Martinborough Music Festival – an overview of a delightful feast of chamber music

Martinborough Music Festival
An overview

For Friday 27 September see Lindis Taylor’s review

Saturday 28 September 2019, 2 pm
Michael Houstoun – piano; Wilma Smith – violin; Christopher Moore – viola, Matthias Balzat – cello
Brahms: Viola Sonata No 2 in Eb, Op 120
Brahms: Piano Trio No 3 in C Minor, Op 101
Fauré: Piano Quartet No 1 in C Minor, Op 15

Saturday 28 September 2019, 7:30 pm
Michael Houstoun – piano, Jenny Wollerman – soprano, Vesa-Matti Leppänen – violin, Wilma Smith – violin, Christopher Moore – viola, Matthias Balzat – cello, Ken Ichinose – cello
Songs: Between Darkness and Light (see review from Charlotte Wilson)
Schubert: String Quintet in C Major, D 956
(See review of this concert by Charlotte Wilson)

Sunday 29 September 2019 2 pm
Michael Houstoun – piano, Vesa-Matti Leppänen – violin, Yuka Eguchi – violin, Amy Brookman – violin, Alan Molina – violin, Christopher Moore – viola, Wilma Smith – viola, Matthias Balzat – cello, Ken Ichinose – cello
Brahms: Theme & Variations for Piano in D Minor, Op 18
Brahms: String Sextet No 1 in Bb Major, Op 18
Mendelssohn: Octet in Eb Major, Op 20

Martinborough Town Hall

Martinborough is a charming, tastefully preserved and restored little country town 65 km from Wellington. Running a Music Festival there, featuring some of  New Zealand’s finest musicians is an incredibly ambitious project. The festival, held this year over three days, 27-29 September, was their third. It featured Michael Houstoun, piano, Jenny Wollerman, soprano, Wilma Smith, violin and viola, Vesa-Matti Leppanen, Yuka Egochi, Amy Bookman and Alan Molina, violins, Christopher Moore, viola,  Mathias Balzat and Ken Ichinose, cellos. The 4 concerts offered a broad range of music, from piano solo and a selection of songs, to a large string ensemble of a sextet and an octet. It is impossible to single out a highlight, for some it was the moving Schubert Quintet, for others the heartfelt romantic Brahms Sextet No. 1 in Bb  Op. 18 stood out. This work is by a young Brahms deeply in love with Clara Schumann. Others appreciated the variety of songs by Britten, Debussy Fauré, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Barber, sung by Jenny Wollerman, noted for her expressive interpretation of new and less familiar works.

The wealth of music included familiar works, Scarlatti Sonatas, played by Michael Houstoun, Chopin’s Cello Sonata, played by Matthias Balzat, and to crown the opening night, Beethoven’s Archduke Trio with Wilma Smith.

The next concert featured two late Brahms works, the second of his viola sonatas, in Eb Major Op. 120, one of his last compositions, originally written for the clarinet, played by Christopher Moore, with a gorgeous rich sound. Then came the Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. 101, one of a group of compositions Brahms completed after his last symphony, works that are more concentrated, less expansive than his earlier chamber music compositions. The final work on the programme was Fauré’s Piano Quartet No.1 in C minor, one of the great masterpieces of the French romantic chamber music repertoire, a work of overwhelming beauty.

The final concert was music by the youthful Brahms and the even younger Mendelssohn. Michael Houstoun played Brahms’ piano arrangement of the Theme and Variations of his String Sextet No 1, which Brahms had arranged for Clara Schumann. This was a foretaste of the Sextet No. 1 in Bb Op. 18, played with restrained passion and good taste by Vesa-Matti Leppänen, Yuka Eguchi, violins, Christopher Moore and this time Wilma Smith on the viola, and Matthias Balzat and Ken Ichinose cello.

To end the festival on a happy cheerful rousing note, these musicians were joined by Amy Brookman and Alan Molina, in Mendelssohn’s Octet in Eb Major, Op. 20. Mendelssohn wrote this when he was only sixteen, yet it remained one of his most popular and enduring compositions. It evokes an enchanted ethereal world of fairies and other benevolent spirits derived from the young Mendelssohn’s reading of Shakespeare and Goethe.

The Martinborough Music Festival was a feast of good music. Ed Allen and his organising committee are to be commended on their vision, their courage to take risks, and on  flawless management to ensure that everything went smoothly. They were rewarded by full houses in the beautifully restored Town Hall and a large appreciative audience.

Piano fantasies, dreams and forebodings, from Tony Chen Lin at Wellington’s St.Andrew’s

Wellington Chamber Music presents:

Music by Mozart, Schumann, Janáček and Gao Ping

MOZART – Fantasia and Sonata in C Minor, K,475 & 457
GAO PING – Daydreams – Suite for Piano (2019)
JANACEK – Piano Sonata 1.X.1905, “From the street”
SCHUMANN – Fantasia in C Major Op.17

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, 29th September, 2019

Can it really be three years almost to the day that Tony Chen Lin was last playing for us in this same venue? – delighting and enthralling us on that occasion with a programme remarkable as much for its explorations of the music’s connecting threads and echoings as its contrasts and differences? Perhaps it was the unifying factor of having a similarly “only connect” spirit hovering about the music and the playing on this more recent occasion which helped to “telescope” the intervening period so markedly.

Here, the pianist’s choice of repertoire sought out a thread of fantasy running through each of the pieces, an opening up of worlds of imagination and conjecture across varied mindscapes, ranging from personal angst (Mozart), romantic longing (Schumann), whimsical daydreaming (Gao Ping) and presentiment of tragedy (Janáček). Each of these particular states of mind was presented in vividly-focused tones and sharply-coloured hues by Lin throughout the recital, an approach which eminently suited both the Janáček and Gao Ping works, and, I thought, brilliantly illuminated from within certain aspects of the two Mozart pieces bracketed together by the composer. I did, however, find the pianist’s approach to parts of the Schumann work something of a challenge, for reasons I’ll come to in due course.

Straightaway, with the opening of the great C Minor Fantasie K.475 (written six months after the K.457 Sonata but published together, and which immediately followed the former on this afternoon’s programme), we felt the music’s incredible weight of intensity in Lin’s playing, each note seemingly “reimagined” in our presence, with “flow-like-oil” legato phrases punctuated by emphatic single notes and chords – very “orchestral” playing, of a kind that used the St.Andrews’ modern concert grand to its full, sonorous advantage. And how beautifully was the E-flat theme floated, here, with a legato that lived and breathed, and the line teased out with decoration, before giving way to an abrupt, full-blooded transition into agitation and conflict, a veritable roller-coaster ride of physical and pianistic expression! Mozart’s music was here imbued by Lin’s playing with a kind of Lisztian energy, its progress modulating alarmingly, turning about on its heels, uttering a self-questioning phrase or two, then again precipitously plunging into a vortex-like realm of ferment and unrest. An imposing, monumental return to the opening brought a few moments of uneasy calm, Lin’s concentration and focus keeping us on our seats’ edges right up to the piece’s final ascent – rather like a theatrical curtain suddenly thrown open to reveal the show about to start! – and we were then plunged, without ceremony, into the forthright world of the C Minor Sonata’s opening.

The rather more classically-proscribed lines, textures and overall structures of K.457 still got a vigorous workout under Tony Lin’s fingers  – my first reaction to the energy and dynamic freedom of the playing was to ascribe it all to a “Beethovenish” spirit (in whose direction some of Mozart’s music seemed headed in any case) – but Mozart himself was, like Beethoven, adamant as to where much of his compositional impulse originated, in his heartfelt tribute to the second of old JS Bach’s surviving sons,  Carl Phillippe Emanuel Bach – “He is the father; we are the children,” Mozart reputedly said, and the younger Bach’s restless vigour and dramatic innovation in his music certainly made its mark on the former’s oeuvre in places, not the least in in both of these works.

In the first movement. Lin’s tightly-wound whiplash responses to the music’s running lines made for volatile exchanges and startling modulatory swerves in both the development and recapitulation sections, before a coda gathered in the music’s dynamics to sotto-voce effect, almost Gothic in its eeriness. A beautiful singing line emerged from the opening of the Adagio cantabile, Lin’s playing underlining the music’s sense of consolation as a balance against the agitations of both outer movements – a warm-hearted precursor of Beethoven’s adagio theme from his “Pathetique” Sonata added to the listener’s sense of well-being, which the subsequent Molto allegro Finale disturbingly undermined, with its nervously distracted opening and almost percussive outburst which followed,  the music given the full, “play-for-keeps” treatment, to which it stood up remarkably well. Though not a performance for preconceptions of almost any kind, I thought Lin’s burning zeal and expressive focus carried the day for the composer, demonstrating the extent of the music’s capacities to profoundly disturb and convey a sense of tragedy.

Lin spoke about each of the items beforehand easily and personably, and in the case of Gao Ping’s music, with warmth and affection, the composer having been the pianist’s teacher at the University of Canterbury. Daydreams, a suite for piano (2019) was actually written for Lin, the music commissioned by Jack C Richards. Nowadays, Gao Ping lives and works in Beijing, the music tellingly mirroring that fact in places! – but the composer calls the music “dreams of everyone”. The pieces replicate a Chinese literary tradition of short story-like “sketches”, of ordinary, everyday things in people’s lives. The first, “Twilight”, generated a plethora of colours decorating a gently-insistent musical line,  both scintillating and spontaneously fusing together. Then “Songs without Words” , a piece which instantly reminded me of John Psathas’ iconic “Waiting for the Aeroplane” began with repeated atmospheric notes whose tones were joined by the pianist’s voice, long-held, haunting vocalisings, sounding like a “song after work”, everything delicately brushed in and at rest.

The following “Dance” (the first of two) quirkily came to life, its angular rhythms growing in insistence, before falling back and beginning again. Next, “Blues over a lost Phone” might well have been a present-day mirror-piece for Beethoven’s “Rage over a lost penny”, but with the player again breaking into song, a lament for his phone’s caprice and his own carelessness! – declamation, dialogue, displeasure and despair from the singer, and piquant irony from the piano part! A second “Dance”, wild and awkward, followed, the playing by turns poised and frenzied as the music required, interludes of calm building inexorably into cataclysmic upheavals of energy. The final “Wind Prayers” piece came as balm for the senses in different ways, the piece itself intended as a supplication to nature to bring relief to Beijing, a tragically air-polluted city. All the more poignant were the vocalisings of the pianist during this last piece, repeating the mantra “Come wind, come”, alternated with solemn piano chords and snatches of birdsong – so very moving.

No let-up of intensity was provided by the Janáček work which followed the interval – a piece made all the more remarkable by its genesis, first performance and subsequent “survival” history! Angered at the killing of a Moravian worker by Austrian troops at a demonstration in Brno in 1905, Janáček wrote a three-movement work with the titles “Presentiment”, “Death” and “Funeral march”, but the day before the concert the self-critical composer destroyed the manuscript of the work’s final movement, allowing only the first two movements to be played. He then afterwards took what was left and threw the score in the Vltava River.

What he didn’t know until 20 years later, was that the pianist, Ludmila Tučková, had secretly made a copy of the two remaining movements, and retained them until 1924, when she confessed to Janáček what she had done – he thereupon thought better of his hasty actions and allowed their publication! Such a poignant amalgam of tragic loss and triumphant recovery itself “colours” the remains of the work, expressing here in Lin’s hands the full impact of its componential weight.

We heard the composer’s characteristic blend of lyricism and strength at the work’s beginning, the pianist’s sharply-etched lines, forceful chordings and tightly-strung figurations recreating an inexorable flow of agitated, ever-burgeoning emotion towards its tragic inevitability – such battered, fatally “wounded” silences! Out of this came the second movement, at once still and declamatory, the utterances bewildered by shock and grief, turning to ritual-like means as a way of giving tongue to feelings. The lament gathered weight and agonised stridency, before falling away, the music repeating, trance-like, the same rising motif, a kind of unanswered question, which eventually drifted into nothingness – because the pianist had told us he wanted to dedicate his performance to the victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings earlier this year, the music was left to resonate in silence at the very end.

No amount of silence would have been sufficient for anything to follow in the wake of that music (perhaps we should have taken the Mahlerian step of going for a five-minute walk outside, clearing our emotional decks, and then come back, ready to plunge into the Schumann!)………still, there it was, the latter’s C Major Fantasie’s grand opening, a resounding single note at the head of floods of swirling figurations, suggesting exhilaration, excitement, agitation, turmoil, but with moments of telling lucidity, introspection, and ostensibly quixotic humour in between the great declamations of emotion!

This opening paragraph was handled by Lin with plenty of romantic sweep and ardour, everything carried along in great surging waves, the repeated descending motif very Florestan-like (Florestan was Schumann’s wild and impassioned alter-ego), though for me carrying the swashbuckling energies to a point of over-insistence in a couple of passages that might have had a lighter, more quixotic touch (the Im lebhaften Tempo section, for instance, where the left hand here obscured the right hand in places) – still, the Im Legendenton section was beautifully voiced, everything hushed, tender, and richly supported.

A lovely legato touch marked the end of the Im Tempo section, though once again the music’s playful aspect was, I felt, too readily pushed into frenetic mode; and even the more gently breathed cadences here had to quickly fill their lungs to say their piece just before the Esrtes Tempo returned. Again the recitative-like passages leading to a heartfelt Adagio section were beautifully done, as was the reprise to Im Tempo, but I wanted the Beethoven quote at the coda’s beginning (from his song-cycle An die fern Geliebte) to cast a kind of “spell” right from its entrance over the whole concluding episode – here I felt we were in need of Schumann’s other “alter-ego”, the poet and dreamer, Eusebius – the theme’s announcement on this occasion seemed simply too brusque, and not sufficiently “transformational” to be the something which the whole movement had been leading up to, though Lin then played its subsequent repetitions with more rapture and sensitivity.

Lin “strummed” the second movement’s chordal opening warm-heartedly into being, allowing the music at the outset a steady, dignified momentum, even if the following dotted-rhythmic gait of the music then seemed to want to push him along with ever-increasing insistence, narrowing the margins for any wry humour or variation. But then, the pianist won our hearts by unflinchingly fronting up to the piece’s “horror coda” with its attendant thrills and spills, and, amid the flailing notes, living to tell the tale!

Sanity was restored with the third movement’s opening, played here with the utmost sensitivity, allowing us to relish moments such as the beautiful nuancing of the melody as it ascended for the first time, and the gossamer delicacy of the cross-rhythms answering that opening ascent. Lin didn’t play my favourite sequence in the movement with quite enough “hurt” for me – the theme at Etwas bewegter and its modulating repetitions, with their heart-stopping, inwardly-resonating arpeggiated responses – but seemed to want to move all the more quickly to the passionate welling-up of emotion at the piece’s central climax, which he brought off splendidly, as he did  its recapitulation, right from the hushed beginning. And though I’ve heard the work’s coda performed with more lump-in-the-throat circumspection, this was a young man’s urgently-conceived and passionately wrought response to music which has, of course, no single way it must be performed, but allows for treasurable and necessary individual variation. Such was demonstrated here for us by Tony Chen Lin with undeniable conviction, and, as was reflected in a most heartfelt audience response, for our very great pleasure!


Martinborough Music Festival; Saturday evening of songs and Schubert String Quintet

Martinborough Music Festival
Between Darkness and Light

Jenny Wollerman – soprano, Michael Houstoun – piano, Vesa-Matti Leppänen – violin, Wilma Smith – violin, Christopher Moore – viola, Ken Ichinose – cello, Matthias Balzat – cello

BRITTEN: ‘Not even summer yet’
DEBUSSY: Two songs from Ariettes Oubliées
RACHMANINOV: Lilacs Op 21/5
FAURÉ: Mandoline Op 58/1
PROKOFIEV: Two songs from Op 27 on poems by Anna Akhmatova
PROKOFIEV: Prelude Op 12/7
BARBER: ‘O Boundless, Boundless Evening’ Op 45/3
FAURÉ: ‘Clair de Lune’ Op 46/2
DEBUSSY: ‘Recueillement’
FAURÉ: ‘En Sourdine’
RACHMANINOV: ‘In my Garden at Night’ op 38/1
SCHUBERT: String Quintet in C major

Martinborough Town Hall

Saturday 28 September, 7:30 pm

(This review from Charlotte Wilson arose as a result of my being unable to attend the third and fourth concerts: Festival chairman Ed Allen told me that he’d mentioned the matter to Charlotte; she offered to help and I welcomed her readiness to fill the gap between my review of the Friday concert and Steven Sedley’s covering the two afternoon concerts: Middle C is delighted to publish her sparkling review. L.T.)  

This is my first encounter with the Martinborough Music Festival. I leapt in my car up from Wellington to catch the last available seat for the Saturday evening concert and I’m so glad I did. People were there from all over: Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, Auckland. Note: I am not a music critic. I just talk on the radio. But I do love music. They give me a pen to make notes and I sit down.

The first thing you notice is how lovely the hall and the acoustic is: after three years, their first year in this beautiful, brand new renovated town hall, which has been strengthened and polished and expanded (lovely new library) to a point. Three cheers for the council. The mayor was there and spoke at the after-party.

They set the stage side-ways for this occasion; makes sense I suppose: wide point of view, everyone in the audience is close. And what a lucky audience we were! Even disregarding the songs which were of themselves exquisite, and I’m sure it’s Michael Houstoun’s appearance here (his last concert in Martinborough, and since he announced his retirement one of his last concerts ever) that contributed to the full house. But more – this is the greatest Schubert C major quintet I have ever heard, and one that I am going to remember for the rest of my life.

Jenny Wollerman: French and Russian songs 
The first half of the programme consisted of Jenny Wollerman and Michael Houstoun performing excerpts, for spring, of their celebrated disc of songs Between Darkness and Light (Rattle) – mainly French and Russian art song, settings of Verlaine and Baudelaire, which they augmented for this concert with some Britten and Barber, Rachmaninov, more Fauré and Debussy – a sensual, impressionistic little cycle traversing the course of an early summer day.

Britten’s ’Not even summer yet’ opened. You’re immediately aware of the lovely acoustic, and Jenny’s spectacular power and control. Other highlights:  Prokofiev’s sunlit settings of Anna Akhmatova, Op 27, those wonderful Russian dance accents that crop up, thrilling: the gorgeous harmonies of Debussy’s ‘Recueillement’ and famous ‘Ariettes Oubliées’ (Verlaine), the singer and pianist so totally inhabiting the words and the music, Jenny’s perfect French. How beautiful Verlaine is, you forget. Lovely to have the song texts printed out. And why do we not hear Fauré’s songs more often? ‘Clair de Lune’, ‘En Sourdine’, both so exquisitely muted in this lovely acoustic, ‘Mandoline’ which conjures up a painting by Watteau, classical figures dancing. It was all like being transported to a fin-de-siècle gallery in Paris, or to a picnic on a river-bank with poplars rustling in the spring. Rachmaninov’s famous ‘Lilacs’ was so shimmering, you think of those little paintings by Vuillard.

Jenny’s in fabulous voice. Dramatic and powerful when needed, expressive and pianissimo when needed, she’s such a wonderful lieder singer with superb control and this lovely depth, even in the high notes. And need I mention the accompaniment? Perfection. Michael’s a master accompanist and a master impressionist, exquisite at this repertoire. We got Prokofiev’s ‘Harp’ prelude in the middle, too, as a treat. I hadn’t heard them perform these live, and they were all that the recording is and so much more: shimmering and splendid, sensual, ravishing songs from a duo that understood and inhabited them completely.

String Quintet in C Major
And then the highlight of the evening. One of the musical events of my life! Schubert’s C major quintet has always been everybody’s favourite. That slow movement. And the whole thing of it being his last work; completed only two months before he died; he tried to get it published but his block-head publishers had already written him off as just as song composer and besides, wanted pretty salon piano pieces, not anything near so important or sublime, the most profound work of the nineteenth century.

Michael and Jenny have exited, are now sitting in the audience, and we have on stage four string (or former string) principals – Vesa-Matti Leppänen, Wilma Smith, Christopher Moore from the Melbourne SO (astonishing viola) and Ken Ichinose Associate principal NZSO. Plus Matthias Balzat, back from the middle of his master’s study in Germany, playing first cello. They’re all brilliant soloists in their own right. Never heard such perfect intonation. But also they’re all dead keen chamber musicians – there’s Matthias watching Vesa-Matti like a hawk – and that meant perfect attacks, perfect Schubertian unisons, gorgeous duets like the one between the violin and cello in the second movement, perfect arpeggios tossed up and down from violin to cello the way that Schubert loves doing, changes totally imperceptible to the ear. Dynamics, perfectly judged. Utterly sense-making tempos, dancing where it dances, with a lovely Viennese lilt. Quite fast in the slow movement. And above all – because of course there was all the beauty and pathos of Schubert: the divine melodies, the exquisite textures (that pizzicato!), the extraordinary wandering as he does (sleepwalking as Brendel puts it) up and down through the keys. There was the urgent seat-of-your-pants-ness of a live performance which nothing can match. But there was also something else – the grit that is Schubert, the muscularity, the little surprises. I loved hearing this. Through the whole performance you just had this sense of one overarching conception underpinning everything and I would not have been so very totally surprised to see him sitting there with us in the room.

Can’t wait for next year now. What a performance, what a programme! New Zealand has a new, top-notch chamber music festival! Massive kudos to Ed Allen, the chair, and the whole of the organising committee. Martinborough, celebrate.


Enterprising first concert in Martinborough’s splendid little music festival

Martinborough Music Festival
First concert

Michael Houstoun – piano, Wilma Smith – violin, Matthias Balzat – cello

Scarlatti: Piano Sonatas: in A, K 24; F Minor, K 481; E, K 380; A Minor, K 175
Chopin: Cello Sonata in G minor, Op 65
Beethoven: Piano Trio in Bb, Op 97 (“Archduke”)

Martinborough Town Hall

Friday 27 September 2019, 7:30 pm

Here was a festival of chamber music made in heaven. I think that if you’d asked most chamber music regulars to create four programmes of the most beautiful music for a festival, they would have looked very much like what was programmed for Martinborough. I regretted missing the two earlier festivals, 2017 and 2018.

The opening pieces of the first concert were perhaps unexpected in this context. Though Michael Houstoun had a prominent role in the festival, he appeared as a solo pianist only at the beginning, with these four Scarlatti sonatas. Only one of the four (K 380) is well-known; the other three were interestingly chosen, and as always, illuminating, especially in Houstoun’s hands, making no especial gestures towards their origin as sonatas for harpsichord (a few are thought to be possibly for the fortepiano). With discreet dynamic colouring, he created perfectly idiomatic piano pieces.

The first, K 24, marked Presto, made a striking impression: full of flourishes and wild scales that risked occasional slips, which escaped my notice if they happened. The second sonata, K 481 in F minor was in dramatic contrast: fairly slow, (Andante e cantabile), employing gentle syncopation, slightly quirky tunes, with careful ornaments. With its repeats it was probably the longest of the four. It worked particularly well on the piano.

K 380 brought the always welcome touch of the familiar to the recital. It’s well-known for the excellent reason that its tunes are a bit more memorable than many others. And so it withstands the prescribed repeats; and the second part introduces a variant on the tune that’s elegant and free of any flashy element that’s fun but can eventually weary. Houstoun succeeded in interpreting it very convincingly as an authentic piano piece.

Finally K 175 in A minor proved the happy medium, between the impetuosity of K 24 and the comfort of K 380. It seemed given to more interesting thematic variety and hints of counterpoint in the thicker chords in the left hand, in fact in both hands. Scarlatti live seems to have become a rare thing, so this little group of excellent performances of well-contrasted pieces was very welcome.

Chopin’s cello sonata
One of Chopin’s very few ‘chamber music’ works is his cello sonata. Though I’ve heard it several times and even looked speculatively at it long ago, as a very average cello student, it had never seemed a very rewarding example of Chopin’s gifts. Till now, which could well be my first live hearing.

Over the years one has read learned views doubting its value, as if a composer who was so utterly devoted to the piano was incapable of constructing a formal composition that handled the intellectual demands of four movement sonata architecture with any success. It’s the same prejudice that has tended to denigrate Chopin’s piano sonatas, as if anything that’s not a carbon copy of Mozart’s or Beethoven’s sonatas is not ‘First Division’.

In the long first movement there are elegant flourishes from the piano, and there are recognisable melodies; both players were busy almost all the time; though Matthias Balzat’s warm and fluent cello has few solo opportunities, the piano part is a great deal more than mere accompaniment. Over its course, a conviction that it is a neglected masterpiece steadily grows, especially from such musicians.

There’s more recognisable melody in the Scherzo, and both players handled Chopin’s inventiveness with conviction. The Largo third movement was what I’d been waiting for, melodies that here seemed meant for the cello, creating a world of peace and contemplation.

Perhaps the first few minutes of the finale tend to be monotone in spirit, but it generates its own emotional space and Chopin’s own Rondo form and his idiomatic writing for the cello – not merely for piano – leaves any unprejudiced listener impressed and moved.

The ‘Archduke’
The second half was Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’. A brave undertaking , but with greatly experienced players like Houstoun and Wilma Smith, and a gifted young cellist, there was every chance of a fine, moving performance. It’s often likened to a symphony on account of its form and density, as well as its majesty, sonority and buoyancy.  This performance met those expectations, with a violinist of huge experience in both chamber music (she was a founder member of the New Zealand String Quartet) and orchestral music (concertmaster of both the NZSO and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra), a cellist, Balzat, whose qualifications are the very opposite: simply a highly promising young cellist at present studying in Germany at the Robert Schumann Hochschule für Musik in Düsseldorf. His playing displayed accuracy, dynamic sensitivity and remarkable feeling for the character of the music and his place in the trio.

Michael Houstoun, New Zealand’s leading solo pianist, was generally prominent in music that easily allows itself to be played in a grand and larger-than-life manner. And so, in many ways the piano makes its own rules and gauges its sounds simply for their own sake, leaving other players to find their ways through. The relationship can sound unfair, but such experiences here were uncommon. Nevertheless, the two string instruments are often given the lead, as at the beginning of the Scherzo; though this most joyous of movements seemed to not quite capture that spirit. But the rapturous Andante cantabile from its measured introduction from Houstoun alone, generated an opulence and peace that quite fulfilled its conception. And the Finale, Allegro moderato, was handled with all the joyousness and energy that Beethoven expressed so perfectly.

This first concert presaged great rewards from the other three concerts in this splendid little festival.


Concerted and ensembled efforts from NZSM string players give pleasure at St.Andrew’s

St Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series presents:
The New Zealand School of Music STRING ENSEMBLE

Music by Haydn, Kimber and Bartok

Rebecca Warnes (‘cello)
JOSEF HAYDN – ‘Cello Concerto in C Major (Ist.Mvt. – Moderato)

Ellen Murfitt (violin)
JOSEF HAYDN – Violin Concerto in G Major (2nd Mvt. – Adagio)

Henry Burton-Wood (violin)
JOSEF HAYDN – Violin Concerto in G Major (3rd Mvt. – Allegro)

Debbie King (viola)
MICHAEL KIMBER – Variations on a Polish Folk-Song (abridged version)

BELA BARTOK – Divertimento for String Orchestra  Sz 113 BB.118
Allegro non troppo / Molto Adagio / Allegro assai

New Zealand School of Music String Players
Martin Riseley (conductor)

Wednesday September 25th 2019

What a heartwarming occasion this was, counteracting the bitter chill of the wind outside, making nonsense of what appeared to be a sunny day. Josef Haydn’s music was just the job to lighten the spirits, and we were lucky enough to get a kind of “made-up” concerto for violin and cello, freshly discovered (!)and performed forthwith for our pleasure by various students from the New Zealand School of Music!

No happier beginning to a concerto exists than the first movement of Haydn’s C Major ‘Cello Concerto, and conductor Martin Riseley encouraged his players to plunge into the notes energetically and emerge smiling, then launch the ascending lines of the second subject with plenty of air beneath the notes! Soloist Rebecca Warnes, having contributed to the opening tutti and “played herself in”, fearlessly dived into the music with similar élan, her command of the music’s shape and emphasis compelling, allowing the notes to sing in places where a vocal line was called for, and attacking the more demanding passages with plenty of energy – an occasional phrase I wanted her to “expand” just a bit more, as if expressing just as much enjoyment as determination; but such things evolve with and from within performers, and she showed plenty of identification with the composer’s irrepressible and adventurous spirit.

The composer remained, but player, instrument, concerto and key-signature were changed in a trice for the second movement! This was the adagio from Haydn’s G Major violin concerto, played with generously-wrought tones by Ellen Murfitt, her singing line warmed by the merest touch of vibrato, the intensity seeming to leave little room for light and shade at first, which did come with the second, minor-key section of the music. An assuredly-delivered cadenza finished with what I though a slightly awkward “taking up” of the music by the ensemble, but the accompanying was otherwise easeful and atmospheric. A change of soloist again, and the music danced onwards, the new player, Henry Burton-Wood, joining in with the opening tutti, before carrying the splendidly vigorous energies of the work forward, his instrument producing a bright, silvery tone, the higher passages a particularly engaging feature of his playing.

A new name to me was that of Michael Kimber, an American viola-player and composer, currently based as a teacher at Iowa City’s Coe College, and with an impressive list of compositions for both viola and violin to his credit. We heard a work “Variations on a Polish Song” for viola and ensemble , here played in what the programme called a “shortened version”.The viola soloist, Debbie King, brought the music into being with characteristically soulful tones, an expressive, out-of-doors sound, in keeping with the “folk song” aspect, the orchestra stealing in over a viola phrase, and accompanying the melody’s repeat.

The work allowed the soloist ample opportunity for both display and expression of feeling, moving between double-stopping sequences for the viola against intense accompaniments, followed by dance-like variations, firstly graceful and ritual-like, then catchy, more vigorous Polonaise-like.moments, and leavening these energies with more inward expressions of feeling. The music was rounded off with such a moment, the ensemble reintroducing the theme, before a brief flourish from the viola concluded a pleasing and well-supported solo performance.

The students then tackled one of the string orchestra repertoire’s most challenging pieces, Bela Bartok’s Divertimento, written in the shadow of the oncoming Second World War, and the last work the composer would write before leaving his native Hungary for good. In three movements, the piece opened with a folk-like theme, here presented strongly and purposefully, bringing out the writing’s acerbic qualities along with a sense of the dance – the solo strings sequences provided an engaging contrast (lovely solo viola phrases), before the opening theme returned building the intensities into exchanges which seemed to  “play” with the material – Martin Rieseley and the students eased their way through the music’s often disconcerting changes of trajectory and mood, returning with a sense of having “been somewhere” to the music’s gentle, rueful conclusion.

The work’s Molto adagio second movement evoked winter chills and sombre thoughts, the atmosphere cold and dark – violins and violas exchanged characteristic intensitites, the former piercing and intense, the latter dark-browed and purposeful. The playing brought out the music’s confrontational anxieties and questionings, the buildup of sounds amazing in their focused intensities, the ensemble bluntly “shutting down” any solo instrumental attempt to lighten the mood, and further deepening the despair with an eerie Shostakovich-like sequence.  Almost out of nowhere came a forthright, bitter-sweet folk-like utterance, one which “rescued” our forsaken sensibilities and guided us gently towards the music’s rather “spooked” conclusion – all very involving!

At first we seemed to be plunged back into conflict by the finale’s beginning, but the players suddenly kicked up the music’s allegro assai heels in the manner of a lively dance, the first violin leading the way, and the rest of the orchestra following, in ripieno style. This was all tremendous-sounding fun! – Riseley marshalled his players’ tones, producing an impressive unison, which was then “morphed”  into a fugal passage, inverting the theme along the way! A lovely violin solo led to a motoric rhythm with the dance theme inverted, swarms of angry bees dive-bombing the dancers! The cellos came to the rescue, dancing the music off in a different direction, and taking evasive action against the bee-swarms, intent on causing confusion and chaos! The players then began a most charmingly tip-toe pizzicati version of the dance which left the bees angrily buzzing, the dancers frenetically throwing themselves every which way, the lower strings shrugging their shoulders at the goings-on and the music signing off with an upward flourish!

Versions….and versions – Beethoven, Mahler (orch. Michael Vinten) and Bruckner, from the Wellington Chamber Orchestra

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:
BEETHOVEN – Overture to the Opera “Fidelio” Op.72b
MAHLER (orch.Vinten) – Piano Quartet in A Minor (1876) (first public performance)
BRUCKNER – Symphony No. 3 in D Minor “Wagner Symphony” (1874 version)

Michael Vinten (conductor)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, 22nd September, 2019

As Michael Vinten told Radio NZ Concert’s “Upbeat” interviewer David Morriss during the week preceding the concert, none of the three works presented by the orchestra were original versions of the pieces. The closest we came to hearing a work representing its composer’s first thoughts was in the Third Symphony of Anton Bruckner – and this was the second of no less than six (or was it eight?) documented versions of the same composition by name. It could thus have been called a concert of music whose composers couldn’t make their minds up!

Each of the pieces thus carried a uniquely remarkable tale of composing and rewriting – Beethoven’s  overture to his opera “Fidelio” was a completely rewritten piece compared with the original and two other revised versions of the work that the composer had previously produced, all with the name “Leonore” (the opera’s original title). Unlike each of the “Leonore” Overtures, the “Fidelio” overture was a “stand-alone” item, making no reference to the plot or the opera’s themes, thereby keeping intact for the listener the events of the opera until their actual exposition in the work! Michael Vinten’s own programme notes explained all of this and the situation regarding the concert’s two other items most absorbingly!

As an assemblage the three works made the concert an enticing prospect for the listener, an adventurous and stimulating amalgam of the familiar and the new. And if the orchestra players themselves felt at all daunted at the prospect of taking on the longest in duration of all the symphonies written by Anton Bruckner, it didn’t show beforehand, except, perhaps for some less-than-unanimous ensemble in parts of the concert’s opening item, the “Fidelio” Overture, which could have just as easily been put down to the piece being rehearsed less assiduously than was the remainder of the programme, due to the latter’s well-nigh obvious demands (pure conjecture on this reviewer’s part, of course!)

After a couple of uncertain entries and chordings during the piece’s slow introduction, Beethoven’s work was negotiated with ever-increasing confidence by the players, solos from the oboe, clarinet and horn steadily and reliably keeping with the conductor’s vigorous lead through thorny thickets of rhythmic syncopation, the performance reaching a transfiguring moment at the opening’s reprise, with the horns’ beautiful playing casting a “glow” over the music that resulted in everything coming together and producing a fizzing, sizzling ending!

The orchestra having “played itself in”, and the conventionalities of an “overture” having been observed, it was time for everybody to get down to business, firstly, with that most tantalising of rarities, a premiere performance! I was surprised that no mention of any such circumstance had been made, either in the programme or on the aforementioned radio interview – but there it was, the first scheduled performance of Michael Vinten’s orchestrated version of Gustav Mahler’s single-movement Piano Quartet in A Minor (besides the first movement left more-or-less completed, there are a few fragments of an intended scherzo extant). I can only attribute the lack of publicity regarding this event’s “first-time” occasion to Vinten’s own avoidance of self-promotion, putting the composer and his music first, instead! As well, the Quartet was linked to the Bruckner Symphony played after the interval by dint of Mahler himself having made a piano duet version of the Symphony, one published in 1880 (a not uncommon occurrence with orchestral music in the nineteenth century before the invention of the gramophone)…………

The Quartet music itself began darkly and purposefully, filled with romantic, atmospheric feeling. The brass produced lovely, dark-hued sounds, the effect somewhat Schumannesque to my ears as the winds answered the serious, sombre statements, the oboe lines in particular shaped strongly and pliably. I thought the brass’s splendid restatement of the opening theme reminiscent of Mendelssohn in a “Ruy Blas” mood, with the strings and winds helping to build up to a terrific climax – a great unison shout by the orchestra stimulated some trenchant, exciting music-making, with a repeated dotted-rhythm phrase storing up energy and momentum, again capped off by well-rounded brass statements.

Solo violin and ‘cello together with the oboe took us back to the dark, brooding opening, before the wind and brasses “martialized” the music beneath the string lines, building once more to the “grand manner”. A short solo violin cadenza later we were into epilogue country, with the brasses nobly sounding the end, leaving two pizzicato chords to finish the piece. At a good fifteen minutes‘ worth, this intensely poetic, romantically wrought music seemed to me a strong and significant addition to the orchestral concert repertoire, thanks to Vinten’s and his players’ sterling efforts, and the conductor’s expertise and zeal on behalf of Gustav Mahler.

More epic questings awaited both musicians and audience following the concert’s interval, with a performance of Bruckner’s Third Symphony more-or-less as originally written in 1873, with a few “touching-ups” on the part of the composer made the following year. Unlike the version of the work I first got to know (one which the composer made in 1889 some time after the disastrous premiere of the work, in an edition by Leopold Nowak) this was how Bruckner originally intended the work to “sound”, with a whopping twenty minutes’ additional music to that contained on my first LP (DGG) of the Symphony! We were obviously in for something of a re-appraisal, with the original version giving the D Minor work the distinction of being the longest of the composer’s works in that genre.

The famous trumpet tune which Wagner had so admired here (and which gave the symphony its nickname) opened the work over the strings’ forward-thrusting rhythms, the player here beautifully “onto it” (as was the reply of the horns), and the orchestra building the crescendo steadily and surely towards the great shouts that led to a modulated repeat of the thrusting rhythms and resounding orchestral declamations! Never has a symphony “announced” its arrival more gloriously than here – and as sequence followed sequence the players bent their backs to the task with both enthusiasm and detemination. Apart from the occasional entry and ensemble stumble amid the music’s torturous, cross-rhythmed course, conductor and players steered a remarkably sure-footed and true-toned passage through the movement’s many changes of mood, pace and tone, holding enough power and energy in reserve for the coda to make its properly overwhelming effect.

The Adagio alternated between tender utterance and forthright declamation, full, rich tones from the strings being succeeded with steady support from the winds and then the brass. Exchanges between the winds and horns generated a kind of rapt, sacred ritual aspect to the figures in places, and the strings generated plenty of fervour in their soaring lines. We also enjoyed the rousing “Tannhauser” quote played by the brass, who proceeded to take the music by the scruff of the neck and deliver spadefuls of its glory and majesty.  And that moment towards the movement’s end which always reminds me of Dvorak’s famous “Largo” melody from his “New World” Symphony was here balm for the soul, the horns holding their supporting notes magnificently.

Sinuous, writhing violins launched the scherzo, building the crescendo towards the great strings-and-brass-and-timpani shouts of purpose and resolve, beside which the second subject sounded a tad anaemic here, the strings happier with the opening than with the peregrinations of the discursive second subject – the Trio, however, was charmingly done, the violas relishing their exchanges with the violins, the latter a tad dry and insect-like in effect. The finale’s opening, eerie, whirling string-ostinati had an almost space-age effect, with the brass entry terrific and the strings resolutely keeping their whirling rhythms – great work from all concerned. The players got a lovely lift from the dance rhythms of the second subject, and brought out the tenderness of the brief moment before the dance started up again. The great syncopated fanfares dovetailed their figurations to great and outlandish effect – a most stirring sound! – and the brasses heroically soared over the top of the rest of the band with their resounding lines.

Everybody bent their backs to the task splendidly during a middle sequence where the composer seemed to frenetically reprise the opening, the dance melody and the syncopated fanfare, at which point we heard the horns nobly suggesting that a “promised land” was imminent – after brief reminiscences of the first three movements, the orchestra opened the tonal floodgates and, in the grandest possible way, ascended the final slopes to the music’s hard-won, but golden-toned summit of achievement – a brief, breathless hiatus of “are we really there?” after the final chord was followed by oceans of applause from all of us who had made the journey with these intrepid musicians!  – surely one of the orchestra’s finest achievements, thrills and spills included, and a tribute in itself to the vision and unfailing skills and energies of conductor Michael Vinten.



Orchestra Wellington succeeds with an odd programme of important, challenging and beautiful works

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei with Dierde Irons, piano
Transfigured Night

Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht
J S Bach: Keyboard Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052
Beethoven: String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 (Orchestrated by Dimitri. Mitropoulos)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 21 September, 7:30 pm

For a subscription concert series labelled ‘Epic’, that included Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantasique, Bruckner’s 8th Symphony, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a concert by a string orchestra, with no major symphonic work was odd programming. It is not that Verklärte Nacht, or Beethoven’s C sharp minor quartet were not worth hearing, but they were arrangements of works not written for orchestra. But let me not quibble, they are all beautiful and significant pieces of music seldom heard in these arrangements.

Arnold Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht
Schoenberg, a student of Zemlinsky, was 25 years old, and he earned his living at the time orchestrating operettas, when he wrote Verklärte Nacht for a string sextet. Under the influence of both Brahms and Wagner, he attempted to combine the structural logic of the former with the harmonic language of the latter. This is his first successful major composition.

Verklärte Nacht was inspired by the poem of that title by the Austrian romantic poet Richard Dehmel. The poem describes a man and a woman walking through a dark forest on a moonlit night. The woman shares a dark secret with her new lover, she bears the child of another man. She fears that her new lover would condemn and abandon her. Yet the beauty of the night and the intensity of their love overcome their difficulties and their lives are transfigured.

The music is in one continuous movement of five parts corresponding to the story of the poem. The stages of Dehmel’s poems are mirrored in the composition, beginning with the sadness of the woman’s confession followed by an interlude in which the man reflects upon the woman’s confession and a finale implying the man’s acceptance (and forgiveness) of the woman. It is rich sensuous romantic music. Schoenberg was at the time in love with Mathilde Zemlinsky, the sister of his teacher and friend. This almost 30 minute long work foreshadows the new era of Schoenberg’s music and the break down of traditional harmonies. It is a landmark in the history of modern music.

The original piece is written for a string sextet. Fifteen years after its first performance Schoenberg rearranged it for a string orchestra. To create the rich sonorous string sound required is a challenge for the string section of an orchestra and the players of the Orchestra Wellington stood up well to this challenge.

Bach: Concerto in D minor
This concerto is one of a number believed to be arrangements of an earlier work written by Bach in Cöthen and is the one most often performed now, perhaps because of its dramatic qualities. It is one of eight concertos that Bach transcribed for harpsichord. The large string orchestra of almost 50 players was reduced to a small group of four each of first and second violins, viola, cello and a double bass.

It is a substantial work in three movements. The first movement, Allegro, is full of contrast with sudden switches of key and dramatic effects.  The lyrical slow movement, Adagio, is built on a ground bass, played in unison by the whole orchestra over which the solo keyboard spins a florid and ornamented melodic line. In the third movement, Allegro, the keyboard plays a free flowing virtuoso passage over the repeated orchestral passage. Brahms’s cadenzas enhanced the grandeur of the concerto.

Diedre Irons played with a translucent fluid style with no exaggerated mannerism. There was a lovely interplay between orchestra and soloist. It was a performance of sheer beauty. The great ovation at the end reflected the love and respect for of this wonderful, modest, self-effacing artist.

Beethoven: String Quartet, Op. 131
Beethoven’s C sharp minor quartet is one of the most difficult and challenging of his works. The epigraph set against one copy of the music describes it as ‘Composed out of scattered fragments and snatches of movements’.  It is in seven continuous but fragmented, contrasting movements, starting with the very slow introductory Adagio, ‘the most melancholy sentiment expressed in music’ according to Wagner, through a fugal passage, a set of variations of contrasting moods to the fierce gaiety of the Presto and the mad dance of an indomitable fiddler. Some, including Mahler felt that the weight of the music was too much for a string quartet to bear and rearranged it for a full string orchestra. The version played by Orchestra Wellington is the arrangement by the great Greek conductor, Dimitri Mitropoulos.

The orchestral version of the quartet added a certain depth of sound and gravity to the work. The eight double basses enhanced the rich deep notes of the music. Reworking a string quartet into an orchestral piece changed the tone of the original. Passages that sounded like intimate meditations by the violin and the viola in the quartet came through as anthems and chorales by a large choir, altering the character of the piece. To appreciate this quartet played by a whole large string orchestra one had to leave behind the quartet version and think of the piece as an entirely different composition, a culmination of Beethoven’s grand vision.

All credit to Orchestra Wellington for tackling this work and introducing it to its large number of followers, some of whom were probably more familiar with the orchestral than the chamber music repertoire. It was a challenge for the string section of the orchestra to tackle this very difficult work and was a salutary experience for all the players who participated in this performance. This was a concert different from other Orchestra Wellington subscription concerts, but not less moving and enjoyable.


Stroma breathes life into its collection of “Sonic Portraits”

STROMA – Sonic Portraits

Works by : Simon Eastwood/Alistair Fraser, Liza Lim, Ashley Fure, Salina Fisher,
                    Rebecca Saunders, Toru Takemitsu

SIMON EASTWOOD/ALISTAIR FRASER – “Pepe” from Te Aitanga Pepeke (2019)
LIZA LIM – An Ocean Beyond Earth (2016)
ASHLEY FURE – Soma (2012)
SALINA FISHER – Kingfisher (2018)
TORU TAKEMITSU – Water Ways (1977)

(All performances except that of the Takemitsu work were NZ premieres)

Alistair Fraser (putorino)
Séverine Ballon (solo ‘cello)

STROMA – Bridget Douglas (piccolo, flute(s), Thomas Guldborg/Lenny Sakovsky (percussion), Anna van der Zee, Kristina Zerlinska, Megan Molina, Rebecca Struthers, Andrew Thomson (violins), Emma Barron, Andrew Thomson (violas), Ken Ichinose (‘cello), Patrick Barry (clarinet(s), Gabriela Glapska, Amber Rainey (pianos),  Alexander Gunchencko (double-bass), Michelle Velvin, Madeleine Crump (harps)

New Zealand Portrait Gallery, Shed 11
Customhouse Quay,  Wellington

Thursday, 19th September, 2019

I came across an interesting article on the American composer Virgil Thomson when exploring the idea of “Portraits” in music. Inspired by novelist Gertrude Stein in Paris during the mid-1920s, who had made a series of free-association “literary portraits” written in a single sitting, Thomson thought he would try the same technique in music composition – his subject would “sit”, and Thomson would compose, on the spot – the subject was allowed to do anything except talk, so that the “psychic transference” (the composer’s words) of the process wouldn’t be otherwise impeded. Picasso was one of those sceptical about the idea, but posed for Thomson, anyway, and received, for his pains, a hyper-energetic bitonal piano “etude” which Thomson called “Bugles and Birds”. To many of the subjects their pieces came across more as how the composer was feeling about them at the time, than what they felt about themselves.

“Portraits” abound in music composition, with perhaps the most well-known musical “gallery” of personalities being that contained in Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations. But away from the direct “visual art” process connotations pursued by Thomson, the “musical portraits” idea has been put to multifarious use, from well-known large-scale instances such as Mussorgsky’s “Pictures from an Exhibition” and Schumann’s “Carnaval” for solo piano, to stand-alone works like Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” or miniatures like Edvard Grieg’s “Niels W.Gade” from his Op. 57 ”Lyric Pieces”, or Elgar’s “Rosemary” 1915 (for piano or orchestra).

Stroma’s “Sonic Portraits” collection further enlarged the concept of musical depiction in  no uncertain terms.  with a collection of evocations of all kinds, mythological, other-worldly, psychosomatic, avian, emotional and locational. The venue chosen by the ensemble, the NZ Portrait Gallery at Shed 11, was itself a challenge for listeners like myself who arrived just in time for the concert and had to sit some way off down a narrow-ish, unraked space, feeling a wee bit divorced from the sound-sources through having little or no sight-lines, and then having to watch one’s back in close proximity to the art hung on perilously imminent walls when one got up to talk with someone or to go! Happily, the vivid and arresting quality of both music and its presentation by these players compensated amply for any such privations, even if I was disconcerted to see Séverine Ballon, the guest ‘cellist, carrying off the platform at her solo item’s conclusion a violin in addition to her ‘cello, which combination I had no earthly (!) idea she was using!

Beginning with the mythological, we heard “Pepe”, a piece from a collection called Te Aitanga Pepeke (the insect world), currently being developed by composer Simon Eastwood in conjunction with ngā taonga pūoro artist Alistair Fraser. This piece evolved out of a transcription by Fraser of a work by Eastwood, the two then reworking the music to bring forth an interactive and intimate dialogue between the ensemble (violin, viola, ‘celli, bass flute and percussion) and the expressive pūtorino. The instrument is unique in that it functions both as a trumpet (the kokiri o te tane /male voice) and as a flute (the waiata o te hine / female voice) and is reckoned to be the home of Hine Raukatauri, the Mäori goddess of flute music. Here, it was Alistair Fraser’s gloriously trumpet-like pūtorino who played Hine’s amorous swain, Pepe, the voice by turns vigorous and insinuating, moving in accord with the ambient earth-sounds of the ensemble.

Having felt the earth’s breath on our cheeks we were then transported by the alchemy of suggestiveness to one of the planet Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, via Australian composer Liza Lim’s work for solo ‘cello,  An Ocean Beyond Earth. Lim’s imagination was obviously fired by recent “news from space” regarding the presence of a body of water akin to an ocean on Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, Enceladus, according to data collected during NASA’s Cassini exploratory mission to the world of one of our solar system’s most iconic members. The same data has suggested that Enceladus has an environment which could support the existence of life as we know it.

Prefacing her work with evocative excerpts from poetry by the 13th-Century poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, and a quotation from Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves”, Lim’s music, brought into being by cellist Séverine Ballon’s exquisitely sensitive “voicings” at the outset, developed a kind of intermittent dialogue between wind-borne sounds of the air, and grittier, rather more corporately substantial gesturings. Some of the flourishings brought to mind Bach ‘cello suite utterances, framing whole sequences of spatial infinities, juxtapositionings that helped “define” each sound’s antithesis, in places having an almost “electrical” quality of current and intensity, thus throwing into bold relief a parallel sense of objects wrought in a cauldron of ancient natural creation. Other sound-relationships deemed to denote meetings and then minglings of states, effortful “seconds” suddenly scrambled wildly and frenetically, for example, as if “spooked” by their own forwardness – perhaps Virginia Woolf’s quoted cry to the heavens of “Consume me” sparked the irruption; or was it the thought of a limitless “sound of no shore”? The music’s concluding darkness merely opened its cloak and enveloped us in an enigmatic response.

I found listening to the next work – Ashley Fure’s Soma –  something of an unsettling experience, as its “specific psychological referent” was the composer’s own grandmother, who had (perhaps still has) advanced Parkinson’s Disease – the thought that we were anatomising the aberrant condition of an actual human being resulted in my finding it difficult to maintain an uninvolved focus of response, the sounds for me occasionally conveying all too piteously the “plight” of the individual subject and the helplessness of her state being “showcased” – the composer may well have intended such engagement to occur as part of the listening experience, of course.

The degree of “inner turmoil” conveyed by the ensemble here, something “locked in”, but occasionally trying to escape or express something, was all too palpable, with both physical and mental processes respectively conveyed – a rumbling, pulsating percussive presence seemed to express the former in terms of heartbeat, breath and bloodflow, while what seemed like infinite manifestations of both gestural and ambient “disturbance” were engendered by what the composer called “aberrations in placement, pressure, angle, force and speed” of instrumental activity,  and resulting in “fragile and chaotic” soundscapes. While these impulses voicelessly cried out, the percussion rumbled throughout like a kind of tinnitus, disconcertingly looming and then receding, before a final gentle but sharpish blow mercifully suspended the process!

Rather more delightful disengagement was then offered by Salina Fisher’s work Kingfisher, written in response to a poem by Robert McFarlane as part of a larger work The Lost Words, and performed by the New York-based ensemble Amalgama in 2018. Beginning with a not altogether unexpected “splash” and a series of propulsive flurries, the ensuing birdsong figurations were leavened most adroitly by delicate ambient touches, the whole having a delicacy and grace which accorded with the poet’s “neat and still” description of the bird, one which conflagrated as it flashed downwards into the water, and into a different kind of ambience, the piano’s liquid grace flooding into the air-blown vistas and completing the music’s ritual.

Though unspoken, words featured prominently in this  “Portraits” presentation, via the many stimulating and evocative texts and commentaries associated with these pieces. Rebecca Sanders’ Ire was no exception, her accompanying note including a quote from Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher whose paradoxical train of thought here delightfully derailed my every attempt to get through the passage unscathed! Sanders spoke of the “sonic potential” of a trill, hinting at the paradox of the concealment of musical activity beneath a “surface of silence”. Ire is one of three works for strings which Sanders has written to explore this quality – she spoke of exploring “two diametrically opposed guises of the trill” in her work, this seeming to take the form of anatomising both fast and slow trill-like figurations. 

A quiet, almost subversive beginning to the music presented a silence “stirred and shaken” by the instrumental activity, deepening with heavy percussion and double-bass rumblings and groanings. Séverine Ballon’s solo cello trilled in varied and exploratory ways under the fingers of the player, to which the ensemble added weight in the guise of unexplained energies from a void. The “Ire” of the piece’s title accumulated all too readily and nastily, reaching points of frenzy almost as a process of repeated expiation, the whole punctuated by rumbling and roaring percussion (I was too far back to see much of the players’ actual gesturings which would have enhanced a sense of the physical ebb and flow of the outbursts) – uncannily, at the point where I felt we had “had enough” the sounds seemed to abruptly transmorgrify as if by telepathetic means – string harmonies tipped, swayed and groaned softly as if great doors were being swung open to expose the futility of anger – all seemed suddenly like “thistledown on the wind”……

Written well over a quarter-century before any of the above pieces was the work that concluded the programme, Tōru Takemitsu’s 1977 work Water Ways. Inspired by a visit to the gardens of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, the composer was at first reportedly unmoved by the regularity and symmetry of the world-famous vistas until he noticed that a woman visitor had disturbed the water surfaces on one of the ponds – “Only then the music came”, the composer enigmatically remarked!

But what music! – from the very first notes a saturated soundscape, with a piano that simply couldn’t help sounding so Debussy-like with every utterance, vibraphones that exuded pure liquid outpourings, and two harps whose limpid tones helped bind together a flowing and interactive ensemble. These sources were coloured by strings and clarinet whose lines represented fluidity of contrasting textures and tones at their most focused and vibrant, whether a spectacularly cascading waterfall-like gesture from the piano or a long-breathed distillation of stillness and purity of flow from the clarinet. Whether breathtakingly still or gently and raptly moving to a larger rhythmic pull, the players generated a spellbinding amalgam of depths and shallows whose patternings coalesced into a long-breathed three-note life-dance, from which ritual the music bade us farewell, the clarinet uttering the last mysterious, distant word.

A significant proportion of my enjoyment of this concert was registering the pleasure expressed by others sitting around and about me, and, most happily, discussing each of the items with a fellow audience-member next to me – herself a musician, and similarly struck by the range and depth of intensities generated by the players and their conductor, Hamish McKeich, from the evening’s programme. That a concert made up almost entirely of New Zealand premieres of contemporary music could so obviously satisfy and enthral its audience spoke volumes regarding the skill of the performers and the receptivity of their listeners – definitely a feather in Stroma’s cap regarding its avowed mission statement of bringing to audiences new music from both home and abroad.




Fairly rare but totally delightful music from the Koru Trio at St Andrew’s

Lunchtime Concerts at St Andrew’s

Koru Trio (Anne Loeser – violin, Sally Pollard – cello, Rachel Thomson – piano)

Ravel: Sonata for violin and cello
Dvořák: Piano Trio No 4 in E minor, Op 90 ‘Dumky’

St Andrews on The Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 18 September, 12:15 pm

One of the delights of the lunchtime concerts at St Andrew’s is the quite sharp contrasts from week to week between students, semi-professional and fully professional musicians. Last Wednesday we heard a group of vocal students from Hawkes Bay: a group of young singers, several very promising, who’d studied with the Napier-based Project Prima Volta.

This Wednesday, three full-time musicians with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra performed a surprising and delightful programme of major but very different classical works.

Ravel’s Sonata for violin and cello is rarely played, though I’d heard it before, once played, I think, by members of the New Zealand String Quartet; nor is Dvořák’s trio in E minor (the ‘Dumky’) often played, though well enough known and Middle C has heard and reviewed it at least twice before.

Written about 30 years apart, the two pieces exemplified the huge stylistic differences that had emerged over that time. Ravel wrote that this sonata was stripped of the usual elements that enrich music: while there are tunes, they are plain rather than voluptuous, its textures are sparse, harmony is a dirty word, and the usual kinds of embellishment, with variations and ordinary counterpoint are not of the usual kind. The immediate sound strikes one as spare yet it still seems determined to appeal to an audience. There’s no suggestion of atonality, let alone 12-note ritual. The Ravel of the string quartet or La Valse is invisible. It’s one sort of ‘neo-classicism’.

I‘m not sure whether what Ravel does is strictly described as bi-tonality – performing in two distinct keys – but it was often suggested in my ears. The second movement, labelled Vif, opens with pizzicato on both instruments, and it returns often on the violin. Its lively rhythm makes clear its scherzo origin which the players handled with apparent ease. The third movement, Lent, is carefully constructed; it’s the longest movement and its continued use of elements of the tunes in the first movement treats them so differently that they seem fresh, creating a genuinely pensive atmosphere.

The cello seems to dominate the last movement, Vif, avec entrain, music that, were it not for the shapes of the tunes, the modulations and the equality between the two instruments, its ancestry in Handel or Mozart keyboard music might not be too remote.

My memory of the last hearing is of music that really didn’t engage me; this time, either I was simply more open now to Ravel’s musical intentions, or these two players created a totally coherent piece that stood on its own feet, actually making sense of it, emphasising its plain musical inventiveness and attractiveness. They simply won me over and left me with the kind of impression that I expect Ravel sought.

The Dumky Trio presented no difficulties with its idiom, its musical material or the way in which that material was handled. However, what we experienced at this concert might have been the kind of contrast that Dvořák was hoping to avoid: the juxtaposition of his deliberately popular, accessible, recognisable music, and whatever less tuneful, more academically admired music it might have been compared with in the 1890s.

Dvořák said: “my Dumky trio is very tricky to perform”, and it’s been noted that the cello has an important role in the exposition of the ‘Dumka’ themes, evident from the very first notes.

It’s in six movements, but the composer asks the first three to be played without pause, making a sort of ‘first movement’ of around 12 minutes long. I can remember previously trying to keep track of the movements, and failing, as each is in the rondo shape: ABA(BA), with quick and slow episodes within each ‘movement’, sometimes repeating the B section a second time.

“What alarming contrasts!”, I scribbled during its opening bars. There is only one theme in the first movement, though it changes its nature constantly, between the opening melancholy to optimism and delight. It begins Lento maestoso (though by no means pompous), suddenly breaks out in an animated moment of dance which is entitled Allegro quasi doppio movimento. And that returns again to enliven the end of the movement.

The start of second movement, Poco adagio, is recognisable, opening with slow chords at the piano, and makes sense of the title, Dumky (dumky is the plural of dumka). Basically, a slow dance, Ukrainian in origin, the word cognate with the Russian word to think or consider. The lower house of the Russian parliament, post 1905, was the Duma which mean ‘deliberation’. Dvořák used Dumky in a number of works, including three of the Slavonic Dances and the Piano Quintet, Op 81.

The second movement, Poco adagio, follows the same pattern as the first, deeply meditative for a couple of minutes before bursting into a Vivace non troppo that ends in a short cadenza for the cello to prepare for the return of the Poco adagio.

Though the aural picture you carry away might be light-hearted and contented, more of it is accurately described by ‘dumka’, being contemplative even sad, and that’s how the fourth movement Andante moderato begins,, with a just occasional brighter patch, labelled Allegretto scherzando. The next movement, Allegro, initially fails that test, starting in a distinctly pensive way.

Though it’s a delight from beginning to end, there are plenty of subtle details that need to be scrupulously handled: constant mood changes, sharply contrasted dynamics within a bar, switches from staccato to legato, not to mention key changes that keep the music interesting, even though the average listener is probably unable to identify exactly what is happening.

The three musicians dealt admirably, enchantingly with all these testing aspects of the composition; and even though it ran well beyond the normal 1pm finish time, I was aware of no one leaving. Most might have enjoyed a total replay.


Wondrously unified piano trio gives two of the greatest works for Chamber Music New Zealand

Chamber Music New Zealand 
Viktoria Mullova Trio (Mullova – violin, Matthew Barley – cello, Stephen de Pledge – piano)

Schubert: Piano Trio No 2 in E flat D 929
Salina Fisher: Mono no aware
Ravel: Piano Trio in A minor

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 14 September 7:30 pm

Musicians of the stature of Viktoria Mullova are much rarer visitors to New Zealand now than they were 30, 50 years ago. Then the entire season of chamber music concerts arranged by the then Federation of Chamber Music Societies consisted of pretty distinguished international players. Something of a commentary on the relative decline of New Zealand’s economic standing, as well, I suspect, as a trend away from classical music towards varieties of more popular music, in the main-stream .

This tour was no doubt initiated by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra with which she played the Sibelius Violin Concerto last Thursday: a most enraptured listen.* Much more collaboration of this kind needs to take place. Barley and De Pledge also gave very interesting recitals for CMNZ in Napier, New Plymouth and Palmerston North, featuring, for example, cello sonatas by Debussy, Beethoven (the A major) and Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel.

Mullova sprang to international attention in 1983 when she and her then lover, Georgian conductor Vakhtang Jordania, fled from Finland to Sweden. Only the bare musical story is ever permitted in the musician CVs printed in programmes today. Other personal snippets about her are interesting of course, including her relationship with the late Claudio Abbado.

Schubert: Piano Trio No 2
All of this, as well, naturally, as her justified musical stature, made this one of the most rewarding concerts of the year. And to have chosen these two piano trios was an impeccable decision. For me, the Schubert trio always recalls the use of the Andante con moto movement in the famous 1975 Kubrick film Barry Lyndon (which the programme note alludes to), alongside quotations from Handel, Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach and one of Schubert’s beguiling German Dances and much else.

I was in no mood to attempt any spotting of flaws or interpretational shortcomings: anyway, I’m sure there were none. And so I simply succumbed to the players’ immaculate ensemble, with no sign at all of any one of them seeking more than a third of our attention. That was interesting in the first movement where, in fact, the piano does sometimes seem to take the lead melodically, certainly in busyness, while violin and cello dwell rather on the pensive figures. More important is the sheer genius of the composition, it melodic variety and complexity, all of which was expressed so vividly and perceptively.

Kubrick’s choice of the second movement was singular, spoke highly of his musical sensibility in making use of an underlying lamenting tone (not that I can recall exactly what kind of scene it illustrated). I have always felt that it delivers a far deeper emotional message than the equivalent movement in the B flat trio; it has always seemed to me that the E flat trio, in entirety, was more interesting, both musically and emotionally. The piece is also notable for the richness of the last movement: no light-weight exercise here with an ordinary rondo treatment of cheerful tunes; instead, it’s caste in quite elaborate sonata form that lasts almost a quarter hour. At the end there was not a moment’s feeling that you’d heard any of the tunes or their wondrous transformations too often. There only remained a regret that the whole work had to end so soon, after a full three-quarters of an hour. Its utterly committed performance did it full justice.

Salina Fisher, ‘mono no aware’ 
The little piece by Salina Fisher, ‘mono no aware’, that opened the second half was well positioned. For just cello and piano (it had been in the cello and piano recitals by Barley and De Pledge mentioned above), could not have been less connected to what had gone before or would follow. However, it held the attention, not through any sort of histrionics, but through an impression of something indefinable, fleeting, evanescent…  And that’s what the Japanese words ‘mono no aware’ mean, and so it’s pronounced ‘mono no awáray’ (no diphthonged vowels please!). It refers to the transience of things, awareness of the impermanence of beauty, particularly symbolised by cherry blossom. You can read a more detailed explanation in; inter alia, “a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (無常 mujō), or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life”.

And so, it would have been a mistake to seek any specific emotion or tale in the understated composition that Barley and De Pledge played with sensitivity and sympathy.

Ravel’s Piano Trio
The emotional shift to Ravel’s piano trio was considerable. It’s commonly regarded as the finest piano trio written since 1900, and among the most successful works in the entire field of chamber music. The very first bars were magical and clear-headed, utterly remote from any sense of pending war; it was written in early 1914 but not finished till after the war began and Ravel was desperate to enlist. They captured the meandering feeling of the Modéré first movement; both Ravel and Debussy made a point in this period of employing French instead of foreign names for musical terms. The opening exposed each instrument in turn, vividly, yet the main impression was of three very individual musicians creating a marvellously integrated, meandering and harmonious piece.

Incidentally, there’s a significant film connection with the Ravel trio too: Un cœur en hiver (‘A heart in winter’, 1992) directed by Claude Sautet. Bits of Ravel’s chamber music are played, and I recall the scene where part of the trio is played; Paris-based New Zealand pianist Jeffrey Grice acted the pianist, but strangely, the piano part itself was played by Howard Shelley. An interesting, not a great, film, made memorable through music.

The second movement is entitled ‘Pantoum’; it’s the equivalent of a scherzo in spirit and shape, another stage in the evolution from the original lively, dance-like Minuet. Its name signifies a connection with a Malayan poetic form, though Ravel didn’t explain. There was a certain lack of clarity towards its end, though its determined animation shone through.

The third movement, which is modelled on the Baroque passacaglia (Passacaille) began with mysterious piano murmurings, soon echoed by strings whose hushed quality was enhanced with mutes. Though it’s sometimes remarked, as the programme note does, that Ravel was influenced by aspects of Asian music and that the third movement suggests a circular character, it is of little significance for the listener. The players captured the movement’s disquieting, deeply thoughtful mood.

Nor is the last movement, Animé, anything less than a wonderful culmination at the level of creative inspiration, and one could clearly hear a certain impatience, either to get the piece finished or in order to enlist in the army that battled the German invasion. The trio succeeded in conveying the sense of confusion through the tumbling harmonies as each instrument seems at times to assert itself above the others.

A bigger than average audience heard and applauded this wonderful recital.

* Footnote

Contrary to my surmise, it was Chamber Music New Zealand that prompted Viktoria Mullova’s tour to New Zealand, through the initiative of Stephen De Pledge.