by no means of a predominantly sombre mood.  It began with a delightful flute concerto by Vivaldi, the soloist being Theo Small from Sydney.  “La Notte” must have been written for warm summer nights such as we have been experiencing lately; its effect was not only of somnolence, but also of languor.

Both finesse and exuberance characterised the playing in the allegro that followed the opening largo.The central largo was solemn, but still conveyed to us a feeling of summer heat (it was indeed hot, and rather dark, in the hall).  More gorgeous flute-playing brought to life a jovial allegro which concluded the work.

A spoken introduction to the Handel works followed, and there were more such introductions later in the programme, some clearer and more fully audible than others – it was the first time I had attended a concert there and the hall’s generous acoustic was kinder to the singing than to the spoken voice.

Pepe Becker and Will King both sounded in good form. Pepe Becker is, of course, a seasoned artist, particularly in this style of music, while Will King is a young bass, but his accomplishment in negotiating the florid passages presented to him, with splendid timbre and clarity of words, was astonishing. The singers’ characterisation of the lovers’ tiff was conveyed well.

The Handel concerto grosso was familiar to me from an old recording.  Here, it was played on baroque instruments and had a verve and incisiveness (unknown to Yehudi Menuhin, on the recording!)  A short adagio contained delicious passages,; while the allegro that followed was not only fast but varied. The final allegro featured counterpoint and plenty of subtlety. There were a few misplaced notes, but among so many, what were a few strays?

The Bach cantata demonstrated to me how skill in performing and interpreting baroque music has progressed since I first heard a baroque group in Wellington decades ago.  Kamala Bain’s recorder playing was exquisite.  The theorbo (what a dramtic-looking instrument!) I admit I could barely hear.

The singers came on the platform during the playing. Tenor Phillip Collins proved to have a fine voice for this music and splendid enunciation.There was complex interweaving of the musical lines sung by the male singers.

The alto’s opening notes were not very secure here, but elsewhere her solo revealed her good voice. The harpsichord-and-strings accompaniment was enchanting.  Will King’s solo, as well as illustrating once again his verbal clarity, was accompanied by the women vocalists singing a chorale – most effective.  This was followed by a soprano solo, sung with two recorders, and then a chorale for the four voices, with highly decorated recorder accompaniment.

Buxtehude’s music is not very often performed, yet it was good enough in reputation for J.S. Bach to walk many miles to hear it and meet the composer.The opening of this work was a long solo from bass Will King, who gave it character. It was succeeded by short solos from the two women, and then an extended tenor aria, sung with precision, yet also with animated delivery.

Pepe Becker presented next a lovely, languid, limpid solo, before being joined by alto Katherine Hodge and the men in a chorale, that made me think how much the concert would perhaps have gained from being performed in  church.  Nevertheless, there were advantages in this venue (I’m told parking was one of them!).  A contrapuntal chorus followed, to end a lively, even ecstatic performance.

Telemann, like Vivaldi, has come into prominence in recent decades, with the revival of baroque music in all genres.  The pairing of recorder and flute in this composition was unusual.  The speaker commented that perhaps Telemann was hedging his bets regarding instruments: the recorder was still popular, but it was becoming apparent that the transverse flute was to become more important.

Magical tones emerged from both instruments; together, the sound was delicious, the tones not being as different as one might imagine. Douglas Mews was given no rest; he played in every work, with his usual accuracy, musical sympathy and judicious support – the fast passages were impeccable.  The third movement, largo, had the first the recorder then the flute playing against delightful pizzicato strings.  It all let rip in the presto finale – and Pepe Becker had a change, playing the tambourine.  The faster final flourishes finished a first-class musical feast.



Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson; the second installment, of Monday and Tuesday reviews

Part II of Middle C’s coverage of the Festival

From Monday 4 Feb to Tuesday 5, evening

Mozart on the organ, by Douglas Mews

Mozart: Suite in C, K 399
Variations on ‘Ah vous dirai-je Maman’, K 265
Eine kleine Gigue in G K 574
Andante in F, K 616
Fantasy and Fugue in C, K 394
Rondo alla Turka, from sonata, K 331

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Monday 4 February, 10 am

Perhaps the decision to celebrate the restoration of the organ in the Nelson School of Music took a slightly eccentric course, by programming some pieces by Mozart. For while Mozart is known to have enjoyed playing, especially improvising on, organs wherever he encountered them, he wrote scarcely anything specifically for the organ.

The Andante in F, K 616, written a short time before he died, is the only music that he wrote for the organ and that was for a mechanical organ or ‘musical clock’. All the other pieces that Mews played were arrangements that were felt to have some connection or relationship with the sort of music that might have suited the organ.

Douglas Mews began by speaking interestingly about his approach to Mozart and his tenuous relationship with the organ.

The Suite in C was one of the few Mozart pieces, this one for keyboard, that was modelled on the Baroque suite; it’s referred to as ‘in the style of Handel’ in some references. It consists of three movements: Overture, Allemande and Courante and there is evidence that he would have added further movements of the kind that were common in the baroque suite, such as Bach used for the orchestral, cello and violin suites:  Sarabande, Minuet, Gigue, and perhaps a Passepied, Bourée, Badinerie or Réjouissance.

But then Mews said that for time reasons, he would play only the Overture of the Suite. The overture was not very long and it did seem curious that he refrained from playing the other two movements which together are only a little longer.  He used strongly contrasted registrations for the Overture, and I was particularly struck by the timbre of one of the lower register stops which was unusually dense: I’d call it nasal; in fact, the sounds seemed almost too varied. Nevertheless, it was clear that Mozart had absorbed the style and spirit of the composers of two generations before him. It could certainly have passed for Handel, if not Bach… with a perfectly good fugue that took over after a couple of minutes.

Ah, vous dirai-je Maman
Mews chose fairly light registrations for Mozart’s familiar theme and variations on what we know as ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’. Each variation has a distinct character and there was plenty of bravura that didn’t sound quite as convincing on the organ as on the piano (my first encounter with it was aged about 16, at a recital by the (very) late Richard Farrell in the Wellington Town Hall). As long as I don’t hear it every day, it remains an engaging work, even on the organ.

Mews introduced Eine kleine Gigue with a story that I didn’t entirely catch, about a small girl and a visitor’s book in the Thomas Kirche in Leipzig. So I looked at Wikipedia and found this:

Kleine Gigue in G major, K 574, is a composition for solo piano by  Mozart during his stay in Leipzig. It is dated 16 May 1789, the day before he left Leipzig. It was directly written into the notebook of Leipzig court organist Karl Immanuel Engel. It is often cited as a tribute by Mozart to J S Bach, although many scholars have likened it to Handel’s Gigue from the Suite No. 8 in F minor, HWV 433. In fact, the subject of the gigue bears a marked similarity to the subject of J S Bach’s B minor fugue, no 24 from Book 1 of Das wohltemperierte Klavier.”

The sounds of the organ’s action were audible during the Gigue and, having become alerted to it, I could hear the sounds later; not a troublesome matter in the least.

The Andante in F, the genuine mechanical organ piece, sounded like what was intended – basically a toy, and there’s a letter to his wife Constanza saying how its composition bored him. Even if Mozart knew it hardly did him credit the rest of us probably enjoyed its few harmless minutes, especially as Mews played it, in a lively, unserious way.

The Fantasia and Fugue was also written for the piano but Mews’s note suggests that it might best reflect Mozart’s style of organ improvisation. Widely spaced rising arpeggios on sharply contrasted stops in the Fantasy, with deliberate, emphatic playing that I felt probably did sound better on the organ than the piano. Though if it was in the nature of an improvisation, it sounded rather too studied. The Fugue clearly demonstrated Mozart’s wide-ranging genius, in a serious and well thought-out work inspired by Bach, and Mews’s imaginative registrations kept one alert through its monochrome, unchanging key.

Alla Turca
Finally, perhaps very tenuously, he chose the Alla Turca from the Sonata in A, K 331; a send-up of a send-up perhaps, Mews simply played it, I suspect, so that he’d be able to employ a wide and surprising range of stops, and on that level it was a fun ending to the recital.


Wilma and Friends

Wilma Smith – violin, Anna Pokorny – cello, Ian Munro – piano

Gareth Farr: Mondo Rondo
Ian Munro: Tales from Old Russia
Françaix: Trio for violin, cello and piano

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Monday 4 February, 2 pm

An hour-long recital from Wilma Smith and her two friends took place in the afternoon. Wilma was the founding leader of the New Zealand String Quartet, though she later became concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and then of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra has never lost contact with New Zealand and her former colleagues. Her two friends here were Australians: Anna Pokorny is a versatile young cellist who has won awards in several important competitions, played in leading Australian orchestras and with various chamber ensembles. Pianist Ian Munro has enjoyed a long and distinguished career. His compositions have been played by eminent ensembles such as the Eggner Trio and the Brentano Quartet, as well as the Goldner Quartet with Munro himself as soloist.

And here was the trio’s playing of Munro’s Tales from Old Russia, inspired by some of the tales collected by Russian folklorist Alexander Afanasiev. The composer’s notes mention three but there may have been more: Fair Vassilisa, The Snow Maiden and Death and the Soldier. The Snow Maiden was the first, with fluttering imagery, interrupted by noisy galloping before a return to quietness. Death and the Soldier involved tapping the lowered lid of the keyboard, and ended in a waltz-like rhythm.

Though I found the first two pieces rather longer than seemed useful, I felt by the end that they created a kind of dramatic coherence.

Mondo Rondo
Gareth Farr’s Mondo Rondo which has become one of the more familiar pieces by New Zealand composers opened the recital. This too involved the pianist in what are called ‘extended piano techniques’ in the second movement, evocatively called Mumbo Jumbo (the last movement is Mambo Rambo). Though one might be excused for thinking that Farr’s often quizzical titles reflect music that is less than serious, the reality is generally very different, and I suspect that his aim is to induce an expectation of drollerie or comedy in order to induce unlettered audiences to expect to be amused; they generally are, but not in the way they expected. There are indeed a lot of unusual techniques, but in comparison with some music that finds it useful to use instruments in unorthodox ways, Farr’s piece creates a feeling of sense, with music that has come from the imagination rather than from some concept or experimental intention.

Françaix piano trio
The last piece returned us to the European heartland, though now truly in music whose aim was to amuse as well as to stimulate a musical response. The mere fact that it’s in four movements suggests that Françaix didn’t intend that his music was to be heard as light or trivial; rather that it was legitimate for music to amuse as well as to call for some degree of listener attention. The programme note remarks that while his music seems simple, in reality it is full of unexpected chromaticism and interesting details. My first awareness of Françaix was with his arrangement of Boccherini’s music for the ballet, Scuolo di ballo, an often played suite on 2YC, the predecessor of RNZ Concert many years ago.

And this performance met those expectations very well.


Bach by Candlelight

Oboe sonata in G minor, BWV 1030b
Violin Partita No 1 n B minor, BWV 1002
Arias from Cantatas 21 ‘Seufzer Tränen’, 84 ‘Ich esse mit Freuden’, 187, ‘Gott versorget’, 202 (Wedding Cantata)
Sarabande from the 5th cello suite (BWV
Brandenburg Concerto no 3 in G minor, BWV 1048

The New Zealand String Quartet, Thomas Hutchinson – oboe, Anthony Marwood, Nikki Chooi and Wilma Smith – violins; Ori Kam – viola and Kyril Zlotnikov – cello, from the Jerusalem Quartet; Anna Pokony – cello, Douglas Mews – harpsichord, Joan Perarnau Garriga – double bass

Nelson Cathedral

Monday 4 February, 7:30 pm

Central to the festival has always been a concert in the Cathedral entitled Bach by Candlelight. Though the School of Music is back in business, the Cathedral concert could not be forsaken. Like all the other evening concerts, the Cathedral was sold out, with customers squeezed into every crevice, and all the traditional shortcomings were suffered and enjoyed: mainly, the lack of cool air, obviously not a matter that the designers and builders of this neo-Gothic edifice, used to English climatic pleasures, could be expected to contemplate. The usual safety warning was delivered in a singularly irreverent and amusing manner by Festival director Bob Bickerton.

The tradition is to employ as many as possible of the musicians currently in town. That included the New Zealand String Quartet, violist and cellist from the Jerusalem Quartet, Wilma Smith and her cellist friend Anna Pokorny, Douglas Mews and bass player Joan Perarnau Garriga, brilliant violinists Anthony Marwood and Nikki Chooi, oboist Thomas Hutchinson and soprano Anna Fraser. It’s also normal to play a range of solo pieces, small chamber music pieces, some vocal items, usually from the 200-odd cantatas, and one larger work, such as a Brandenburg Concerto or an orchestral suite.

Oboe sonata
The young oboist Thomas Hutchinson and harpsichordist Douglas Mews opened with a sonata with a solo part that’s not specified: it’s thought to be an earlier version of the first flute sonata, BWV 1030, and while it might also be for flute, the oboe is a possibility; so it’s given the BWV number 1030b. Hutchinson’s oboe here sounded a world away from the sound he created for the Dorati pieces that he played on Saturday evening. Discreet and detached in articulation, and cast mainly in the oboe’s high register, his playing was admirably supported by the harpsichord (the lid of which featured a gorgeous painting of the island at the end of the Boulder Bank). This was a most elegant performance, fluent and often impressing with Hutchinson’s long sustained breaths that were often demanded.

Violin Partita No 1
The second solo violin partita is more often played on account of the great Sarabande with which it ends; so it was good to hear Anthony Marwood play this one which is characterised by the varied repeat of each of the four ‘dance’ movements, which amount to a faster and more varied account of the movement. It means the partita has, in effect, nine ‘movements’; the ‘Double’ of the Courante was particularly brilliant. It would have been useful if I’d had the score with me as I’m not very familiar with it. Marwood’s playing was spectacular as well as having the flavour of the baroque style as might have been delivered by one of the brilliant violinists of Bach’s time.

Then came a couple of arias from the church cantatas: No 187, ‘Gott versorget’ and No 21, Seufzer, Tränen’.  An Australian soprano took the vocal parts. Though the initial impression of the first aria was of a large and voluminous voice, it soon struck me that those qualities, in her upper register, were somewhat unvaried, markedly distinct from the character of the lower voice, and it scarcely reflected the humility that seems expressed in the words. However, the accompaniment by oboe, cello and harpsichord was admirable. The oboe again offered the essential support in the long lines of the aria from No 21.

A break in the vocal pieces came with Rolf Gjelsten’s modest playing of the Sarabande from the 5th solo cello suite: slow, careful and unostentatious.

Anna Fraser returned to sing the aria ‘Ich esse mit Freuden mein weniges Brot’, again with oboe, Chooi’s violin, cello and harpsichord. The large, bright character of Fraser’s voice was more appropriate here, with the aria’s brisk tempo and the repetition of the word ‘Freude’, in joyous triple time.

The vocal line of the Wedding Cantata was supported by a larger body of instrumentalists, including two violins and Joan Perarnau Garriga on the double bass as well as oboe, viola, cello and harpsichord. While the vocal line can support a certain amount of unrestrained joy, here a quality of unrestraint was on full throttle, with very little variety of timbre and none of dynamics.

Gjelsten’s cello had much to do, contributing sensitively to the music’s character.

Brandenburg Concerto No 3
The last item was, as usual, an orchestral work – the third Brandenburg Concerto, which is scored for three each of violins, violas and cellos, necessarily drawing players from both string quartets (Monique Lapins switching to viola), Wilma Smith and her cellist friend Anna Pokorny. For me this was the most satisfying and delightful music in the concert; its performance was simply splendid, full of energy and optimism that was vigorously expressed.


Nikki Chooi – violin

Paganini: Caprices no 17 and 21
Joan Tower: String Force
Bach: Chaconne from solo violin partita no 2 in G minor (BWV 1004)
Eugene Ysaÿe: Ballade Op 27 no 3

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Tuesday 5 February 2 pm

It was nice to get a couple of Paganini’s 24 caprices, without the usually compulsory No 24, though it would have been even nicer if Chooi had given us three or four of them, for they deserve to be better known. However, Chooi’s playing of these two did a good job in presenting Paganini as something more than an extraordinary violinist.

No 17 is brilliant, varied and witty, and of course it exploits all the tricks that the composer as well as this violinist commanded, though I felt that Chooi didn’t find all the subtleties and refinement that is also there. To hear a second one was useful in allowing those who’ve never heard them all to be aware of the range of Paganini’s imagination and musical taste; each is brilliant in an entirely different way.

American composer Joan Tower’s String Force seemed to be an exercise in contrasting violin techniques, comparable to but entirely different from Paganini’s aim. Flutterings, then lengthy glissandi seemingly on two strings, hair-raising bowing and harmonic effects, but I wondered, in a scribbled note whether there was much musical substance to be discovered.

That need was completely fulfilled in the playing of the great Chaconne from Bach’s second violin partita. Here, Chooi’s performance was profoundly thoughtful, scrupulously studied and paced; a performance has to demonstrate the ultimate spiritual character of the music and one of my notes had a question-mark after that remark, but it was immediately followed by my admiring the long sequence of arpeggiated lines, and the flawless (without the score), passionate way he made his way through the gloriously protracted final pages.

Most of the great instrumental practitioners of the 19th century were also quite good composers, and the Spaniard Ysaÿe passed that test. I’ve heard the Ballade from his Op 27 before, played at Sty Andrew’s on The Terrace some years ago, though I can’t recall by whom. And one wonders what the other pieces in Op 27 are like, and for that matter, the preceding 26 opus numbers. The histrionics are very conspicuous, but there’s music inside them, with a healthy emotional content, and the melodic ideas retain the listener’s attention. Chooi presented it with musical honesty as well as very conspicuous technical accomplishment.


Slavic Rhapsody

Dvořák: Slavonic Dances in E minor, Op 46/2 and in D, Op 46/6  (Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon – pianos)
Louise Webster: The Shape of your Words  (Wilma Smith and Helene Pohl – – violins)
Bartók: Violin Sonata no 2 in C, Sz 76.BB 85  (Monique Lapins – violin and Dénes Várjon – piano)
Dvořák: Piano Quintet No 2 in A, Op 81  (Helene Pohl and Moniqe Lapins – violins, Gillian Ansell – viola, Rolf Gjelsten – cello, Dénes Várjon – piano)

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Tuesday 5 February, 7:30 pm

Slavic in the sense that the majority of the pieces were by Dvořák, but Bartók might have preferred a more geographical rather than ethnic definition. But certainly, the Czech composer’s music was by far the best known.

Two Slavonic Dances
As I remarked about the limited selection of Paganini Caprices, three or four of the Slavonic Dances, including a couple of less known ones would have been interesting. The delight about these however was that they were played in their original piano duet version by Dénes Várjon and his wife Izabella Simon. Four hands on a keybopard can sometimes sound very dense, but when the two are perfectly synchronised, clearly been playing together for a long time and take pains with the clarity of the various lines, the result is revelatory: No 2 was delightfully sentimental and dreamy with touches that are usually obscure in the orchestral version. No 6 in the Op 46 set is in a sort of slow triple time, though nothing like a waltz or mazurka; it was simply charming.

‘The Shape of Your Words’
The piece by Louise Webster, featured another duet: this time the violins of Wilma Smith and Helene Pohl; a curious duet beginning with falling semi-tones, soon revealing itself as a carefully dissonant piece, gently barbaric in flavour, yet somewhat hypnotic. The composer’s note simply remarked that ‘it arose in the context of recent events in which courageous individuals have spoken out about injustice of many kinds’. But one was left to guess whether she had in mind, political, artistic, social issues or issues affecting the treatment of women or ethnic minorities… However, the music’s character did indeed present a tone, an intelligence and seriousness of intent that invited one to pay attention.  The programme gave no information about Louise Webster; however, she was present and came up to take a bow at its end.

I later consulted SOUNZ’s very useful and interesting article about her and am rather shame-faced at not having come across her, and her dual citizenship, as it were, as doctor and musician, or at least to have registered her as a significant figure in New Zealand music.

Then came Bartók’s Sonata for violin and piano which was the subject of the discussion on Saturday afternoon which had involved the performers, Monique Lapins and Dénes Várjon. That introduction had given me a little familiarity with an otherwise unknown (to me) work. The first of the two movements opened with delicate glissandi, creating a sensitive, Debussyian feeling that slowly became more dense, soon shedding much suggestion of French music of the time – immediate post-WW1. The second movement becomes more dissonant, with hard-plucking pizzicato and heavy bowing, with dense chords demanded from both instruments. This was more or less my first hearing of Lapins playing such music; she appeared a formidable violinist, not shy of crunching down-bowing or of playing that could be described as masculine, handling the irregular rhythms with conviction; and her facial expressions and body language offered a vivid commentary on the music. I was reminded, in this second movement, of the sounds of Bartók’s sonata for two pianos and percussion, which came of course rather later.

Piano Quintet Op 81
Finally, the piece that most of the audience had probably been waiting for: Dvořák’s second piano quintet, in A. (Not so long ago I looked for the first piano quintet, to find that it’s a very early work, rarely played). First, one was struck by the sharp clothing adopted here by the five players, black with silvery detailing. Though the arrange of players on stage lend prominence to the strings, Várjon’s playing quickly commanded attention; but so did the playing by the strings, very possibly driven by the pianist’s energy and commitment. Each member of the quartet came to one’s attention with striking solo episodes, and the entire performance was all that the happy audience members could have hoped for. I will quote one of the thoughts that I scribbled towards the end: that even if Várjon was not the main driving force, his musical personality had the effect of releasing a remarkable level of passion and abandon in the others.


Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson: the first days

Grand Opening Concert

Mozart: Horn Quintet in E flat, K 407    Sam Jacobs – horn, Helene Pohl – violin, Gillian Ansell – viola, Monique Lapins – viola, Rolf Gjelsten – cello
Brahms: Three Intermezzi from Op 118 (Nos 1, 2, 6)    Dénes Várjon
Prokofiev: Sonata for two violins, Op 58    Anthony Marwood and Nikki Chooi – violins
Brahms: String Quintet No 2 in G, Op 111    Jerusalem Quartet (Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler – violins, Ori Kam – viola, Kyril Zlotnikov – cello), with Gillian Ansell – second viola

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts (Nelson School of Music)

Friday 1 February 2019, 7:30 pm

This was the first festival for five years that has been able to move back to the now magnificently enhanced Nelson School of Music (now called the Nelson Centre of Musical Arts). That, as well as the line-up of many top international musicians, saw the early sell-out of all but one of the nine superb evening concerts. That’s attributable also to the festival’s international reputation, attracting many people from around New Zealand and increasing numbers from overseas. My frequent comment that for the past 20 years, it’s been the finest classical music festival in New Zealand bears reiterating: its only earlier competitor was the three weeks duration New Zealand International Arts Festival in Wellington which has long ceased to be one of the richest classical music festivals in the world.

The first concert on Friday 1 February happened to be the birthday of the festival’s most important and longest standing sponsor, Denis Adam, who died last October. In their opening remarks former minister for the arts, Chris Finlayson, as well as festival chair Colleen Marshall, paid deeply-felt tributes to his 25 years of support.

The opening concert was an opportunity to show-case most of the artists scheduled in the early days of the festival. So the New Zealand String Quartet plus NZSO principal horn Samuel Jacobs opened this first concert with Mozart’s Horn Quintet in E flat, one of several challenging pieces that Mozart wrote for his horn-playing friend Joseph Leutgeb; it’s an unusual work, made more curious by employing two violas instead of two violins. The quartet’s second violinist, Monique Lapins, switched to the viola. It enriched the sound beautifully, even though in the beginning there was some imbalance between horn and strings in this very clear acoustic; the players soon settled to a performance of great delight.

Returning Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon then played three of the Six Pieces, Op 118, some of the many small piano pieces that Brahms wrote near the end of his life. Intermezzi nos 1, 2, and 6 of the set are sharply different in spirit and style, and they whetted the appetite to hear Várjon playing Beethoven and other music during the week.

Brahms’s 2nd string quintet and three intermezzi
There was a connection between the three intermezzi and the Jerusalem Quartet’s performance in the second half of Brahms’s second String Quintet (this time, the second violist being Gillian Ansell of the New Zealand String Quartet). Though he intended that the quintet would be his last composition, as his health was failing, its great success encouraged him to write a lot more chamber music in his last years, specifically the 20 pieces of opp 116 to 119. They were three well-contrasted pieces in which Várjon found subtle and interesting characteristics, No 6 traversing a sad, reflective mood that grew suddenly more exciting, even overwhelming by the end. I rather wished he’d played more of them.

The quintet is not one of Brahms most familiar pieces, but this performance made it easy to understand the warm reception its premiere in Vienna in 1890 received; somewhere described as ‘a sensation’. And this performance, celebratory and confident, with all five players producing a rapturous first movement with warm, heart-felt, sometimes boisterous playing promised a similar response. The second movement may be rather more enigmatic, but there was no lack of unanimity in their playing, particularly in the uniform warmth and richness of tone that they drew from their instruments. Although the last movement might not have seemed as spirited and moving as the first, at the end the audience responded with a sort of hushed awe.

The 20th century was represented by a not-well-known piece by Prokofiev, his Sonata for two violins, Op 58. Its four movements, vividly contrasted, and ferociously challenging were played by Canadian Nikki Chooi and British Anthony Marwood. Though alternating in musical sense and mood from phrase to phrase, seeming to speak different languages, ultimately an astonishing integrity and a shared purpose was revealed both in the music itself and its performance.


Saturday: Meeting the artists and discussing the music

The Jerusalem Quartet, talking with Gillian Ansell

Bartók’s music in the Festival: members of the Jerusalem Quartet, Dénes Várjon with Helene Pohl and Monique Lapins

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Saturday 2 February, 10 am and 2 pm

Talking with the Jerusalem Quartet 
The day had started with a morning appointment in which NZSQ violist Gillian Ansell talked with the four members of the Jerusalem Quartet. It was one of those occasions when the public gets to glimpse the sort of relationship that exists between those musicians who appear to the audience as rather super-human beings. The light shone not just on the four Israelis, but also on the normality of their rapport with at least one other musician of comparable gifts and insight: here, Gillian Ansell.

Their lives: the two violinists born in Kiev in Ukraine, the cellist from Minsk in Belarus, and violist Ori Kam who was born of Ukrainian parentage in California. While the other three were original members, he joined the quartet in 2009. Their various backgrounds have naturally become of special interest through the political and military activities that have forced on the rest of the world, some understanding of cynical post-Soviet adventurism and the unwise behaviour of the Ukrainian and Belarusian regimes. Each revealed careers that existed before and continued after the formation of the Jerusalem Quartet, when the players were about 17. And their careers have been troubled by reactions to their evident nature of their relationship with the Israeli Government.

No doubt because of his fluency in English, Ori Kam tended to lead entertainingly, with interesting detail about his own and the quartet’s background.

In the afternoon, Dénes Várjon, members of the Jerusalem Quartet, and Helene Pohl and Monique Lapins, talked about the three Bartók pieces to be played in the following days. The relevant works discussed and illustrated were the Suite for piano, Op 14, written in 1916, on Sunday evening, the second violin sonata, written in 1922 on Tuesday evening, and the 5th String quartet played after I’d left Nelson. Várjon spoke in some detail about the Suite and the influence of his early exploration and recording of folk music in Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Algeria. He mentioned Bartók’s own comments in the recordings which had a singular impact.

Monique Lapins was given space to play excerpts from, and talk about Bartók’s violin sonata; I found her presentation rarely illuminating, especially through her near-seductive movements that created an almost balletic interpretation of the music. The excerpts chosen from several movements of each work were a revelation, preparing the ground so illuminatingly for all three. I heard the full performances of only the first two works, neither of which I was familiar with.   Like many others, I find Bartók a gritty composer, his music not especially engaging, though it richly repays perseverance and close attention.

The members of the Jerusalem Quartet then discussed Bartók’s fifth string quartet to which all contributed, though it was violist Ori Kam who tended to lead the way, guiding the quartet’s playing of significant passages, pointing to bits that reflected the folk music of this or that Balkan people, even Turkish, and he remarked on the readiness of the Balkan Christian population, even when faced with imminent Turkish invasion, to enjoy Turkish music. He contributed encouraging remarks like, “Cool, isn’t it!”.

Saturday evening: Schubert, Dorati, Schumann and Brahms

Schubert: Violin Sonata No 3 in G minor, D 408    Alexander Pavlovsky – violin and Dénes Várjon – piano
Antal Dorati: Three pieces for oboe solo – La cigale et la fourmi, Lettre d’amour, Legerdemain    Thomas Hutchinson – oboe
Schumann: Piano Quartet in E flat, Op 47    Helene Pohl – violin, Gillian Ansell – viola, Kyril Zlotnikov – cello, Dénes Várjon – piano
Brahms: Horn Trio in E flat, Op 40    Sam Jacobs – horn, Anthony Marwood – violin, Dénes Várjon – piano

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Saturday 2 February, 7:30 pm

The Saturday evening concert opened with the first of one of the festival themes: the four Schubert sonatas, three of them called sonatinas in their first publication, after his death. Indeed, they are not heavy-weight in length or tone. Each was played by a different violinist: the first, No 3, D 408, played here by Alexander Pavkovsky and Várjon. There might have been a lingering trace of Bartókian urgency under the warmth and delight that the first movement produces, and one might have thought about the very short distance between Vienna and Budapest, or towns in which Bartók lived as a child, such as Pozsony (now Bratislava in Slovakia). The violin produced a sound that had the burnished glow of Rimu.

Prize-winning New Zealand oboist Thomas Hutchinson chose an unusual solo piece for his offering in this recital of huge variety: a set of three pieces by composer Antal Dorati, who was also a conductor of considerable distinction: a Hungarian (to keep Bartók company).  Bartók taught him at the Franz Liszt Academy and he conducted the world premiere of Bartók’s viola concerto. To modern audiences his fame rests substantially on his complete recordings of Haydn’s 104 symphonies with the Philharmonia Hungarica, an orchestra created from refugee musicians who fled Communist Hungary after Soviet troops invaded to put down the 1956 revolutionary attempt.

Hutchinson’s oboe was rich and virtuosic in the performance of the three sharply contrasted pieces, ending with beautifully articulated playing of the fast, highly imaginative last piece, Legerdemain.

Schumann’s piano quartet
Two major chamber works followed: Brahms’s Horn Trio and Schumann’s Piano Quartet. The latter was played by the NZSQ’s Helene Pohl and Gillian Ansell with cellist Kyril Zlotnikov from the Jerusalem Quartet. Várjon emerged the hero however; though the balance between piano and strings was admirable and all the most remarkable aspects of Schumann’s genius were there to delight us. It is not an everyday experience to hear such an impassioned performance; and one’s attention kept shifting from individual string players to the ensemble sounds and then realising that I was not listening attentively enough to Várjon at the piano, playing with the sort of passion that’s more characteristic of eastern European musicians than to those of the western countries; after all, Schumann was brought up in Saxony (in Zwickau), very close to the Czech border.

Brahms’s Horn Trio brought back Samuel Jacobs and Anthony Marwood, again with Várjon. I found Marwood’s demeanour a little distracting, weaving about excessively, in contrast to his perfectly restrained performance with Nikki Chooi in the Prokofiev sonata for two violins on Friday. However, it detracted not at all from the sense of delight that his omnipresent violin produced. There was perfect accord between the three musicians, with the result that impressions from my earlier hearings of the trio when I had never been wholly persuaded that Brahms had succeeded in creating an intimate threesome, had to be revised. In fact, Brahms here seemed to have absorbed entirely the character of the horn and the way it could most naturally be blended with two other very distinct instruments. The energy of the first and last movements was remarkable. Though the piano might have been visually in the background, and risked being heard merely as providing accompaniment, I’ve never been so engrossed by the work, particularly in heartfelt passages in the gorgeous, elegiac third movement.

Sunday: Várjon in Beethoven and Bartók

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas No 29 in B flat, Op 106 ‘Hammerklavier’ and No 32 in C minor, Op 111
Bartók: Suite for Piano, Op 14

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Sunday 3 February, 7:30 pm

I did not go to the Sunday afternoon concert, even though I would certainly have loved to hear Monique Lapins play the third violin Sonata of Schubert, with Izabella Simon at the piano, and probably the pieces by Lohei Mukai and New Zealanders John Rimmer and Simon Eastwood.

Perhaps I felt that I needed to conserve my listening energies for the extraordinary Beethoven project in the evening. The mere thought of playing the Hammerklavier in the same programme as the Op 111 seemed to demand physical and spiritual preparation and calm.

The Hammerklavier
There were no preliminaries to prepare for the big one: Várjon opened as he clearly intended to carry on, with an attack of unbridled power that gave no room at all for gentility or decorum. In fact, it spoke at once to prompt the first scribble in my notebook about ‘the rough and tumble’ opening in which he attacked the keyboard with abandon, with no apparent concern about the inevitable fluff that listeners bothered by such trivia might have spotted. But any of that was utterly unimportant in the overwhelming strength and compulsion that drove Várjon’s playing.

It recalled a comment that I’d come across in a YouTube recording I’d listened to a few days before: “weird, titanic, gnarled, joyous, grief-stricken monster that is the Hammerklavier”. Though the recording in question was courteous and disciplined in comparison to what I heard from Várjon. Confirmation of the wild character of the performance came right at the start, with the sudden modulation, mid-measure, from B flat to D within the first minute, which seemed a far more rebellious act than one had ever encountered before.

At the beginning of the development section, following an unresolved cadence, there are several pauses which Várjon held for what seemed unusual length and which further sustained the sense of ferocity and recklessness. And unusually long pauses continued to characterise the development section, and particularly the recapitulation, always with extraordinary dramatic effect.

The contrast with the brief Scherzo was perhaps more than usually striking: bright and clear, yet with these more restrained rhythmic and tonal shifts Várjon maintained the dramatic mood of the first movement. Then the Adagio sostenuto offered an extended, painstaking retreat to a peaceful, contemplative quarter hour, certain passages feeling as if the pervasive 6/8 tempo has turned it into a Ländler, though Várjon seemed to treat it as if Beethoven was struggling, painfully to find some sort of equilibrium.  Throughout the last movement which starts in deathly quiet, he continued to illuminate the composer’s determination to exploit every possible disturbing and dramatic element that could be found in it.

The last movement is no ordinary fast and sunny affair. It opens in deathly quiet, and gradually accelerates to regain the spirit of fierce determination that had dominated the first movement. Many performances seem to recover a feeling of peace and acceptance, but by the end that spirit was scarce; I simply knew that I’d never heard such a tumultuous, wildly Romantic performance of this masterpiece. And I loved it.

Bartók’s Suite for piano  
The programme notes point out that although Bartók was a fine pianist, he wrote little for the piano; this Suite, Op 14, written in 1916, and a later sonata are his only significant piano pieces. It is in four shortish movements: Allegretto, Scherzo, Allegro Molto and Sostenuto. The first sounds like a folk dance, though none of the themes in the suite are said to be taken from his collection of folk tunes. It’s spiky, unmistakably Bartók, as are the other movements; both the second and third are also fast and only the fourth, Sostenuto, relaxes to allow a feeling of calm to descend, though Várjon never allowed us to relax, persuading us that the work deserved to be much better known.

Opus 111 
The recital ended with Beethoven’s last sonata, Op 111 and although separated by the Bartók from the Hammerklavier, it felt very much from the same source, providing just a rather more metaphysical, less ferocious version of the earlier work, though in the Op 111 Várjon sought to find comparable unease and power. Its long second movement, Arietta, which Beethoven carefully describes as Adagio molto semplice e cantabile, all hardly departing from C major throughout the 20-odd minutes of its five variations, builds the most profound musical creation starting with several slow, repeated passages, then minutes of rolling triplets, before breaking out with a sort of ecstatic episode with rising and falling arpeggios in dotted rhythms (you don’t often find time signatures like 9/16). Várjon built this marvellous movement steadily, creating a near-hypnotic state, ecstatic and profoundly spiritual. His playing seemed never really to return to earth as feathery phrases went on and on, long sequences of trills, all elaborating a profoundly moving melody that is spun endlessly, coming to a simple ending that called for and got a long held silence before an immediate standing ovation.


NZSO’s Telemann/Handel presentation at Wellington Cathedral – spectacle before music?

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
TELEMANN – Water Music
HANDEL – Water Music

Vesa-Matti Leppänen (conductor and leader)
Members of The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul,
Molesworth St, Wellington

Friday, 1st February 2019

This was one of those concerts better described by the word “occasion” – yes, there was music, yes there were musicians, and yes, the music was played; but at every step of the way the emphasis of the event’s publicity, presentation and performance seemed to be more on the “occasional” nature of the pieces and their sounds rather than their actual substance.

Historically, this wasn’t at all inappropriate considering the performance origins of both Telemann’s and Handel’s work, each coming down to us with the title “Water Music” as a result of their indelible associations with and proximity to the stuff! Telemann’s work was written in 1723 for a banquet marking the centennial anniversary of the Hamburg Admiralty, celebrating Hamburg’s importance and success as a port on the River Elbe; while Handel’s music was composed for a “Water Party” given by King George I on the River Thames in London during July of 1717.

While Telemann’s work was played riverside but on dry land, Handel’s was actually performed “on the water” by 50 musicians on a barge for the pleasure of the King and his courtiers on another barge, accompanied by “a number of boats beyond counting” filled with people who wanted to listen! And in Hamburg it was reported that, during the playing of Telemann’s music, “….ships lying offshore did not fail to add to the festivities, some by the firing of cannon, and all by flying pennants and flags…”

It can be gleaned from all of this that spectacle and sensation were integral to both occasions – the music was praised in each instance by various reports, Telemann’s described as “admirable” and “beautiful” and “uncommonly well-suited to the occasion”, and Handel’s reported as finding such favour with the Monarch that “he caused it to be played three times in all, twice before and once after supper, even though each performance lasted an hour.”

Still, in each of these performance contexts the music seemed to have been merely part of a larger purpose, that of honouring an anniversary or celebrating a state of sovereignty. One couldn’t imagine conditions on either of these occasions being ideal for listening, purely and simply – but “listening” wasn’t the only thing on the agenda.

For myself, I would love to have been at each of these happenings, though not just for the music – I would relish the spectacle, the occasion and the sense of something out of the ordinary being enacted, as I’m sure those present both in Hamburg and in London those many years ago did. And it’s in that kind of spirit that I would go as far as saying that what the NZSO did in organising this concert worked on a certain level – it was certainly no “ordinary” affair, in a number of ways.

Orchestra Concertmaster, Vesa-Matti Leppanen, who also directed the players, was quoted in the publicity as saying, “The venues for 2019 (re baroque music) were chosen for their intimate settings, atmosphere and acoustics”……..well, I think everybody would have agreed the church had atmosphere aplenty – and it soon became obvious that there was, as well, a whale of an acoustic, however inappropriate! What was the first of the criteria again? – ah, yes! – well, the accompanying blurb stated that numerous baroque works were first performed in churches – which is true, except that many Baroque churches were in fact “intimate” venues and rarely if ever matched the dimensions of St.Paul’s in Wellington.

None of this seemed to deter what seemed a goodly crowd of spectators on Friday evening (despite the event clashing with the opening of the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson) – it was difficult to assess whether the church was actually full-to-bursting, but it appeared pleasingly well-attended. I thought the absence of any printed programme further underlined the overall “spectacle” concept, though Vesa-Matti did give us an outline of the content and order of the works after the musicians had taken the platform – which would have been particularly valuable in the case of the lesser-known Telemann.

I didn’t attend the orchestra’s “Back-to-Bach” Concert in 2018 at the same venue, but my colleague Rosemary Collier reviewed the concert, commenting favourably on the clarity of the sound from her particular vantage-point, a seat in the very front row. To my ears it seemed I wasn’t so lucky, this time round, arriving too late to get a place towards the front, and having to take one ten or so rows back.

I was well aware of the phenomenon (mentioned by my colleague) of experiencing greater sound-clarity when sitting as close as possible to the performers in such an acoustic – and, alas! – it seemed that I was too far back! –  while the slower music sounded grander and richer-toned than I’ve ever previously heard, and the quieter music was able to maintain some of its transparency, anything that was quick-moving over a certain dynamic level seemed to me to turn into confusion, the details repeatedly blurred by their own resonances.

Still, in several places the acoustic effect did work to some advantage, particularly in the Telemann suite of pieces, which employed characterisations of mythological deities and sequences of tone-painting evoking the actions of water in nature – two movements, the Sarabande (The sleeping sea-goddess Thetis) and the Menuet (The pleasant wind, Zephyr) – made a particularly ravishing effect, especially with the recorder-tones – and two others in particular ( No.7 The stormy Aeolus, and the Gigue – No.9 Ebb und Fluth, The Tides of Hamburg) created considerable physical excitement, both having crescendi that the acoustic seemed to “take charge of” and imbue the figurations with tempestuous versions of gleeful abandonment, the jumbled sounds creating even more of an impression of nature at work!

I must make mention, too, of the work’s final movement (The Jolly Sailors), the accented rhythms augmented here by timpani and then by what sounded like stamping feet, as a whole company of sea-farers seemingly joined in with the dance for the last few riotous bars! It should be emphasised that the orchestral playing under Vesa-Matti Leppänen’s direction throughout these vividly-characterised sequences was, by turns, sensitive, colourful, sharply-etched and full-blooded – one could HEAR something of the playing’s quality, even with the reverberation activated and cross-firing on all cylinders!

Much the same effect of quietly-augmented beauties alternating with rumbustiously jumbled energies marked, for me, the performance of the Handel Suites, far better-known, of course, than the Telemann work – unfortunately Telemann, unlike Handel, didn’t have a “Hamilton Harty” to further his music’s cause (Harty, a prominent early twentieth-century conductor/ composer, made popular arrangements for modern orchestra of both the “Water Music” and the “Royal Fireworks Music”, which held sway in concert halls until recent times, but are now largely ignored in favour of more “authentic” performances of Handel’s music).

For me, knowing the pieces well increased my frustration with the acoustic, as I’d never before heard such a lot of this music in such a muddle! Add to this the modern “authentic practice” penchant for choosing what seem fast-as-possible allegros as “what the composer probably wanted”, and the result was, in much of the quick music, a jolly-sounding but thoroughly confused noise! Again, for me what worked well were the more stately pieces and the quieter moments – the former acquired impressive resonance and body and sounded magnificent, while the latter engendered a “glow”, a kind of halo of ambience around the sounds which was pleasing to the ear – I thought in the former, the horns and trumpets made splendid ceremonial noises, and in the latter, the softer instruments (especially the recorders!) charmed and beguiled with their sometimes celestial, sometimes pastoral (and, one could imagine, “across-the-water”) tones.

Some brief notes about the playing, which, as in the Telemann, could hardly be faulted in terms of sheer elan in the quick music and tonal beauty and depth of feeling in the slower pieces – great work from the strings in the Overture, and beautiful playing from the oboe in both in the lead-up to the horn-dominated Allegro and the Andante interlude before he return of the Allegro, with the horns! I loved the sprightly Minuet (thrills and spills from the horns once again, and lovely minor-key wistfulness from the strings in the central section. The acoustic was also kinder to both the “jogtrot” Air (beautifully “held” notes from the horns in places) and to the quieter parts of the second Minuet, introduced by lovely horn fanfares. I feared at first for the scampering Bouree, but the acoustic imparted an almost “theatrical”air to the instruments’ rapid peregrinations, points crossed and curves negotiated with hair-raising skill!

The second group of pieces prominently featured the flute, the opening gentle and pastoral – Elgar’s remark “Something heard down by the river” could well apply here also….the “helter-skelter” aspect of the dance which followed made for too much confusion to my ears, but the “Heigh-ho, Anthony Rowley” character of the following Gigue had an infectious swing, and had sufficient light-and-shade between its sections to allow the rhythms to “tell”.

And so to the final, trumpet-led group of pieces, during which the cathedral spaces were made to rock and thunder with joy in certain places, never with enough clarity for the music’s sake, but undoubtedly rousing and properly blood-stirring in effect! As well as could be judged, the playing sounded terrific! – trumpets and horns had a fine time with their call-and-answer phrases in the well-known Hornpipe (introduced by a nifty piece of virtuoso violin-playing from the concertmaster), and the timpani made its presence felt with an arresting introductory drum-roll and some cataclysmic support for the music’s “grand processional” concluding sounds.

Wellington is struggling to find suitable places for music-making at present, with at least three major venues closed for “earthquake-strengthening” work. I’m not confident that the Cathedral is the “answer to a prayer” that some organisers seem to imagine it to be. For me, this was, as I’ve said, more an “occasion” than a satisfying concert experience, something to be truly marvelled at but not for purely musical reasons – too much of the music came out as a right, royal jumble! I’ve no wish to be a voice crying in the ambient wilderness – but there’s plenty of repertoire, and ensembles to perform it, that would, in my view, bring out the building’s marvellous qualities far more appropriately and mellifluously than what I heard here.