Extraordinary SMP Ensemble Commemorative Concert missing a part but nevertheless packing a punch

The SMP Ensemble presents:

The second of a pair of concerts given to mark
the 75th Anniversary of the arrival of the Polish Children
in New Zealand at Pahiatua, in November 1944

KAROL SZYMANOWSKI – Songs of an Infatuated Muezzin

Members of the SMP Ensemble

Barbara Paterson (soprano) / Monique Lapins , Tristan Carter (violins)
Elliot Vaughan (viola) / Ken Ichinose, Jack Hobbs (’cellos)
Simon Eastwood (double-bass) / Gabriela Glapska (piano)

St Andrew’s on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, 17th November, 2019

Woe betide the hapless reviewer who, amidst his domestic rough-and-tumble, glances distractedly and approximately at a schedule before hotfooting it along the roads and down the pavements to a concert, thinking he’s in plenty of time, only to find that he‘s misread the actual starting-time of the event, and has arrived half-an-hour late! The above explanation, I trust, entirely incriminates the said reviewer, who needs must take his punishment in the form of a public confession, hereby proffered amid the most shameful of feelings and regretful of expressions!

More the pity that I had been looking forward to hearing the programme’s opening item, by dint of having been in a ritualistic sense, several steps from greatness in the actual person of the piece’s composer, Andre Tchaikovsky, who had been “a close friend of a close friend” of mine in, of all places, Palmerston North, but whom I unfortunately never actually got to meet to exchange words with! I do remember seeing him play once in Wellington with the NZSO during 1975, and actually bought an LP of him playing a Mozart concerto with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, at around that same time.

So, red-faced and abashed, I presented myself at the admissions desk AFTER the Tchaikovksy Trio Notturno had finished, not wanting to burst in and distract listeners who had taken more care and trouble than I to arrive at the correct time, and thus deserving totally uninterrupted communion with the music! The players involved in the performance of the first item, Monique Lapins, Ken Ichinose and Gabriela Glapska, had departed, and as I got to my seat, four different musicians appeared on the platform – Tristan Carter, violin, Elliot Vaughan, viola, Jack Hobbs, ‘cello, and Simon Eastwood, double-bass – to play the concert’s second item, Louisa Nicklin’s III:RE.

A recent graduate of Te Koki New Zealand School of Music, Louisa Nicklin has already demonstrated her creative range and versatility as composer and performer – a number of her contemporary classical pieces have already been performed and recorded by professional groups and ensembles, including both the NZSO and China’s Shanghai Philharmonic – but she also writes and performs popular songs as a soloist and with the band No Girl. From the title of the work we were about to hear, one might have supposed that III:RE was the third in a series, as the SOUNZ website lists a previous composition of Nicklin’s as I:RE (a piece for solo ‘cello) – however, I wasn’t able to find a reference to any work of hers with the name II:RE.

A soft, nostalgic sostenuto-like “presence” began the work, redolent for me of the buzzing and droning of distant aeroplanes, the tones and timbres drifting lazily to the ear. These sounds were overtaken by irruptions, the dronings intensified and augmented by deeper tones whose textures by turns sweetened and then curdled, the different instrument lines coalescing and reforming to evoke different states of being.

Late-Beethoven-like chordings coloured the soundscapes, occasionally exposing the ghostly-voiced harmonics of the double-bass, before the instruments wonderfully “reversed” their textural qualities, as if buildings were suddenly turned back-to-front, or things flipped over to reveal their undersides – the viola droned a single note before suddenly leaping skywards, joined by a violin playing a soft, ethereal harmonic. Not to be out-manoeuvred, the ‘cello and double bass filled their own stratified space, enabling a kind of structure, and developing what I could feel as a kind of empathy for the music’s moment of time, at once registering its passing and capturing and holding fast its essence. The resulting sounds celebrated both the composer’s remarkably-focused creation of a uniquely-fused sequence and its outcome, and the players’ concentration and almost alchemic rendering of a treasurable “moment of being”.

Following this came Hanna Kulenty’s “A Cradle Song”, played by the trio of musicians who had performed the Tchaikovsky work which began the concert – Monique Lapins (violin), Ken Ichinose (‘cello) and Gabriela Glapska (piano). Polish-born Kulenty trained originally as a pianist, but while still in her twenties became a free-lance composer, and soon established herself as a “leading figure in the Polish composer’s scene”. Dating from 1993 “A Cradle Song” is a relatively early work, though Kulenty had already made her mark with her 1985 work for orchestra “Ad Unum”, one which made an enormous impact on what was then a largely male-dominated realm of composition, so that a well-known Polish critic heralded his review of the work with the words “Gentlemen, hear and tremble!”

Kulenty’s work began almost casually, the sounds wrought from the air, it seemed, with the cello sounding a single note, but including undulations at the phrase-ends which could have been likened to a “mantra”, the repetitions suggesting the act of breathing or the pulsing of blood. The pianist played attenuated chords, shaped as a rising and falling away of intensities, the cello taking up the “mantra-like” figure again and joined by the violin, the two playing the folk-like decorations as a kind of canon, augmented by the piano’s chordings. What focused intensities these players drew from this sequence! – stepwise falling figures, reworked canonic passages, and echoings of phrases all contributing to a somewhat desolate ambience.

Something had to give, and the string players took the initiative, galvanising the piano into hammered-out rockfalls of sound, interwoven with skittery, diaphanous about-weavings and motoric repetitions of motifs, a cataclysmic “nightmare-ride” to an imagined kind of abyss, exciting for listeners in a kind of voyeuristic way, given that we might as well have been conscious spectators of some unfortunate soul’s horrific dream! What ghoulish dive-bombings of chromatic terror from the strings! – what lurid cries of terror and anguish instigated by the piano! The notes became a tolling, bell-like portent which eventually silenced the strings’ pitiless descents, and allowed the ‘cello to finally reintroduce a variant of the music’s folk-like opening, to which the violin responded, tones glistening and sighing, a descending angel’s serenade, bringing hard-earned peace at last…..

It was left to soprano Barbara Paterson together with pianist Gabriela Glapska, to complete the evening’s music, with an extraordinary set of songs written by Karol Szymanowski, Songs of an Infatuated Muezzin. The texts for these songs were written by the poet Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz (1894-1980), the undertaking being one of several projects in collaboration with Szymanowski, including his writing the libretto for the opera King Roger (1918-24) and the texts for Trzy kolysanki Op.48 (Three Lullabies, 1922), as well as providing translations of poetry by the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore for the Vier Gesange Op.41 of 1918. Szymanowski was inspired by his pre-First World War travels throughout Sicily and North Africa to explore and absorb Islamic culture, and reflect it in his music of the time and the years immediately following. The texts of the songs are not renderings of actual calls made by a muezzin, but poems created by Iwaszkiewicz intended to give an impression of the calls – the poet had intended to set them to music himself, but his initial ideas, which he showed to Szymanowski were transformed by the latter to an extent that the poet by himself could never have realised. So it was that these songs came into being.

The opening song, Allah, Akbar (translated as “Allah is great”), began with the title’s invocation, Barbara Paterson’s voice magically soaring over the piano’s delicately-wrought tapestries, the singer’s tones impulsively varying the lines,  here floating the sound on high and there creating a frisson of melismatic emotion. Gabriela Glapska’s playing kept the music’s trajectories steady, allowing the voice to create a kind of tension between fervour of worship and smouldering earthly passion, intertwining thoughts of both Creator and the Beloved – “the sound of my voice sent towards Heaven in praise of Allah might somehow awaken you”….the delicacy of the song’s opening and its  “awakening” reference suggested that this might be an early morning prayer.

A whimsical, “walk-in-the-woods”-like piano solo began the second song O, ukochana ma! (O, my Beloved), bringing us to an impassioned, almost distraught figure wrestling with a great longing in the midst of a vast and lonely space. The vocal attack at the beginning of each phrase was exemplary, with the singer’s beautifully-focused tones moving organically throughout from short-lived composure to volatility, and with both musicians so fetchingly realising the melismatically-repeated Debussian phrase towards the end. By contrast, the following song Ledwie blask slonca zloci dachy wiez (The rising sun has barely gilded the tower-spires) gave us wraith-like tones from the piano at the outset which burgeoned into deeply portentous fetchings from the depths, festooned by great trills, the music seemingly at the mercy of great emotion, the singer’s voice poised and feather-like as her words described the rising sun’s first rays. Voice and piano rolled with the emotion of the next phrase – “Awake, oh beloved, and send your first smile with the rising sun!”, before the music sent both into a kind of trance-like entwinement, a floating vocal line borne aloft by ecstatic, trilled fragments of pure impulse – remarkable!

The ensuing W poludnie (At noon) began innocently enough with both singer and pianist inviting one another to rhapsodise, though before too long the singer’s gentle evocations of the city’s noonday heat and rippling green pools were energised by the pianist’s increasingly florid and excitable figurations, the muezzin aroused by the thoughts of his beloved taking off her clothes to bathe. Overcome by such transportings, the muezzin found himself recovering, at the next song’s beginning O tej godzinie (At This Hour) from the trance-like sleep his imaginings most likely induced – the piano’s rise-and-fall pattern and the singer’s beautifully-judged contourings of the vocal line suggesting the whole of the town asleep, whether at siesta-time, or later at night, the serenity then rudely broken into by the piano’s call to action and the singer’s decalamatory urgings to people, young and old to rise and go about their business. How sultry and evocative, then, were the characterisings by both voice and piano of the “beloved”, “nestled in dreams” – the soprano’s highest notes fearlessly and evocatively sounded, along with the piano’s Ravelian colourings, conveying the utmost gentleness and tenderness.

Alas for love, passion and ecstasy! The concluding song of the cycle,  Odeslas w pustynie (You departed) straightaway flung bare, despairing piano notes across the soundscape, as the muezzin confronted the loss of his ”Beloved” (whether to  death, or a different form of absence, the text doesn’t actually say, though the words convey imagery that’s powerful and suggestive – “in dry sands of the Western Desert you immerse your body”). As she had done throughout the whole cycle, Barbara Paterson again simply “owned” these words, perhaps with intensities that in places pushed the voice to its limits, but with the effect  that we who heard her “lived” those emotions just as palpably – and with Gabriela Glapska’s equally involved rendering of the piano part matching and mirroring her singer’s identification with the music, the performance by the duo made for a uniquely memorable experience. It was doubtless a “stretching to the limits” of the age-old idea of “beauty is truth, truth, beauty”, but in doing so defining how I most want to hear the music performed that I love.








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