Two sides of a genius – Beethoven’s Eighth and Ninth Symphonies from Edo de Waart and the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
JOY – Beethoven’s Eighth and Ninth Symphonies

BEETHOVEN FESTIVAL – Symphonies 8 in F Major Op.93* and 9 in D Minor Op.125 “Choral”

Sabina Cvilak (soprano) / Kristin Darragh (m-soprano)
Oliver Johnston (tenor) / Anthony Robin Schneider (bass)
Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra*
Edo de Waart (conductor)*

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 31st August, 2019

This, the final concert in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven Festival, presented two symphonic works at what seemed like opposite ends of everything – black-versus-white parameters of style from a composer of genius. Beethoven in his Eighth Symphony appears to be “playing” with the form, parodying the classical symphony, satirising fashions and fads, heightening and debunking all kinds of gesturings and yet still producing a forward-moving, radically original work of art. On the other hand, the Ninth Symphony seems, from its very beginning, to put the listener in touch with a kind of basic life-force that finds its full expression in Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” with orchestral sounds inviting the use of words as an aid to symphonic expression for the first time in the form’s history.

It can be seen from these descriptions that the two works have practically nothing in common except their composer’s name and the degree of freedom and innovation employed in the music’s being. To thus present them in the same concert would ensure a musical feast of uniquely diverting, and, for some, even bewildering, variety. However, as with almost all of this composer’s work these pieces can survive practically any kind of treatment involving musical intent – so we were guaranteed a fully absorbing and thought-provoking evening’s listening!

I’d already heard and enjoyed these musicians’ traversals of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies two evenings previously, remarking in my review that the intensities of music-making seemed to gather and coalesce more purposefully as the evening progressed, finally bursting fully-forth in a performance of the Fifth Symphony’s finale that brought the house down. Here, the same kind of pattern somewhat uncannily emerged, with the great “Choral Symphony’s finale, the “Ode to Joy” releasing such surges of energy as had merely been hinted at throughout the music-making earlier in the evening. It was as if everything had been almost “tailored” for maximum effect towards that final movement, and specifically focusing on the entry of the voices with their message for all humankind!

In theory this approach eminently suited the evening’s musical journey, with the opening Eighth Symphony’s elegance and fluidity emphasised by Edo de Waart’s meticulous approach, a quirky detailing or three thrown in for good measure – while the Ninth Symphony which followed grew its mighty concluding oak-like girth from acorn-beginnings, the intended space of the whole work “suggested” by the first movement’s purposeful gesturings and the scherzo’s energies, except that the actual “substance” came with those voices and the instrumental support they received. As an intellectual construct the scheme was eminently satisfying, though I confess to missing the excitements of a more “visceral” approach in the playing –  I do like things even quirkier in the Eighth, and more epic and rugged in the Ninth’s first two movements …. but, chacun à son gout…..

By contrast with Thursday evening’s attendance at the MFC, which featured a noticeable number of empty seats, tonight’s house was packed full – and my Middle C colleague Lindis Taylor reported a similarly pleasing state of things for Friday’s performances of Nos. Six and Seven. I wondered whether the orchestra might have been better advised to split the four concerts over two weekends or even a fortnight, in the interests of affordability or accessibility –  still, no doubt it was something of an achievement to get the levels of attendance that it did over four consecutive nights of concerts!

So, we began with the Eighth Symphony – but not before we were told – at once poignantly, and heart-warmingly – that tonight’s gig was the cellist Roger Brown’s last concert with the NZSO after 20 years in the orchestral ranks, which occasioned affectionate and appreciative audience applause. Then we were off, Maestro de Waart and his players flinging the opening phrase across the expectant vistas with purposeful energy, everything clear, precise and well-chiselled, the timpani direct and sonorous. A demure, precisely-groomed second subject provided the contrast, while the development set about stocking up the argument with richly-varied textures, building things so very beautifully towards a splendidly forceful full-orchestra statement. The horns having then shown us what nobility of tone and timing they were capable of, the music stuttered to a somewhat quizzical conclusion!

Then came what sounded like a taste of the “new” (Beethoven perhaps inspired by the newly-invented metronome of his friend Johann Maelzel) with an Allegretto scherzando second movement that seemed to pay homage to the “mechanical” of invention and regularity, the music, however, spectacularly “misbehaving” at the end and breaking free of such constraints with gleeful gesturings! I was diverted by this, but thoroughly enjoyed the “old” which then followed, a Tempo di Menuetto, played with delicious “old-world” languour, and featuring a trio in which the double basses literally “stole the show” with their ear-grabbing accented accompaniments of the winds!

What elfin scamperings there were at the finale’s beginning, followed by a truly off-the wall summons to unbuttoned hi-jinks! A contemporary English review of this work commented that “Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony depends wholly on its last movement for what applause it obtains; the rest is eccentric without being amusing, and laborious without effect.” More balanced was the view of Sir George Grove, who described it as full of “those mixtures of tragedy and comedy….which make (Beethoven’s) music so true a mirror of human life….equal to the great plays of Shakespeare….for the same reasons.” Inclined to whatever view, the listener is nevertheless carried along by the sheer energy of it all – de Waart didn’t overplay either comedy or drama, letting the finely-controlled orchestral playing allow us to make of the music what we wanted!

And suddenly (well, after the interval) we were faced with another work, one whose sounds seemed to mirror a different dimension of awareness, a new awakening to the world! So very hushed was the opening (the strings at first seeming more like slivers of light than sound), that the opening crescendo was suddenly upon us, muscular and thrustful rather than monumental and titanic – a mode that seemed to me to dominate de Waart’s interpretation of the instrumental parts of the work. While not straitjacketed, the lines were kept tensile throughout, with the timpani prominent, though more dramatic and whiplash than rugged and epic. There was no rhetoric – the mid-movement cataclysm, for example, almost took us by surprise with its suddenness, the timpani splendidly impactful, the strings and winds giving it all they had, the brass grimly hanging on to their reiterated single note – and then the crisis was passed, and the great river of music flowed onwards.

I thought the scherzo splendidly launched, with the timpani again focused and incisive – as the strands of impulse bonded together and danced along, the music took on an almost bucolic feeling, the energies good-humoured rather than incisive and grimly-focused, the mood further celebrated by the repeats. The Trio section thrust its way into the music’s trajectories, the wind-playing a joy, the horns lovely, the oboe solo delectably-phrased, and the strings judging their crescendi to perfection. Was the scherzo’s return slightly more sharp-edged, more urgent? – perhaps I’d gotten used to the music’s bucolic mood by then…..

The slow movement’s opening phrases moved swiftly and lightly, in accord with what we’d already heard, the impulses fluent and air-borne rather than time-arresting, the strings leading things forward to what’s always seemed to me to be the music’s “inner sanctum”, here the repose had a quality more “on the wing” than one holding time in thrall. But the playing was divine, winds and horn fervently communing, and stimulating a surge, a flow of energy, whose accompaniment even had a “swing” to it! I did want more sense of “leading up” to something with those brass shouts, however – surely more of a “transformational moment” than we got, here? Other listeners will possibly disagree – but I was wanting to be “imbued” with some kind of great “feeling” at this point, and felt not a little perplexed and disappointed at its rapid passsing, which emotion persisted right to the movement’s end…….

No time for any further self-communings – the vocal soloists had by now taken the stage and something was definitely brewing! In crashed the finale, with its “horror chord” leading the way! I wasn’t aware of the performance “hanging fire” in any way, here, except that a couple of people said to me afterwards that “it (the finale) took a long time to get going!”. What I registered was the growing excitement of it all, the brusque dismissal of the work’s previous themes and the impulsive reaction to the first appearance of the “Joy” theme. The melody itself here resembled a “song of the earth” with those superb double-basses, then beautifully “forwarded” by the ‘cellos and violas with the bassoons, and flowering with the violins’ treatment, before the winds and brass rang it grandly out at the climax.

Again the “horror chord”, and its accompanying tumult! – but this time the bass soloist (Anthony Robin Schneider) demanded our attention, with his “O Freunde, nicht diese töne!” – and the whole performance took wing, soloists and choir scaling the heights of physical impact and emotion and inviting the players and their conductor to join them, and spread the “joy” among their enraptured audience. I particularly enjoyed the work of both Schneider and mezzo, Kristin Darragh, and thought the work of the Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir was overwhelming! Here we got the full, transcendental force of the music’s reaching out for the stars at “Über Sternen muß er wohnen”, and the full-blooded vigour of both voices and instruments in the fugal “Seid umschlungen, Millionen” – the work’s range and scope realised in this all-embracing panoply of creative and recreative human energy!

Has it all defined an orchestra and its conductor? Sergei Rachmaninov, asked once why he didn’t play more Beethoven Piano Sonatas, said, characteristically, “The Beethoven Sonatas contain everything – and no one pianist can play everything!” True, in a sense, but how one wishes that he HAD played and recorded them all, nevertheless! And how instructive in so many ways when performing artists, faced with a totality of creative achievement, attempt to realise something of that totality, as here! Very, very great honour to Edo de Waart and his splendid band of musicians for enabling so many of us to make all or even part of that precious journey with them so resplendently.


Compelling, relentless performances of Beethoven’s sixth and seventh symphonies continue the NZSO’s festival

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart

Beethoven Festival: Symphonies Nos 6 in F, Op 68 “Pastoral” and 7 in A, Op 92

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 30 August, 7:30 pm

When I looked around at the audience at the third of the Beethoven concerts and saw that every last seat was occupied, right to the far sides of the stalls, I felt I needed to retract my post-script remark about Wednesday’s audience, which was indeed not very large. I needed to consider that there were probably many who couldn’t afford all four and had to make a hard decision – which two or three would be most exciting?  And with works in all four programmes that were unmissable, many opted to sacrifice the early ones in the belief that they were, naturally, less great. While that’s not true, the notion that it might be was enough.

Another introductory comment: my earlier review of the first three symphonies mentioned earlier performances under De Waart; I listed 1, 3 and 7, forgetting the Choral which was played, with two of the same soloists, last November (it was reviewed here by Rosemary Collier).

The Pastoral Symphony
I don’t know why I was unexpectedly delighted, and surprised, as the orchestra launched with such spirit and enthusiasm into No 6. There’s no preparatory introduction to warm up or to allow the audience to settle down via an  Adagio molto, or a Poco sostenuto. We have arrived at once ‘auf dem Lande’ (Beethoven broke tradition at once by using German movement names; and it left no doubt that Beethoven was composing what was the first ‘programme’ symphony in any real sense – music that overtly paints a picture or tells a story).

Beethoven’s mood is felt throughout the auditorium from the very first phrase, and the orchestra left us in no doubt, with every section sounding full of the delight that Beethoven had created in his score. While flute and oboe were conspicuous early, all woodwinds had their place in the sun, playing as if they rejoiced in the pleasure they were bringing to surrounding peasants (a situation more conspicuous in the third movement, of course).

The second movement – the scene by the brook – was also at an above-average speed, even though the pleasure depicted here is more passive. Bridget Douglas ‘s bird-like flute was again prominent along with bassoon (Robert Weeks), clarinet (Patrick Barry) and Robert Orr’s oboe, all played much more distinctive roles than their usual job of being modestly integrated in the entire orchestral fabric. All produced sounds of the most pure and open quality. Their apotheosis was the later cuckoo imitation.

And though the third movement opened with warm, energised strings which pervaded it, keeping the almost transcendent joyousness well grounded; the  important role of the woodwinds, as well as horns, flowed through it.

The memorable element in the storm scene of the fourth movement was the startling, even frightening intensity of the Laurence Reese’s timpani.

If I’d imagined that the performance might have exhausted the possibility of even more beautiful music, the utterly rapturous last movement which combines a shepherd’s song with the composer’s ‘joyous and grateful feelings nach dem Sturm’, there was a quality about the playing that risked inducing tears of joy.

I had not really expected to be so moved by the performance of a symphony which one knew so intimately; however, I was somewhat (read: considerably) undone.

The Seventh Symphony
The first thing noticed about the orchestra’s constitution for the A major symphony was the space to the right of the trumpets, previously occupied by trombones, now vacant. It did not indicate any retreat into the 18th century.

Though No 7 is generally considered one of the dramatic, even heroic, odd-numbered symphonies, that’s not how it opens. A firm, emphatic chord is followed by steady but calm woodwind phrases lasting three or four minutes before the infectious and, in this performance, joyous dance tunes, Vivace, take over, with those growling string accompaniments satisfyingly prominent.  It’s long, near a quarter hour, and the pulse didn’t falter.

The orchestra opened the Allegretto (second movement), with its subdued lower strings creating an almost secretive atmosphere; in fact the entry of the first violins is unusually delayed, and in the key of A minor now, it created a certain air of expectancy, perhaps tension, that held the audience in an uncanny calm.

The third movement is named ‘Presto’, not Scherzo, but that’s what it is, in Rondo form, and De Waart launched into very fast. Even with the alternating, slower ‘trio’ section (meno presto assai) it remained driven by the same relentless energy, delivering repeat after repeat to the point of….well, hypnosis…. I have sometimes found it one repeat too many, but not this time; it was totally arresting.

At the end of the Presto, I sometimes sense disbelief that that last movement can deliver excitement more intense than the first three movements. De Waart allowed no pause to the fast, shocking start of the Allegro con brio, an instruction that sometimes seems rather an understatement. Here, ‘con fuoco’ or ‘con furia’ might have better described this performance, for a while at least. But there was something in his conducting that even hinted at acceleration, which would have been impossible given its current relentless pace.  And throughout all the compelling tumult, the orchestra was held together, hardly a blemish perceptible, sustained by the conductor’s unostentatious yet inspiring leadership.

Though the entire audience didn’t stand (Wellington audiences are extremely discriminating) the smaller numbers represented the entire house on its feet in many other places.


And then we heard……Symphonies Four and Five from the NZSO in its Beethoven-fest……

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
DESTINY – Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies

BEETHOVEN FESTIVAL – Symphonies 4 in B-flat Op.60 and 5 in C Minor Op.67

Edo de Waart (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday, 29th August 2019

My Middle C colleague Lindis Taylor having reviewed the opening night of this momentous occasion (one would expect that performing the complete Beethoven Symphonies would be something of a milestone for any orchestra that takes itself and its “craft” seriously), it was my “turn” with the following two works of the canon. This was in no way tied to any preference for any particular work on the part of either of us – I could just as happily have reviewed the first three symphonies, as Lindis could have the following two. I simply happened to have a friend who wanted desperately to go with me to hear the Fifth Symphony – and so the arrangement was duly made. Of course, each of the “Nine” of Beethoven has a kind of distinction which at once singles it out from its fellows and binds it to what has gone before and comes after, so in a sense, wherever one “dips into” the canon of these works one comes up with fascinating ponderables, delights and revelations!

Robert Schumann, ever the one to “poeticise” a creative impulse, statement or finished work of art whether his own or another’s, declared that Beethoven’s “Fourth” Symphony, standing as it did between the mighty “Eroica” and the cataclysmic “Fifth” resembled “a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants”. In a sense, Beethoven almost HAD to write something that contrasted with such a world as brought into being by his previous symphony, though in its own way, the Fourth continued the composer’s exploration of symphonic possibilities very much in line with each of its predecessors – Schumann’s delightful characterisation of the work serves more as a starting-point for our senses than an out-and-out appraisal of the music’s merits.

Having said that, artistic endeavour has an endearing habit of attracting many colourful and telling responses bent on conveying an “essence” or a “character” belonging to a work – I’ve always enjoyed, for example, a potent description I came across somewhere of the hushed, shadowy and sombre effect of the Fourth’s opening measures – almost forty bars in length – as “4 am”, and find myself, while listening to most performances, conjuring up in my minds’ eye suitably dark, desolate and unpeopled vistas! Then, with the Fifth Symphony, there’s novelist EM Forster’s famous response of one of his characters in the book “Howard’s End”, to the “ghostly” parts of that work’s Scherzo, equating the music with the footsteps of “a goblin walking quietly over the universe from end to end…” and followed by others, “phantoms of cowardice and disbelief” – until the composer appears and scatters them with “vast roarings of a superhuman joy”.

I’d been told that all seats for the last concert in the Beethoven series, one featuring the “Choral” Symphony, and paired with the Eighth, had been sold – so I was surprised (as my colleague had been the previous night) to find the occasional whole row in the MFC galleries empty as well as spaces dotted around the stalls – I would have thought that the Fifth Symphony concert, as much as that for the Ninth, would have been a real drawcard.  My friend and I were sympathetic when a couple of people at the interval who were sitting alongside us turned and asked us which Symphony it was that we had just heard – but somewhat perplexed when they then asked us what it was that was coming next (were we REALLY in a concert hall in Wellington?)

The music, for the moment, crowded out extraneous thought, as the concert began – with a dark and mysterious B-flat chord whose development took our sensibilities to realms entirely removed from anything found in the aforementioned first three symphonies. Conductor de Waart kept the pulses ticking over throughout, eschewing the “stillness” of many a more romantically-conceived realisation I’d previously heard, with the focus firmly propelled towards the great outburst that launched the allegro, the orchestral playing alert and urgent, with timpani prominent, and wind and brass bolstering the string lines. A delectable “plunge” into the repeat enhanced our pleasure enormously, while the development brought to us those mysterious re-explorings of the opening, underpinned by the timpani, whose crescendo excitingly returned us to the energies of the allegro’s reprise.

Though de Waart’s purposeful way with the slow movement made something of a literal, almost “ungiving” impression with the opening figures, his players brought out the music’s lyricism, the wind-playing in all its forms a dream to experience! Particularly telling was the “vista of loneliness” generated by the solo clarinet, followed by the most heart-warming passage of birdsong from the flute, the contrasts between the two so breathtakingly characterised! After this the syncopated rhythms of the Scherzo set rumbustious accents against winsome lines, the two characters here deliciously “playing” with one another – then, each of the “Trio” sections were like balm for the senses after the hustle and bustle, the horns finally capping off the energies with a round-up call!

De Waart would have been particularly pleased with his players’ efforts throughout the finale – the players achieved a thrilling synthesis of strength and style throughout with some “star turns” where appropriate, such as the various winds’ helter-skelter renditions of the opening figure – the bassoon’s jaunty manner was an absolute delight! I liked also the great “hammerings at the door” which grew out of the molto perpetuo rhythms in places, and the double basses’ almost nonchalant rumblings as they demonstrated that they were up with the play as well!

So, after such disciplined and tightly-woven music-making, what was in store for us with the genre-defining Fifth Symphony? At the outset, de Waart seemed to emphasise the music’s severity and line, rather than any rhetoric and theatricality, the opening “integrated” into the urgency of the whole, with none of the sounds “held” for effect, but quickly moved onto the next phrase. At the development, the horn utterance remained part of the on-going argument rather than presented as an imperious statement, as was the return of the “Fate” theme – emphatic, but remaining “in tempo”, the oboe allowed the merest bit of give for its solo. However. with the string/wind/brass exchanges towards the end, we realised that the music’s tensions had been steadily building throughout, as the groups seemed, suddenly, to begin “fronting up” to one another, with the horns particularly vehement-sounding – most exciting!

The players launched the second movement quickly and eagerly, the great brass shouts at the phrase ends magnificently underpinned by the double-basses with tremendous thrust! The playing had such concentration, such focus, it sounded as if the musicians were “discovering” the music phrase-by-phrase as it went along, with nothing routine or pre-conceived – I felt an air of engagement throughout, not from any great over-emphasis, but from a sense of purpose, resulting in as many rapt and contemplative moments as there were stirring ones. The scherzo continued this process, so that the horns didn’t balefully blare their great repeated-note opening, but integrated it with the music’s overall movement, leading nicely to the double-basses’ great flexing of corporate muscle, echoed by the bassoons and the rest of the band, anxious to join in with the fun!

Then, of course, came the aforementioned “goblins walking across the world” section, here suitably angular and grotesque, the atmosphere suitably “charged” with mysterious expectation, the timpani eventually taking over from the winds and strings, the sounds magnificently held in check until the firmament was rent by the music’s unstoppable surge into C major, the brass finally allowed to roar out their music, and the rest of the orchestra conflagrated by the sheer energy of it all. De Waart’s control enabled everything to “speak”, but encouraged an on-going vitality, incorporating the spooky return of the scherzo’s “goblins” and the composer’s “vast roarings” putting the latter to flight once and for all, the strings singing out in tandem with the bassoon, piccolo and flute, and the music’s surging towards a communal joyousness at the end – the concert as a whole a true “darkness-to-light” journey of the human spirit, and a privilege to witness. Those many people who leapt to their feet at the C Minor symphony’s end in the Michael Fowler Centre in appreciation of what they had heard obviously thought so too!



Rewarding start to the NZSO’s Beethoven Festival from Edo de Waart

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart

Beethoven Festival: Symphonies 1 in C, 2 in D and 3 in E flat, ‘Eroica’

Michael Fowler Centre

Wednesday 28 August, 7:30 pm

While under Edo de Waart’s musical direction the NZSO has performed several Beethoven symphonies (I recall only 1, 3 and 7) the last complete cycle was a valedictory series (well, his penultimate year) by Pietari Inkinen in 2014. And De Waart is following the same, strictly chronological order, with the first concert devoted to Nos 1, 2 and 3.

Looking back at what I wrote about the first Inkinen concert, I find I’m making a similar and, I suppose, not uncommon observation that there is not the sort of marked difference between Nos 2 and 3 than is sometimes believed to exist. De Waart signalled that in the incremental enlargement of the orchestra between each of the three. No 1 used two horns and strings numbering from 10 down to three basses; in No 2 there were three horns, 12 first violins and four basses, while the Eroica employed four horns, 14 first violins, descending to six basses.

No 1 in C major
The C major symphony opened in a sort of secretive manner that was immediately captivating, strings and winds sounding separately quite a lot but always with a beautiful feeling of carefully balanced ensemble. Beethoven’s scoring and the smaller orchestra allowed individual instruments to emerge clearly.

There’s slightly more Haydn than Mozart audible in  the first symphony but it’s not fruitful to dwell on the composer’s predecessors, for you don’t have to be very perceptive to hear already what can only be Beethoven’s voice, a melodic individuality and a way of handling the shapes of phrases.

Like many of Haydn’s London symphonies, its slow movement, Andante cantabile con moto, is in triple time, and its performance enhanced its gentle character, its minuet-like character which sounds, in some ways more like a minuet than the third movement itself. The Menuetto was Beethoven’s only named minuet movement; while, in the sprightly way De Waart took it, the Menuetto seemed to be striving to be a Scherzo.

I remember how, when I first heard the symphony in my teens, being captivated in the last movement, Adagio – Allegro molto e vivace, by the way Beethoven teased the listener with successive ‘attempts’ at the rising major scale, in G for the moment, rather than the home key of C. The touch of restrained wit seemed to be present throughout De Waart’s performance, and it seemed to draw attention to other games, such as the tossing of the theme back and forth between winds and strings.

No 2 in D major
Not only does each successive symphony grow in length and instrumentation, but also in melodic and formal complexity. For my ears, there’s as much evolution and elaboration between 1 and 2 as between 2 and 3. And De Waart created a mood in the first movement in which the D major key sounded very much more mature and meditative that its predecessor, with its more elaborate orchestration and melodic development; all of which was spread out at a moderate speed – it lasted about 12 minutes; it commonly comes in at about 10. The sense of maturity and calm seriousness, dictated I suppose by the key of D, was consolidated by the Larghetto second movement which shifts to A major, confirming its emotional richness, compared with the first symphony.

After writing this I came across an anonymous quote from a contemporary (1804) review of the D major symphony which is in line with my own feeling about it:

“It is a noteworthy, colossal work, of a depth, power, and artistic knowledge like very few. It has a level of difficulty, both from the point of view of the composer and in regard to its performance by a large orchestra (which it certainly demands), quite certainly unlike any symphony that has ever been made known. It demands to be played again and yet again by even the most accomplished orchestra, until the astonishing number of original and sometimes very strangely arranged ideas becomes closely enough connected, rounded out, and emerges like a great unity, just as the composer had in mind.”

Commentators commonly remark on the synchronous appearance of Beethoven’s distressing Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802 confessing his dismay and wretchedness at his increasing deafness, and I hear this in the symphony’s general mood.

While it’s labelled Scherzo, the third movement seems not to conform particularly to its meaning: ‘joke’ or ‘jest’. Thus it doesn’t suggest any great departure from the spirit of the rest of the symphony.  The last movement persists with the somewhat sombre mood of the other movements, and the orchestra continued to relish the greater sophistication and occasionally teasing seriousness of the movement.

The Eroica
And so, I really don’t share the common view that it’s really only with the Eroica, that the real Beethoven emerged. Its fame derives in part from its intended dedication to Napoleon and Beethoven’s shock when he crowned himself Emperor in 1804, scratching out the dedication. And there’s its grandeur, its greater length and the enlarged orchestra; and its surprising and unusual turns of tonality and orchestral texture. At least one writer has noted that Beethoven could in certain respects have modelled his E flat symphony on Mozart’s E flat symphony, No 39 (inter alia, its first movement in triple time, its second in duple time).

That writer argued his case, concluding: “Even from his earliest works like the Opus 1 Piano Trios, Opus 9 String Trios, opus 5 Cello Sonatas, and Opus 2 Piano Sonatas, Beethoven’s breadth of spiritual vision, his profundity of emotion, his sky-lifting wit and unconstrained audacity are fully developed.”

I don’t claim that there are aspects and elements of No 3 that exist in a mature shape in No 2; they are merely less conspicuous, not so fully formed, suggesting that these signs of genius are present and will soon emerge.

Its main claim to fame is the profoundly impressive Marcia funebre, its second movement, which introduced a powerfully expressive emotionalism of a kind not heard before. Here, Beethoven does, emphatically, transcend anything he’d written before; the challenge is to perform it in a way that reveals its genius without exaggerating the emotion. De Waart’s approach to it was through restraint and an elegiac spirit that was controlled and thoughtful with no hint of unrestrained or even suppressed grief.

The Scherzo, which Beethoven clearly uses as an injunction of ‘life goes on’, after its timid first bars, rang out as an expression of optimism and human delight, perhaps also in the natural world.

To have put the three symphonies in chronological order is at once an obvious and a revelatory approach; I only hope that the audience took away the same message that I did, that, apart from the Marcia funebre, the first two are not far behind the third.

De Waart’s taste and instinct for finding the middle ground, neither too reticent nor to flamboyant, led to performances that were temperate and assured, without vices. They left Beethoven’s voice and intelligence to be understood and heard without input from an egotistic intermediary.

While it’s reported that there’s a full house for the last concert, with Nos 8 and 9, the audience on Wednesday rather worried me. Though the gallery was reasonable well inhabited, the stalls looked little more than half occupied. And more empty seats appeared around me after the interval. Is Wellington…New Zealand…on an irreversible cultural decline as a new generation, less exposed to great music in school and in the general musical environment, is simply less broadly educated.


Intense, heartfelt and involving – Verdi’s Rigoletto from Eternity Opera at the Hannah Playhouse

Eternity Opera presents:
GIUSEPPE VERDI – Rigoletto (Opera in three Acts)

Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave (after Victor Hugo)
English translation by Ruth and Thomas Martin

Rigoletto                James Clayton
Gilda                       Hannah Catrin-Jones
The Duke               Boyd Owen
Sparafucile            Robert Lindsay
Maddalena            Jess Segal
Monterone            Roger Wilson
Giovanna               Ruth Armishaw
Count Marullo      Orene Tiai
Count Ceprano     Minto Fung
Countess Ceprano  Karyn Andreassend
Matteo Borsa       Chris Berentson
Court Usher          Olivia Sheat
A Page                    Alexandra Woodhouse-Appleby
Gang Members     Chris Anderson,  Paul Bothwell, Nikita Crosby
Richard Dean, Jessica Mercer-Short, Garth Norman

Director:  Alex Galvin
Assistant Director:  Laura Loach
Music Director:  Matthew Ross
Producers:  Emma Beale & Minto Fung
Production/Stage Manager:  Joel Rudolf
Costume Designer:  Sally Gray
Lighting Designer:  Haami Hawkins

Eternity Orchestra
Leader:  Vivian Stephens
Repetiteur:  Catherine Norton

Hannah Playhouse, Wellington

Saturday, 23rd August, 2019 (until 31st August)

I can’t think of a better instance of a small opera company bringing forth by dint of its own efforts a production with the commitment and calibre of Eternity Opera’s production of “Rigoletto”, which we saw at Wellington’s Hannah Playhouse on Friday evening. I won’t go as far as proclaiming this “the best so far” of the company’s productions in this venue, as comparisons of that sort are odious for all kinds of reasons – but I certainly felt I’d witnessed nothing better overall than this from the company in the past.

Right from the orchestral prelude’s beginning we were riveted, held by the playing and conductor Matthew Ross’s control of the music’s tensions, the atmosphere dark and un-nerving, everything generated by the insistent motifs and their sharply-focused realisation – the brass were spot-on and unrelenting, the strings and winds coiled and uncoiled with sinister intent, like a snake preparing to strike, and the percussion startled with its force at the climax and its even more disturbing muted after-presence. Then came the stunning volte-face of the “party-music”, the Duke’s palace bursting with sounds of fantastic life and energy – a great beginning! On-stage, I thought the party looked somewhat tentative at the outset, with the chorus members (in modern dress) taking a while to “loosen up” movement-wise  – everybody needed to “hit the ground running” more confidently, and mirror the energies of the orchestral playing and the Duke’s free-wheeling licentiousness – however, to compensate, the singing (in English) was alive and dynamic, which helped it all grow most satisfactorily as the scene went on.

I thought Boyd Owen’s Duke looked and sounded totally convincing from his first entry, emanating self-confidence in all respects, his energies transcending the production’s somewhat bland non-hierarchical appearance – a playboy despot, in fact. His “Questo e quella” (“This or that girl”) had all the casual insouciance of the practised lecher to go with the exuberance of his freely-ringing tones. By contrast, James Clayton’s compelling Rigoletto cleverly “insinuated” his way onto the stage, his almost Dadaist garb mocking convention in accord with his character, and heightening the “edge” of his acerbic exchanges with the courtiers – the character at once provocative, volatile and reckless.

The appearance of Count Monterone (Roger Wilson) an aggrieved nobleman whose daughter had been seduced and abandoned by the Duke was a splendid moment, with the Count’s curse (a stumbling block for most modern adaptations of the opera) here made properly baleful and even frightening by a convincing combination of the singer’s commitment and his would-be victim Rigoletto’s terrified reaction. After a gripping chorus response to this, the voices generating incredible vehemence in their rebuttal of the Count’s maledictions, the Act’s second scene stole in, here cleverly integrating the characters of the killer-for-hire, Sparafucile, and his sister-accomplice Maddalena, among the party-guests, so that they seemed almost like “an enemy within”, rather than ostensibly sinister night-creatures. Robert Lindsay as Sparafucile kept his voice smooth and steady during his confrontation with the jester, allowing the disturbing accompaniment of solo strings and throbbing bass drum to underpin the horror of his glib-toned, but deadly message for Rigoletto, still distracted by Monterone’s curse, but interested despite himself – the scene all the more macabre here, in its manicured, almost genteel aspect!

Clayton superbly laid bare the jester’s character in his soliloquy which followed, reiterating the curse, railing against his deformity and execrating the courtiers who mocked him earlier, before giving himself over entirely to his daughter, Gilda, here sung by Hannah Catrin-Jones with a presence and intensity that ideally matched the vividly-wrought character of her besotted but fearful father.  How fortunate we were to have such a triumvirate of singers in this work’s leading roles! As she did in her portrayal of “Madama Butterfly” last year for the company, Catrin-Jones “owned” the character of Gilda with a vocal “presence” and dramatic totality of commitment that rightly put intensity of feeling before every other consideration, in places even beauty of tone – and in doing so she again won our hearts and sympathies.

The singing and playing during this scene did full justice to the composer’s remarkable combination of quicksilver movement and heartfelt emotion – Rigoletto’s tenderness and anxiety at odds with one another, Gilda’s concern for her father set against her interest in a young man she had seen at church, a secret she shared with the maid, Giovanna (sensitively and lyrically portrayed by Ruth Armishaw), and the young man’s sudden, covert entrance into the courtyard in pursuit of Gilda (the Duke in disguise, of course, astonished to learn that the girl is Rigoletto’s daughter, but unremitting in his efforts to “get the girl”!) – supporting the singers’ efforts all the way was Matthew Ross’s conducting, generating playing from his musicians by turns as thrustful and exciting or lyrical and atmospheric as required.

The “no-holds-barred” scene between the disguised Duke and Gilda was a tour de force of emotional outpouring on the part of both characters, vocal elegance mattering less than the raging flow of feeling, carrying us all along in its flow – what a mountain for singers to climb! – especially on the part of the tenor, with Boyd Owen’s voice seemingly at full stretch in most places in places but his character totally convincing dramatically! Gilda’s well-known “Caro nome” (Dearest name) in the wake of the Duke’s departure restored beauty and elegance to the proceedings, Catrin-Jones’s exquisite singing most sensitively supported by the orchestra, the winds in particular partners in fragrant evocation, despite a moment or two’s imprecision between singer and players towards the end.

Great work followed from the chorus, the nobles gathering, in disguise, to carry off whom they believed to be Rigoletto’s mistress, encountering him outside the house and deluding him into thinking they were playing a trick on someone else! The energy and thrust of the singing and playing carried us irresistibly along to the point where Rigoletto suddenly heard Gilda’s voice as she was “taken” by the intruders, thereupon tearing off his “mask” and discovering she was gone.

More full-bloodedly ardent singing from the Duke at the Second Act’s beginning – what a role this is! – (though I’ve often thought Verdi a little inconsistent in his characterisation, here  – was this genuine feeling for the missing Gilda he was expressing?) Boyd Owen was again unfailingly sonorous and romantic in vocal feeling, his anguish transformed to joy upon hearing of Gilda’s conveyance to his clutches. Rigoletto, by comparison, was all care and sorrow, turning to anger as he revealed to the courtiers that they had stolen his daughter, James Clayton’s vocal range and depth of emotion overwhelming, the flood of feeling generated, together with weeping strings and plangent cor anglais, breaking all hearts! Gilda’s sudden entrance from the Duke’s bedroom occasioned an oboe solo of equal poignancy, its phrases movingly matched by Catrin-Jones’ achingly lovely tones – as befitted one of opera’s most heartfelt scenes, this performance delivered the sorrow and anguish of it all in spadefuls!

Here, too, was amply-realised justification for the sparseness of the set – unobtrusive in earlier scenes, but absolutely perfect in this instance, with shadows as well as “substance” resonating on or in front of both walls so dramatically – as if there was nowhere, emotionally, to hide – incredibly moving, thanks also to the perfectly-judged lighting on those bare walls!

By general agreement, though, it’s the final Act that’s thought to be one of its composer’s greatest achievements – and here it certainly maintained the voltages from what had gone before, if channelling them into more overtly sinister and potentially murderous realms.  Perhaps it was the fault of what seemed an out-and-out marathon of vocal effort by Boyd Owen up to that point of the evening, but his “La donna e mobile” (Women are fickle), felt to me a shade sedate compared with the volatile energies of the First-Act’s “Questo e Quella”, and even the orchestral accompaniment seemed to lack the last amount of “fizz” – however, not so the magnificent Quartet, which followed soon after! –  here, the voices realised as heartfelt and wide-ranging an expression of both individual and concerted emotion as was one’s right to expect, Jess Segal’s Maddalena given her chance to shine alongside the three principals, which her voice managed with great aplomb.

Though everything from that moment onwards moved with the surety and inevitability of a Greek tragedy towards its brutal outcome, the performances had such here-and-now spontaneity, it was as if we were seeing something, however well-known, for the first time and willing against hope the impossible to happen and the guiltless be spared rather than sacrificed. So tense, so charged was the ambience when Rigoletto was left alone with the sack containing what he thought – in fact what he gleefully TOLD us – was the Duke’s body, that when we suddenly heard the latter’s voice singing his “signature tune” offstage, somebody in the audience audibly giggled – not through disrespect, I felt, but obviously out of either shock or sheer release of tension – I thought it a kind of tribute to the performance’s cathartic power, as well as to the production in general, AND to the composer and his librettist (not forgetting, of course, Victor Hugo!).

I’ve heard ample testimony from others since regarding the overwhelming effect of this production upon those who were ‘there”. The three principal singers, those in the supporting roles, both individual and chorus, the conductor, Matthew Ross and his musicians, director Alex Galvin and his assistant, Laura Loach, the producers and their various technicians, all contributed to what seemed to me like a fantastically interactive and ensembled effort, to produce something resoundingly memorable and eminently worthwhile. To hear, then, a whisper, as I did, of Eternity Opera facing the prospect of having to struggle to receive the necessary support in oncoming years for more productions such as these simply beggars belief. Though opinions differ as to the factors that contribute to a “civilised society”, my view inclines towards support for the arts being as necessary for the greater good of humanity as measures which provide for us air we can breathe and water we can drink – a truly humanising kind of sustenance. May Eternity Opera be assured of continuance, to furnish for us more of such sustenance!







Visiting Russian cellist inspires a fine, short-lived piano trio and an interesting recital

Levansa Trio (Andrew Beer – violin, Lev Sivkov – cello, Sarah Watkins – piano)

Debussy: Sonata for violin and piano (1917)
Grieg: Andante con moto for piano trio
Myaskovsky: Cello sonata No 2 in A minor, Op 81
Beethoven: Piano Trio in B flat, Op 97; ’Archduke’

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 18 August 2019, 2:30 pm

It might be unusual to give a common name to a group of three musicians who are clearly going to have only a few weeks together because one of its members lives in another country. The owner of the first three letters of the name ‘Levansa’ is the Russian cellist whose residence looks peripatetic at the present time, though his appointment in 2017 as principal cello of the Zurich opera orchestra suggests that he is currently a Swiss resident.

For a group that has only been together for a week or so, the first impression was of remarkable homogeneity, with all three playing with restraint, collectively creating refined and balanced performances.

Grieg’s Andante for piano trio
The first opportunity to hear the cellist was in the single movement of a piano trio by Grieg that was never finished. Here one could admire his rhythmic sensitivity and flawless intonation; simply, his most sophisticated playing.

Though the programme note characterised the Andante as sombre and solemn, that wasn’t the prevailing mood: the sturdy two-quaver piano motif supplied a firm, confident foundation, and its general character struck me as calm and contented, with no suggestion of discomfort with traditional musical forms. Grieg also wrote a cello sonata, a string quartet and three violin sonatas that are by no means contemptible. One of my earliest live experiences of Grieg was hearing his third violin sonata at a (then) NZ Chamber Music Federation concert in Taumarunui where I spent a three-week ‘section’ at the High School as a secondary teacher trainee in the late 1950s. (A cultural-geographic feature that suggests more wide-spread musical activity than one might find in small towns today).

Debussy: violin sonata
But the first piece was Debussy’s last composition – his violin sonata written in 1917 a few months before his death. His reversion to classical forms in his last years was accompanied by his adoption of a style that paid more attention to the traditions of the music of two centuries before, as his planned six sonatas were intended as homage to the music of Couperin and Rameau and their contemporaries.

And so I enjoyed the deliberateness and confidence with which violinist Beer and pianist Watkins brought to the sonata, with a good deal of attention to the richness and polish of the violin’s lower register. There is little in the names of either the second or third movements, Intermède: fantastique et léger and Très animé, to reflect the terrible suffering of the French in the First World War and the deaths of many of Debussy’s friends. Nor did their playing depart from ‘lightness’ and ‘animation’.

Myaskovsky’s second cello sonata was substituted for the advertised sonata by Duparc. All I really knew of the composer was his proclivity for symphonies – he wrote 27 of them as well as concertos, string quartets and much else – and his survival with little harassment by the Soviet cultural commissars.

As usual, there’s an interesting, reasonably comprehensive article about him in Wikipedia. I find it hard to desist from miscellaneous asides: Wikipedia writes that Russian conductor Yevgeny Svetlanov described Myaskovsky as ‘the founder of Soviet symphonism, the creator of the Soviet school of composition, the composer whose work has become the bridge between Russian classics and Soviet music … Myaskovsky entered the history of music as a great toiler like Haydn, Mozart and Schubert … He invented his own style, his own intonations and manner while enriching and developing the glorious tradition of Russian music’.

The sonata sounds mainstream in the sense of Russian composers born before 1900, who adjusted to Soviet demands and in his case led a reasonably undisturbed life as teacher at the Moscow Conservatorium. It’s eclectic in that it’s not easy to spot marked influences from either his Russian or other contemporaries, though I might venture Glazunov, Arensky or Scriabin. He was a close friend of Prokofiev, though their music has little in common.

I enjoyed the melodiousness of the piece and the warmth and expressiveness of both musicians’ playing. It’s far from being a showcase for either instrument and gains high marks accordingly. I was a little intrigued to notice that Sivkov took the mute off at the beginning of the second movement – a swaying, triple-time Andante cantabile – theoretically more lyrical and calm than the first movement; but the difference was not very marked. The third movement remained in a charming lyrical vein, now merely quicker and more animated with a good deal of pizzicato and staccato. As the end approached it seemed to gather speed, though that was rather more imagined than real.  Though not a piece that would have been much admired in avant-garde circles in the West in 1948, its plain musical qualities, its easy lyricism, can now be enjoyed without undue embarrassment. Certainly by me.

The ‘Archduke’ Trio
Finally, the piece that would have been the major attraction, though I was a little surprised that it had not drawn a bigger audience. Here was a further example of the balance and harmoniousness of the three players. Though the piano was always very audible Sarah Watkins clearly feels comfortable with the way the Fazioli projects its opulent, genteel sounds into the big space.  (Afterwards I was speaking to a friend about the piano and we tried to recall the north Italian town where the Fazioli factory is: my copy of the charming book by T E Cathcart, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank [in Paris], solved it: Sacile, about 120 km north of Venice).

I found myself noticing how much prominence was given to each instrument through each movement. The piano leads the way through the early parts of the first movement, but it was interesting to hear, as if I hadn’t been paying attention in a dozen earlier hearings, what a lot of routine passagework is given to the piano. This was surely just the effect of such a warmly delightful performance of one of the greatest masterpieces, not just in the chamber music sphere, but in the whole range of classical music. Not a moment passes that does not enchant and transport one to a sort of musical wonderland. Almost any sort of performance will move you in that direction, but one as enrapturing as this discovers delights and musical miracles at every turn. Especially delightful is the arrangement of the movements, where we await the sublime Andante cantabile till after the Scherzo, where its arrival after nearly half an hour seems like a deliciously delayed gift; and the seamless gliding into the finale was like the fulfilment of a long-delayed promise.

This was a remarkable concert, that ended with a beautiful performance of this greatest of all piano trios, all the more so considering that this little ensemble was a mere temporary association of three gifted musicians.

Third of NZSO’s Shed series delivers some hits, some misses, and a couple of real successes

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra: Shed Series, Concert III
Conductor: Hamish McKeich

Piazzolla: Sinfonietta
Eve de Castro-Robinson: Cyprian’s Dance
Mozart: Symphony No 32 in G, K 318
Piazzolla: Histoire du tango  – III Nightclub 1960
Bach/Webern: A Musical Offering – Ricercare
Webern: Symphony, Op 21
John Adams: Chamber Symphony

Shed 6, Wellington Waterfront

Friday 9 August 7:30 pm

The NZSO’s Shed series is one of the orchestra’s gestures that seeks to attract new audiences. You stay out of conventional venues, you avoid any of the trappings of a forbidding classical music concert which finds the entire audience in white tie and tails and ball gowns; there are no rows of comfortable seats. Instead, just a few dozen seats with backs, a lot of padded benches scattered around, high bar tables with a few stools round them and lots of room on the floor on which to sprawl comfortably. At the last concert, 15 minutes before curtain rise, I was lucky to find a last seat against a wall. This time I was uncommonly early and so, comfortably seated.

The emulation of a rock concert involved no printed programme. We have evidently reverted to the age of oral as distinct from literate culture. A couple of friends expressed puzzlement to one of the roving ‘ushers’ at the neglect of the art of reading, and had a pleasant, smiling response. However, there are a few notes on the concert on the NZSO website which computer-literate audience members would have accessed.

Another of the friendly touches was a scattering of musicians at their desks (yes they were allowed the scores), playing their way round tricky passages; but I saw no audience members chatting to them.

While I’m at it, I could say I was surprised to find bar charges about 25% higher than in the MFC: perhaps they’d misread the nature of the concert, expecting a well-heeled audience in a wharf shed?

Fortunately, Hamish McKeich is the ideal conductor/compere: congenial, light-spirited, casual and mildly droll. However, I wondered if his remarks about composers and the pieces revealed a depth of knowledge that might have discomforted or offended the more narrowly focused rock-concert addict. His introducing the music and its composers was admirably clear and offered sufficient information, generally placing it in its historical context.

Piazzolla made a good opener for a concert like this.
It was a relief to be offered something other than the much played Four Seasons of Buenos Aires; his less familiar Sinfonietta successfully straddled the intellectual character of good classical music and the essence, refined, of its tango origins. It’s in three movements: 1. Dramatico. Allegro marcato, un poco pesante; 2. Sobrio. Andantino – Poco più mosso – Tempo I; 3. Jubiloso. Vivace).

The piano began by repeating a six-note phrase, then low strings and xylophone join, uttering staccato gestures in sombre mood. The second movement adopts an even more subdued feeling, at a similar pace, seeming to subtly disguise its tango roots, so unassertive were its sounds. The third movement finally takes off as a more recognisable, energetic and sophisticated tango. If Piazzolla’s purpose was to assert his legitimacy in the classical mainstream, recognising that Western music has absorbed the ambient music of its environment throughout its history, he succeeded here.  There was a satisfying feeling of genuine invention and formal mastery of the broad classical tradition, successfully integrated with a prevailing tango flavour. The result combined clarity with colourful orchestration.

Eve de Castro-Robinson’s Cyprian’s Dance was accompanied by a change in the lighting to an unusual rose, playing against interesting wall patterns. Hints of a tango rhythm suggested themselves to me; but the prevailing tone was of high register strings, long glissandi, a disturbed feeling of a brittle, highly-strung creation. There was also a fleeting Mozart quotation from Eine kleine Nachtmusik whose connection with its surroundings escaped me. The piece rather lacked warmth and lyricism, and its reception was luke-warm.

Mozart’s Symphony No 32 is a bit of an oddity: only about eight minutes long, in three unelaborated movements. The early pages were typically and charming Mozartian, setting off as if it would become a conventional symphonic work, by means of repetition, development and the introduction of contrasting themes. But each movement ended too soon, rather leaving one hanging, expecting more. It could probably have been managed in a way that made its abbreviated length sound deliberate, but it just seemed incomplete; I didn’t feel that the orchestra’s heart was in it.

Piazzolla: Histoire du tango
It was followed, unprogrammed, by the Nightclub 1960 movement of Piazzolla’s four-part Histoire du tango, this time arranged for flute and xylophone; one of his most familiar pieces and so a touchstone that eased the return to our own age.

Webern appeals to rather small number of ordinary classical listeners; programming it here was obviously with the hope that a less ‘prejudiced’, young and uncommitted audience would be more open-minded, may have been a good try. Perhaps it was felt that linking Webern with a piece by Bach, even a relatively unfamiliar piece like the Ricercare from A Musical Offering might break the ice and perhaps its character was a little less dense and impenetrable than Webern’s not well-known Symphony that followed.

The Symphony is scored for two violins, viola, and cello, and clarinet, bass clarinet, two horns, harp. But accepting that where I was seated didn’t allow a well-balanced aural picture, it was probably unreasonable to expect a successful performance in this environment.  I was left with the feeling that it needed a more seriously lyrical approach, to tease out its improbable beauties. I’ve certainly heard it so played on recordings.

The choice of John Adams’s Chamber Symphony was more successful; Though it may well have been chosen because it was for a smaller ‘chamber’ orchestra for four strings, a dozen winds, piano and percussion, it, along with Piazzolla’s Sinfonietta, was the most immediately accessible (and therefore successful) work of the evening (apart naturally, for the Mozart). The orchestration is certainly unorthodox but not the least alienating. It’s in three movements; multitudinous, eclectic (just look at the names Adams gives its movements – “Mongrel Airs”; “Aria with Walking Bass” and “Roadrunner”) with moderately avant-garde elements. Some of rthe sounds in its first movement reminded me of Stravinsky in L’histoire du soldat.

Adams wrote that it’s partly influenced by Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony (1907, long before his twelve tone era), but also by his young son watching old cartoons. Adams writes: “Sam was in the adjacent room watching cartoons (good cartoons, old ones from the ’50’s). The hyperactive, insistently aggressive and acrobatic scores for the cartoons mixed in my head with the Schoenberg music, itself hyperactive, acrobatic and not a little aggressive”.

So the pulsating, exciting third movement was a splendid way to end the concert. Probably as a result of the seating (everyone’s aural experience would have been different because the audience was spread around three, perhaps four, sides of the orchestra), the sound was less than ideal, not balanced properly; it would be good to hear it in a conventional auditorium.

Is this the way forward?
While the orchestra’s aims are admirable, the performances first rate, and there was a reasonable, though by no means capacity audience of more young people that are found at the normal concerts, I’m not sure about the whole package. Is the creation of some sort of pseudo-rock concert environment, aping an utterly different musical genre, the way to attract new audiences to the music that is at the heart of the symphony orchestral world? After all, most of this music is far from central to the huge body of wonderful music that has stood the test of time for up to half a millennium (at least).

A traditional venue such as the Town Hall, where seating was on a flat floor, flexible, and with the orchestra at that level, might be a better venue: a half-way house between the genres. My mind goes back to the much lamented ‘Promenade Concerts’ that flourished in the 1950s: informal, relaxed, where the audience sat and lay on rugs and cushions on the floor and there was food and drinks available inside the stalls, at the back. The music was not like this of course, but it did was music that was accessible and beautiful and it did attract hundreds of young people like me, getting to know great music that helped form criteria that cultivated taste and the ability to distinguish the good from the rubbish. Another reason for longing for some faster action on the Town Hall.

Camerata continues exploring Haydn with an aside to Mozart: charm and surprises

Camerata chamber orchestra. Leader: Anne Loeser

Haydn: Overture to La Fedelta Premiata
Haydn: Symphony no. 9
Mozart: Divertimento in D, K. 136,
Haydn: Symphony no. 5

St Peter’s church, Willis Street

Thursday 8 August, 6 pm

Looking back on Middle C’s reviews of Camerata, I see they have been a peripatetic ensemble, having been in St Mary of the Angels, the Wesley Church, Taranaki Street and the Adam Concert Room in the university school of music, but most often at St Peter’s.

St Peter’s may not be such a prolific provider of concerts as St Andrew’s, but it always shows its virtues when musicians choose to perform there. Its timber structure offers a slightly more mellow quality to the sound and its greater antiquity along, I suppose, with a richness of religious decoration, imagery and memorials, which has not been subjected to doctrinal austerity; it creates a warm and interesting environment, in a less bright light.

Their main sphere has been the Baroque/Classical era, though there have been departures from Haydn, Mozart and their contemporaries: like Dvořák, Pierné, Elgar and Mendelssohn. This time there was no departure from their dedicated field.

Overture to La Fedelta Premiata
Haydn dominated, with two early symphonies and an opera overture. The overture was for an opera of 1781, twenty years after he began his service at the court of Prince Nicolaus Esterházy. Few of his operas survived a few performances at Esterháza (or Eszterháza, in Hungarian spelling) and opinion of the time and even today has not really left us with a collection of seriously undervalued masterpieces. The overture contains a prominent hunting theme, which gave it a special character leading Haydn to use it as the finale to Symphony No 73, named ‘La Chasse’.

It opens with a jolly, rhythmic hunting tune that taxed the brass players (trumpets and horns), making a fine impact as the concert’s opener.

A Ninth Symphony
It was too early in the history of the symphony for a Symphony No 9 to be a guaranteed masterpiece, and in truth, though I write this with a degree of trepidation, its performance hardly presaged the sort of fame that Haydn achieved through the 1780s. Yet there was plenty of melodic invention, it was animated and well-paced and there were clear signs of the richer musical gifts that emerged more vividly over the years and employing flutes, oboes, horns and a bassoon. The Andante, second movement, using only flutes and strings, was charming and the Finale, in the shape of a minuet, brought horns back, enjoyed a lovely oboe solo over delicate string accompaniment; not flawless but it created a confident, genial spirit. The main handicap here might have been a lack of string numbers that restrained a truly lyrical and shapely performance.

Mozart divertimento/symphony/string quartet
Between the two Haydn symphonies came an early work by Mozart, written ten years after Haydn’s No 9. While Haydn was 29, Mozart was only 16 when he wrote this. It’s for strings only, sometimes called a string quartet, sometimes known as the first of the three ‘Salzburg Symphonies’. It’s much admired, for it’s a fully formed, accomplished and elegant work that has always held its own, and set in this context, it displayed rather more urbane confidence than Haydn did at twice his age. The third and last movement, marked Presto, was evidence of that confidence, taken at maximum speed, even through the accomplished little fugue found in the middle.

The Fifth Symphony
I wondered whether the selection of Haydn’s symphonies 5 and 9, signalling two of the greatest symphonies ever, by another composer, was a deliberate bit of playfulness. Also noted was that these two symphonies straddled the fairly familiar numbers 6, 7 and 8 (Morning, Noon and Night symphonies, but no relation to the Suppé Overture).

The Fifth was the only four-movement work in the programme, though not written according to the later symphonic recipe (fast, slow, minuet, presto-finale); but rather in the ‘church sonata’ form (slow, fast, dance – as usual a minuet – and fast). It was probably written aged 26 (Wikipedia thinks after 1760, aged more like 28), before Haydn was engaged by the Esterhazy family.

As the programme notes point out, the opening movement has real gravitas; I heard, rather than ’gravitas’, an interesting sensitivity which made one realise that Prince Nicolaus did have an acute ear for the work of a slow-maturing genius.

The programme note again, hints that the second movement, Allegro, gives a pre-taste of the spirit of Sturm und Drang (the German pre-Romantic phase, which didn’t really emerge till the 1770s); and the speeds and agility it demanded, and the high horn parts, didn’t sound easy. It was in triple time which rather reduced the contrast normally found between the second movement and the Minuet which was also played at a rather similar pace. But one could sense its underlying delicacy which tended to be forgotten as the typical Minuet movement later became more boisterous, eventually turning into a Scherzo with Beethoven.

The Finale was indeed, Presto, and one had hardly noted the couple of tunes that it uses, and the high horn parts, before it was over. A model overlooked by Bruckner and Mahler.

This admirable project by Anne Loeser and the Camerata orchestra, that is slowly exploring Haydn’s early symphonies, puts me in mind of a wonderful series of concerts, perhaps a couple of decades ago, covering all Mozart’s symphonies in a day-by-day festival, employing all Wellington’s orchestras, even some from amateurs. No one could sensibly suggest such an undertaking for Haydn, but there’s more than enough evidence in these concerts, that such an enterprise, selecting 20 or 30 symphonies might capture attention; and I don’t forget Orchestra Wellington’s series of Haydn’s Paris symphonies in 2014.


Jennifer Stumm and Te Koki Trio share honours at Wellington’s MFC

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:

Music by Michael Williams, György Kurtág, Schumann, and Brahms

MICHAEL WILLIAMS – Spirit flies Sun Rises
GYÖRGY KURTÁG – Three Pieces for Viola Solo (from “Signs, Games and Messages”)
ROBERT SCHUMANN – Märchenbilder  (Fairytale Pictures)
JOHANNES BRAHMS – Scherzo in C Minor from FAE Sonata  / Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor Op.60 “Werther”

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday, 8th August, 2019

What an excellent idea it was of Chamber Music New Zealand’s to invite viola virtuoso Jennifer Stumm here to perform with Wellington’s Te Koki Trio! – her presence enabled a richly varied programme to be performed with a unique distinction in Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre, a programme that’s currently on tour throughout the country.

Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Stumm currently holds Professorships of viola studies in institutions both in Vienna and London, and teaches and gives concerts about the globe, with a particular interest in supporting young musicians from developing countries, being the founder and co-director of Ilumina, a São-Paulo-based chamber music collective and social initiative whose activities foster rising talent from Latin America at the Iuumina Festival and on tour around the world.

She’s been an advocate for her instrument ever since taking up the viola at the age of eight, calling it “the imperfect instrument” in the sense of having something uniquely expressive to offer to music listeners and performers, winning “firsts” in performance prizes for the viola in various international competitions, making acclaimed recordings, and working with some of the world’s most prestigious and legendary musicians , such as the Beaux Arts Trio and the Alban Berg Quartet.

In this concert she was heard as a soloist (all too briefly) in György Kurtág’s Three pieces for Viola Solo, and then as a duettist with pianist Jian Liu in Schuman’s Märchenbilder  (Fairytale Pictures) and Brahms’ Scherzo from the “F-A-E” Sonata. Finally, she joined Te Koki Trio in a heartfelt performance of Brahms’ Third Piano Trio in C Minor, to which the subtitle  “Werther” is often added, due to the composer’s own insistence that the music is about the fate of the character in Goethe’s eponymous novel. Throughout her performances the printed programme’s “Washington Post” quotation – “an opal-like beauty” – from a review of Stumm’s playing, repeatedly came to my mind.

Before Stumm made her appearance in the concert it was Te Koki Trio’s task to open the concert with a CMNZ-commissioned work from Hamilton composer Michael Williams for a Piano Trio, one titled Spirit Flies Sun Rises. In an eloquent programme note the composer indicated that his initial motivation for the work was an image in his mind of the scattering of the ashes of an uncle by the wind at Raglan, imparting a sense of something like “a bird in flight or perhaps a leaping deer”, a spirit becoming part of “the great all”, while for those living the world still turns and the sun rises.

The unexpected death of the composer’s younger brother just as the work was being freshly addressed after a break gave rise to an “enormously cathartic and unforgettable” experience of re-evaluation of what Williams wanted the work to say, further intensifying the idea of a spirit leaving the earth and being freed. The end result as heard in the Michael Fowler Centre on Thursday evening was something as ethereal and “liberated” in sound as were the spirits of the departed in substance – the work set long-breathed, soulful tones, perhaps of quiet mourning or remembrance, against scintillations of gossamer-like freedom.

It seemed like a kind of nature-ritual, with earthly things both letting go and reclaiming impulses of energy whose time had come to move elsewhere, or perhaps to “return”. What the musicians did seemed to transcend normal manifestations of feeling and energy – Martin Riseley’s violin and Inbal Meggido’s ‘cello intoned what felt like uplifted, trance-like responses to the happenings, while Jian Liu‘s piano created endless and enduring shafts of illumination and whole ambiences of warmth. I thought the understating of it all was ultimately the most powerful and moving aspect of the work and its performance.

It was appropriate, I felt, that the sounds we heard next were those of a single instrument, marked by the appearance of Jennifer Stumm, the illustrious violist here accorded a warm welcome.I had not heard these pieces by Hungarian composer György Kurtág previously  – all three come from a sequence of 24 such pieces for solo viola, “Signs, Games and Messages”, and represent a compositional form and  method characteristic of the composer. His music has been described as “reducing his material to the level of the fragment, or the moment….”, with the individual pieces in this collection ranging in length from three or four minutes to mere handfuls of seconds.

The first piece sounded folksy, a recitative-like piece whose near-claustrophobic “seconds” were piquantly resolved, Stumm producing an amazingly rich and “earthy” sound. The second sounded like a wailing, weeping lament, very “Jewish-sounding” in character, creating the extraordinary effect of a stringed instrument actually “sounding” like a human voice, the notes having a curiously “over-the-top” vibrato, suggesting raw emotion! – Lastly was a kind of dance (the composer inspired, Stumm told us, by an English girl), with both timbres and colours of the sounds changing constantly and the rhythms varying from measure to measure.

Stumm then demonstrated her art in partnership with pianist Jian Liu, beginning with Robert Schumann’s Märchenbilder  (Fairytale Pictures), written in 1851. The composer described them as “childish pranks” to the work’s first performer of the viola part (they were written for either violin or viola, Schumann preferring the latter), and he didn’t specify any sources for his inspiration, leaving performers and listeners alike to “create” their own scenarios.  The violist introduced each of the pieces most charmingly, the first having a gentle, flowing opening with both instruments in perfect accord and dove-tailing the melodic lines most exquisitely, Stumm’s wonderful elasticity of tone enabling her to”load” the expression of every bar with variation and flexible nuance.

The march which followed featured viola fanfares at its beginning, the figures turning to song as the music developed, Jian Liu’s nimble playing seeming to entice the viola from the path and into the woods, the sounds playing canonic games amongst the trees, until the wistful strains of the opening theme call the instruments back to their more heroic initial purpose. A dark urgency gripped the music of the third piece, the figurations agitated, viola and piano nimbly alternating the triplet rhythms, before allowing the appearance of a contrasting, more languishing and nostalgic sequence which seemed to yearn for somebody’s return. The music returns abruptly to the insistence of the triplets until what sounded like a cry of despair from the viola brought the piece to an abrupt conclusion.

The final movement’s  “Langsam, mit melancholischem Ausdruck” (Slowly and with a melancholy expression) sounded like a love song, Stumm’s viola with the melody and Liu’s piano soaring overhead protectively, so “intertwined” a feeling (obviously a “Clara-inspired” sequence! – Clara, of course, being Schumann’s wife), so wholly a union! The piano took the lead for some moments, intensifying the ardour with triplet figurations, while the viola momentarily took flight, before the two returned to the opening, and made something characteristically rich and romantic of the ending.

Violist and pianist extended their accord with the audience via an unusual composition, a Scherzo movement written by Johannes Brahms for a piece called the F.A.E. Sonata, a collaborative piece by three composers – besides Brahms, there was Schumann and Albert Dietrich, who was one of Schumann’s pupils. The work was intended as a gift for the violinist Joseph Joachim, whom Brahms had met in Hanover earlier in the year, and who had introduced Brahms to Robert and Clara Schumann – the F.A.E. of the title stood for a phrase that Joachim had taken for a motto – “Frei aber einsam” (Free but alone). All three composers completed their work and Joachim gratefully accepted the gift and played the work! Just before his death, in 1906, he allowed Brahms’ Scherzo to be published. (I’ve not been able to find out whose transcription for viola Jennifer Stumm used).

Never before have I been so aware of Beethoven’s influence on the younger composer in this movement, as in this performance, right from the four-note motive reminiscent of “you-know-what” at the start! Using the viola, Stumm seemed to get the best of two worlds, the extra weight and gravitas of the lower instrument combining with the rich lyrical warmth of her playing of the second theme. And she can “take on” silvery violin-like tones whenever she chooses, it seems, the instruments highest notes having a glistening quality not normally associated with a viola. As for the playing of Jian Liu, her keyboard partner, it scintillated during the vigorous passages and captured the romantic glow of the piano writing in the work’s poetic central section.

Remaining was the evening’s grandest utterance, Brahms’ Third Piano Quartet Op. 60, a work conveniently ignored, it seems to me, by those people who aligned themselves with the musical conservatives of that time, people filled with self-righteous horror at the idea, espoused by Liszt and Wagner, that music was actually “about” something – the doyen of conservative critics Eduard Hanslick led the charge, laying about him with a will at the “progressives” who dared to attach ideas or even “programmes” to the music they wrote. Yet the “darling” of the conservatives, Johannes Brahms, the “upholder of classical traditions and ideals” here produced a work which he himself aligned with a “programme”, going as far as suggesting to his publisher that he print the work accompanied by certain images which would further convey the music’s “meaning”! The silence from the conservatives was deafening!

Brahms, of course was known in his later years for his mordant wit, especially regarding his own music – calling his massive B-flat Piano Concerto “my little concerto with a teeny wisp of a scherzo”, for instance – but in the case of aligning his Op. 60 Piano Quintet with a set of images and a programme, there’s nothing to suggest that he wasn’t serious. Of course, in any such conflict the contradictions abound – and today most music-lovers have little difficulty with appreciation and enjoyment of works from both sides of the historic “divide”!

Stumm and Te Koki Trio gave a strong, “interlocked  ensemble” sound to the first movement of the work, the music’s contrasts characterised so very heartwarmingly, with frequent instances of tender, wistful music-making gradually building towards stormier interactions – the coda seemed to collapse, exhausted, at the movement’s end. A call-to-arms from the piano at the Scherzo’s beginning set in play some partly playful, partly trenchant energies, mischief mixed here with desperation – a rollicking ride with plenty of “glint”.

Inbal Meggido’s ‘cello sang its cantilena-like opening  of the slow movement with much poetry, matched by Martin Riseley’s violin, the music singing and surging throughout, the solos usually “supported” by lines from one or two others, the piano having its turn with both arco and pizz. accompaniments – I was reminded of Dvorak’s “structuring” of his late chamber work melodies, here, with self-conscious building-blocks here seeming more like living tree-trunks advancing the music’s cause.

But what a finale to follow! – agitated at the outset, with the piano anxious and restless, driving the strings onwards and upwards! – a brief moment of calm, and the music surged forward once again, towards a questioning, almost confused “development” section, here “laid bare” for us by the players, before the music’s “flight” aspect again took hold. The ensemble playing all-encompassing in its desperately energised excitement, until the piano’s majestically-sounded chordal utterances rang out like a hymn of defiance! One’s first reaction was to regret the two sharpish concluding chords at the end as an unnecessary convention, until one remembered the composer’s “head with a pistol to it” illustration-directive to his publisher!

After these exertions, it was fitting that we heard some music from Brahms’ great mentor Schumann, the slow movement from his single Piano Quartet, in a performance that kept on reminding me of Borodin, in its limpid, delicately-voiced way……









Illuminating, even sublime perfection in solo recital by cellist Lev Sivkov

Lunchtime Concerts at St Andrew’s

Lev Sivkov – solo cello (who played Barber’s cello concerto with Orchestra Wellington on Saturday 3 August)

Khachaturian: Sonata-Fantasia (1974)
Piatti: Caprice No 5 in A flat
Bach: Suite No 2 in D minor for solo cello. BWV 1008
Dutilleux: Three Strophes on the name of Sacher (1976)

St Andrews on The Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 7 August, 12:15 pm

Sadly, it is rare that major soloists with our professional orchestras are taken in hand by enterprising entrepreneurs and offered recitals around the country. Lev Sivkov is clearly in the hands of an enterprising manager in New Zealand who is making excellent use of him.

Having heard him last Friday with Orchestra Wellington playing Barber’s cello concerto, I was delighted to be handed a flyer about this recital in St Andrew’s lunchtime concert series.  It’s a time to note that these concerts are both free for the audience (though most drop a ‘koha’ in the box) and without a fee for the performer; the vital contributions of church and Marjan Waartenberg also go unrewarded.

The programme was changed from that advertised, to take account of the need to retune the cello’s two lower strings by a semitone for the Dutilleux piece. No rearrangement could have affected the pleasure flowing from the four pieces, three of which were unknown to virtually everyone.

His playing of Barber’s cello concerto prepared me for the distinction of his playing here, which was extraordinary in every respect: intonation more than perfect, an expressiveness that succeeded in being utterly satisfying and tasteful; asked to rank his playing on a scale to 1 to 10, I would suggest 11.

The Barber was certainly a taxing work though strangely not quite a masterpiece. This was a far better opportunity to watch and listen up close to music that was again just short of being undisputed classics, apart from the two movements from a Bach suite.

Khachaturian is not thought of as a chamber music composer, but this Sonata-Fantasia from late in his life, aged 70, showed that perhaps there’s a lot of other orchestral, chamber and other music that we are being deprived of.

It had real character, with sequences of chords and individual notes that were not commonplace and on second hearing would very likely take root in the mind as interesting melodies; even without a second hearing, the piece was coherent and arresting and commanded the audience’s rapt attention.

A Piatti Caprice
Then a piece by a once familiar cello virtuoso and composer, whose simpler pieces could be tackled by an average student such as your reviewer. This Caprice was not to be underestimated; the words ‘musical substance’ came to mind, its shape and melodic sense were conspicuous, and there were decorative elements, feathery flourishes that were far from mere pyrotechnics, though they would challenge all but a highly accomplished player.

Bach Suite No 2
Sivkov then came to Bach’s second solo cello suite, playing the Prelude and Allemande. It was a wonderfully elegant and thoughtful performance, the Prelude never for a moment merely a tricky exercise, became an illuminating, naturally-breathed, musically absorbing movement. I’ve never been so conscious of the break in the middle that resumed in a spirit that had suddenly become ethereal and other-worldly. He played the Allemande as if it was being created on the spot, with easy spontaneity and delight; never a hint of a result of long and thoughtful practice.

The Dutilleux piece, which as a reckless Francophile I’d never heard though I have made myself familiar with most of his music, reveals his characteristically complex and elusive writing. It was one of the pieces that Rostropovich asked twelve composers to write in honour of the 70th birthday of Paul Sacher, the famous and deeply inspiring Swiss music patron, using the letters of his name as the theme: Eb, A, C, B, E, D. The most famous work commissioned by Sacher was Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, and Dutilleux used a quote from it in the Three Strophes.

It seemed to present a multitude of technical devices that could easily be mistaken merely for showy avant-gardish cleverness. Technically, it sounded impossible, with endless multi-stringed harmonics that created fairylike effects, left hand pizzicato, requiring supernatural dexterity, all delivered in such perfection that one could imagine the composer being astonished that he’d written something that could be handled with such sublime delicacy and understanding, sounding as even he might have hardly conceived it.

It attracted a quite large and noisily appreciative audience. This concert is likely to go down as one of the most memorable in St Andrew’s year-long series; in fact, in all the scores of concerts in Wellington this year.