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.


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