Art-to-music realisations, a royal farewelling, and interplanetary evocations – all in an evening’s work for the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

ANNA CLYNE (b.1980) – Abstractions II, III, IV

HECTOR BERLIOZ – La Mort de Cléopâtre (The Death of Cleopatra) Hob.36

GUSTAV HOLST – Symphonic Suite – The Planets Op.32

Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano)
Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Edo de Waart (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 30th March 2019

Tonight’s concert began with a sobering reminder of the tragedy that had shaken the whole of the country just over a fortnight previously, audience and musicians alike standing for a minute’s silence in remembrance of the incident’s victims, conductor Edo de Waart eschewing his “maestro’s entrance” on this occasion, and accompanying his concertmaster, VesaMatti Leppänen onto the concert platform, to stand with the other performers. As this was the first “home ground” concert given by the orchestra since the incident in Christchurch, the gesture seemed more than fitting, and was suitably moving.

Without further ado, conductor and orchestra prepared to embark on the concert’s opening item, one of three pieces written by British composer Anna Clyne under the collective title Abstractions, and belonging to a larger set of five – we were to hear the second, third and fourth pieces of the set. I read with interest Edo de Waart’s account of his previous interaction with the composer’s music, which obviously made a lasting impression, and of his delight in giving with the orchestra the New Zealand premiere of the three pieces.

The sleeve-note writer drew an interesting comparison between these three pieces, each inspired by a specific work of 21st century art, and Musorgsky’s well-known work “Pictures from an Exhibition”, contending that Clyne’s approach to the art-works was more a realisation of the “feeling” each of the images gives, as opposed to what the writer regarded as the more literal depictions of the Russian composer. Of course, “literal” and “abstract” aren’t absolutes, and will mean different things to different people, in Musorgsky’s music as in Anna Clyne’s work.

The first piece, Abstractions II, was subtitled Auguries after an artwork of the same name by Julie Mehretu, a huge, 10-panel sequence, meant to be “read” from left to right. Beginning with fast-moving “shards” of sound, swirling and passing overhead and becoming themselves an accompaniment for an impassioned theme, the piece resounded with irruptions, punctuations and “tumbledown” episodes, very “filmic” to my ears, at once visual and visceral, not least the abrupt, whip-beaten conclusion.

By contrast, Abstraction III, appropriately named Seascape, after a photograph by Hiroshi Sugimoto, featured winds and percussion drifting, murmuring and oscillating, a very French-sounding orchestral palette, joined by a pedal-point-like lower string rumble, giving an oceanic depth to the array. Gorgeously-wrought textures wafted from winds’ and strings’ interminglings, adding to the “living stasis” of the textures and tones, a bassoon drowsily but deftly presiding over the music’s “dying fall”.

Abstraction IV  was River, from a lithograph by Elsworth Kelly,  the sounds tempestuous, off-beat and scintillating with movement, running strings set against tremulous and irruptive percussion, then held in thrall to quieter, calmer, more circumspect forces until the pent-up energies broke out once again, burgeoning into a maelstrom-like climax. Its resonances were gradually “wrapped around” by wind-chords, absorbing and becalming all impulse. I thought it attractive, evocative orchestral writing.

A good deal of interest in the concert centred on the appearance of well-known American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, performing Hector Berlioz’s dramatic scene La Mort de Cléopâtre (The Death of Cleopatra). The singer’s “bio” as per programme suggested that she is currently revisiting her “signature interpretations” of this and three other great French “song cycles” (which Cléopâtre is not in any case, being a “dramatic cantata” – in fact, of the four works mentioned, it’s only the other one by Berlioz (“Les nuits d’été”) that can be called a “cycle” of any kind).

Beautifully though she essayed the vocal part, and gorgeously though the NZSO and Edo de Waart accompanied her, I thought our appreciation of both the work and her performance was hampered by the absence of any translation of the text either in the programme or displayed in the hall. It meant that non-French speakers could only generalise as to the significance of any variation or contrast in emphasis, colour or mood the singer’s music presented to us.

Without any such detailings I thought the subtleties of Graham’s performance might have registered with people less readily, especially as, to my ears, she eschewed any extremes of emotional response to the text, and in doing so, sounding somewhat less overtly involved than did the others I’d heard on various recordings I’d been playing (by way of giving this seldom-locally-performed work more of a current listening context).

Had we the translation to follow, I’m certain that Graham’s beautifully-sung, but rather “contained” emotional responses might have had more of a specific impact – true, she delineated certain overall moods in the writing with discernable shifts of emotion (a lovely softening of her tone when recalling past glories – augmented by lovely wind-playing) – and various “irruptions” of emotion registered elsewhere in the music’s unfolding, with appropriate contrasting  emphases in the vocal line – but I couldn’t help longing for in places a sharper, more colourful and varied character from the music.

What particularly attracts me to Berlioz are his music’s capacities to glint, babble, effervesce, snarl, bite, shout, brood and rage! And while this was, on the surface of things, a dignified lament by a Queen, this particular ruler was also known as the “Serpent of the Nile” – so whatever dignity and royal containment the singer conjured up probably needed to be seasoned with at least a few viperish gestures and not merely at the cantata’s end! Speaking of such things, I should add, in all fairness, the unfortunate Queen’s last few moments were here movingly and breath-catchingly done by singer, conductor and players.

Holst’s “The Planets” made for more familiar listening, beginning with the imposing, attention-grabbing movement “Mars, the Bringer of War”. I thought de Waart‘s tempo for the main body of the piece was excellently judged, the relentless 5/4 rhythms neither too fast and frenetic, nor too slow and ponderous. Despite a misjudged percussive stroke at the piece’s end, the players delivered the detailings of the music with fantastic elan and brilliance. It all made for the greatest possible contrast with the cool, chaste strains of “Venus”, cast by Holst as a “Bringer of peace” instead of as the more conventional “Goddess of Love”, the playing (the horn repeatedly showing the way with its gorgeously pure-voiced upward phrase) exquisitely sounded by strings and winds in tandem with the twinkling celeste, if in places I felt it a fraction driven by the conductor, rather than “allowed” to unfold.

Though I felt that “Mercury” could have been a shade fleeter of foot, its steady, natural pace seemed to allow everything in the music to “happen” precisely and meticulously – I simply thought in places that its “Winged Messenger” aspect sounded just a tad too earthbound, the whirling triplets more methodical than impulsive, and thus losing some of that “incredible lightness of being” quality, though the timpani solo at the end sounded suitably energised, as did the playful interactions between celeste and winds which break off into nothingness.

Jupiter, however, I thought an entirely successful “Bringer of Jollity”, right from its energised ascending opening, the brasses summonsing, in Milton-like musical terms “Laughter holding both his sides”, with the tuba merrily counterpointing the principal “dancing” theme, and the great ¾ “jovial” melody here richly and syncopatedly decorated by the horns. The well-known central tune, appropriated for diverse uses since its composition, was begun as it went on, nobly and grandly, free from bombast and mawkishness, de Waart keeping it moving and letting it expand in an entirely natural way.

As befits their relative remoteness in the solar system, the final three planets always seemed to me to have drawn the most enigmatic and mysterious music from the composer. “Saturn” was Holst’s favourite from all accounts, possibly due to the music’s apparent identification with an all-too-inevitable condition of human frailty – old age. Though the composer himself was barely forty years old at the time of its composition, he seemed more than usually aware of the passing of time’s deleterious effects on both body and spirit, and the process of having to come to terms with such happenings – one might guess that he had “personalised” this movement like none of the others in the suite.

All of these profundities were beautifully and sensitively brought out by the performance, the music’s very opening seemingly “effortful” and almost haunted by spectral feelings of impending gloom, the orchestral detailings casting disturbing shadows over the winds’ opening, halting footsteps. As the piece continued, the forebodings grew from piteous strings and remorseless brasses, the advancing footsteps becoming leviathan-like and augmented by baleful shouts and spectral bells – until, at the tumult’s height the noises subsided, and from the despairing wastes kindled a softer note from the harps, which slowly spread through the orchestral forces, magically transforming the ambiences to the realms of comfort and resignation.

All through the work Holst had employed contrast as one of the hallmarks of the music’s journeyings – and nowhere was this more startlingly employed than with the beginning of “Uranus the Magician” which followed. The upper brass gave the opening four-note motif all they had, shattering the uneasy peace of the previous item’s epilogue, and stimulating a note-for-note response from the heavier brass and then the timpani. What followed had equal parts of humour and menace, the galumphing “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”-like rhythms both entertaining and mesmerising one’s sensibilities, the detailing from all sections of the orchestra breathtaking in both its unanimity and precision, the magician’s final dance and self-annihilating gestures featuring some of the evening’s most exciting playing, with the music’s sudden, shocking designation of the “void” leaving us in the audience both stunned and breathless.

From the silences came sounds as mere pinpricks of light, fixing themselves in the firmament, all the while gradually and dimly giving substance to a mysterious shape, the planet Neptune – at the time of Holst’s composing of this music the farthest, most remote of the planets from the Earth. Such unearthly sounds, gorgeously realised by the winds, at once realising the planet’s “mystic” quality and its mesmeric fascination, the celeste’s sound of a piece with the vertiginous oscillations of the other instruments, the strings instigating great rolling cascades of nothingness and pushing our sensibilities’ boundaries ever further with each measure……at which point the voices, barely audible, began, or, rather were simply “registered” – an eerie, timeless effect that I’d not ever heard so well achieved – the women of the Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir sounded like distant angels paying us no attention whatsoever, merely being “overheard” – extraordinary! The programme’s notewriter quoted the composer’s daughter Imogen Holst as describing how, as the work’s premiere, the voices grew “fainter and fainter until the imagination knew no difference between sound and silence”.

Cathedral organ in major series of important French works: Widor’s second organ symphony

The Widor Project at Saint Paul’s Cathedral  

Michael Stewart – organ

Charles-Marie Widor: Symphony No 2, Op 13 no 2

Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul

Friday 29 March, 12:45 pm

I missed the first, on 1 March, of this year-long series of recitals by the two organists at the Cathedral of Saint Paul.  These ‘symphonies’ are not well known in New Zealand, and perhaps in most Anglophone countries, apart from the last movement, Toccata, of the fifth symphony. But according to the authoritative Wikipedia the organ symphonies are among his better known works.

They represent Widor’s early style.

Widor’s first four symphonies, all published under one opus number – 13, are regarded as suites rather than symphonies, the prescription for which remained fairly strictly defined in spite of Berlioz’s revolt in 1830 with the Symphonie fantastique. Widor himself called them ‘collections’.

The second organ symphony has six movements; they were not given dance names as were suites in the early 18th century. Nevertheless, the second symphony, with its prevailing rhapsodic feeling, hardly seems, at first hearing, to conform to the shape of a symphony, each movement of which usually has a very distinct character and always feels a part of a whole, rather than a stand-alone piece (clearly RNZ Concert sees it differently with their timid programming almost all day, of single movements, for fear of scaring philistine listeners).

The name Praeludium circulare, of the first movement, certainly confirmed the impression of a rhapsodic piece whose musical ideas kept returning, with changing keys, fluid and rather beautiful. The following movements generally refrained from imposing much vivid melody on the listener, and words like wispy, insubstantial, ethereal came to mind and certainly seemed to support the name Pastorale: moderato of the second movement. And its prevailing character was reflected in the use of flute and similar registrations, on the upper manuals (the new digital organ has four manuals).

The third movement, Andante, with more use of diapason stops, and more distinct rhythms, with hands moving constantly between manuals seemed more elaborately structured. But it still bore little relationship with a symphony in the German mould. The fourth movement, entitled Salve Regina: Allegro, used a hymn-like tune, perhaps the original Gregorian chant setting of Salve Regina, perhaps a later setting by Palestrina or Lassus –I don’t know. But as it advanced the music became more dense and emphatic, ending with a prolonged chord.

The fifth movement offer a test discriminating between Adagio and Andante; the shift was fairly subtle, though I imagine that familiarity makes the shift sound dramatic. In a blind-fold test, the Finale would not have been hard to identify, with rhythms that got refined and emboldened over the years to evolve into the Toccata of the fifth symphony: this Finale was busy and boisterous.

This recital was advertised as the first major recital series for the new ‘Viscount Regent Classic digital organ which, though sounding every inch a real pipe organ, thrilling to the unruly acoustic of the Cathedral, will not cause the church to question the need to spend money on repairing and restoring the fine old hybrid pipe organ that can sound just a bit more thrilling and authentic (though don’t make me take a blind-fold test).

However, this celebration of Widor is very much worth the journey: the kind of organ music that is more related to the French music of the period (1870s onward), than to the organ music (or any music) of other countries at the time.

The next recital will be Friday 5 April when Richard Apperley will play the third symphony. And see Middle C’s Coming Events for the remaining seven performances, ending in November.

Youthful and visionary Schubert from Helene Pohl and Jian Liu

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:

Helene Pohl (violin) and Jian Liu (piano)

SCHUBERT – Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Minor D.408
Fantasie in C Major for Violin and Piano D.934

Adam Concert Room,
Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music
Victoria University of Wellington

Friday 29 March 2019

Within a fortnight of the NZ String Quartet’s inspirational presentation at the NZ School of Music’s Adam Concert Room of two major works from the string quartet repertoire, we were, at another lunchtime concert, able to enjoy for a second time, on this occasion, the artistry of one of the Quartet’s players – the group’s leader, Helene Pohl, performing in tandem with the much-acclaimed Jian Liu, who’s currently the Head of Piano Studies at the School. Of course, the NZSQ has been the quartet-in-residence at the School of Music in Wellington since 1991 – so we’ve lately been relishing the fruits of some of the performing talents among the School’s remarkable line-up of current tutors.

The programme chosen by this concert’s performers captured something I thought both rare and vital – consisting of two works for violin and piano by Franz Schubert (1797-1828), it managed to highlight aspects of the best of both the youthful and mature composer’s efforts, beginning with a Sonata in G Minor D.408, which, along with two other works, was written between March 1816 and August 1817. The three weren’t published until 1836, eight years after the composer’s death, and were styled as “Sonatinas”, despite Schubert’s autograph scores referring to them as “Sonatas”.

They’re works which have been largely regarded as “apprentice” efforts by posterity, as the diminutive “Sonatina” title implies, coming down to us with judgements such as “(they) breathe an intimate atmosphere, requiring no virtuoso bravura from their performers”, and “these are violin sonatas of the older, Mozartian type, with the violin playing a subordinate role to that of the pianoforte”. However, in Pohl’s and Liu’s hands, the G Minor work came across as rather more interesting than either of those descriptions might have suggested.

Nothing like an angular unison to grab the attention at the start! – the piano made something poetic from the utterance, the violin then continuing the line, the music’s mood almost naively changing to one of cheerful insouciance, Pohl’s violin somewhat garrulously “running” with the piano’s strolling gait before Liu deliciously “leaned” into a more march-like sequence, inspiring a wayfarer’s song-like response from the violin.

A minor-key lament by the violin began the central development, but the mood seemed delightfully ambivalent as major, then minor sequences unceremoniously pushed one another out of the way throughout, the invention here sharply-etched and tautly-woven by both players. What gave the discourse increased strength and gravitas was the decision by the musicians to play all the repeats, with the resulting amalgam of absorbing reinforcement and variation that such a course enables – even at this stage of proceedings I thought it considerably enhanced the work’s potential for depth of feeling and detailing, and especially when delivered with such committed focus as here.

A sweet, beguiling melody on the violin, gorgeous in effect, opened the slow movement, the piano answering with a chirpier phrase, which was then reinforced by deeper, viola-like tones from the stringed instrument, husky and characterful. I loved the touches of “misterioso” in the development, freely modulating, and here being “breathed” so enthrallingly by the duo. With the repeat came the recapitulation’s “second’ return, here brought sweetly to mind by the players like an old friend or fond memory.

Despite the players’ advocacy the Menuetto did seem “lighter” in content, though the lovely, flowing Trio subject made for a heart-warming contrast to the somewhat rumbustious opening – certainly the repeats helped give the music greater substance, however illusionary! The finale brought a touch of flowing minor-key melody before vigorously “majoring” – Pohl and Liu “went with” the music’s changeable character so sharply and directly, veering from the Schubertian to the Mozartean in a trice, and back again (Schubert’s homage to the “tried and true”, perhaps….)

The development was a brief call-to-arms, more for show than with any “action” in mind, and the recapitulation brought the silveriest of tones from Pohl’s violin – so enchanting! Again the repeats seemed to bolster the music’s confidence in itself, so that we were freshly amazed by Schubert’s invention rather than inclined to relegate the music to “also-ran” status. Helped by Pohl’s and Liu’s intensities the music on this occasion was made to punch well above its normal weight, for our excitement and satisfaction.

Having plunged with her pianist straight into the earlier work at the concert’s beginning, Pohl then “introduced” the second half’ for us. Fascinatingly, she talked about the Sonata we’d just heard in relation to the great Fantasie in C Major (about to be played), reflecting for us on the “change” in Schubert’s music over the duration between the two, and offering some thoughts on these differences.

I thought her mentioning, firstly, the influence of Beethoven’s music, and then the effects of Schubert’s worsening health at this time, made for telling ideas to ponder – I hadn’t considered as strongly her third “factor’ which she outlined just as convincingly – the rise in instrumental virtuosity at this time, led by the example of  violinist Nicolo Paganini, said to be in league with the forces of darkness(!).

Schubert wrote the Fantasie, his last work for violin and piano, in December 1827, for one Josef Slavik, whom the composer described at some stage as ‘a second Paganini” and accordingly produced a work bristling with virtuoso difficulties, as much, it ought to be said, for the pianist as for the violinist. After the work’s premiere, in Vienna in January 1828, a critic reported that the work did not widely please as was hoped: – “The Fantasie occupied rather too much of the time a Viennese is prepared to devote to the pleasures of the mind. The hall emptied gradually, and the writer confesses that he too is unable to say anything about the conclusion of this piece.”

Nowadays, the Fantasie is regarded as a masterwork, bold in its conception, brilliant in its execution and heartfelt in its emotional content. What obviously confused the Viennese was the work’s length and its out-of-the-ordinary structure – it’s basically a bringing-together of contrasted episodes around a Schubert song with a number of variations – the song is Schubert’s popular setting of Friedrich Rückert’s Sei mir gegrüsst! (‘I greet you!’). Violinist and pianist played a measure of the song for us, after which Pohl briefly outlined for us the structure of the complete work – and then we were off!

The piano began, with tremolandi that gurgled and bubbled as an oscillating sea of sensations, above which the solo violin soared sweetly and surely, the piano momentarily dancing before resuming its tremulous inclinations. A brief but intense violin cadenza-like flourish (not as clean as the player might have wished, on this occasion, but the poise never faltered), and Pohl and Liu began a delightfully-inflected Hungarian-like dance sequence in canonic form, the music varying its delivery after  several measures, becoming trenchant in places and releasing surges of exhilarating”heart-in-mouth” energy – the momentary strains placed on each player by what seemed like fiendishly insistent figurations merely added to the excitement and tension of the performance, the return of the dance bringing momentary relief before the music’s elemental surgings again took charge, great lurches of emphasis engendered by the writing and met with full-blooded involvement from both instruments. Gradually the piano led the way towards the music’s elevated central sequences, a brief and resonant pause leading to the opening strains of the song Sei mir gegrüsst! 

First piano and then violin gave their voices entirely to song, Liu investing his two augmented sections of the melody with tremendous, almost orchestral, weight and emphasis, contrasting with the violin’s sweetness when it returned each time. A first variation was polonaise-like in rhythm, engagingly chunky, and almost rough-hewn, rather than suave and well-tempered, while a second produced cascading piano notes and string pizzicati, both instruments varying their figurations with impromptu-like flourishes, the violin reverting to arco for each measure’s concluding phrase!

A third variation seemed even more hair-raising, the violinist rushing excitingly through her vertiginous fingerwork, and the pianist’s fingers maniacally dancing atop the instrument’s keys. Pohl and Liu seemed to play all the music’s repeats in this work as well, further intensifying and enriching the range and potential delights of the territories, and creating an ethos of magnificent, give-it-all-you’ve-got playing! Variation Four seemed then to turn the music on its heels and point it back towards the way it had begun, firstly the piano and then the violin arching the music gently but surely away from the song’s A-flat major and back towards the opening C Major.

This time the piano tremolandi colluded with the violin’s ever-intensifying, unwardly-pushing lines towards what I’ve always thought of as an orgasmic release-point, a massively-affirming dance of life, carrying the music’s continually-burgeoning energies towards a near nirvana of fulfilment with the ecstatic return of Sei mir gegrüsst! (again, exquisitely silvery violin tones joining in with the piano’s pearl-like purity). It could have been left there by the composer – but having “bought into” the realm of virtuoso excitement, the music, almost instinctively, seemed to unleash the “coiled spring” of pent-up virtuosity allied to musical brilliance, a concluding cataclysm of joyous-sounding energies completing the triumph! What a work and what a performance!

Poetry and music co-habit most successfully at St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts
Ingrid Prosser and Colin Decio – a programme featuring piano and poetry
Debussy: La cathédrale engloutie (No 10 of Preludes, book 1)
Tennyson: Poem: The Lady of Shalott
Rachmaninov: Preludes, Op 23, Nos 4 & 5
Ingrid Prosser: Poem: Jehanne la Pucelle
Ravel: Miroirs, No 4 – Alborada del gracioso

St Andrews Church, 30 The Terrace

Wednesday 27 March, 12:15 pm

The world of music has almost totally overwhelmed the world of poetry. That’s not to say that there has ever been a large, ravenous audience for poetry, particularly over the past couple of centuries. There are probably few people today who have poetry anthologies and even volumes of poetry by the likes of Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Kipling, on their shelves; fewer than those with a piano in the house. Most of the population under the age of about 60 have hardly been exposed in school to the huge treasury of poetry in English, let alone in other languages. The time when my own generation heard their teachers and even their parents quoting bits of poetry or reading poems to their pupils or their own children, seems like a completely foreign, vanished era.

The choice of poems and music here was not random. Debussy’s sunken cathedral was an inspired piece to set alongside one of Tennyson’s best-known poems.

La cathédrale engloutie is inspired by a Breton legend about an ancient city, Ys (also the subject of an opera by Lalo, Le roi d’Ys; inter alia, Roberto Alagna sings an aria from it on his CD ‘French arias’), built on reclaimed land surrounded by dykes; there is a gate in the dyke that can be opened at low tide and the king’s daughter steals the key and opens the gate, causing the city to be flooded: thus the cathedral is submerged. On clear mornings the cathedral can be seen, its carillon bells heard. Both the Ys legend and Tennyson’s elusive elaboration of an episode from the Arthurian legends can be seen as products of an overheated Romantic imagination, dealing with the perils of transgressing an unarticulated separation of the real world from that of the creative imagination.

Colin Decio’s playing sounded immediately authoritative with its heavy modal chords, though there was little mystery or other-worldliness. He captured the atmosphere of engulfing waters sensitively with evocative bass notes and a sense of ancient legend.

The Lady of Shallot
Ingrid Prosser picked up the mystical thread of water as an agent of the supernatural, with Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot. It’s a story with its slender origin in Arthurian legend, about Lancelot and the Lady of Shallot, who dies love-stricken, from a mysterious curse, the result of the conflict between the isolated artist and the physical world beyond the isolated island where she lives alone, weaving her magic web.  Hugely popular in its day, it inspired painters like Holman Hunt and Waterhouse whose reproductions are everywhere, including my childhood home, where poem and painting were closely connected.

So the poem had a curious impact for me, as I hadn’t heard it read aloud since my father’s bedside reading (typically of his generation, Tennyson had special meaning for him, and I have his well-thumbed volume, dating from his first year at university, with his initials gold-embossed on the front of the leather binding). There was a good deal more darkness and rhetorical character in his reading than with Prosser’s lighter tone that let the narrative speak clearly. Tennyson’s strict rhythmic and rhyming patterns (four rhymes in short successive lines) are singular and it was a delight to hear it and for light to shine through its strange, enigmatic story, symbolic, ahead of the symbolist movement proper later in the 19th century.

Rachmaninov and Ravel
Colin Decio returned to play two Rachmaninov preludes: the D major and the G minor, from Op 23; the first warm and lyrical that has something of a ‘ballade’ character about it, and the second in the very familiar marching style with its contrasted contemplative section. They were intelligently and musically played – not immaculately perhaps, but with affection and a keen ear to the sometimes unruly acoustic in the church. And his third offering was Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, more often heard in its brilliant orchestral version: sudden dynamic shifts, even from one note to the next, again with a middle section that imposed a calm on the impulsive frenzy of the outer parts. Slightly marred by slips but a splendid performance nevertheless.

I tried to find narrative or emotional links between these piano pieces and the poem that lay between them, but nothing other than a common military quality in the G minor prelude and Joan of Arc’s story came to mind.

Prosser’s ‘Jehanne la pucelle’
Ingrid Prosser’s narrative poem was inspired by a journey in a part of France: the estuary of the Somme which has a connection with the march of Joan of Arc, ‘Jehanne la pucelle’, to her trial and execution by the English in Rouen. It had the character of a dramatic poem touching on many aspects of Anglo-French history and the ridiculous monarchical conflict, the Hundred Years War.

Just brief background: That war had its origin in the Norman invasion of England (William the Conqueror), which implied English rule over parts of France and tempted the English to extend their rule to the entire country. Joan of Arc entered the scene to revive French determination to rid the country of the English, whose ambitions to conquer more of France, had been re-inspired by Henry V’s victory at Agincourt, in 1415. After Henry V died in 1422, it looked as if the English could prevail, until the emergence of Joan which led to decisive French victory at the siege of Orléans in 1429. But in 1430 she was captured by the Burgundians, English allies, and handed to the English at Rouen which the English had held. There, in 1431, she was tried and burned at the stake. English strength in France then fell apart, and a more centralised France with a professional army soon became the most powerful force in Europe. For the English, defeat on the Continent led indirectly to the Wars of the Roses.

Poetry has changed since the late nineteenth century: regular rhythms and multiple rhymes are unimportant, which leaves poems dependent on the play of ideas and evocative imagery and symbols and suggestive references. Though the details of the story of Joan’s emergence, reviving French determination to regain control of their country, are only known sketchily to most, Ingrid Prosser’s weaving  the names of saints and places into a framework of words and imagery, and events, created a persuasive emotional and even pictorial story. And the spirited, histrionic manner of her delivery held the attention.

There are many styles of poetic recitation, and some with their roots in elocution lessons, imagined ‘English’ theatrical speech and private school education, are today intolerable. Prosser’s style was both poetic and narrative in a natural way and she held audience attention through her mixture of naturalness and conviction.

I hope that this successful recital will inspire further poetic undertakings of similar kinds.


Janacek and Beethoven String Quartets from the amazing NZSQ at Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:

The New Zealand String Quartet
JANÁČEK– String Quartet No. 1
BEETHOVEN – String Quartet No.16 Op.135
NATALIE HUNT – Data Entry Groove (2014)

New Zealand String Quartet –

Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins (violins)
Gillian Ansell (viola) / Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

Adam Concert Room,
Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music
Victoria University of Wellington
Friday, 15 March 2019

(Reviewer’s note: I’ve deliberately left off publishing this review until now to allow a week or so’s worth of air and space to blow into and around things concerned with the horrific events that took place in Christchurch on the same day of the concert. It’s a small gesture set against happenings in a vast and unpredictable world, but I’d nevertheless like to dedicate these words to those whose lives were so tragically ended by what took place in those Christchurch mosques that day, and to all those people who responded, both immediately and over the days that followed, to the needs of fellow-New Zealanders of all persuasions with kindness and understanding that helped restore some hope and faith in a future whose bright dream had been suddenly darkened……)

Monday 25th March 2019

It all seemed too good to be true – here we were at a FREE CONCERT at the Adam Concert Room up at the University, about to be enthralled by the country’s most prestigious string quartet in two major works from the genre’s repertoire, one from the nineteenth and the other from the twentieth century, plus an additional piece from someone who’s proving to be a most interesting member of a stimulating “new  wave” of young New Zealand composers – as close to a “something for everybody” scenario as one could perhaps get at an hour-long concert by a single group!

Beginning the concert was the first of two string quartets by Moravian composer Leoš Janáček, one bearing the sub-title “Kreutzer Sonata”. In a letter, written by the composer to a much younger married woman, Kamilla Stösslová, whom Janáček regarded as his “muse”, writing her over 700 letters, he revealed his music’s purpose: “What I had in mind was the suffering of a woman, beaten and tortured to death, about whom the Russian author Tolstoy writes in his Kreutzer Sonata”. Of course, Tolstoy (who ironically didn’t much care for music!) used the title of one of Beethoven’s most famous chamber works to intensify his story’s emotional “charge”, that of a woman in a loveless marriage caught up in the passions of the music when playing the work with a handsome violinist, and as a result being beaten to death by her jealous husband.

Violist Gillian Ansell nicely anatomised the music’s terrain beforehand, introducing musical examples played by the group that resembled incredibly burgeoning slices of raw emotion. It was obvious straightway how the group possessed the temperament, confidence and technical skill to be able to enter wholly into this tortured world, one marked by the composer’s penchant for extremes of both expression and technical address, and with the players aware of how such music worked best via a suitably no-holds-barred approach.

Here the ensemble infused these extremities and razor-sharp contrasts with the utmost concentration, making it all sound as if each member was “living” the frenzied outbursts and tortured trajectories of the music’s narrative – as one commentator’s description succinctly puts it, expressed in writing that’s “less melody than compelling, emotionally-charged talking”. Like Mussorgsky before him in Russia, so Janáček wished to catch the realism of his countrymen’s speech patterns in his writing with all their angularities and astringencies, and, in this context heightened by extremes of feeling.

The second movement’s sharp contrasts between the dancelike motifs and the searing coruscations of emotion here simply conflagrated the textures, having a simultaneous “stunning” and “drawing-in” effect on the listener, the playing remarkable in its candid impact. By contrast, the third movement began with a melancholic duet-like passage from first violin and ‘cello (a quotation from Beethoven’s work, used to highlight the “illicit” rapport between the two players in the story), nastily punctuated on a number of occasions with scintillating shards of sound, here all remarkably coherent in an overall expressive sense while disturbing in their own realm of impulsiveness. Still, the performers had, one sensed at all times, a “grip” on the overall design that allowed the stridencies free rein to shock and unnerve without straying from the whole.

A brooding calm hovered over the finale’s opening, the lyricism heart-rending and bleak-sounding (shades of Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony)! until the viola began pulling the violins along agitated stretches of territory, the music building and sharpening its tensions as an incredibly intense dotted rhythm sequence piled “Pelion upon Ossa” in its anger, fright and menace – the “moment of murder” then suddenly seemed to dissolve the music’s substance, leaving little more than crumpled, exhausted shadows – so very enigmatic! – and here, so heart-stopping in its searing execution by these intrepid players…….

I’d always regarded Beethoven’s last quartet as a kind of roller-coaster-ride as well, actually, but of a different kind to what we had just heard, alternating the visceral with the playful and enigmatic, as opposed to Janacek’s relentless assault. Here were Olympian forces at play, with whatever moments of stress and angst suggested (in the work’s finale) defused as systematically as they’d been developed, like the inevitable movements of cosmic bodies through the heavens, leaving we earthbound listeners gaping in bemused astonishment!

‘Cellist Rolf Gjelsten here emulated Gillian Ansell’s penetrative introductory remarks regarding the Janacek, entertaining us greatly with his theories regarding Beethoven’s famous “question-and-answer” passages at the finale’s beginning, and provoking amusing responses from the other quartet members. Thus enlightened and emboldened, we began our listening, with the lower strings right at the start posing a question or remark answered by a pithy, increasingly insistent exclamation from the violins – “Pardon?” – or perhaps “You’re joking!” Straightaway, this fusing of the portentous and the commonplace – the fabulous with the ordinary – set the tone for the rest of the work. Not a note was wasted, the effect an amazing sense of freedom in simplicity.

By contrast, the scherzo had us on the edges of our seats, the players alternating jovial muscularities with spectral mutterings, punctuating the proceedings with off-centre sforzandi, and grim-humoured rebeginnings, building up to the notorious “madcap trio”, three whirling dervishes trying to catch the lone violin mid-flight – a fearful symmetry gone berserk! The occasional “wildness” of intonation to my ears sounded appropriate – what would a perfect, “squeaky-clean” rendition of this music do except reduce the untamed, out-of-control exhilaration of the whole, anyway?

Gorgeously rich and deep-toned at the slow movement’s beginning, the melody was “sung from within” at first, before being lifted aloft for us by the first violin – we then were left to “reimagine” its contourings, prompted, it seemed, by the harmonies alone, as if the music had almost lost its way in the dark, as if bereaved. Rapturously, the music then reinvented itself, the ensemble heart-warmingly playing into and out of one another’s figurations, leading to the first violin’s “taking wing”, supported by upward arpeggios from the others, allowing the long-breathed statements to drift naturally into a grateful communion of silence at the end.

Came the enigma of the finale’s opening, with cello and viola “asking the question”, leaving the violins to muse over a response to begin with, then burst impassionedly forth as if hanging by a thread waiting for assistance or illumination – a terse three-note response to the opening three-note question, the well-known “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?) phrase which the composer inscribed in the score.

How exhilarating, then, that sudden onrush of joyful energy accompanying the reply, again inscribed by Beethoven in the score – “Es muss sein!” (It must be!) – the release of tension here brought out most tellingly an inevitability, a mark of greatness to do with force of personality, with depth of acceptance and with single-mindedness of purpose! Beethoven’s intoning of a Rasumovsky Quartet-like second melody then threw the vistas open, including the world at large in this paean of acceptance of life! How vigorously the players gave themselves over to this energetic release – and how terrifyingly they then mirrored its sudden reversion to a nightmare of doubt and anxiety with the return of the “Muss es Sein” motif! – the violins sounded particularly “spooked” at the reappearance of “the question”!

Almost defiantly, the allegro reasserted itself, pulling all the music’s strands out of their state of transfiguration and thrusting forth once again. Part of the rehabilitation of surety came with the “Rasumovsky-like” tune, its open-hearted aspect here seeming to include all of us in a kind of anthem-like circle of strength and resolve. Throughout, the musicians remained strong and steadfast, bring forth playing whose confidence uplifted our spirits further, culminating in the enchanting pizzicati that led to the final, emphatic gesture of belief in simply being. Fantastic!

Though I would have happily regarded what we’d experienced as “cup runneth over” stuff, I couldn’t begrudge a young composer’s music the chance of a hearing – and so it was that we heard Natalie Hunt’s 2014 work “Data Entry Groove”, a delicious piece of music-theatre depicting the workings and interactions of computers and operators. A jazzy, nicely off-beat set of opening trajectories involved various cyber-rhythms (Rolf Gjelsten and his ‘cello) and personalised responses to the machine-like routines from the other three players, involving sliding notes and inventive textures and timbres, including a “time for a break” section (violinist Monique Lapins did what looked to my untutored eyes to be some Pilates!)…..returning to their work-routines the players busied themselves with various engagingly off-beat energies, all of which led to a surprise ending of droll and insouciant finality. Definitely a work to enjoy in the “seeing” and “hearing” rather than in the “describing”!


Karori’s “Colours of Futuna” plays host to string quartet classics from the Orion Quartet

COLOURS OF FUTUNA Concert Series presents:
The Orion Quartet

Joseph HAYDN – String Quartet Op.33 No.2 in E-flat Major “The Joke”
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART – String Quartet KV.465 No.6 in C major “Dissonance”

Orion Quartet: Anne Loeser, Rebecca Struthers (violins)
Sophia Acheson (viola) / Jane Young (‘cello)

Futuna Chapel,
Friend St., Karori, Wellington

Sunday, 24th March, 2019

Futuna Chapel was the venue for a sweet hour of marvellous music and music-making on the previous Sunday afternoon – here was the Orion Quartet, one whose work I hadn’t yet encountered “live”, presenting two of the classical repertoire’s “cornerstone” chamber works, in itself something of an irresistible prospect for any music-lover. With players from both the NZSO and Orchestra Wellington, informed by an interest in historical period practice performance, the group seemed an ideal advocate for this music.

Putting my listener’s cards on the table first up, my ears had to take time to “adjust” to the near vibrato-less tones of the players, an aspect of “historically-informed” practice I’ve always struggled with to some extent. I found, some years ago, when the “new wave” of practitioners of this kind of playing flooded the scene with what seemed at the time almost like “born again” zealousness, the sound of their playing alienating – pinched and drained of colour, and liable (to my ears) to a horrid “note-burgeoning” habit (which sometimes put me in mind of the “Doppler effect”, except that the fire-engines never seemed to go away!) – surely, I thought, it didn’t originally sound this nasty? What are they trying to achieve?

Here, despite the occasional almost-astringent effect in this or that phrase, it was nearly all relative sweetness and light – for me, historically credible in terms of the playing’s overall ingratiating quality. It’s risky, intonation-wise (vibrato-laden playing can cover a multitude of off-the-note sins!), and there was an occasional edge to the music’s line in exposed passages – but the purity and clarity of the sounds in general soon won my ears over, and “centred” my responses to what was actually being achieved, here. I’m bound to say, also, that the work of “period instrument” groups these days seems to me somewhat less purist and “evangelical” – and it’s definitely having a general effect on overall attitudes towards appropriate styles being adopted for different eras of music, be the instruments ever so “authentic” or modern!

What WAS I saying before? – ah, yes! – the Orion Quartet! The group most happily began the concert with one of Josef Haydn’s “Russian” quartets (the name originating from the composer’s dedication of the Op.33 set to the Grand Duke Paul of Russia), being the second of  the set, known as “The Joke”, largely due to the composer’s “toying” with the ending of the last movement, inserting unexpected pauses, repeating sequences in a disjointed way, and finishing the work with an obviously “unfinished” phrase! The players entered into the wry humour of all of this with obvious relish, bringing us “on board” with the whimsy of it all.

Before this we had already been “swung on board” by the quartet’s playing of the opening movement, a droll, loping tempo which seemed to me to take us right to the music’s essential earthiness and the players’ engagement with the same.  The development section “played” with the material, giving rise to all kinds of fancies and whimsies, the performance “going” with the various impulses and leading back to the opening with plenty of “grunt”, before allowing the music the first of its surprises, an almost sotto voce conclusion which simply “happens”, almost without warning. The Scherzo, a heavy-footed Austrian dance, alternated a pesante manner with a more sophisticated chromatic figuration – again the tempo seemed perfect for the music’s required “kick-room”, everything unhurried in a quintessential rural way. And how deliciously impish was the good-natured “lampooning” of the village fiddler in the Trio, the almost ungainly slidings between the notes capturing the original “star-turn” efforts of the player to the full!

A beautifully-voiced duet between viola and ‘cello opened the Largo, the mood reminiscent of the Austrian National Anthem at the beginning, though some smartish second subject accents soon put paid to that mood! Later the violin most sensitively decorated a heartfelt duetting sequence between second violin and viola, which produced a rapt effect, after which a lovely series of two-chord phrases brought the movement to an end.

Gaily buoyant, by turns tip-toe and full-blooded in effect, the finale danced its way along, its energies seemingly inexhaustible, with the brunt of the busy passagework falling on the leader, Anne Loeser, whose poise and control never faltered. Haydn then decided he would “play” with his audience, introducing pauses, solemn chords and cadences, before finally asking the players to deliver the movement’s opening phrase yet again! – and then break off – all excellently and amusingly delivered.

So we proceeded to the Mozart Quartet, as intriguingly “nicknamed” as was its companion – in a spoken introduction to the work, Anne Loeser told us that even Haydn was astonished at the dissonances which sound throughout the work’s opening, but qualified his remarks with the statement, “Well, if Mozart wrote it he must have meant it!”. And the work’s opening is, indeed, extraordinary-sounding, the sounds seeming to wander, looking for a tonal centre, rising and falling chromatically in places, before finally alighting on C Major and  dancing into the sunlight!

The players treated their lines with extraordinary subtlety and lightnes in places, the strands sounding at times like the sighings of a breeze, while elsewhere the figurations were properly, tightly “worked” into that characteristically “flowing like oil” Mozartean ethos of charm and candour. Occasionally I found the largely vibrato-less sounds put the players’ intonations to the test, but at the same time imparted the music-making with a clarity amid the chapel’s ambient resonances, all the while giving me a sense of the tones being “wrought from the air” and performed for our pleasure………

An andante cantabile slow movement began with rich harmonisations from the three lighter instruments solidly reinforced by the ‘cello – I was struck throughout by the way the composer’s writing here gave an impression of more than four voices, with closely-knit figurations and strongly-wrought rhythmic buildups having an almost orchestral quality in places. The players brought out these intensities by “digging in” splendidly and making the most of the sforzando-like contrasts. Despite the somewhat “bald” quality of the tones in places I loved the intensity of involvement generated by the performance.

The Menuetto’s rapid tempo kept the dancers in a whirl of activity, alternating between rigorous steps and vertiginous “turns” marked by chromatic swerves in the music. By contrast, the Trio’s music sounded almost “frightened”, as if in “flight” from some pursuing shade or demon, real or imagined – here furtive and shadowy,  there exclaiming in almost palpable fright, the feeling relieved only by the Menuetto’s return, as rigorous and purposeful as before.

As for the finale, it started off chirpily enough, though the darkly-bowed unisons that occasionally rend the textures gave the impression of a darker spirit in concealment. There was brilliant work in places from leader Anne Loeser, her rapid figurations splendidly thrown off, with only the occasional exposed “held” note having a slight rawness. The ensemble dug into the vigorous passages with gusto, while bringing out the occasionally “sighing” line most affectingly. Parts of this same allegro molto were propelled into more diffuse regions, the players relishing the hesitancies and angularities which varied the  rhythms of the journey, before bringing the music “home” with energetic gestures, and many a nicely touched-in detail, before “pouncing” on the concluding phrase with glee, cheekily-placed “final” note and all.

Very great honour to the musicians for such insightful, involved performances of these two “classics”, the pleasure enhanced by the Futuna Chapel’s distinctive features of light and sound ambience, each medium contributing to our musical experience in a satisfying way.

Alleluia: varied settings splendidly delivered by Inspirare and Schola Cantorum (St Mark’s School) under Mark Stamper

Alleluia: Resolution through Celebration

Artistic director: Mark Stamper; accompanied by Michael Stewart; director of Schola Cantorum: Anya Nazaruk
Solo voices: Pepe Becker, Matt Barris, Isaac Stone, William Pereira, Ruth Armishaw, Sue Robinson, Garth Norman, Joe Haddow
Instrumental soloists: Toby Pringle (trumpet), Tim Jenkin (tambourine), Dominic Groom (horn)

Settings of Alleluia by;
Keith Christopher, Lyn Williams, Ralph Manuel, David Conte, Thomas LaVoy, Srul Irving Glick, Eric Whitacre, Handel, Paul Basler, Randall Thompson, Beethoven, Leonard Cohen (arr. Philip Lawson), Sydney Guillaume, David Bednall

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

Saturday 23 March, 7:30 pm 

Best to start with Mark Stamper’s own description of this concert of settings of ‘Alleluia’: “fourteen unique and innovative settings of this glorious text. The selections will come from different musical periods dating back to the Baroque and on through 2019”. There can be few words or phrases that have inspired such generally positive and hopeful music, though there are other memorable phrases in the Mass.

Mark Stamper’s choices were heavily weighted toward the 20th century, in fact some of it of the 21st century. For those who tend to be wary of contemporary classical music, there would have been no reason for discomfort as, unlike the music that many 20th century composers have felt it necessary to compose, choral music has more generally defied that trend. For there is no point in composing choral liturgical music that doesn’t beguile and engage listeners, but risks alienating the them.

The presence of two choirs was highlighted at once with the choir of St Mark’s school ranged in the front, women of Inspirare at the back while the men were lined up on the left aisle. After Mark Stamper’s introduction, a minute’s silence was observed to reflect on the previous week. Then the Cathedral’s Director of Music, Michael Stewart played a piece on the organ, which he named later as Solemn Melody by Henry Walford Davies (one of the worthy British organist/composer/teachers, about contemporary with Elgar)  ….

I will not attempt to comment on each of the fourteen pieces in much detail, but it’s reasonable to mention them all.

The combined choirs made a happy contribution with A Joyful Alleluia by contemporary American composer, Keith Christopher (born 1957 in Portland, Oregon) who teaches in Nashville Tennessee. His piece and its warmly committed performance set the tone through the way the singers were disposed around the cathedral; and with the dynamic variety the two choirs could create made for an engaging performance.

Alone, Schola Cantorum sang Festive Alleluia by Lyn Williams, an Australian composer born in 1963, who runs the Sydney Children’s Choir, and has been much celebrated for her work with children’s choirs. With the choir conducted by its music director Anya Nazaruk, it was a bright and attractive piece, phrases piling one on the other, yet preserving good clarity and liveliness. The Schola Cantorum later sang the Alleluia of David Conte (born 1955, he teaches at the San Francisco Conservatorium), bright high voices again making a splendid impact in this big acoustic, with Stamper here at the piano.

Apart from the last two items, Inspirare sang the rest of the programme.

The Alleluia of Ralph Manuel, born in 1951 in Oklahoma, opened with a string of slowly evolving harmonies, in what might be called a popular style, but an attractive way for Inspirare, alone, to present themselves.  Thomas LaVoy, a much younger composer from Michigan, born 1990, studied in Aberdeen and Wales. His Alleluia, in an unsurprisingly American idiom, expressed itself in straightforward terms, yet increased in intensity towards the end. Srul Irving Glick is Canadian-born, in 1934. His piece was brief, thus not allowing its repetition of ‘Alleluia’ and its syncopated simplicity to outlast itself.

Then came the first composer known to me: Eric Whitacre, who I only recently discovered was only in his forties (born 1970), though very well-known with a solid reputation. His Alleluia did seem to reveal a more interesting handling of the subject, if not as meaning (which might be an absurd expectation) then certainly in musical attractiveness, in the variety of its vocal colours and the sensitive way the choir handled them. (I did not especially notice soloists Pepe Becker and Matt Barris).

Inevitably, I guess, we had the Halleluja from Messiah in which the audience not only stood but engaged itself in.

An Alleluia by Paul Basler, born 1963 in Florida, followed the interval. His background included study or work in Kenya and Wales, and as a hornist himself, there were obbligato horn (Dominique Groom) and drum – here tambourine (Tim Jenkin), with Michael Stewart at the piano.  It was a charming, flowing composition, demonstrating, as does Whitacre, that one can still write engaging and worthwhile music in a tonal idiom.

Randall Thompson (1899 – 1984) was one of the four dead composers celebrated in the concert. Here was an engaging and moving setting by one of the most distinguished 20th century American composers. Slow, mediative with lovely high, clear voices with men here in a secondary, yet conspicuous role.

The Alleluia is the last movement of Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives, his only oratorio which is not much performed, in New Zealand anyway. It was sung with organ accompaniment; its character is neither pensive nor pious, as are some settings, but with its lively tempos was performed here, at least, in a spirit of exultation.

Leonard Cohen was one of those musicians whose music has strong appeal to many kinds of audience, so-called popular as well as classical (speaking for myself anyway). This arrangement by Philip Lawson of his moving Alleluia was done for the Kings Singers. Solo singers (Isaac Stone, William Pereira, Ruth Armishaw, Sue Robinson and Gareth Norman) were prominent here, lending a well-integrated yet interestingly contrasted range of voices to this very singular song.

The last two pieces again involved the Schola Cantorum singing alongside Inspirare. First, Alleluia, Amen by Sydney Guillaume, born in Haiti in 1982 and has worked with choirs in several parts of the United States. Rhythmically intricate, it used the two choirs attractively and ingeniously: children in the centre and Inspirare divided on either side. Scraps of melody came from different sections, expressing varying emotions and presenting music of real charm.

Last was An Easter Alleluia by talented English composer David Bednall, born in 1979, who, if you look at his website, has a large range of commercial recordings of his music to his credit. A lovely melody emerges from a series of rising motifs that culminate in a moving performance of one of the most impressive pieces sung in this surprisingly varied programme (considering the superficially limited subject matter treated by these many composers).

So even though the concert’s theme – a single word – might have looked like risking monotony, there was surprising variety in the styles and emotional character. Naturally, one found some more interesting and appealing than others. On top of it all were the clear signs of careful and sympathetic preparation and rehearsal resulting in always colourful and lively performances. A splendid and interesting evening.


Brahms’ String Quintets on Naxos – graceful, beautifully-lit readings by the NZSQ with Maria Lambros (viola)

New Zealand String Quartet, with Maria Lambros (viola), presents
BRAHMS – String Quintets – No.1 in F Major, Op.88 / No/2 in G Major, Op.111

Helene Pohl (leader) / Monique Lapins (violin) / Gillian Ansell (viola) / Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)
(with Maria Lambros – viola)

Naxos CD 8.573455

Playing and getting to know this disc recorded in Canada as long ago as 2016 has been, for me, a salutary experience on a couple of counts – firstly it’s been a recrimination of sorts, one that’s asked me in no uncertain tones of disapproval, why I hadn’t sought out and explored this venture by one of our most renowned and treasured musical ensembles before now! A different kind of reproof concerns the actual music, which I didn’t know nearly as well as I ought to have, other facets of the world being too much with me, to the detriment of my appreciation of the works on the present CD.

Continuing in this vein and juicily “flavouring” my present litany of self-deprecation with the admission that I’ve never really “got” Brahms’ chamber music that’s minus a piano would bring shock and horror into the argument as well as coals of condemnation down upon my head from dyed-in-the-wool Brahmsians, with whom I’ve skirmished before! So, it’s with surprise and delight that I’ve here started to listen to these works afresh, and seemingly begun to appreciate what their composer was doing, thanks to the luminously persuasive way of the players of the New Zealand String Quartet and their collaborator, Maria Lambros, with this music!

For whatever reason, the recording presents the Second (in G Major, Op.111) of the composer’s two String Quintets first up on the disc. Brahms originally thought this would be his last major chamber work, but then met clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld the following year (1891), and no less than four more chamber pieces came from his pen, inspired by the playing of a musician Brahms called “the nightingale of the orchestra”. Nevertheless, the Quintet displays a similar autumnal feeling in places to the clarinet works that followed, in between the invigorating bursts of energy – in fact the music’s vigorous opening immediately brought to my mind the Elgar of the Second Symphony, the trajectories having a similar “striding” aspect, and the exultations displaying more than a hint of the determined and ripely forthright about them, a “not to be thwarted” feel in the way the music unfolds. Somewhat Elgarian, too, is the way the music adroitly and seamlessly reveals its composer’s more lyrical inclinations as a kind of “inner core” – and the NZSQ players’ (including the second violist’s) beautifully-judged way with realising each of these contrasting moods and their symbiotic relationship is one of the things which gave me such pleasure throughout this opening movement’s journey.

With the following Adagio, we are enveloped in a gentle melancholy, whose potential for sorrow is softened by the music’s blood-pulsing flow and, in places, exquisite gentleness – there are outbursts of more heart-on-sleeve emotion in places, but always the music ultimately “takes care” of the listener’s concerns, the occasional shivers of loneliness placed in a wider context of stoic resignation, leaving us moved but not bereft. How gently and richly the playing takes us along this path, the viola leading the way, slightly “rushing” the slide upwards in the music’s second phrase (but giving it more “room” in its final appearance towards the movement’s end), and otherwise enabling us to fully enjoy the music’s songful outpourings. And the sequences when the night’s stars are gently revealed to us are exquisitely voiced by the ensemble, making the brief moments of agitation all the more telling.

The third movement’s Un poco Allegretto takes us closer to the world of the later Clarinet/ Viola Sonatas, an ardently proclaimed, though expansively phrased expression of controlled feeling, beautifully channelled along a ¾ rhythmic pathway, the textures voiced exquisitely in their ebb and flow of intensity, both in the minor-key opening and the contrasting major-key “trio” sequence, the lines in the latter having a Dvorakian “outdoor” quality in places. The finale depicts Brahms at his most engaging, with, again, the players’ penchant for keeping the lines airy and luminous giving the music so much variety and nuance, and to my ears entirely un-yoking the composer from any debilitating “keeper of the sacred flame” mantle wrought by his reactionary supporters – instead, this is playing which allows Brahms to be Brahms!

The ensemble also does well with the full-on opening of the earlier Quintet (F major, Op.88), keeping those lines sharply-focused and pliant (the influence of “period-practice” in the playing, perhaps?), the textures all the better-sounding for the players’ subtleties. Again, the music sounds freshly-minted, in places glowing with new-found delight (am I confusing my response with that of the players, here?), and skipping lightly over the bedrock of the pedal-points, both the solo viola and first violin giving the “Viennese Waltz” suggestion plenty of “juice” and relishing the ambivalence of the cross-rhythmed accompaniments. I liked the especially plaintive touch of the first violin’s high-flying phrase at the movement’s end, creating a brief “timeless” space before the throwaway ending.

Though this work has, on paper, only three movements, the complexities of the middle movement’s structure give a sense of a slow movement and a scherzo combined, the composer turning to a couple of baroque-like keyboard pieces from his earlier years, a sarabande, and a gavotte, as his source-material. Marked Grave ed appassionato at the outset, the music has a sighing aspect which the players here seem to “breathe” easily and naturally, allowing each change of texture, colour and dynamic to unfold and run together like a narrative. The charm of the contrasting Allegretto vivace is nicely caught, its almost insouciant character the perfect foil for the return of the movement’s opening, the “heartfelt” quality intensified – but the composer then, Beethoven-like, confounds our expectations with a presto variant of the Allegretto, followed by an even more richly-laden revisiting of the movement’s opening music. Once more, these players give the music the gravitas it needs with a beguiling lightness of touch and a rapt concentration over the last few bars which has one catching and holding one’s breath.

Two chords begin a finale of engaging fugal fun, the instruments playing games of chase, the rapid figurations momentarily exhausting themselves and alternating with chromatically-shifting triplets, everything freely modulating and exploratory. At a later point I thought I detected a brief moment of over-eagerness in one of the lines of the fugal figures’ incessant gyrations – but it somehow adds to the visceral excitement, culminating in the music suddenly shifting to a fleet-footed 9/8 rhythm, and converting the chase into a spirited dance. And I could also have imagined relishing a touch more rhetorical emphasis from the ensemble at the coda’s end, a stronger sense of homecoming – but in return for this I might have had to forego those treasurable moments during which this performance’s “incredible lightness of being” seemingly for the first time truly opened my ears to this glorious music.


Chamber Music Hutt Valley to submit a winding-up motion at the 2019 AGM

Chamber Music in Hutt Valley at risk

Friday 15 March 2019

The agenda of Chamber Music Hutt Valley’s AGM on Wednesday 27 March includes a motion that would wind up the society and bring its history of forty years of chamber music concerts in Lower Hutt to an end.

The motion reads:

“That the Executive is given the authority by this AGM to make CMHV inactive after the end of the 2019 season: the decision being based on a lack of committee members available to achieve the objects of the Society as described in rule 3.1. In order to confirm a 2020 season this decision is to be made before the end of June 2019.”

That seems to imply that unless an adequate committee is elected the society will go out of business.

The committee explains that while it has been successful in organising chamber music concerts in the Hutt Valley for many years, through the work of a dedicated group of committee members, it has become increasingly difficult to replace retiring committee members. This, despite pleas to audience members at concerts, in newsletters and through general net-working, urging music lovers to come forward.

They believe that the number of committee members will drop to four at the end of this year, which is simply not enough to run the society.

Furthermore, the background note reports that there are few new audience members, in spite of the continued support of current society members and flexi-card holders, and that continued operations will have to rely increasingly on obtaining external grants, a task that puts additional demands on the committee.

Middle C is alarmed at this prospect, and we urge readers, particularly those in the Hutt Valley, to lend whatever support they can to the society, by attending the meeting, by offering their services to the committee, by making donations, and by attending concerts in increasing numbers this year.

Middle C attempts to cover concerts in all parts of Greater Wellington, and we see, specifically in the field of chamber music in Wellington, a very rich resource, with regular concert series from Waikanae and Paekakariki, through Upper and Lower Hutt to various series of chamber music concerts in Wellington City itself. The loss of the Hutt Valley’s chamber music organisation would leave a very regrettable hole in the region’s musical scene. After all, Hutt City with a population of around 100,000, and Upper Hutt’s 44,000, that is about 35% of Greater Wellington’s population.

The AGM will be held at the rooms of the Hutt Valley Art Society on the corner of Myrtle and Huia Streets, Lower Hutt, on Wednesday 27 March at 7:30 pm.   

Wilma and Friends win all hearts at Wellington Chamber Music’s first 2019 concert

Wellington Chamber Music presents
WILMA AND FRIENDS – The Opening Concert of 2019

Wilma Smith (violin) / Anna Pokorny (‘cello) / Ian Munro (piano)

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN – 10 Variations on “Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu” Op121a
Ian MUNRO – Piano Trio “Tales from Old Russia” (2008)
Gareth FARR – Mondo Rondo, for Piano Trio (1997)
Jean FRANCAIX – Piano Trio in D Major (1986)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace Church, Wellington

Sunday 10th March 2019

Beginning the year with the musical equivalent of a hiss and a roar is always a good sign for what might follow – and Wellington Chamber Music organisers can feel well-pleased with their opening offering for 2019, regarding both repertoire and the performances. In fact I sat there throughout this concert imagining, for some reason, how much “better” it all possibly might be were one in London, Berlin or New York listening to a similar kind of programme at some prestigious venue or other, and then finding myself again and again beguiled by some felicitous individual turn of phrase or arresting surge of augmented tones from these players which totally disarmed any thoughts of wanting to be anywhere else! What better feeling to take away from a concert experience?

“Wilma and Friends”, a performing concept devised by violinist Wilma Smith, features the now Melbourne-based former New Zealand String Quartet leader and concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in a yearly series of chamber music concerts with different colleagues, performed throughout Australia and New Zealand The idea’s in its eighth year, now, and shows no sign of letting up, if the present concert’s ready excitement, focus, variety and colour are any true measures of continued life and success  – for me, the programming had a tantalising “something for everybody” flavour, covering a wide range of eras and a stimulating variety of places of origin.

Wilma’s partners in this latest venture represented what seemed like a well-nigh irresistible pair, with their combination of youth and experience – ‘cellist Anna Pokorny from Western Australia, a graduate of the Australian National Academy of Music and the International Menuhin Music Academy in Switzerland; and Australian pianist Ian Munro, a composer, writer and music educator, with numerous international awards as a performer to his credit, most notably a second prize at the 1987 Leeds International Piano Competition.

Whatever conventional wisdom suggests regarding outcomes of performances by musicians who join together for “limited tenure” periods, we listeners seemed on this occasion to reap all the benefits of the arrangement’s inherent spontaneity, newly-wrought discovery and sense of adventure in the music-making, with no apparent disadvantages or limitations. I’m not sure how many concerts the trio gave before this Wellington appearance, but they appeared to have already and handsomely “played themselves in” regarding a unanimity of purpose, of feeling and on-the-spot impulse to a most delightful degree.

First up was the exotically-named “Kakadu” Variations for Piano Trio by Ludwig van Beethoven, a work I had never before encountered in concert, and scarcely knew via recordings – I was, I admit, predisposed in the work’s favour through the title, intrigued by the quotation “Ich bin der Schneider, Kakadu”, and attracted by the prospect of another Diabelli-like transformation of a simple theme by the composer. Of course it didn’t turn out exactly like the latter, but I was nevertheless fascinated by the music’s sombre opening, Beethoven obviously taking a lot of trouble with his mood-setting and the musicians registering the elaborations of the mood with great sensitivity.

Then the cheeky march rhythm presenting  composer Wenzel Müller’s led the way to the other variations, all of which, as played here, by turns beguiled and tweaked the ear most pleasantly. Among others, I particularly enjoyed the “dialogue” variation between violin and ‘cello with its sweet playing, and the succeeding “running” variation, leading to the minor-key gravitas of the ninth episode, the piano phrases answered beautifully by the harmonising strings; and I also responded to the playfulness of the succeeding variation, with its working of a canon-like tune into the skipping rhythms and working up quite a head of steam! – most entertaining stuff!

Ian Munro’s credentials as a composer were cemented in 2003 by his winning First Prize for his Piano Concerto “Dreams” in the Queen Elisabeth International Composers’ Competition in Brussels that year. Here, we were treated to a performance of his 2008 Piano Trio “Tales from Old Russia”, a work that had been premiered in New Zealand as a result of a commission from Christchurch concert organiser Christopher Marshall, and reflected Munro’s interest in folk- and fairy-tale as part of a wider desire to write music for children. Each movement of the work is inspired by a particular tale, the first that of the Cinderella-like Vassilisa, a story complete with cruel stepmother and spiteful stepsisters. The second, titled “The Snow Maiden” is more quintessentially “Russian”, though the third, “Death and the Soldier” also has counterparts in other cultures.

Beautiful, eerie, crystalline sounds began the work, with the “Beautiful Vassilisa” in the story seemingly brought straightaway to the fore, and then set against the starkly contrasting sounds of the witch Baba Yaga. The writing exploited the strings’ ability to evoke dark, sinister ambiences contrasting those with purer, freer sounds. In other places the sounds startled with their intensely physical bite and pounding ostinato-like rhythms, reminiscent in places of Shostakovich’s writing. Both piano and strings forced the pace towards a climax and a becalming, returning us to the eeriness of a diametrically-opposed sound-world of breathtaking beauty, the atmospheres stark and awe-struck.

A second movement, which I assumed was an evocation of the Snow Maiden, began with dialogues between violin and ‘cello, the violin’s harmonics readily evoking ice-clear scintillation and cool beauty, with the piano conjuring up the play of light upon the Maiden’s person – perhaps the ‘cello’s darker, more sobering sound suggested the Maiden’s eventual fate as the fire melted her into the form of a cloud, the transformation accompanied by receding piano chords.

Munro’s timbral inventiveness as a composer made the third movement “Death and the Soldier” even more of an adventure, the music accompanied in places by various skeletal “knockings” wrought by fingers and knuckles tapping and knocking the wood on the instruments, the story’s central conflict between the soldier and the ghostly spirits building up to a wonderfully macabre free-for-all, everybody playing full out! The march morphed into a swirling dance before the footsteps portentously return, throwing the dancers out of step and enforcing an abrupt, spectacularly sudden conclusion!

High-jinks of a vastly different kind were in evidence straight after the interval, with a welcome performance of the Piano Trio version (which I’d never before heard) of Gareth Farr’s String Quartet “Mondo Rondo”. Here, a restlessly playful spirit was at large, quixotically throughout the first movement, a recurring motif doing its job in driving us almost to distraction, the sequences all being part of the music’s persona as a garrulous but nevertheless highly entertaining guest. A second movement employed pizzicato and finger-tapping techniques to emulate the sound of the m’bira (African thumb piano), generating an intriguingly minimalist-like discourse broken by the music suddenly “crying out” and “jazzing up” in a no-holds-barred way, before subsiding into a cantabile violin solo over the pizzicato-fingertapping movement beginnings.

The third movement kick-started with high-energy gesturings, over which exotic-sounding lines were floated, these being soon “compressed”, shortened, what you will – their tensile energies thereby heightened and “sprung”. Of a sudden the violin introduced a sinuously “sliding” theme, sounding for all the world as thought the player made it up on the spot! The performance treated the themes with exhilarating “pliancy” amid the driving  rhythmic energies, bringing things up to an exhilarating full-throttled burst before the music’s quixotic and enigmatic withdrawal. All-in-all, full marks to the Piano Trio version!

I’ve loved Jean Francaix’s music ever since hearing my first recording, the Melos Ensemble playing two of the composer’s Divertissiments, one for winds, the other for Bassoon and String Quartet, on a famous HMV LP of the late 1960s featuring a triumvirate (Ravel, Poulenc and Francaix) of French composers’ music. The composer’s been criticised in some quarters for what some people consider a certain vapidity in his writing, but I love its unfailingly droll humour, and its refusal to take itself too seriously in most instances. The Piano Trio was a late work, written in 1986 when the composer was 74 years old, but it possesses the youthful energy of a creative mind in its prime, right from the very opening – a restless, exploratory 5/4 rhythm  keeping a light touch amid all the energies! The playing was superb in its amalgam of strength, delicacy and wit.

A charming, insouciant waltz danced its way throughout the ensemble, the music even-handedly sharing its charms with each of the instruments – a beautiful Trio allowed the strings to soar above angular piano figurations, generating a wonderful “singing in the rain” aspect in the music. As for the Andante, its delicately romantic, bitter-sweet modulations seemed directly derived from nostalgically-charged memories, both full-blown and diaphanously delicate! – such a gorgeously-woven web of fine feeling from these players!

The finale seemed to me straightaway to proclaim a sense of life and living – pizzicato exchanges were joined by the piano’s driving energies, the strings going from pizz. to arco almost, it seemed, at will. Francaix seemed to be able to characterise the minutae of living with sounds of variety and colour simply by opening his heart to his surroundings, finding what he needed within the arc of a few physical gestures and driven by a lively imagination. A few seconds of magical string harmonics and a peremptory gesture of finality – and the sounds were deftly released to forevermore resonate in the silences. We loved every note of it, and said so via our applause, thrilled to be able to express appreciation for such stellar performances